Spring Training History 101

“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball.  I look out the window and wait for spring.”  – Rogers Hornsby

Like Rogers, we baseball fans too wait for spring training all winter long.  It’s a sign that the regular season will soon be here.  Spring training is well under way now.  But have you ever wondered about the history of spring training?  I did, so I decided to do a little research.

An unlikely character first came up with the idea of spring training.  Newspaper articles from 1869 report Tammany Hall head man William “Boss” Tweed first came up with the idea of spring training when he sent his team, the amateur New York Naturals, to New Orleans to shape up for the 1869 season.  The Cincinnati Reds, who became the first professional baseball team in 1869, followed suit in 1870 by opening their season in New Orleans and playing their first few games of the season across the South.  The White Stockings (n/k/a the White Sox) also went to New Orleans in the spring of 1870.

During the 1870s, many teams from the then new National League and other professional and amateur clubs headed to New Orleans to get ready for the season.  Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, North Carolina were other popular destinations for teams.  In 1885, Chicago White Stockings player-manager Cap Anson, after witnessing one of his pitchers down 8 beers in one fell swoop, decided to take his team to Hot Springs, Arkansas to sweat the winter fat off of his players.

Spring training first came to Florida in 1888, when the Washington Senators held spring training in Jacksonville.  The accommodations for the players, however, were less than desirable.  A boardinghouse finally agreed to take the players in, giving them food and 2-to-a-bed sleeping arrangements in return for the ballplayers not mingling with the rest of the guests.  Since ballplayers were a rowdy lot back then, this arrangement didn’t quite work out.

Even though the Civil War had only been over for a little over 20 years, Southerners were still smarting over their losses.  All those drunken Northern ballplayers surely didn’t make a good impression on them.  In the early 1890s, the Cubs were kicked out of Waycross, Georgia because one of the players allegedly flirted with the hotel manager’s wife.

The weather was great down South, but the facilities left a lot to be desired.  Most teams practiced wherever they could find a large patch of land, like a farmer’s field.  Spring training in the 1800s was more about getting the winter fat off of the players than practicing hitting and fielding, however.  Team owners held a tight rein on spring training expenditures.  They made some of their money back by holding exhibition games.

Spring training as we know it today started in 1894, when Baltimore Orioles manager Ned Hanlon took the team to Macon, Georgia and drilled them in fielding and hitting.  The Orioles won the pennant that year and the next 2 years after, and other teams sat up and took notice.

John McGraw became the manager of the New York Giants in 1902, and spring training changed forever thanks to his influence.  McGraw worked the players like Hanlon, his mentor, but he also treated his players like royalty, making spring training the spectacle it is today.  McGraw moved the Giants to Memphis for spring training in 1903.  He was also an astute marketer  – he had reporters cover spring training and their stories were printed in Northern newspapers, giving fans baseball fever so that the box office would be booming on opening day, much like spring training coverage does now in 2013.

Other teams took note of McGraw’s success and they began to emulate his methods.  Newspaper reporters from every paper covering major league baseball sent reporters to spring training.  Baseball players were now seen as celebrities instead of ingrates, and Southern cities began to compete to hold spring training and to make money from it.

In 1910, Al Lang moved to St. Petersburg to escape the stifling air in Pittsburgh which exacerbated a respiratory ailment that he suffered from and his doctors told Al he only had 6 months to live.  The air in St. Petersburg must have agreed with Al, for he lived for another 49 1/2 years.  Al’s friend Barney Dreyfuss owned the Pittsburgh Pirates and Al tried to persuade Barney to have the Pirates hold spring training in St. Petersburg.  Al wasn’t discouraged, however – he gathered some of the civic leaders and raised enough money to build a spring training facility. The only team that would snap at the bait was the St. Louis Browns, whose general manager was Branch Rickey, a name known to most Cardinals fans.  The citizens of St. Petersburg gave the Browns a great deal in 1914 – they paid for the team’s transportation, their food and lodging and paid for reporters to accompany the team.  The Browns must have been less than impressed, however, because they moved spring training to Houston in 1915.

Al was not deterred – he approached the Phillies and the A’s and the Phillies held spring training in St. Petersburg in 1915.  They eventually won the pennant, giving the credit to spring training in St. Petersburg.  Al was elected mayor that year and he developed Ft. Lauderdale into a modern city and Florida’s major tourist attraction at that time.  The Yankees, among other teams, held spring training in St. Petersburg.  The Cardinals started holding spring training in St. Petersburg in 1936. The Yankees left St. Petersburg in 1960, but the Mets moved in. The Cardinals held spring training in St. Petersburg from 1936-1942 and from 1946-1997, when they left for Jupiter – Florida, that is.

Teams began to hold spring training in other Florida towns in the late 1920’s such as  Bradenton, Clearwater, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Orlando, Winter Haven, and Lakeland.  Not only were Northern reporters writing stories about spring training, but they were writing about how warm and sunny it was in Florida, making them winter destination spots. By the mid-1930’s, teams stopped migrating from town and settled in one spot.

The term “Grapefruit League” for the spring training teams was first coined in 1923 when a Syracuse, NY paper reported that then Commissioner Kenesaw Landis was “touring the orange and grapefruit league.”  The term didn’t take off until after World War II, when more exhibition games began to be played.

The Cactus League began in 1947 in Arizona, started by the Cleveland Indians.  The then Brooklyn Giants also started training there that same year, and the Cubs joined them in 1952, after having trained in California on Catalina Island for thirty years. The Orioles, the Red Sox and the Angels followed.  Boston and Houston, however, went back to Florida to train by the mid-1960’s.  The A’s, the Padres, and the Seattle Pilots (now known as the Milwaukee Brewers) began to hold their spring training in Arizona.

During World War II, teams held spring training in the North due to travel restrictions.  The Cardinals held spring training in Cairo, Illinois. After World War II was over, spring training once again was held in Florida.  Segregation reared its ugly head in 1946 when Jackie Robinson and African-American teammate John Wright could not stay with the rest of the Dodgers and had to stay in a private home.  Branch Rickey eventually moved the Dodgers’ spring training to Vero Beach and built a facility called “Dodgertown.” The Dodgers trained in Vero Beach until 2008, when they moved to Arizona.

Segregation, unfortunately, got worse as more African-Americans baseball players trained with the major league teams. The African-American players were not allowed to stay in the same hotels as the white players because of racial prejudice in the South.  They were forced to stay in private homes or in other hotels.  It was hard to get players to mesh as a team when some of the players had to room somewhere else.  In the early 1960’s, due to efforts by Bill White and others, segregation finally came to an end.

There is more spring training history than can fit in this blog post and I hope I haven’t bored you too much.  You can read more about the history of spring training in the book listed in the bibliography below.  Thanks for reading!  See you next time!


Bibliography:  Under the March Sun:  The Story of Spring Training by Charles Fountain, Oxford University Press 2009

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