Baseball’s spring training can trace part of its origins story to Hot Springs, Arkansas, as those who follow the Spa City’s numerous historical markers and Arkansas history buffs likely already knew.
Thanks to a documentary film from University of Arkansas journalism professor Larry Foley, aired last year on the Major League Baseball Network, that story is gaining a national audience.
Foley’s The First Boys of Spring chronicles the story of how Hot Springs, with its famed therapeutic mineral baths, became a home for spring training from the 1880’s through the 1930’s. And for a little icing on the cake for Arkies, it’s narrated by Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton, who was born in Hot Springs and grew up in the area.
A prolific documentarian who’s written and produced thirty-five films since 1993, baseball buff Foley had wanted to tell Hot Springs’ story for years. He said The First Boys of Spring has received the most attention nationally of any project he’s ever done, and Foley’s won five Emmys and been nominated for thirteen more.
“I knew all along that I might have a story here that was different than anything I’d ever worked on,” Foley said.
Baseball icons who trained in the Spa City include Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Smoky Joe Wood, Honus Wagner, Satchel Page, and even Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier in 1947. In fact, Major League Baseball estimates that roughly half of the enshrinees in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, participated in spring training in Hot Springs.
Foley’s films feature subjects and topics such as the Buffalo National River, Razorback football’s 22-game winning streak from 1963 to 1966, former Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, a lost World War II squadron, the architecture of Fay Jones, and the art of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. His films have been broadcast on PBS, ESPN, ABC and CBS.
This latest documentary began production in March 2014 and took fourteen months to film. It premiered at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and was screened at the 28th annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture as well as the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism. The folks in Cooperstown loved it—the film has been added to the baseball hall’s museum library.
Foley, a former reporter, anchor, assignment editor, and producer for KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock, said the old Chicago White Stockings in 1886 became the first team to set up official spring camp in Hot Springs. Teams were drawn to the Ouachita Mountains of west central Arkansas by the resort city’s renowned therapeutic mineral baths, which were expected to shake off players’ “winters of sedentary indulgence” and “boil out alcoholic microbes.” Pitchers and catchers would come to town three weeks early to soak up a bath a day before the start of training, and the springs’ therapeutic properties had many true believers, Foley said.
“They believed it,” he said. “Spring training in the South really caught on in Hot Springs because of it.”