CHICAGO - 1886. The Chicago White Stockings team pose for a team portrait in 1886. Cap Anson, front, John Clarkson, front row, third from left, King Kelly, front row, far left, and Billy Sunday, back row, far left, are the stars of the team. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

Why, when and how Spring Training became so popular

It is March already. In baseball, this means the last shot for young talents and veterans to be part of a Major League team during the spring training. This has been a historic process for players, executives, and fans; but have you thought when all this began? Why is it that the great majority of franchises practice far from home? Who was the pioneer?

Back in the day, the way baseball teams got ready for a new season was way different than how it is nowadays. Forget about developing new pitches, working on the mechanics or studying how to deliver the ball in an specific situation was out of the equation. Back then, without today’s technology and experts, cold weather was a big deal. In fact, off season training took part inside gyms and other facilities, specially because the majority of the teams were from the north. This is why Albert Spalding (yes, this is the guy’s last name you’ve read all your life in sports products) decided to go to a warmer place to get ready for the 1886 season: Hot Springs (Arkansas).

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Spalding, former pitcher and coach, was the president of the Chicago White Stockings (later Chicago Cubs) when he thought going to Arkansas was a great and different idea. It was a two-week session at Hot Springs. Yet it wasn’t as organized as we might think. Spalding and his playing-manager Adrian ‘Cap’ Anson (one of the greatest players of his time) thought going souther would help the team clearing the bodies of alcohol by lunging into the hot springs. Hiking and climbing mountains were part of the menu as well in order to improve their shape.

The crazy idea became popular after the Stockings’ great season (90-34 in regular season and lost the World Series against the San Louis Browns 4-2) and other teams started the same routine. Over the years, three fields were built to accommodate the visitors: Whittington Field, Majestic Park and Fogel Field. Since 1920’s, every team has a spring training schedule. 

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This off season camp was also popular because of baseball’s God. On St. Patrick’s Day of 1918, an emergency forced Babe Ruth playing first base (The Bambino had been only a pitcher from 1914 till 1917) for the first time against the Pittsburgh Pirates and slammed two home runs, one of them arguably the longest ever (573 feet). After that season, he became part of the pitching and batting staff. You know the rest, so I won’t continue with more details about his superb stats.

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Over time, Hot Springs became chilly too and teams decided to go to other cities and countries such as Dominican Republic or Cuba. However, its historic impact for baseball makes it a sanctuary for the American pastime geeks.

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