By Michael LeCompte
Major League pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training compounds throughout the southern half of the country this week. Spring training is a seasonal rite as true as the warming of the air or the first flowers peeking out of the cold earth. These southern baseball pilgrimages have a long and storied history, dating back to the early years of the professional game. Back then most teams were located in industrial northern cities and took the opportunity to escape to the south, avoiding the meteorological cruelty of late-winter. However, the very first spring training was also undertaken with the aid of some infamous political connections.
The New York Mutuals baseball club fielded a team from 1857-1876 and were charter members of both the first professional league and later-in their last year of existence-the original National League.
Named for the Mutual Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 in Brooklyn, many of the Mutuals were also volunteer firemen and city officials. Therefore, it is not surprising that the city council readily approved putting up $1,500 to send the team to New Orleans for some late-winter training in 1869.
One member of the Mutuals board of trustees, though, didn’t feel that the city council’s offer was generous enough, so one Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall infamy put up $7,500 of his own money to ensure that the team received the best accommodations and training facilities in New Orleans.
The Mutuals returned to New Orleans every spring for the remainder of their existence and while they struggled to attract talented players and to cover operating expenses (they often had to cut western train trips and occasionally even entire seasons short) a tradition of going south to prepare for the upcoming season was born.
Throughout the 1870’s and 1880’s many teams travelled to New Orleans, Arkansas, and by the turn of the century, Florida. According to legend (which is an accepted, if not always reliable source for matters of baseball), Cap Anson, a player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings is considered the “father of spring training.”
Supposedly over the course of the long, cold Chicago winter of 1885 Anson grew concerned after repeatedly seeing one of his starting pitchers out of shape and frequenting the same bar as himself. Soon after the entire White Stockings organization found itself in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The location allowed the team to prepare for the season, while also utilizing the medicinal purposes of the hot springs.
While Hot Springs, Arkansas is now known as the “birthplace of spring training,” teams continued to train throughout Florida and then California, and ultimately, in Arizona after World War II.
As a pleasure trip, whether for medical reasons, or for putting a team together, spring training has endured, just like the game of baseball itself. Every year in late February hope springs eternal in baseball camps across the south as teams prep for the season ahead and dream of October baseball.