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When Baseball Sprang for Hot Springs
Jay Jennings
March 22, 1993
Nearly a century ago the springtime mecca for many major league players was a spa in Arkansas
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March 22, 1993

When Baseball Sprang For Hot Springs

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

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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."

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