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Hot Springs: Birthplace of baseball spring training

Baseball spring training is drawing thousands of people this week to Florida for Grapefruit League games and to Arizona for Cactus League games.

Let this fact sink in: It really started in Hot Springs.

Finally, the folks in the Spa City are capitalizing on that heritage with what’s being called the Historical Baseball Trail.

“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,” says Steve Arrison, the always innovative head of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. “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.”

I can just picture the alligators inspecting that baseball.

My friend Mike Dugan of Hot Springs — who hails from an old Garland County family with a rich Irish-American history of operating taverns and other establishments — has studied the city’s baseball heritage for years. He has been joined by Mark Blaeuer of Hot Springs, Don Duren of Texas (who has written well-researched books on Hot Springs baseball), Tim Reid of Florida and others in unearthing that history.

A.G. Spalding and Cap Anson brought the Chicago White Stockings (they eventually became the Cubs) to Hot Springs to train in 1886. The team used a field on Ouachita Avenue behind the current site of the Garland County Courthouse.

On March 28, 1887, Anson hit three home runs against a team from Des Moines.

The baseball historians were able to document more than 300 players, managers, owners and baseball writers who spent time in the city.

“We need 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,” Arrison says. “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.”

The best spot to start down the trail is the Hill Wheatley Plaza downtown. Plaques will be placed across the city. There also will be a digital tour allowing people to use their smartphones for additional information.

Arrison believes that 134 of the 295 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame spent time in Hot Springs.

As far back as 1993, Little Rock native Jay Jennings was chronicling the history of baseball there. He wrote an article for Sports Illustrated titled “When Baseball Sprang for 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, for his 1886 Chicago White Stockings, in Hot Springs.

“By 1890 players for Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Cleveland and other teams were in Hot Springs in such numbers that The Sporting News called it ‘the Mecca of professional baseball players.’ Anson, Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, Rogers Horsby, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Dizzy Dean and Cy Young all worked out there.”

Jennings, who is living back in Arkansas these days while turning out quality books and articles, helped educate a national audience on the prominence of Hot Springs in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“The choice of site was not so odd as it may seem now,” he 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 between 3,000 and 6,000 tourists in town. The town’s popularity stemmed, as you might guess, from its waters. Hydropathy — ‘the water cure’ — 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 they staged sporting events.

“To Anson in the late 1880s, the site seemed ideal. Accommodations were plentiful and, for the most part, plush, and he could house his White Stockings at the Plateau Hotel for less than $20 a week per room.”

Jennings noted that the surrounding Ouachita Mountains “proved challenging for the long runs on which he liked to lead his players. Afterward they could relieve any aches and pains — or sweat off winter weight — by ‘boiling out’ in one of the 17 bathhouses in town. The cost of a regular three-week series of 21 baths was only $3.

“After first training in Hot Springs in 1886, the White Stockings went on to win the National League championship. They returned to the Valley of the Vapors in 1887, and the town gave them special considerations: The mule-drawn street trolley line was extended to the site of the ballpark, and a canopy was constructed over the grandstand to give spectators some shade. At the Plateau Hotel, according to The Sporting News, ‘genial Col. Rugg,’ the hotel’s manager, ‘placed at their disposal the billiard hall and the ladies’ library.”’

Things had really taken off by the early 1900s. The Red Sox signed a five-year lease for Majestic Park 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.

Jennings wrote: “Then in 1913 and ’14, … other factors conspired to further diminish the allure of spring training in Hot Springs: a major fire, the rising popularity of Florida as a training area and Hot Springs’ own obliging personality.”

A fire in September 1913 destroyed 50 blocks and almost 1,000 buildings.

In his book “The American Spa,” Dee Brown wrote: “Many regular visitors, hearing of the disaster, stayed away for one or two seasons and few new people came.”

A Sporting Life headline told of “red lights and wide open policy” in Hot Springs. Owners and managers decided they would rather have their players in places with fewer distractions.

Jennings said that choosing Hot Springs as a spring training site in those days was like “setting up camp in Las Vegas today.”

He ended the article this way: “This faded history deserves to be remembered for the images it evokes: an irascible Cap Anson arguing over gate receipts; an aging Walter Johnson scaling a hill to play catch; Babe Ruth swaddled in towels on a bathhouse bench. When baseball left Hot Springs, it gained a more temperate climate and smoother fields, but it left behind a glamorous and exciting past.”

Now a series of 26 markers and the latest digital technology will allow visitors to Hot Springs to relive those days.

The 26 cast aluminum plaques are spread across the city: The location where Ruth hit that long home run, the site of the hotel where Ruth flipped a coin with his manager to determine his salary for the next year and much more.

In addition to the Hill Wheatley Plaza (where brochures about the trail will be available), designated entry points to the trail will be Oaklawn and Whittington Park.

The city’s importance to Negro League baseball also will be celebrated.

“Although there were still major leaguers to be found there throughout the ’20s, the influx of players to Hot Springs eventually slowed to a trickle, and the big league game quietly faded away,” Jennings wrote back in 1993. “The town’s memory of its baseball heritage faded too.”

Hot Springs will now properly celebrate that part of its colorful past.

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