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Original Issue

When Baseball Sprang for Hot Springs

Nearly a century ago the springtime mecca for many major league players was a spa in Arkansas

Hot springs, Ark., 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 history of baseball: 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 base ball players." Anson, Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson. Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Dizzy Dean and Cy Young all worked out there.

The choice of site was not so odd as it may seem now. 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° 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. The Ozark Mountain foothills that rise around Hot Springs 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 Colonel Rugg," the hotel's manager, "placed at their disposal the billiard hall and the ladies' library."

A writer for The Sporting News asserted that the White Stockings "are a gentlemanly set in their manners and dress and appear equally as well in the ballroom as on the diamond." Ned Williamson, an in-fielder for the White Stockings, told a different story. He recounted in The Sporting News of March 27, 1887, how he dumped an overtalkative player in Alum Spring (an open mineral spring in the middle of town) and how Louisville manager John Kelly tipped the bath attendants five times the normal amount and then drew them into a game of poker to win his money back.

Gambling, whether in small-stakes poker games or in the casinos, was central to the economy of Hot Springs. So another attraction for a wily businessman like Anson was the chance to make some money betting on his team against local all-star teams.

Anson collected all the gate receipts from those games, which drew crowds of around 500 people. Then, in 1888, a local player objected to the practice and complained to The Sporting News: "We are not playing ball for fun or glory. We are professionals and, just like Anson, out for the stuff. If he wants to make a game and divide the gate receipts, we will play for $100 a side, and he can bet as much as he wants." Perhaps because of these demands, Anson took his team to St. Augustine, Fla., for spring training in 1891.

Other forms of gambling made Hot Springs an attractive place for players—and a headache for managers. In 1893 horse racing came to town and the trolley was extended again, this time to Sportsman Park in the southeast part of Hot Springs. One reporter noted in 1901 that Honus Wagner was getting pretty good at "pony guessing," winning $42 at the racetrack. When another track, the still operating Oaklawn Park, opened in 1905, Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss complained about the distraction, and a Pittsburgh beat writer wrote, "Barney thinks he might as well try to lead an elephant to water with a cotton string as try to keep that gang of pony lovers in line when backed up against a race track."

Card clubs and pool halls provided other opportunities for players to lose their meal money. For those who wanted less chancy entertainment, the Hot Springs Opera House drew minstrel shows and top performers from New York; there were prize fights and bicycle races staged elsewhere in town. At night players could bowl at the Arlington alleys.

Despite all these distractions, serious training remained the purpose of the visit. Routines varied slightly, but this one, described by manager Pat Tebeau of the 1898 Cleveland Spiders to Sporting Life, was typical: "Get up at 7:30 every morning and eat a light breakfast, report on the base ball park at 9 a.m. and put in two solid hours at batting and fielding the ball. At 11 a.m. the boys will sprint around the bicycle track 10 or 15 times, ending this sort of work by a lively run to the hotel. A plunge in the bath and a brisk rub-down will come before lunch. At 2 p.m. the players will again report at the grounds where they will be divided into two nines and a full game played every day when the club is not scheduled to meet the Pirates. More sprinting will come after the game, and when the hotel has been reached the regular daily baths will be taken."

Some players evidently found this schedule a little too strenuous and took the streetcar instead of the "lively run" from the ballpark back to the hotel. Tebeau subsequently instructed the streetcar conductors not to give rides to players in uniform.

For injured players Hot Springs offered extensive medical facilities. In the winter of 1892, Buck Ewing, the future Hall of Famer who was then playing for the New York Giants, experienced arm trouble and went to Hot Springs for therapy. An article in The Sporting News described his hospital treatment: "A half dozen celebrated surgeons...recommended Buck to try the mechanical massage and electricity." This diabolical-sounding process took place in a room "filled with all sorts of machines run by water power." The doctors clamped Ewing's right arm into a machine purported to give an improved form of Swedish massage. For 15 minutes the machine worked Ewing over"...with such force that Buck's entire body shakes and one can see the muscles and veins bulge out." For the coup dc grace, "Dr. Moore takes Ewing into a side room and applies the electricity," which causes Ewing to pull "away from the current as the pain passes through his arm." Miraculously, Ewing survived the treatment and played six more seasons of pro ball.

In the first decade of this century, Hot Springs gained steadily in popularity with professional teams. The Red Sox signed a five-year lease for their own grounds, Majestic Park, in 1909. They agreed to share Majestic with the Cincinnati Reds in 1910. That same year Pittsburgh, which had signed a 10-year lease on Whittington Park, arranged to share it with some newcomers, the Brooklyn Dodgers. With four of the 16 major league teams training there, and with other players visiting before moving on to their official camps, 1910 and 1911 were the high-water marks for spring training in Hot Springs. In a 1910 editorial, The Washington Post proposed that the clubs develop the place themselves: "The big league clubs could well afford to build five or six ball parks at the Springs for use in the spring, and if all of them trained there, there is no doubt that they would toe the scratch all on an even basis."

But the town's popularity was also its curse. A front-page headline in The Sporting News in March 1911 announced: CRUSH AT SPRINGS: BALL PLAYERS SO MANY THEY ARE IN EACH OTHERS WAY. FULL CREWS AND DETACHED MEMBERS OF OTHER SQUADS IN A PROLUSION THAT IS MOST BEWILDERING. So many players were there that "the advantages that might otherwise be enjoyed are curtailed because there is not room for all to perform," said the News.

Then, in 1913 and '14, three 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's own obliging personality.

In September 1913 a great blaze destroyed 50 blocks and 1,000 buildings, including the six-story Park Hotel. As Dee Brown notes in his 1962 book on Hot Springs, The American Spa, "Many regular visitors, hearing of the disaster, stayed away for one or two seasons and few new people came." The Pirates and the Red Sox, with an investment in long-term leases for their grounds, returned, but no other teams joined them the following spring. They went to places such as Macon, Ga.; Gulfport, Miss.; and St. Petersburg, Fla.—away from the RED LIGHTS AND WIDE OPEN POLICY of Hot Springs, as one Sporting Life headline put it. Owners and managers found that the spartan life helped players keep their minds on baseball. In March 1914 a Baseball Magazine article said managers were complaining "that Hot Springs is too blamed hospitable, and that the delightful life of the Arkansas resort is too full of frolic and fascination for the players." Choosing Hot Springs back then was like setting up camp in Las Vegas today.

Baseball was becoming big business, and team owners not only wanted their players focused but also didn't want to lose training time to Arkansas's sometimes unpredictable weather. Al Lang, a former Pittsburgher transplanted to St. Petersburg, cited climate in lobbying to bring baseball to his adopted state. One spring, after reading that the Pirates had been snowed out of practice for three days in Hot Springs, Lang wrote to Dreyfuss, an old Pittsburgh friend, and suggested that he move his team's camp. Dreyfuss demurred, but other teams didn't, and by 1923 only the Pirates and the Red Sox, those Hot Springs mainstays, were still wedded to the place. That "spring" was the last straw for the Bosox, as The Sporting News reported: "The Red Sox have been rained out, frozen and frost bitten." The Sox decided to move their camp to San Antonio, and the Pirates went to Paso Robles, Calif.

Baseball in Hot Springs did not die out altogether in 1924. The town remained a favorite pre-spring-training stop for players, where, as The Sporting News put it, they "made a pretense of getting into shape." On the team's tab, of course.

The most celebrated of those precamp visitors was Babe Ruth, who made his first trip to the city in 1915 as a rookie with the Red Sox and who continued to stop at the resort throughout the 1920s while on his way to the Yankees' official camp. Ruth spent much of his time in Hot Springs sweating off the excess weight he gained every winter; he was up at 7 a.m., played as many as 36 holes of golf, walked or trotted the four miles back from the course, and then hit the baths.

Ruth's routine was as rigorous as that of most of the players. According to The Sporting News in 1924, Cleveland players would meet in front of the hotel at 9:45 a.m., and then they would "climb the mountains, play golf and take the baths." Urban Shocker, a pitcher for the St. Louis Browns, "started his work by hiking up the mountains each morning and playing 18 holes of golf in the afternoon, but has discontinued the hiking part."

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. The town's memory of its baseball heritage faded too. One local historian claimed in 1987 that there was "no record of organized ball in Hot Springs prior to 1914."

But as we've seen, there was, and 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.



In the '20s a local all-star team known as the Bathers carried on the Hot Springs tradition.



For stars like Ruth (above) and Dean, training in Hot Springs meant strenuous physical activities like golfing, walking and soaking.



Anson brought his White Stockings to the Plateau Hotel (right). Pittsburgh played at Whittington Park (above).

Jay Jennings, a native Arkansan, is a free-lance writer now based in New Haven, Conn.