April 27, 2017

Spring Training Tradition Catches on at Hot Springs

February 13, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Catcher Emmett Rogers became the first Arkansas-born player to reach the majors when he played for the Toledo Maumees of the American Association on April 19, 1890. He would be the only player from the state to appear in a 19th century game.

Arkansas’ enduring baseball tradition dates back to the formation of the Little Rock Travelers in 1895. Native son Travis Jackson is one of several Hall of Famers who played at one point for the team, which won exhibition games in 1937 against the Yankees and Lou Gehrig and the Indians and Bob Feller. Hall of Famer Bill Dickey played for the team in 1925, which is why the team’s new stadium is named Dickey-Stephens Park.

The team became so engrained in the culture of the state that it changed its name to the Arkansas Travelers in 1957. These days, special visitors to the state are given proclamations honoring them as “Arkansas Travelers.”

Sadly, baseball fans can no longer experience Ray Winder Field in Little Rock, a classic old-time ballpark that dated back to 1932. The Arkansas Travelers played their last game there in 2006 and the decision was eventually made to convert the space to a parking lot. Known as “The Fenway of the Minors,” Ray Winder Field once showcased stars such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson in exhibition games.

Arkansas does have another important tie to major league baseball—it was the site of one of the earliest spring training camps in 1886. Chicago White Stockings manager Cap Anson brought his team to Hot Springs as a way of sweating the toxins out of his hard-partying players’ bodies. In his book, Boiling Out at the Springs, Don Duren points out that it was actually owner Al Spalding’s idea, since he thought his team drank too much, and that Anson just happened to go agree with the plan. The White Stockings went 90-34 and won the pennant that season, so the plan worked.

Other teams started coming to Hot Springs starting with the Pirates in 1901, long before teams began flocking to Florida en masse. While manager of the Cleveland Naps, Nap Lajoie started the tradition of having pitchers and catchers report early. He would have his battery mates come 15 days early to Hot Springs to detox and then they would rejoin their teammates at spring training elsewhere.

The Boston Red Sox, shown in 1912, are one of many teams that traveled to Hot Springs for formal and informal spring training in the early part of the 20th century. [Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division]

The Boston Red Sox, shown in 1912, are one of many teams that traveled to Hot Springs for formal and informal spring training in the early part of the 20th century. [Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division]

Eight major league teams have held spring training in Hot Springs: Pirates (1901-13, 1920-23); Reds (1910-11); Cubs (1909-10); Brooklyn Robins (1910-12, 1917-18); St. Louis Browns (1911); Phillies (1912); Tigers (1908) and Red Sox (1909-10, 1912-18, 1920-23). Little Rock was the spring training home of the Red Sox in 1907 and 1908 and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1909-10. In other cases, veteran players made their way to Hot Springs to get into shape by soaking in the hot waters for a bit before joining their teams in other locales for formal spring training.

In 1892, Buck Ewing had tried everything to rehab his injured throwing arm and nothing seemed to work. After soaking in the hot baths at Hot Springs for a few days he tested his arm and discovered he was pain-free.

Hot Springs established an Historic Baseball Trail in 2012 with 29 different historical markers around town to commemorate the site of Whittington Park (later renamed Ban Johnson Field), where much of the spring training action took place, as well as to recognize the many well-known players who made appearances there such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby. Ruth spent as much time playing golf and attending races as playing baseball, while Young came to view Hot Springs as his second home. Nearly half of the members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame have ties to spring training in Arkansas.

One historical marker notes the place where Jackie Robinson played an exhibition game at Jaycee Field on October 22, 1953. Another marker shows where Hank Aaron played in the Negro League World Series with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952.

You can also harken back to March 17, 1918, when Ruth launched a gargantuan home run from Whittington Park that landed inside the Arkansas Alligator Farm. It was reportedly measured at 573 feet, which would make it baseball’s first 500-foot-plus drive.

The many tales of spring training in Hot Springs are showcased in the documentary “The First Boys of Spring,” by Emmy winner Larry Foley, which will be released this year during spring training.

Only two natives of Hot Springs have made it to the majors: Emmett Rogers (1890) and Jack McMahan (1956) each played only one season. Little Rock has sent 23 players to the big leagues including Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, Randy Jackson, Taylor Douthit and Kevin McReynolds. Brooks learned the finer points of fielding at Lamar Porter Field, which was built as a Works Progress Administration project and opened in 1937. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Terry “Country” Felton, a native of Texarkana, sure knew the agony of defeat. He posted an 0-3 record for the Twins in 1980 sandwiched around two seasons with no decisions, but then came the career-ending finale. He went 0-13 in 1982, leaving him with a career record of 0-16. Felton holds the dubious records of most losses without a win in a career and most consecutive losses to start a career. The righty also did not post a winning record over the course of eight years in the minors. On the positive side, Felton managed to appear in 39 other games in the majors without suffering a loss and only surrendered 123 hits in 138 career innings.

Felton’s agony still does not compare to that of Charles “Boss” Schmidt, a native of London, Ark. The Tigers catcher became the only player to make the last out in two World Series—and he did it in consecutive years. Schmidt, whose brother Walter also caught in the big leagues, popped up to shortstop to end the 1907 World Series and grounded out to end the 1908 World Series.

Schmidt probably had mixed emotions about the Tigers returning to the World Series in 1909, but luck was on his side this time. Schmidt was in the on-deck circle when Tom Jones made the final out as the Tigers lost their third straight Series.

You can find more tales from other states in Baseball State by State.

Chris Jensen, who grew up outside Cooperstown, N.Y., is the author of “Baseball State by State: Major League and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites.”

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