Spring training is almost as old as baseball itself. And, like the game, much of the lore that surrounds it has been lost to history. In those early years spring training was even more essential than it is today. Getting back in shape took on a whole new meaning when the Chicago White Stockings arrived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1886 ostensibly to play an exhibition game. More likely, they stopped over to sober up.
Like most burgeoning enterprises, nascent baseball teams were not awash with cash as they are today. Cash-strapped players struggled to subsist on the meager wages that the team owners could pay, so out of necessity they sought outside employment during the long off-season. Many took jobs that didn’t necessarily keep them in shape.
Early spring training was a combination of physical workouts designed to harden bodies that had run to fat and exhibition games to sharpen dormant athletic skills. Managers scheduled barnstorming tours that would take their teams to small towns in the warmer climates of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Georgia. Crowds of Southern fans would attend the games in droves where professional baseball players were a novelty.
The best evidence available indicates that the Cincinnati Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings held the first spring training camp in New Orleans as early as 1870. In 1888 Gus Schmelz, manager of the Red Stockings, proposed to owner Aaron Stern that they move their camp to the South. Stern reluctantly signed off on the deal when the players agreed to pay for half of their training costs. In addition, Stern saw it as a good way to evaluate his veteran players and decide which ones to cut.
By the 1890’s organized spring training camps were established throughout the South as well as other areas of the country that provided warmer conditions during the harsh Northern winters. The St. Louis Cardinals set up camp in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The New York Yankees started out in New Orleans. The Chicago Cubs, under the ownership of William Wrigley, Jr., went to Los Angeles. And the Pittsburg Pirates, perhaps with deeper pockets, enjoyed the warm Pacific breezes in Honolulu.
By 1910 most major-league teams were attracted by the financial and business deals offered by various cities in a rapidly-developing Florida. Soon the Grapefruit League was formed which allowed the teams to play each other regardless of their major league affiliation. Today the Grapefruit League in Florida and the Cactus League in Arizona each have fifteen major-league teams on their rosters.
During World War II players were exempted from the draft by President Roosevelt, citing that the national pastime was essential for the nation’s morale. However, the season was scaled back and game schedules were shortened. Because the nation’s railroads were needed for supplies and troops, the Landis-Eastman Line (north of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers and east of the Mississippi River) was created in order to keep teams closer to home during spring training.
Today, spring training typically lasts six weeks and coincides with spring break. Many cities throughout Florida host players and fans alike, reaping significant economic benefits.
From the Space Coast Stadium near Cape Canaveral to JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, fans enjoy peanuts, popcorn, and Cracker Jack in the warm spring air, eagerly cheering for the next “batter up.”