Hot springs, Ark., has drawn media attention as the boyhood home of President Bill Clinton, but few people know that it also played a crucial role in the early history of baseball: It was the place where spring training came of age. From 1886 to the 1920s, Hot Springs was baseball's most popular preseason training spot. Though National Association teams began traveling south as early as 1869, when the New York Mutuals visited New Orleans to play exhibition games, manager Cap Anson is widely credited with creating the first organized spring training camp, for his 1886 Chicago White Stockings, in Hot Springs. By 1890 players for Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Cleveland and other teams were in Hot Springs in such numbers that The Sporting News called it "the Mecca of professional base ball players." Anson, Home Run Baker, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson. Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Dizzy Dean and Cy Young all worked out there.
The choice of site was not so odd as it may seem now. In the last two decades of the 19th century, Hot Springs was a celebrated spa. Though its population was only about 10,000, there were always between 3,000 and 6,000 tourists in town. The town's popularity stemmed, as you might guess, from its waters. Hydropathy—"the water cure"—was in its heyday, and with pure mineral water bubbling up from the earth at 143° and huge bathhouses to serve its visitors, Hot Springs promoted itself as America's Baden-Baden, after the famous German spa. To help bathers fill leisure time between their therapeutic dips, entrepreneurs built theaters and casinos. And they staged sporting events.
To Anson in the late 1880s, the site seemed ideal. Accommodations were plentiful and, for the most part, plush, and he could house his White Stockings at the Plateau Hotel for less than $20 a week per room. The Ozark Mountain foothills that rise around Hot Springs proved challenging for the long runs on which he liked to lead his players. Afterward they could relieve any aches and pains—or sweat off winter weight—by "boiling out" in one of the 17 bathhouses in town. The cost of a regular three-week series of 21 baths was only $3.
After first training in Hot Springs in 1886, the White Stockings went on to win the National League championship. They returned to the Valley of the Vapors in 1887, and the town gave them special considerations: The mule-drawn street-trolley line was extended to the site of the ballpark, and a canopy was constructed over the grandstand to give spectators some shade. At the Plateau Hotel, according to The Sporting News, "genial Colonel Rugg," the hotel's manager, "placed at their disposal the billiard hall and the ladies' library."
A writer for The Sporting News asserted that the White Stockings "are a gentlemanly set in their manners and dress and appear equally as well in the ballroom as on the diamond." Ned Williamson, an in-fielder for the White Stockings, told a different story. He recounted in The Sporting News of March 27, 1887, how he dumped an overtalkative player in Alum Spring (an open mineral spring in the middle of town) and how Louisville manager John Kelly tipped the bath attendants five times the normal amount and then drew them into a game of poker to win his money back.
Gambling, whether in small-stakes poker games or in the casinos, was central to the economy of Hot Springs. So another attraction for a wily businessman like Anson was the chance to make some money betting on his team against local all-star teams.
Anson collected all the gate receipts from those games, which drew crowds of around 500 people. Then, in 1888, a local player objected to the practice and complained to The Sporting News: "We are not playing ball for fun or glory. We are professionals and, just like Anson, out for the stuff. If he wants to make a game and divide the gate receipts, we will play for $100 a side, and he can bet as much as he wants." Perhaps because of these demands, Anson took his team to St. Augustine, Fla., for spring training in 1891.
Other forms of gambling made Hot Springs an attractive place for players—and a headache for managers. In 1893 horse racing came to town and the trolley was extended again, this time to Sportsman Park in the southeast part of Hot Springs. One reporter noted in 1901 that Honus Wagner was getting pretty good at "pony guessing," winning $42 at the racetrack. When another track, the still operating Oaklawn Park, opened in 1905, Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss complained about the distraction, and a Pittsburgh beat writer wrote, "Barney thinks he might as well try to lead an elephant to water with a cotton string as try to keep that gang of pony lovers in line when backed up against a race track."
Card clubs and pool halls provided other opportunities for players to lose their meal money. For those who wanted less chancy entertainment, the Hot Springs Opera House drew minstrel shows and top performers from New York; there were prize fights and bicycle races staged elsewhere in town. At night players could bowl at the Arlington alleys.
Despite all these distractions, serious training remained the purpose of the visit. Routines varied slightly, but this one, described by manager Pat Tebeau of the 1898 Cleveland Spiders to Sporting Life, was typical: "Get up at 7:30 every morning and eat a light breakfast, report on the base ball park at 9 a.m. and put in two solid hours at batting and fielding the ball. At 11 a.m. the boys will sprint around the bicycle track 10 or 15 times, ending this sort of work by a lively run to the hotel. A plunge in the bath and a brisk rub-down will come before lunch. At 2 p.m. the players will again report at the grounds where they will be divided into two nines and a full game played every day when the club is not scheduled to meet the Pirates. More sprinting will come after the game, and when the hotel has been reached the regular daily baths will be taken."