Archive for the ‘Untold Stories’ Category

Baseball’s Golden Days in Hot Springs

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

Where spring training got its start in preparing the boys of summer.

HSBaseball1Baseball purists know this time of year means more than just transi- tioning from winter to spring. Spring training camps in sunny Florida and Arizona are now in full swing for all 30 Major League Baseball teams.

However, there was a time in its infancy, when big league teams came to a small mountain town in Arkansas known nationally for its healing thermal waters.

Yes, Hot Springs was the first collective destination spot for baseball spring train- ing. It may be hard to imagine it now, but from 1886 through the early 1940s, the Spa City attracted most of the game’s best teams and brightest stars.

“The real cornerstone of Hot Springs niche in baseball history was in 1886 when Hall of Famer Cap Anson was the manager and first baseman of the Chicago White Stockings and brought his team south to prepare for the season,” said Hot Springs native and resident Mike Dugan. Dugan is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. He is the resi- dent expert on the city’s former connections to the national pastime. Sporting goods magnate A.G. Spalding owned the White Stockings (now known as the Chicago Cubs). He and Anson were working on a new way to get the team ready for the coming season. “Anson had learned about our mineral waters and spas and the reason he brought the team to Hot Springs was so they could, ‘boil out the alcoholic microbes’ in his hard- living players.”

The purpose was to get the players in shape by soaking in the spas, hiking the mountains and playing baseball in the more moderate climate. Spring training was born. In addition to Anson, the team included future Hall of Famers John Clarkson and Mike “King” Kelly. Another team member was Billy Sunday, who would later become a renowned evangelist. Stand today on the corner of Ouachita and Hawthorne streets in Hot Springs, look at the Garland County Courthouse and envision a baseball field once occupying the site.

HSBaseball2The White Stockings practiced and played there that first year. A giant oak tree on the courthouse lawn dates back to that time. The White Stockings won the pennant that year, and more teams joined them in finding spots in the south to train for the season. “By 1915, all of the big league teams in baseball had trained in Hot Springs at some point,” Dugan said. Other teams that quickly followed the White Stockings to Hot Springs included the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Spiders and Cincinnati Reds, plus a host of minor league clubs. The Spiders featured, arguably, the great- est pitcher of all time, Cy Young. “Cy Young also played for the Red Sox and loved Hot Springs so much he returned regularly after he retired,” Dugan said. Young, baseball’s all-time winningest pitcher with 511 career victories, announced his retirement from the game in Hot Springs before the season started in 1911, changed his mind, then quit at the end of the sea- son. In 1938, the city celebrated Cy Young Day and honored him with a parade down- town. Chicago sold its field on Ouachita Ave. in 1896. Soon, other fields sprang up at the end of the trolley lines on Whittington Avenue.

Two teams that adopted Hot Springs as their spring home in the early 1900s were the Pirates and Boston Red Sox. The Pittsburgh Pirates and its Hall of Fame short- stop, Honus Wagner, started in 1901 and had 22 spring training visits through 1926. During that time, the Pirates played and lost the first World Series against the Boston Americans in 1903.

The Americans adopted the name Red Sox during the 1907 season. After two years (1907-08) of spring training in Little Rock, the Red Sox switched to Hot Springs. The Red Sox trained 13 springs there from 1909 through 1923. That led to the greatest baseball player of all time regularly coming to Hot Springs. The young, talented Red Sox southpaw quickly embraced the town and all of its blessings and vices like no one before or since. Nineteen-year-old George Herman Ruth was one year removed from St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward Boys. It was 1915 when he arrived in Hot Springs with his Red Sox teammates for spring training. He was a promising pitcher.

Dugan has a copy of a 1915 photograph of Red Sox and Pirates players and fans pos- ing with Hot Springs citizen William G. Maurice. The Maurice Bathhouse gets its name from him. “It’s easy to see Honus Wagner — per- haps the greatest shortstop of all time — Bill Carrigan, Tris Speaker, another future Hall of Famer for the Red Sox,” Dugan said.

“Now, if you look carefully in the back row, you can make out the head of a young Babe Ruth.” Ruth fell in love with the city and all it had to offer. Golf and gambling were two of the passions he enjoyed with great gusto. He would be at the Hot Springs Country Club at 7:00 a.m. every day for 36 holes of golf before baseball practice. Ruth had no regard for money. The first year he came to Hot Springs he lost his entire big league salary before playing his first regular season game. He found the casi- nos and Oaklawn Park racetrack irresistible.

Early in his career, he was the best left- handed pitcher in baseball. He was a com- bined 47-25 during 1916-17 seasons. But Ruth was an even better hitter. He proved it with a long home run in a spring training game in 1918 against the Brooklyn Robins at Whittington Park. Ruth got to play first base that day. He responded with two home runs in two at bats, the second one a mammoth blast that landed across the street in the Arkansas Alligator Farm. The Red Sox traded Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920. He continued visit- ing Hot Springs for a few weeks prior to joining the team’s spring training site. A big man, Ruth always seemed to be battling extra pounds packed on during the winter. He claimed the restoring waters at the bath houses helped him do that.

The Yankees began sending other veteran players to join him. But the undisciplined Ruth had a vora- cious appetite for food, alcohol and women. He partied continually and frequently left the spa city in worse shape than when he arrived. Finally, after missing the first half of the 1925 season due to poor health, the Yankees forbade him to return to Hot Springs. A habitual gambler, Ruth continued to frequent the city after his retirement fol- lowing the 1935 season. The story goes that in 1941, Ruth got involved in a high stakes poker game in Hot Springs that was rigged. He lost all of his money. The Bambino felt cheated and never returned.

The Alligator Farm across from Whittington Park, where the Babe launched that prodigious shot, is still in business. The Whittington Park baseball diamond is long gone, entombed beneath a parking lot at a Weyerhaeuser corporate office. Broken foundation slabs and long con- crete bleachers, large trees growing among them, are all that remains of the grandstand once tucked into the side of a mountain. If you know what you’re looking for, there’s evidence of a field of dreams where Hall of Famers once played.

The first mention of Whittington Park was in 1894. In 1895, the St. Louis Browns came to use the field, but quickly retreated to Little Rock due to a smallpox outbreak in Hot Springs. By 1909, the Sox, Pirates and Brooklyn all trained regularly in Hot Springs, creating a need for another baseball field. The Red Sox usually stayed at the Majestic Hotel. The team built another ballpark at the other end of the trolley line, where the Boys and Girls Club now sits. They named it Majestic Field. The Red Sox, Reds and Brooklyn all trained there. A year later the Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians and Washington Senators of the newly created American League came to the spa city and trained at Whittington Park. In 1912, Brooklyn, along with the Philadelphia Phillies, built a new ball field on ground behind the Alligator Farm, across the street from Whittington Park.

HSBaseball3It became Fogel Field, named for Horace Fogel, owner of the Phillies. The baseball diamond is gone, but the field is still there. Other big league teams that later trained in Hot Springs included the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Athletics. Unlike players today who sign auto- graphs at the ballpark but seldom mingle publicly with fans, the early stars often lounged in hotel lobbies or walked along Central Avenue and bathhouse row posing for photos with fans. “They were accessible to the public,” said Steve Arrison, chief executive officer of the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. “Though some, like Ruth, were larger than life, they enjoyed their celebrity status and didn’t shy away from their fans.” Arrison says it was a historic time in the city’s past when movie stars, entertain- ers and celebrities regularly visited Hot Springs. According to Dugan, Arrison and other historians of that period, the national pastime ruled the city from late February through March.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has a little more than 200 player members. More than half of them trained in Hot Springs at some time during their careers. They include such greats as Satchel Paige, Walter “Big Train” Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, “Lefty” Grove, Carl Hubbell, Johnny Evers, Al Simmons, Casey Stengel and Rogers Hornsby, just to name a few. “The players liked coming to Hot Springs so much that in 1932, Ray Doan devised a plan to open a baseball school at the park on Whittington,” Dugan said. The month-long school opened Feb. 15, 1933. During the school’s tenure, instruc- tors included Arkansas native sons Dizzy and Paul Dean, “Schoolboy” Rowe and Lon Warneke, as well as Hack Wilson, George Earnshaw, George Sisler, Johnny Evers, Al Simmons, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Cy Young, among others. Rogers Hornsby eventually bought the school from Doan and relocated it to Majestic Park, where it operated until 1952. “My dad, Pat Dugan, grew up across the street from the field on Whittington,” Dugan said, “He told the story of how he used to mow the grass at the school and got to meet many of the legendary players of that era. “He told me one of the neatest things that happened was when Jimmie Foxx of the Philadelphia Athletics and later with the Red Sox, who was his favorite player, would play catch with him in the mornings. The future Hall of Famer gave my dad a first baseman’s mitt which he kept for years.” The Pirates’ Wagner was another base- ball great who fell in love with the city and invested in its youngsters.

Wagner owned a sporting goods store in Pittsburgh. In 1909, he read in the local paper that Hot Springs High School was trying to form a basketball team. Wagner had a traveling team of baseball players who played basketball during the off- season to stay in shape. He and some of his Pirate teammates volunteered to teach the boys at Hot Springs High how to play basketball. Wagner had uniforms and shoes shipped from his store in Pittsburgh for the team to wear. One of the members of that first Hot Springs High School team was Leo P.

McLaughlin, who was the city’s mayor dur- ing the “mob era” of the 1930s and ‘40s. Though its weather was better than the bitter cold and snow to the north where most teams were located, Hot Springs was often rainy and not ideal for training. Following the 1926 season, most major league teams had relocated further south to places like Florida. The golden days of Major League Baseball teams having spring training in Hot Springs was finished. While entire teams didn’t return, numerous players already familiar with Hot Springs continued to train there on their way south before their team’s spring training offi- cially opened. Minor league teams and some Negro League teams began filling the void left by big league team departures.

As individual careers ended and World War II began, the last of the major leaguers were gone after 1942. In its place, minor league baseball began flourishing in Hot Springs. Now future stars were get- ting their start there. The Hot Springs Bathers of the old Cotton States League played at Whittington Park. Later, the team had its own facility, Bathers Park, next to the old Majestic Field (later renamed Dean Field and Jaycee Park). The Bathers kept organized baseball going in Hot Springs from 1938-41, until the outbreak of World War II. Many play- ers went to fight in the war, and play didn’t resume until 1947. The Bathers’ last season was 1955. To commemorate and maintain the his- tory of the time when baseball thrived for six weeks each year in Hot Springs, Dugan and other fans formed a committee within the Society for American Baseball Research known as the “Deadball Era” (1900-1920). Meeting every other year in March, some 25-50 members travel to the spa city dur- ing the same time the old teams once con- verged on the city for spring training. They give presentations and visit the old parks, reliving the “golden days,” as Dugan refers to them, when baseball brought the world to Hot Springs.

Babe Ruth Signs for Three Years At the Toss of a Coin

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Babe Ruth had been coming to Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, since his first training camp in 1915, so it was no surprise that the Bambino was in town on March 5, 1922 when he entered into contract negotiations with Colonel T. Huston, the co-owner of the New York Yankees.

Ruth was coming off the best season of his career. The previous year, 1921, he hit 59 home runs, batted .378, had a slugging percentage of .846, and led the Yankees to their first league championship. The Babe’s previous contract had paid him $10,000 per season for three years and had been signed with Boston before he moved to New York.

Colonel Huston met with Ruth at The Eastman Hotel at 8 p.m. that night and they could not reach an agreement on the new contract. They had narrowed down the amount and were both in the same range when discussing salary. Ruth wanted $52,000 a year for three years and Huston wanted to pay him $50,000 a year for three years with a two-year option. After much discussion and still no agreement the Babe offered to toss a coin for the salary figure. The Colonel was all for it but asked that Ruth wait until he had a chance to run it by his partner the co-owner and president of the Yankees, Colonel Jacob Ruppert. Ruth went back to his hotel to wait.

Colonel Huston immediately hit the telephone line after Ruth departed and put in a call to Ed Barrow, the Yankees business manager, to see if Ruppert would agree to the coin flip. Barrow, who was in New York City, then had to contact Ruppert who was in Tarrytown, N.Y. This almost certainly took some time given the telephone service in 1922. Ruppert agreed to settle the deal by a flip of the coin so Colonel Huston sent for the Babe who arrived back at The Eastman Hotel at 11 o’clock that same night.

Ruth arrived and before he could remove his bear-rug overcoat the Colonel had sent a half-dollar piece flying into the air, at the same time warning the Babe to call it. “Tails” bawled Ruth and when the coin finally came to rest under an easy chair “tails” faced the Colonel and the Home-Run King. “That ends it, Babe,” said the Colonel. “I’m glad it’s over and proud to have you a Yankee for the next three years.” The coin flip did not take five minutes time. The Babe was now making $1,000 per week.

The New York Yankees officially announced from Hot Springs that same night that they had signed Babe Ruth to a three year contract with the option for renewal. They did not reveal the terms of the contract but the press suspected that he would be getting at least $50,000 for his work with the Yankees next year along with a $500 bonus for each homerun that he hit. That bonus would be worth $29,500 to Ruth if he just matched his homerun total from the year before. No wonder Colonel Huston upon announcing the new deal referred to the Babe’s new salary as “worthy of a railroad president!”


“Hot Springs” Some Points About a Famous Resort…

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Some Points About a Famous Resort for Ball Players by One Who Has Been There Many Times.

The following article first appeared in Sporting Life, an American weekly newspaper that in 1890 had the largest circulation of any sporting or baseball newspaper. The article appeared in the April 12, 1890 issue and was written by Edward Nagle Williamson. Williamson, better known as Ned Williamson, was a steady infielder on the Chicago White Stockings for a decade, 1879-1889. He was the perfect person to write this article because he had been coming to Hot Springs with Cap Anson and the White Stockings since 1886.

View article here:

Hot Springs- Some Points About a Famous Resort for Ball Players by One Who Has Been There Many Times.

This article was transcribed from microfilm by noted baseball historian Roy Kerr. Kerr is an expert on 19th Century baseball and has written three biographies about 19th century players: Billy Hamilton, Roger Connor and Buck Ewing. He is currently working on a biography on slugger “Big Dan” Brouthers.


VIDEO: “The Birthplace of Spring Baseball”

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Dedicated to the Many Scores of Baseball Luminaries Who Trained & Played in Hot Springs, Arkansas, from the 1880’s through the 1950’s – in Baseball’s Golden Age.


VIDEO: “Hot Time In The Hot City”

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Musical Slide-Show History of Negro Leagues Baseball in Hot Springs, Arkansas – “The Birthplace of Spring Baseball” by Frank Wilson & Tim Reid.

A Browns Spring Training Favorite

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Browns camp was once host to as many as four clubs.

From an article written by Dick Farrington in 1942.

“The expected convergence of the Browns and Pirates from California on Hot Springs, Arkansas, as a training site, will find them treading ground where many of the great players of the past flashed their spikes.”

View Full Article

Major League Letters To The Spa City

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

During the years that baseball’s spring training was held in Hot Springs there was much correspondence between the teams that trained here and Stephen E. Dillon, the General Manager of the Hot Springs Utilities Company that owned the baseball practice fields.

The following letters include correspondence to Mr. Dillon from several of those teams.

View Letters

The letters to Dillon from the Pittsburg Base Ball Club were sent by Barney Dreyfuss who was the owner of the Pittsburg Pirates from 1920-1932. In 1903, Dreyfuss brokered a peace with the rival American League, arranging for the first World Series. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.

J. L. Wilkinson who formed the Kansas City Monarchs Base Ball Club in 1920 sent letters to Mr. Dillon on behalf of his professional team. Wilkinson was the only white owner when the Negro Leagues were formed. “Wilkie’ as he was known to all was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

The New York Giants field requests were handled by William H. “Bill” Terry who played for the team from 1923-1936 and managed the team from 1932-1941.Terry is considered one of the greatest players of all time. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954.

The Day That Changed Baseball Forever

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

It was in Hot Springs, Arkansas on March 17, 1918 that the legendary Babe Ruth altered the course of baseball history. As far back as 1886, the Chicago White Stockings (later known as the Cubs) came to Hot Springs for spring training. Those were the old days before Florida and Arizona, with even warmer temperatures, became the Meccas of pre-season baseball. By the 1930s, nearly half of all Major League teams had, at some time, used Hot Springs as their spring training headquarters.

In addition, almost every prominent player of the first half of the 20th Century visited Hot Springs on an individual basis, even if his team trained somewhere else. They would generally arrive in the “Valley of the Vapors” a few weeks before reporting to their formal spring workouts. While in town, those old-timers would hike in the mountains, play golf, attend the horse races and bathe in the warm springs. A partial list included Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth and many others.

The Babe first came to Arkansas on March 6, 1915, when he stepped off the train as a rookie pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Ruth had played briefly for Boston in 1914 (his first professional season), but had spent most of the year in the International League with either the Baltimore Orioles or Providence Grays.

Babe was immediately smitten with Hot Springs; to him, it was the most exotic place he had ever seen. The warm baths, mountain vistas, golf courses, horse races and attractive women seemed like a dream. Until 1914, his world had been mostly limited to the waterfront streets of Baltimore or the inside of St. Mary’s Industrial School for delinquent boys.

Twenty-year-old Babe Ruth was an unstoppable force of nature. The six-foot-two-inch, rock-hard, two-hundred pound juggernaut hit the ball harder, pitched better, hiked with more stamina, and ate more food than anyone in town. Pitching in an intra-squad game on March 23, 1915, Ruth belted a savage line drive home run to right centerfield that left witnesses scratching their heads in disbelief. Despite Boston’s talent-laden pitching staff, Ruth surprisingly earned a place in their starting rotation, eventually winning eighteen games as a rookie. Young Babe Ruth was a puzzle. He fit into no established norms, and defied explanation.

When the Red Sox returned to Hot Springs to train in 1916, along with his pitching duties, Babe played center field in several “squad games.” He hit no competitive homers that year, but regularly belted them over the fences during batting practice. During the regular season, Ruth developed into the American League’s most dominant left-handed pitcher, winning twenty-three games and posting a stunning 1.75 Earned-Run-Average.

Babe’s status remained basically unchanged in 1917. He and the Red Sox returned to Hot Springs for spring training, where Ruth pitched and belted a bunch of batting practice homers. That year, Babe won the imposing total of twenty-four games, thereby solidifying his role as baseball’s best young pitcher. During those first three seasons (1915-1917), Babe Ruth recorded nine official Major League home runs, eight as a pitcher and one as a pinch-hitter. Everyone knew that he could hit, but his greatness as a pitcher pre-destined his stay at that position. But, then, even larger events intervened.

With World War One raging in Europe, many Big League players joined the conflict. That included Red Sox 1917 player-manager Jack Barry along with other prime members from the Boston organization. Owner Harry Frazee did his best, obtaining four players from Connie Mack’s financially troubled Philadelphia Athletics, but, overall, the Red Sox were working with a diminished roster. Frazee also signed former International League president Ed Barrow to take over as manager.

Barrow was an intelligent, competent man, but he was also humorless and unimaginative. He was not inclined toward frivolous ventures, and moving Babe Ruth off the pitcher’s mound in 1918 would have been regarded as absolutely reckless by most baseball insiders. In fact, when Ruth signed his season’s contract in January, Babe predicted that he would win thirty games as a pitcher. By the time the Red Sox arrived in Hot Springs on March 11, neither Barrow nor Frazee had publicly uttered a word about Babe Ruth playing anywhere but pitcher.

Ruth arrived in peak physical condition after spending the winter with his wife in a remote cottage in rural Massachusetts. Babe had needed to chop wood as the only means of heating his home in the cold northern climate, and had also vigorously engaged in various winter sports. During that first week of practice, Barrow worked all his pitchers hard, making them hike over the mountains, shag fly balls, and take infield practice. Ed had already decided that Big League teams carried too many pitchers on their rosters, and wanted his hurlers in optimum shape to handle the increased workload. In the process, Ruth had looked comfortable at first base, and, as usual, had clubbed several batting practice homers.

So, when regular first baseman Dick Hoblitzel was not ready to play in the opening exhibition game, Barrow simply inserted the twenty-three-year-old Bambino into his position. The game was played at Whittington Park on March 17 against the Brooklyn Dodgers (aka Robins). It was the first time that Babe Ruth ever played against a Major League team in any position other than pitcher. What happened next changed the sport of baseball forever.

Batting in the fourth inning, Babe lined a mammoth shot to deep left centerfield that landed in a distant wood pile, enabling Ruth to easily circle the bases. Two innings later, Babe did even better. This time, he unloaded a stupendous drive to right field that passed so far over the fence that it landed across the street in an alligator farm. The blow was so amazing that even the Dodgers stood up and cheered. None of them had ever seen anybody hit a baseball with such astonishing force. It is likely that this second Ruthian homer was the longest that had ever been hit (to that time) in the history of baseball.

Word of these remarkable events quickly circulated around the baseball community, and everyone wondered if they would ever be reprised. It was one week later when the Red Sox played their next game, another contest against the Dodgers at Whittington Park. The Boston second team was also playing the Brooklyn second team in Little Rock, thereby creating a manpower shortage. So, when Barrow started Carl Mays on the mound, he had to use Babe Ruth in right field. Again, Ruth was in the field more due to chance than actual design, and, again, Babe took advantage.

In the third inning, he smashed another tremendous home run to right field, a grand slam that landed in the pond adjacent to the Arkansas Alligator Farm, a nationally known tourist attraction. Almost inconceivably, Babe had launched a drive of approximately the same epochal proportions as the preceding week. Ruth then took his turn on the mound, and pitched effectively over the final three innings.

The Red Sox soon settled into their normal routine. Babe Ruth only pitched for the remainder of the spring schedule; he did not play a single defensive inning anywhere but on the mound. He recorded his fourth home run against Brooklyn on March 30 in Little Rock, but did so as the winning pitcher.

When the regular season started at Fenway Park in Boston on April 15, 1918, Babe Ruth pitched a masterful four-hitter against the Athletics, the Sox winning 7 to 1. Babe batted ninth. And so it went until May 6 in New York. Ruth pinch-hit a few times, but had taken the field only as a pitcher. Then, first baseman and team captain Dick Hoblitzel was injured again, and, harkening back to Hot Springs, manager Ed Barrow summoned the Babe to substitute for him. Predictably, he hit a home run.

The Sox traveled overnight by train to Washington, D.C. where they faced the magnificent, flame-throwing Walter Johnson of the Senators. Barrow rolled the dice once more, and Ruth blasted another homer as a first baseman. Taking his regular turn in the starting rotation two days later, Babe lost a classic, ten-inning confrontation with Johnson who pitched with less then forty-eight hours of rest. Yet, despite his losing effort, Ruth went 5 for 5 against the peerless “Big Train.” The die was cast.

For the remainder of the war-shortened 1918 schedule, Babe Ruth alternated between his duties as a starting pitcher and baseball’s mightiest slugger. The ailing Hoblitzel, who was also a dentist, retired in mid-season, but Barrow installed veteran Stuffy McGinnis at first base. Believing that Ruth was less susceptible to injury in the outfield, that’s where Babe was positioned. Ruth wound up tying for the American League home run honors by belting eleven four-baggers.

As the abbreviated 1918 season wound down, the focus of Babe Ruth’s play shifted back to his formidable pitching acumen. The 126-game-schedule ended on September 2, thereby making the month of August the stretch run for the pennant. During those thirty-one crucial days, despite missing a start when his father died, Ruth pitched seventy-three superb innings, winning six games and posting a remarkable 1.60 ERA.

When the World Series against the Chicago Cubs began on September 5 in the Windy City, Babe Ruth was on the mound. He pitched a momentous complete-game shutout, winning 1 to 0. Babe didn’t play in games two and three, but, back in Boston for game four, he started again on the mound. Working into the ninth inning, he was the winning pitcher once more: this time by the score of 3 to 2. Combined with his outstanding work back in the 1916 Fall Classic, Ruth threw a then-record 29.2 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series.

The Red Sox won that 1918 Series in six games, but, if there had been a crucial seventh game, Babe Ruth would have pitched it. Essentially, when the 1918 season concluded so gloriously for the World Champion Boston Red Sox, Ruth was heralded for reaching new heights in his career as a brilliant pitcher. With Major League Baseball expected to return to normalcy in 1919, the pragmatic Ed Barrow had no plans for his star southpaw to do anything but pitch and occasionally pinch hit.

The Red Sox switched their spring training site from Hot Springs to Tampa in 1919, and Babe Ruth showed up with his own ideas about where he should play. To him, it really wasn’t much of a choice. He could either play the outfield every day while swinging for the fences, or wait for every fourth day while batting ninth and pitching. With his free- spirited and impatient disposition, it was a no-brainer. But his manager had other plans.

It appears that Ed Barrow thought that he could wait out the situation by letting Ruth have his way in the beginning of spring ball. As in 1918, he would play Babe in a few games in the field, and, then, gradually work him back into the regular starting rotation, where, this time, he would stay. So, on April 4, 1919 in Tampa, Babe Ruth began the spring schedule against the New York Giants playing left field.

Problematically for Barrow, but beneficially for baseball history, Babe proceeded to regularly pound home runs throughout the remainder of the month. To Barrow’s chagrin, the Red Sox opened the season on April 23 with Carl Mays as their starter and Ruth in left field. Babe had hardly pitched, and complained about a sore arm whenever Barrow pressed the issue of his return to the regular rotation. Both player and manager were wary of each other, and the uncomfortable situation escalated into a confrontation on April 30 in Washington.

Barrow suspended Ruth, ostensibly due to a training violation, but, in reality, the tension centered on the pitching issue. After almost coming to blows in the locker room, Babe finally apologized on the train ride back to Boston. The two stubborn men got together, and worked out a truce. Ruth would stay in the line-up on an every day basis, but agreed to pitch whenever Barrow needed him.

As expected, Babe Ruth pitched well again in 1919. Although baseball was trying to resume business as usual, the Red Sox still played only 137 games that season. In that abbreviated time, Ruth pitched 133.1 innings, posting a 9 and 5 record with a 2.97 ERA. Offensively, Babe blasted the then mind-boggling total of twenty-nine homers. Ruth’s effort was roughly equivalent to someone bashing about one-hundred in today’s game. The entire country went home run crazy, and Babe Ruth became a batting deity.

By the end of that season, Harry Frazee had lost interest in owning the Red Sox, and was directing his passion to the Broadway stage. He sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees where the team and the man made history for the next fifteen years. During that time, Ruth returned often to Hot Springs in order to prepare for spring training. Babe had made a connection with the town and its people, and heartily enjoyed his visits.

In retrospect, it is clear that Babe Ruth was not necessarily destined to play the outfield, and hit record numbers of home runs. That final outcome depended as much on coincidence and timing as it did on Ruth’s extraordinary talent. What if World War One had not diminished the Red Sox roster in the spring of 1918? What if Dick Hoblitzel had not undergone off-season surgery before that season, thereby rendering him unfit to play that first exhibition game at first base? Most importantly to this discussion, what if Babe Ruth had not seized the moment, and clouted two prodigious home runs on that fateful St. Patrick’s Day?

As stated, that was the first time that Ruth ever played in the field against another Major League team. What if he had gone 0 for 3? Would he have impressed his dour manager sufficiently to play him at first base when Hoblitzel was injured again in early May? That seems unlikely to me. Certainly, baseball would have eventually evolved into the “Power Game” that it is today, but how long would it have taken if Babe Ruth hadn’t led the way? Perhaps decades.

If it wasn’t for Ruth suddenly and simultaneously smashing home run and attendance records, would scouts have even bothered to sign young muscle men like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx in the 1920s? Who really knows? Without question, the emergence of Babe Ruth dramatically altered the sport of baseball forever. Yet, that historic transformation almost never happened.

Without significant serendipity, our sports heritage might easily be diminished by the absence of its most charismatic and beloved figure. Without those events on St. Patrick’s Day in Hot Springs in 1918, Babe Ruth might be remembered only as a Hall of Fame pitcher instead of a cultural institution. How relatively barren would baseball seem without the incomparable imprint of the Sultan of Swat? I prefer not to even think about it.

Bill Jenkinson

Baseball Historian (2011)


When Baseball Sprang For Hot Springs

Friday, March 9th, 2012

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

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.


Leo the Lip Lights Up The Belvedere Club

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Future Hall of Famer Leo “The Lip” Durocher came to Hot Springs as the new manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in February of 1939 when he brought the team’s pitchers and catchers to town to get them in shape for the upcoming season.

The team arrived in town on a Friday and Saturday found them in the Eastman Hotel gym working out with medicine balls, Indian clubs, and calisthenics followed by a run over the mountains. After their workout everyone hit the showers and got dressed for dinner. Durocher and his coaches, along with a few friends, decided to eat at a place that was recommended as having the best “eats” in town, The Belvedere Club.

Durocher and his party had a great dinner at The Belvedere Club. After dinner the tables were cleared and they brought Bingo cards around to each table. Leo “The Lip” describes what happened next in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last:

I bought five cards, and all of a sudden I am a Bingo player. Saturday night in Hot Springs. At the end of the night, they announce the Jackpot Game. Instead of the usual five-in-a-row, you had to cover the entire card, and the winner would get $660. I quickly covered every square except one, the caller called I-17 — I will never forget that combination — and up I jumped finger held aloft, and from my lips came that happy cry, “That’s me.”

Before I left there I did not have a dime of the $660 left. I bought champagne for everybody in the house. I strutted around making a big joke out of being the Bingo champion, although truth be known, it seemed to me that it was a good omen to come up with the jackpot prize on my first day as a working manager.

Early Sunday morning the ringing of the phone sounded in my ear.

“Hello” I said, barely awake.

“You’re fired!” Came the voice of MacPhail (the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers).

“I’m fired? I’ve been a calisthenics instructor for one day, and this is the end of my career as a manager? What’s the matter I don’t lead calisthenics good?”

“For what?” I yelled, fully awake.

“You’re a gambler!”

“What the hell are you talking about Larry?”

“I just read it in the morning’s paper. You won the big Bingo prize.”

“Bingo? Larry that is a game old women play at church socials. I explained to him that the crème of Hot Springs society had been there with us, including Gussie Busch, who he knew very well.”

“See?” he said. “Just what I said. That’s gambling and you’re fired. Turn the club over to Andy High right now.”

“Turn the club over to High?” I yelled. “To High? Are you crazy? If you don’t want me to manage, that is your business, but how the hell can you give the club to Andy High when you have Charlie Dressen, the best baseball man I know. You got to give the club to Dressen.”

Durocher stayed on the phone over fifteen minutes trying to convince MacPhail to give his job to Charlie Dressen instead of Andy High. He ended up hanging up on MacPhail and went right on managing the Brooklyn Dodgers. He never heard another word about his misadventures as a Bingo player in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas.