A history of spring training
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehirig in spring training
A history of spring training
You may be surprised to find out how far back spring training goes.
“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.“ - Rogers Hornsby
Thousands of fans travel to Florida or Arizona each spring to see baseball in the sunshine. Even though Spring Training games often feature players with uniform numbers as high as the heat index, fans pack the parks to glimpse major leaguers in an informal setting. This is a boon to the local economies of the cities that host major league teams, but it hasn’t always been so. In fact, the practice of Spring Training as a promotional teaser for the upcoming regular season is a fairly recent phenomenon. Spring training was originally a cost-cutting measure. Isn’t it comforting to know that greedy owners have always been pinching pennies?
Here’s a history of spring training, now “let’s play ball!“
In 1888, Gus Schmelz (really), manager of the Red Stockings, wrote his tight fisted owner Aaron Stern asking for permission to train his players down south. After Gus convinced Stern that the cost would be split between players and club and that any profits would also be shared, Stern agreed. Stern also shrewdly realized the practice would weed out some of his veteran players and ensure him a lower salary for the upcoming campaign. Stern wrote Schmelz, “we will be finding out what our new material is worth at a time when salaries would not be running and would be welding our team into working shape.“
It’s hard to pinpoint which team was the first to train in warm weather as a precursor to their season. There’s a reference to the Chicago White Stockings stopping off in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1886 to “boil out the alcoholic microbes.“ Yuck.
Cap Anson managed and starred on that team, and apparently his ballplayers liked a drink as much as George W’s twins and needed to get rid of the effects of winter “lushing,“ - as drinking was called then.
Hot Springs became a favorite destination of clubs during the ensuing years. But that didn’t mean that Anson liked the idea. He once said that southern training trips were “more harmful than beneficial.“ Apparently old Adrian Constantine objected to his ballplayers softening up in the warm weather. He, and others of that time, felt it led to “muscular colds and rheumatism” when the players headed to the colder north. With the aerosol can years away from invention, I guess global warming hadn’t taken effect yet.
Despite these pioneering efforts, spring training was by no means a common practice in the 1880s. Many teams retreated to gymnasiums rather than travel down south. Henry Chadwick recommended players hone their skills playing handball and practicing sliding indoors on carpeted gym floors. Some writers of this era warned against excessive use of dumbbells.
Some ballplayers refused to accompany their team on spring training trips. These players worked out on their own, often building themselves up by hunting, hiking, walking, rowing, or skating. This practice of disobedience remained popular into the 1930s, as stars like Ty Cobb, Edd Roush, and Jimmie Foxx gained reputations as spring training “holdouts.“ Even today, a ballplayer will “report late” to Spring Training to get the message across that he doesn’t like his contract or wants to be traded.
By the 1890s almost every team had a Spring Training regiment. Owners had finally realized the benefits, both physically and fiscally. A reporter named A. M. Gilliam had helped create the spectacle we now call Spring Training, back in 1887. Writing for the Philadelphia Record, Gilliam offered three dollars a day for briefings from teams training in the south. Teams that participated provided details of training camp activities, game scores, attitude of their players, and so on. Gilliam was imaginative enough to see the possibilities of Spring Training hype and what it could do for gate receipts (he should have been an owner). He wrote one owner: “the games you play in the South mean nothing, but the score of even a five-inning practice game will be greedily scanned by enthusiasts here, and will boom your club for the coming season.“
Soon after Gilliam’s efforts, spring training became a ritual for many teams. Writers began submitting reports on highly touted rookies and prospects. Invariably a veteran would be the focus of a story claiming he was “rejuvenated.“ By 1890 a newspaper claimed the South was being overrun with Northern ballplayers, and by the end of that decade every major league club had a Spring Training tradition.
In the 1890s teams began scheduling games against each other and in the early 1900s teams from rival leagues regularly battled each other in spring contests. In the 1910s “official” spring leagues had been formed, and schedules were in place. The state of Florida was the most popular destination, and the outgrowth was the “Grapefruit League,“ which had major league spring training camps all over the sunshine state. The majority of teams still train there today. In the early 1900s many teams adopted the practice of playing games as they traveled north for their regular season openers, often against college teams or local semi-pro clubs. In later years (after minor league affiliations became more common - in the 1920s and 1930s) many major league teams would regularly schedule games against their top farm teams just before the season began.
Until the late 1950s baseball was played almost exclusively east of the Mississippi. But when the Giants and Dodgers moved to California in 1958, it created a shift in spring training practices. As baseball moved West, spring training did also, with the Giants and Cubs beginning Arizona’s “Cactus League.“
Today major league teams train in multi-million dollar facilities and invite hundreds of players to their major and minor league camps. The arrival of a team almost single-handedly supports the economy of the host cities. Spring Training is a big business and money-maker, just as A. M. Gilliam thought it would be back in 1887.
By The Baseball Page