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Baseball in Arkansas

It’s time for another season of Arkansas Traveler baseball. Each year, I’m asked to write an article on baseball in Arkansas for the program that’s sold at Dickey-Stephens Park. Here’s the article I wrote for this season:

In March, several descendants of Babe Ruth were in Hot Springs.

Why Hot Springs?

Because that Arkansas city once was the home of baseball spring training. The Ruth descendants were there for the dedication of the final two markers that make up the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail.

For decades, Hot Springs did nothing to celebrate the fact that it was an early spring training location. But in March 2012 the trail was dedicated with markers across the city that commemorate events related to spring training. The plaques unveiled this spring honor the pitchers and catchers who trained in Hot Springs. One plaque features legendary catcher Bill Dickey, one of the namesakes of Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, the home of the Arkansas Travelers. The other honors pitcher Lefty Grove.

On the morning of Saturday, March 24, there was a ceremony at Whittington Park in Hot Springs that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Ruth’s massive home run that carried more than 500 feet. Combine the baseball history of Hot Springs with the history of the Travelers, and you can see that Arkansas has a strong baseball tradition.

On the front page of the first issue of The Sporting News on March 17, 1886, there was a story noting that the Chicago White Stockings — the forerunner of the Chicago Cubs — would conduct spring training in Hot Springs. A later team named the Chicago White Stockings entered the newly formed American League in 1901, but that team shouldn’t be confused with this National League squad that became the Cubs.

The owner of the National League Chicago White Stockings was A.G. Spalding, and he decided that it would do his players good to train in a warmer climate.

The story quoted Spalding as saying: “I wonder whatever made me think of it?”

The March 17, 1886, Daily Gazette had a story with a Hot Springs dateline that noted: “The Chicago baseball club is in the city and will practice every day as soon as suitable grounds can be made.”

“Spalding and his playing manager, Adrian ‘Cap’ Anson, wanted to send a physically fit team onto the field when the National League opened the season in April,” Hot Springs native Don Duren writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The main reason Spalding sent his team to Hot Springs for two weeks was for the players to bathe in the hot springs in hopes of clearing their bodies of alcohol, thereby losing weight and enhancing their physical condition. Spalding, in addition, believed that the Southern weather would be more conducive for training than the colder weather in the North. The players could get their legs in shape and build stamina by climbing mountains.

“While in Hot Springs, the National League team played on a field behind what is now the Garland County Courthouse on Ouachita Avenue. The Avenue Hotel on Park Avenue, near the junction of Central and Whittington avenues, accommodated the Chicago visitors. The team featured such notables as Anson, John Clarkson and Mike “King” Kelly, all of whom were later inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as was Spalding. With them was the ‘fastest man in baseball,’ outfielder Billy Sunday, who later became a famed evangelist.”

Duren says that Spalding’s idea was “the signal for other major league teams to head south, many to the Arkansas resort. The floodgates opened wide, and major and minor league teams, as well as individual players, flocked to the Spa City from 1886 to the 1940s. These teams included the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Browns (later the Perfectos and, after that, the Cardinals), Philadelphia Phillies, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Highlanders (later the Yankees) and many others. Exhibition games, pepper games, infield practices, cut-off plays, sliding practice, calisthenics, mountain climbing and soaking in the tubs took place every spring in Hot Springs.”

Up the road in Little Rock, the Travelers first played in the Southern League in 1895, competing against Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, Evansville, Montgomery and New Orleans. The club posted a 25-47 record that inaugural season.

After the Southern League folded, professional baseball was absent in Little Rock for five years. The Travelers returned in 1901 with the formation of the Southern Association and finished second, just one game behind Nashville. They finished second again in 1902.

The first championship came in 1920 as the Travelers concluded the season with an 88-59 record. Their final season at Kavanaugh Field (located where Little Rock Central High School’s Quigley-Cox Stadium now stands) was in 1931. The Travelers attracted 113,758 fans that year, their second-highest attendance since the 1920 title.

Land near the Arkansas State Hospital was given to the Travelers by the city of Little Rock in 1932, and Travelers Field became the team’s home. In 1966, the stadium was renamed for Ray Winder, who had started as a ticket taker for the Travelers in 1915 and rose to the rank of general manager. Winder spent more than five decades with the team.

Traveler scouts often were in Hot Springs to sign players during spring practice. Things were much looser in those days. In fact, the Travelers’ first official affiliation with a major league team didn’t come until 1937 when the team affiliated with the Boston Red Sox. The Travelers were affiliated with the Red Sox for three seasons. Later affiliations came with the Chicago White Sox in 1946, the Boston Braves in 1947, the Detroit Tigers from 1948-55, the Kansas City A’s in 1957-58 and the Baltimore Orioles in 1961.

Following a period spent in Triple-A baseball as a Phillies affiliate, Winder moved the Travelers to the Texas League in 1966 as a Cardinals affiliate. The Travelers were a Cardinals affiliate for 35 years, the second-longest active affiliation when it ended. The Arkansas club then spent 16 years as an Angels affiliate before becoming an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners last year.

Back in Hot Springs, visiting players loved to participate in the many activities the city offered. John McGraw, the player-manager of the New York Giants, was arrested for gambling in Hot Springs in 1904. Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates would help officiate high school basketball games. Ruth, meanwhile, was a regular on the golf course at the Hot Springs Country Club and at the horse races at Oaklawn Park.

Boston Red Sox owner John Taylor built a practice field known as Majestic Park for his team in 1909 and agreed a year later to share Majestic with the Cincinnati Reds. Pittsburgh signed a 10-year lease on Whittington Park and agreed to share it with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

By the 1920s, Florida was opening up to visitors and was a more reliable spot for warm weather during spring training. Hot Springs also was hurt by a fire in September 1913 that destroyed 50 city blocks and almost 1,000 buildings. And then there was the nightlife in Hot Springs. A Sporting Life headline told of “red lights and wide-open policies” in the city. Owners and managers decided they would rather have their players in places with fewer distractions.

“In 1910, the Brooklyn Superbas (later the Dodgers) were in town practicing at their location on Whittington Avenue,” Duren writes. “One afternoon, Bill Dahlen, Brooklyn’s manager, gave his team a break from afternoon practice, and the players headed across town to scrutinize the first game between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds at Majestic Park. Most of the Brooklyn players sat on the newly built stands with about 200 other spectators. During the fifth inning, the small structure collapsed. Nobody was hurt, but Tommy McMillan, shortstop for Brooklyn, landed in Cy Young’s lap.”

Baseball historians such as Duren, along with Hot Springs residents Mark Blaeuer and Mike Dugan, have documented hundreds of players, managers, owners and baseball writers who spent time in the city. Steve Arrison, who heads Visit Hot Springs, believes that up to 135 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame were in Hot Springs at one time or another.

Arrison says: “What began as our curiosity about why there are so many photos of Babe Ruth at various locations in Hot Springs wound up unearthing a treasure trove of historic associations between the world’s most famous baseball players and Hot Springs. Things really got rolling in the spring of 2011 when we were able to document that Ruth hit the first 500-foot-plus home run while playing spring baseball at Whittington Park. Bill Jenkinson, one of the preeminent baseball historians in the world, came to Hot Springs and helped us authenticate Babe’s legendary 573-foot shot that zoomed over Whittington Park’s fence, across Whittington Avenue and into the Arkansas Alligator Farm.”

As far back as 1993, Little Rock native Jay Jennings was chronicling the history of baseball in Hot Springs. He wrote an article for Sports Illustrated headlined “When Baseball Sprang from Hot Springs.”

“Hot Springs has drawn media attention as the boyhood home of President Bill Clinton, but few people know that it also played a crucial role in the early years of baseball,” Jennings wrote. “It was the place where spring training came of age. From 1886 to the 1920s, Hot Springs was baseball’s most popular preseason training spot. Though National Association teams began traveling south as early as 1869 when the New York Mutuals visited New Orleans to play exhibition games, manager Cap Anson is widely credited with creating the first organized spring training camp.”

The Sporting News once called Hot Springs “the Mecca of professional baseball players.”

“The choice of site was not so odd as it may seem now,” Jennings wrote. “In the last two decades of the 19th century, Hot Springs was a celebrated spa. Though its population was only about 10,000, there were always thousands of tourists in town. The town’s popularity stemmed, as you might guess, from its water. Hydropathy was in its heyday, and with pure mineral water bubbling up from the earth at 143 degrees and huge bathhouses to serve its visitors, Hot Springs promoted itself as America’s Baden-Baden, after the famous German spa. To help bathers fill leisure time between their therapeutic dips, entrepreneurs built theaters and casinos. And many staged sporting events.”

Arrison says: “We needed to let Americans know about the people, places and events that made Hot Springs a key element in the growth of the nation’s pastime. What we decided to do was gather as many names as could be historically authenticated and try to locate the places where these legends played or relaxed in Hot Springs.”

Combined with a trip along the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a visit to Dickey-Stephens Park will give you a sense of this state’s rich baseball history. The Travelers are one of the few minor league baseball teams to have their own museum. The club has played on only three fields in more than 120 years, is one of the few teams in professional sports in which fans were able to buy ownership shares and was the first professional team to be named after an entire state. The nickname Travelers is the second-longest-running nickname in minor league baseball.

It’s a franchise that’s unique in the annals of professional sports, located right in the middle of a colorful state that once played an important role in baseball history.

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