Spring training was the most enjoyable mass dream we ever had in America. It made baseball. Baseball, after all, was never just a game; it was an institution, a state of mind—it was called the national pastime, not the national sport—and it depended utterly on the promise of spring. The season was never as good as we expected it to be in the spring, but those expectations nurtured it and made baseball larger than life all summer long.
Hollywood died when the denizens of the silver screen stopped taking milk baths and started professing to be just folks. Tinker Bell could be sustained only if we expressed a loud belief in her species. And baseball, like the ocean liner, could hold its place only as long as people accepted the proposition that getting there was half the fun. All those stock reasons to explain why baseball lost its iron grip on the public—too slow, not enough action, not good for televising—just add up to so much bunk. The explainers simply have forgotten how vital spring training was to the illusion. When America turned to hockey and basketball instead of re-pledging allegiance to the fantasies of the Grapefruit League, the Tinker Bell went out of baseball.
To begin with, for as long as the major leagues were restricted to cities of the North, spring training did not mean baseball so much as it meant spring—and everybody, even people who cannot tolerate baseball, has an investment in spring. The first robin? That went out with the bustle. No, the true first sign of spring for the early decades of the 20th century was a large picture in every newspaper that showed an equipment man preparing a steamer trunk filled with bats and balls for shipment to Florida. The caption invariably read CAN SPRING BE FAR BEHIND?
This was the start of a scenario that a man could set his calendar by. Next there would be word that something called an advance guard would depart for that far-off tropical paradise. Following it were pitchers and catchers. Everything was just so: an extra catcher or two from the farm system was always "invited." Then came the full squad, minus the one fellow who, for some "personal reason" had been granted permission to report a day late, and the grubby villains of the piece, the holdouts. (Offstage boos and hisses; if they don't hurry down and get in shape, the team will suffer. Soon, scattered cheers; they are working out at the local high school. Hisses again; they can't get the keystone timing down if they are not in camp. Tra la, tra la.) Next were the intrasquad games between a) teams of regulars and rookies or b) teams named after the first- and third-base coaches. Then came the games of the Grapefruit League itself, and the pronouncement that the pitchers were ahead of the hitters. The most exciting thing was the day the first pitcher went four innings.
Finally, the teams would barnstorm back north, moving in tandem through Jacksonville, Macon, Spartanburg, Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Portsmouth, Petersburg. Spring rode on that train, and the dogwood always seemed to bloom the day the teams returned. All that was left was the newsreel of the Chief Executive throwing out the first ball at the Presidential Opener. And then the anticlimax—the regular season.
It was so neat and so ordered and so innocent, and after the weeks of spring dreams it is no wonder that we all devoted ourselves to baseball right through to the October Classic. And then some, because the Hot Stove League began the following week, carrying us through the horse latitudes of the baseball calendar. The Hot Stove League meant players going out on the Rubber Chicken Circuit or hunting and fishing. At an early age I suspected sadly that I would never be a major league ballplayer because I did not like to hunt and fish, and it seemed that was as essential as being able to hit the curve.
Oh, well, soon it was spring again and I could stop worrying about that deficiency in my character.
Even in a baseball world larded with tradition, spring training is venerable. In fact, it is older than modern organized baseball itself, although originally its purpose had very little to do with pitching rotation or keystone agility. It had to do with drying out the many ballplayers who had spent the off-season drinking up last year's salary. This was before players spent the off-season selling stocks and bonds or attending community college, and, for that matter, it was even before baseball players got through the winter by hunting and fishing.
The first players to go south to sober up probably were Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings (eventually Cubs), who in 1886 went to Hot Springs, Ark., where the warm mineral baths were presumed to be especially beneficial for boozehounds. Included in this first contingent was an outfielder named Billy Sunday, who later traded his bat for a Bible and went on the warpath against Demon Rum.
From these beginnings came the Grapefruit League, now worth millions of dollars in tourist money to the state of Florida, just as its junior partner, the Cactus League, is a very nice piece of change for Arizona. Much of the romance of spring training was Florida itself. It was a certified tropical paradise, but perhaps more important it was a couple of days away from the North on a sleeper. It was worth just getting to. Maybe all that was needed to demythify spring training was the public realization that Florida was no more than a plastic airplane lunch away. Spring Training, Florida, was a distant, lush never-never land. It was even a little mysterious—holdouts were always rumored to be "somewhere in the state"—and it abounded with man-eating alligators. It was definitely the right place for the Grapefruit League and other figments of the imagination.