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Spring training

In the previous post, I wrote about a large envelope that arrived at my home last Monday afternoon. That envelope had been mailed Saturday from Arkadelphia by Mac Sisson.

It arrived at my home several hours after I had learned of Mac’s death from a heart attack.

What did the envelope contain?

It contained a copy of the Friday, March 5, edition of The Sentinel-Record. Mac wanted to be sure I saw the front-page article by Mark Gregory on a new photo exhibit at the Hot Springs Convention Center.

What Mac didn’t know was that I had joined Mike Dugan of Hot Springs for dinner that Sunday night at the Brau Haus, one of the few German restaurants in the state, followed by a tour of the photo exhibit. The exhibit celebrates the fact that Hot Springs was the home of baseball spring training.

I don’t like winter. That means I like March in Arkansas since this is the month that marks the end of winter. As I look out the window of my downtown office, I can see the grass beginning to turn green around the Richard Arnold Federal Courthouse. To put myself even further in the mood for spring, I tune the satellite radio in my vehicle to exhibition baseball games each March if I happen to be in the car during the afternoon.

In 1886, future Baseball Hall of Fame member Cap Anson was the manager and first baseman for the Chicago White Stockings. He brought his team south to Hot Springs to prepare for the season.

“Anson had learned about our mineral waters and spas, and the reason he brought the team to Hot Springs was so they could ‘boil out the alcoholic microbes’ in their hard-living players,” says Dugan, a noted amateur baseball historian.

Spring training was born as the players took the baths, hiked up mountains and played exhibition games.

During the early 1900s, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Brooklyn Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds all came to Hot Springs for spring training. Even though teams began going to Florida in the 1920s, individual players would continue to visit the Spa City until the start of World War II in order to “boil out.”

Players who trained in Hot Springs included Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson and many others. When teams shifted their training to Florida, National Colored League teams began training in Hot Springs. For example, the Pittsburgh Crawfords team that included Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson came to Arkansas in 1932 and 1935.

The exhibit features 24 photos and is titled “Hot Springs: Baseball’s First Spring Training Town.” It’s sponsored by Arkansas Farm Bureau, the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Garland County Historical Society.

Steve Arrison of the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau says the players were “accessible to the public. Though some, like Babe Ruth, were larger than life, they enjoyed their celebrity status and didn’t shy away from the fans.”

Dugan said he has debated the issue of where spring training started with baseball historian John Thorn, who notes that the Philadelphia Phillies traveled 30 miles south of town into New Jersey in 1871.

“Thirty miles south of Philadelphia is just an afternoon trip,” Dugan told the newspaper. That’s not spring training — heading south for the winter.”

Gregg Patterson, who edits the Farm Bureau’s Front Porch magazine, became intrigued with the history of spring training in Hot Springs when he did a cover story on the subject last spring. He began looking for photos. He found a wealth of material in the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington.

“Bain News Services, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, did a bunch of photography throughout the United States,” Patterson told Gregory.

The photos were on glass plates. Some of them had ‘Hot Springs’ written on the front. Dugan worked with Patterson to identify other photos. Dugan could make out the location of a ballpark that was on the upper end of Whittington Avenue in some of the photos.

“The hillside hasn’t changed much,” he said. “The rocks are still in the same place and such.”

In 1918, the Red Sox built Majestic Field at the corner of Carson and Belding streets. The trolleys would turn around in front of the ballpark.

“The Red Sox could ride from the Majestic Hotel down there every day,” Dugan told the newspaper. He said the Red Sox built the park after getting “into a squabble with some of the National League teams over the use of the ballfields up on Whittington.”

One of my favorite characters in the photographs is Red Sox super fan Michael T. “Nuf Ced” McGreevey, who owned the Third Base Saloon in Boston. “Nuf Ced” would come to Hot Springs with the Red Sox each spring. Some of the photos came from the Boston Public Library’s McGreevey Collection.

Gregory writes: “Another favorite is the misidentified photo in the book ‘Baseball Americana’ that Dugan spotted. The book identifies a photograph of the Brooklyn Dodgers posing for their annual team photo on the trolley tracks ‘running through the heart of Brooklyn.’ The photo was supposedly a nod to their nickname, inspired by ‘trolley dodging locals’ on Brooklyn’s busy streets ‘running through the heart of the burrough.’ Dugan called up Patterson, who grew up in the New York area, and asked: ‘Are there any mountains in Brooklyn?’ … The photograph was actually taken in front of the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs.”

If you like baseball, this collection of photographs is well worth the trip to Hot Springs.

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