Spring Training in Hot Springs

Professional baseball teams held Spring Training in Hot Springs from 1886 through the 1950s.


The following was written by contributor Gregg Patterson:

As Major League Baseball swings into the second decade of the 21st Century, it’s creeping up on the 100th anniversary of the first use of Florida for spring training. Clubs began going there in the late teens. However, few people know about the days when baseball teams headed to a different southern venue to prepare for the upcoming season – Hot Springs, Arkansas.

It’s safe to say that Hot Springs was the first collective destination spot and birthplace for what fans know as spring training. The first team to come to the famous Spa City for that purpose was the Chicago White Stockings (today’s Cubs) in 1886. Sporting goods magnate and team owner A.G. Spalding and player/manager Cap Anson wanted a new way to get their players in shape and “boil out the alcoholic microbes” from the hard-drinking players.

Anson had just learned about the benefits of Hot Springs’ therapeutic waters. There were also mountains to climb to get the players’ legs in shape. And the trip south would provide warmer weather, so the team could get in significant playing time.

Whether it made a difference or not, the White Stockings won the pennant that year, and baseball teams were quick to follow Spalding’s example of finding southern climes to get in shape for the season. Spring training was born.

Hot Springs saw the most consistent visitation from teams. The Cleveland Spiders and big right-handed pitcher Denton True “Cy” Young came, as did the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates with its star shortstop Honus Wagner. Players soaked in the warm, soothing waters, climbed hills and the teams played games against each other. In a 1924 Hot Springs Sentinel Record article, Wagner reminisced about his spring training days in the Spa City. “I always liked it there. Walking up and down those Arkansas mountains was a good muscle builder in itself. You can’t walk anywhere in Hot Springs without going up or down a hill. The hot waters help a lot in loosening up the muscles.”

By the early 1900s, most of the big league teams had come to Hot Springs. The Pirates and the Boston Red Sox wound up visiting the most. From 1901-26, the Pirates as a team or a significant number of its players, came 22 times. The Red Sox first came in 1909 and visited 13 times through 1923. Wagner was an established star who would go on to win six National League batting titles. However, it was a 19-year-old unknown Red Sox left-handed pitcher who came to the Spa City in 1915, who would eventually become the most iconic player in baseball history. The youngster was one year removed from a Baltimore school for troubled youth named St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward Boys.

Babe Ruth fell in love with Hot Springs – all of it; the golf course, betting on the horses at Oaklawn, the restaurants, the casinos and all of the other nightlife temptations that accompanied it. Before he played his first regular season game in 1915, he’d lost his entire $2,500 big league salary for the year gambling
in Hot Springs.

Ruth soon became baseball’s best left-handed pitcher. Fellow teammates knew of his prodigious hitting prowess, but management didn’t want to risk losing a pitcher of his caliber to injury while playing him as a regular position player. A thin bench, an injury to the team’s first baseman and Ruth’s incessant politicking finally gave him his first chance to play a position other than pitcher.

It was St. Patrick’s Day 1918, and Ruth made the most of his opportunity against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He hit a home run his first time up. But it was his second home run of the day that began his unstoppable rise to the title of the “Sultan of Swat.” The ball left his bat and cleared the playing field of Whittington Park in rightfield, soared over Whittington Avenue and landed in the Arkansas Alligator Farm, a tourist attraction, across the street.

A recent estimate by an engineering firm pegs the distance at 573 feet. Respected baseball historian and Babe Ruth expert Bill Jenkinson calls Ruth’s debut in the field and those home runs “the day that changed baseball forever.” Ruth’s prowess as a hitter could no longer be kept under wraps.

Ruth continued coming to Hot Springs even after the New Year’s trade that sent him to the rival New York Yankees before the 1920 season. The Babe’s love affair with the city lasted on past his retirement from baseball in 1935.

Almost half of the 295 players, managers and executives enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame spent time in Hot Springs, including some of the best of the Negro Leagues. The players and the old fields are now all gone. But for more than 30 years, Hot Springs was the major league baseball hotspot and the place where spring training got its start.


For a list of professional baseball teams to train in Hot Springs, AR, Spring Training in Hot Springs by Year:

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