Spring training 2013: Now and then

How and why did baseball spring training even get started? Photo: Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg hurls one over the plate during spring training AP

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2013 — It’s springtime! Time to spring into a good game of baseball whether as player or spectator.

The poet wrote, “In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” Or as a buddy parodied back in my college days, “In the spring, a young man’s fancy turns to what the girls have been thinking about all winter.” More appropriate, however, is the one, which goes: “In the spring, a young man’s fancy soundly turns to thoughts of… spring training.”

We can’t help but look forward to this baseball season. How we hope its beginning will be a continuation of last year’s ending. The Washington ballclub, with a history of claiming the bottom berth, experienced a new birth. Washington wowed the baseball world as a team of winners, claiming the top of its division. Now spring training for the Nats is well underway in Viera, Florida.

1886 Was the Beginning of Spring Training

Some believe that spring training is almost as old as baseball itself. It is generally accepted, though, that it began in 1886, when Harry Wright took his Philadelphia Phillies to Charleston, S.C., and Cap Anson took a gang of his top players to Hot Springs, Ark. Others say it began with the Cincinnati Red Stockings. A credible case could be made, however, for its starting in 1888, with Washington’s National League ballclub, the Nationals.

Whatever the case, by 1900, spring training was an established overture to the sweet music of the umpire’s cry, “Play Ball!,” which launches a new season of America’s national pastime.

Spring training originally served a dual purpose: conditioning and publicity.

Conditioning because in the early days, players didn’t make enough money to lay around and lollygagging all winter while bird-watching for a robin red-breast. They had to take winter jobs — jobs, which would sometimes contribute to their losing their athletic edge: bartending, for example.

Publicity because whenever baseball players gather and cavort under the palm trees of Florida or California, one can expect a contingent of sports reporters, sportscasters and photographers on hand to feed progress reports to baseball-thirsty fans back home.

“Those early trips weren’t joy rides,” said Cornelius McGillicutty, who would go on to manage the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years. Connie Mack was catcher for the Washington ballclub, in 1888, and traveled south with the team for the first spring training, “It took us three nights and two days to reach Jacksonville, Florida. At night we’d travel Pullman, with two players sleeping in each berth. By day we’d switch to coaches.

Ballplayers Not Wanted in Hotels

“The first hotel we tried wouldn’t even register us.” A small lobby sign read: “No Ball Players.” This served the dual purpose of warning ballplayers and reassuring other guests.

“Manager Ted Sullivan scoured the town before he finally found us lodgings,” Connie Mack continued. “However, the hotel clerk did make the strict stipulation that the players were not to mingle with the other guests or eat in the same dining room.” Baseball players, in other words, were second-class citizens.

The return trip from training was often scheduled to take two weeks. Teams would stop in various cities and play exhibition ballgames. It might be against a college team, a semi-pro club or against another big-league club. The New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers sometimes synchronized their travel to allow them to square off in a series of exhibition games in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville, or Asheville.

It was on one such return trip in 1925, that Babe Ruth and his teammates stopped in Asheville, N. C., and the Babe was hospitalized. Some newspapers published a premature obituary. The whole affair came to be labeled, “the bellyache heard round the world.” (A detailed story on this event is coming in the near future.)

It is significant that initially spring training was not considered a big deal for the local gentry of the towns where ball clubs set up camp. Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of sportswriters for the Washington Post, wrote that the townspeople welcomed the teams with “a high pitch of indifference.”

During WWII, travel was restricted and gasoline purchases rationed. The Nationals, therefore, trained in College Park, Maryland. The team’s training towns in Florida have included Orlando, Pompano Beach, and, since 2005, Viera.

Today Ballplayers Are Welcomed for the Dollars They Bring

Ballplayers of today have a better time of it. Chambers of Commerce lie awake, thinking up ways to lure and welcome teams to their town. There’s a story of a church denomination that held its annual conference in a  particular city. When the week was up and they left town, the mayor said of them, “They came here with the Ten Commandments in one hand and a ten dollar bill in the other, and they didn’t break either.” Ballplayers and their fans are good spenders, however.

Merchants are well aware of the priceless publicity and lucrative business the presence of these springtime players and fans can generate.

For players, fans and hosting cities, spring training is good, good all around, a brand new ballgame.

Now, let’s play ball!

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters. 

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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