HOT SPRINGS: Where Pitchers Became LegendsMarch 5th, 2018
In a time when Major League Baseball has acknowledged an epidemic of “sore arms”, it seems appropriate to ask why this is happening. We’ll have to wait for the science to catch up with the question, but, in the interim, let’s look back at what has worked in the past. Specifically, we should consider the fantastic success achieved by professional pitchers in the early Twentieth Century who trained in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
We don’t know with certainty why this happened. They all hiked or ran over the local mountain trails. They all took the hot baths. Many of them played a lot of baseball in town. Some played golf while others didn’t. Some visited the casinos and horse races while others chose not to. Frankly, it’s a bit of a mystery. Yet, beginning with John Clarkson in 1886 (possibly even sooner) and continuing until Major League pitchers stopped coming to Hot Springs over a half century later, there was a record of phenomenal success for those who trained in Hot Springs. For the record, Clarkson won 328 games in his Hall of Fame career.
There is even some evidence that Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn came to town in 1881 after injuring his right throwing-shoulder the preceding season. According to those accounts, Radbourn retired from the game, and went home to work as a butcher. He was then convinced to come to the Spa City, and give it one last try. Why is this tale important?
We know that Charles Radbourn played his first full Major League season in 1881 when he won twenty-five games for Providence. He went on to win a total of 309, including an absolutely mind-numbing fifty-nine games in 1884. Those numbers, however incredible, are real. Did it all happen because Old Hoss came to Hot Springs in 1881? While pondering that question, let’s look at the roll call of pitchers who later came to town, and eventually became legends.
The list of examples is extraordinary. We can’t discuss them all in a single newspaper article. Such a discussion would require an entire book. Let’s select a few of the most romanticized individuals, starting with one of the earliest and certainly one of the all-time best.
In his historic twenty-two years in the Major Leagues, Cy Young established almost every record for durability. That includes his most-ever 511 wins and most-ever 316 losses. It also entails his all-time record 7,356 innings-pitched. In today’s game, Big League teams hope that their starting pitchers throw 200 innings in a season. In five different years, Cy exceeded 400 innings, and, in eleven other seasons, he topped 300. Young threw every imaginable breaking ball whereas the modern guys are dissuaded from tossing pitches which create high levels of stress on their arms. So, pitch selection is not the explanation t for Cy’s unique durability.
This we do know: Cy Young trained in “The Valley of the Vapors” in, at least, thirteen different years. Cy hiked and jogged relentlessly over the rugged mountain trails, thereby achieving high levels of cardiovascular fitness. In the process, he also significantly increased his leg strength. For those who don’t understand that reference, all modern pitching coaches advocate the development of strong legs. Why? The more they “push off” with their legs from the pitcher’s mound, the less strain is placed on their arms.
Plus, during all those visits to The Valley, Young was also regularly “taking the baths.” The combination of the mountain training along with the therapeutic hot baths worked wonders.
Please also consider this. Cy Young visited Hot Springs for the first time in 1892, his third Big League season. During his stay in the Valley, he pitched in five exhibition games against the Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs). That was Young’s so-called breakout year, posting a 36 & 12 record while accruing a 1.93 E.R.A. In that same remarkable season, Cy hurled the astonishing total of 453 innings. Was it a coincidence that he achieved such historic success after training for the first time in Hot Springs?
Along with those astonishing innings-pitched, Young naturally accrued some equally amazing pitch-counts. That issue should be addressed and clarified before proceeding further.
Since official pitch-counts were not kept in those days, it is fair to ask how we can know the number of pitches thrown back then. In recent years, some baseball-oriented mathematicians have used computer science to create highly reliable formulas for estimating the number of pitches thrown. By combining batters-faced, bases-on-balls, and strikeouts, they crosschecked with modern known pitch-counts to establish their guidelines. Since all those statistics are available to everyone on-line, once the formulas became available, making the calculations is a relatively easy process. The formulaic results are almost always within a few pitches (more or less) of the official totals.
By today’s standards, any single game pitch-count exceeding 130 is considered exceptional. As we proceed with our story, that number will repeatedly be dwarfed by the actions of our bygone heroes. Please do not allow such repetitive drama to lessen your appreciation for what they did. The nearly incredible difference between what the older guys accomplished, as compared to what the modern guys can do, is an integral part of this thesis.
In Cy Young’s case, probably the best example of his astounding stamina occurred on the Fourth of July in 1905. Pitching in Boston versus the Philadelphia Athletics’ iconic Rube Waddell (another Hot Springs trainee), Cy hurled twenty innings during a heart-wrenching complete game loss to his talented, but eccentric, rival. In that historic confrontation, Young threw approximately 257 pitches!
In 1908, as Cy Young turned forty-one, he understood better than anyone that he was approaching the end of his pitching days. Accordingly, he returned to Hot Springs for pre-spring training, and continued to do so for five straight years. As late as May 4, 1910, at age forty-three, Cy pitched a fourteen-inning 3-3 tie in St. Louis. Along the way, he tossed about 210 pitches. Young is the ultimate symbol of a pitcher who became a legend by training in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Despite enjoying a highly successful season in 1910 (25 wins & 17 losses), Walter Johnson got off to slow start. That had been the case each year, starting in 1907 when he made his Major League debut. Johnson knew full well about Hot Springs as a result of his interaction with the older Cy Young. Accordingly, young Walter journeyed to the Valley of the Vapors in February 1911. He went there to get into peak physical condition, and he did. Walter pitched very little in Hot Springs, but he did hike the mountain trails and take the hot baths. He even played some very competitive baseball.
So many Major Leaguers were training in the Valley that pre-season, that there were enough to organize a kind of All-Star game. On both February 23 and 24, while playing right field for the American League Stars against their National League rivals, Walter clubbed long home runs. The second of those two, launched at Majestic Park, soared so far to center field that Johnson, who was regarded as the mightiest hitter in MLB until Babe Ruth came along, declared it the longest drive of his career. He went on to record an even better mark of 25 & 13 in 1911, and credited much of his success to his early spring work in Hot Springs.
Although vowing to return to the Valley, the “Big Train” was so dominant over the next decade that he just didn’t find the time to come back. That all ended in 1920 when he suffered the first serious “sore arm” of his career. He dropped precipitously to an 8 and 10 record while pitching a measly (for him) 143.2 innings. That induced Johnson to finally return to the Valley in early 1921, and he was glad that he did. Walter, at age thirty-three, bounced back with a seventeen win season while hurling 120 more innings than the year before.
He only waited three more years this time to return, and the results were historically dramatic. After suffering from some leg problems in 1923, Walter did a lot of hunting and hiking in the Reno, Nevada area during the following winter. He then used his influence with the Washington Senators’ owner and new manager, Bucky Harris, to send many of the team veterans to pre-spring training in Hot Springs. Up to that time, the Senators had never won the American League pennant in their twenty-two year history.
In his definitive biography (WALTER JOHNSON: Baseball’s Big Train, University of Nebraska Press, 1995), historian Henry W. Thomas wrote:
At Hot Springs, even before the formal start of spring training, a spirit of camaraderie developed among the regulars…They worked out together, took marathon hikes in the Arkansas hills, enjoyed the ‘radio-active’ baths, and played cards with one another.
Specifically, on the matter of conditioning, Thomas had this to say:
The legs causing so much trouble in 1923 had been built up and strengthened, and it was Johnson who set the pace for the rest of the team in their daily treks in the foothills of the Ozarks around Hot Springs. ‘The Mountain Goat,’ they started calling him. ‘He had most of us staggering around until we became accustomed to the uphill going,’ Bucky Harris recalled. ‘We returned to Tampa (formal spring training site) in fine condition.’ A report from Hot Springs noted that ‘ When some of the party return [from the mountain hikes] tired and ready to call it a day, Walter rests by playing from 18 to 36 holes of golf.’
The results were astounding. The thirty-six year-old Walter Johnson posted a 23 and 7 record while leading the traditionally inept Washington Senators to not only their first American League pennant but the World Series championship as well.
Johnson trained again in Hot Springs in early 1925, and very nearly reprised his amazing accomplishments from a year earlier. He began by “warming up” on the front lawn of the grand Eastman Hotel on February 25, 1925 as the other hotel guests gasped in awe at his still imposing fastball. Walter accrued a 20 & 7 record as the Senators claimed their second straight AL pennant. That autumn, they lost the World Series, but their two year run, starting both times in Hot Springs, was the best-ever for the franchise. The Valley of the Vapors had worked wonders for both the team and its legendary best player.
When you closely examine the factual history of Walter Johnson’s visits to Hot Springs, Arkansas, it appears that he only came when he needed help the most. That somewhat odd pattern would be repeated by others.
Smoky Joe Wood is one of the most intriguing players in baseball history. Born Howard Ellsworth Wood in Kansas City, Missouri in 1889, Joe’s beloved father was a gifted but adventurous fellow. He rambled across the country to pursue whatever career fantasy motivated him at any given time. As a result, Wood’s youth was divided between western Kansas, south Chicago, eastern Pennsylvania, and frontier Colorado. It was a nomadic and challenging childhood, but it imbued young Wood with an inner toughness which would serve him well throughout his own eventful life.
Joe Wood developed a passion for baseball at an early age, and participated wherever he lived. In 1905 and 1906, he played respectively for his so-called town teams in Ouray, Colorado and Ness City, Kansas. Oddly, Wood finished that 1906 season by playing for a few weeks as one of four males on a primarily female team known as the National Bloomer Girls (based in Kansas City). That was not uncommon in those days.
Joe then spent his first professional season with the Class-C Hutchinson (Kansas) Salt Packers where he permanently switched from the infield to the pitcher’s mound. Moving rapidly upward, Wood next joined the Class-A Kansas City Blues in 1908. Despite a losing record, Joe threw so hard and so effectively that the Boston Red Sox purchased his contract in late August. Within two years, Joe Wood, at age twenty, was a Major League star. Two years after that, relying mostly on his astonishing velocity, Wood performed at a level that has never been surpassed in baseball annals.
After training in Hot Springs in 1912, Wood went on to compile an extraordinary 34 & 5 record while posting a dazzling 1.91 E.R.A. During that historic season, Joe also hurled 344 innings and threw thirty-five complete games along with ten shutouts. Amazingly, Wood finished this magical year by winning three more games while vanquishing Christy Mathewson and his New York Giants in the World Series.
That season is the center piece in the still-enduring legend of Smoky Joe Wood. How could it not be? No human being has ever pitched better than Wood did in 1912. That was also the year when the word “smoky” was attached to the front of his name.
Despite rumors that he may have pitched too much the preceding year, when Wood and his Boston teammates returned to Hot Springs for spring training in 1913, he was on top of the athletic world. On March 28 that year, Joe took the mound for an exhibition game against the immortal Honus Wagner and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Whittington Park. Throwing fastballs which could hardly be seen by the naked eye, Wood shut out the Pirates over five innings. During that time, he struck out seven, including Wagner himself on two occasions.
In that moment, Smoky Joe Wood was on his way to possibly becoming the greatest pitcher in baseball history. However, as it often does, fate intervened. While pitching in Philadelphia on April 21, Joe injured his thumb sliding into second base. He missed the next three weeks before returning ineffectively in Detroit. Joe lasted only two innings in relief; it was obvious that he just wasn’t ready to pitch. And yet, Wood was the starting pitcher three days later in St. Louis (May 15, 1913).
For some unknown reason, despite clobbering the Browns 15-4, Manager Jake Stahl allowed his injured ace to throw a complete nine-inning game. In the process, Joe threw approximately 159 pitches. Such obvious overuse (bordering on abuse) would not be tolerated today, but, back in that primal baseball era, it was not unusual.
Focusing on this point, during Joe’s next nine starts, he averaged 155 pitches and 9.2 innings per start (including consecutive 12 inning complete games). It is theorized that, during this entire time, Wood altered his delivery to compensate for his lingering thumb injury. As a result, Joe Wood’s priceless right shoulder was being worn to an anatomical frazzle.
If that wasn’t bad enough, he then slipped on wet grass while fielding a ground ball in Detroit on July 18. Nearly incredibly, he fell on the same, already damaged, right thumb, this time causing a serious fracture. Trying to rehabilitate, Joe pitched two meaningless innings in September, but that was it for 1913.
When Joe Wood married Laura O’Shea near his ancestral home in Pennsylvania on December 20, 1913, he was thought to have suffered ptomaine poisoning during the post-ceremony reception. Hoping to enjoy his honeymoon, he didn’t seek further medical treatment. Sadly, that misdiagnosis led to even more problems. In the early morning hours on February 22, 1914, doctors rushed to his house, and performed an emergency appendectomy on his kitchen table. In the process, they saved his life, barely, but those events led to another compromised season.
Wood carried on for another year as a starting pitcher, and was highly effective when on the mound. Yet, the pain was constant, and he never pitched more than 157 innings after 1912. In 1915, after returning to Hot Springs again, he amassed an outstanding 15 & 5 record. He also led the American League with an eye-popping 1.49 E.R.A. However, by that time, his right shoulder was so badly damaged that pitching had devolved into pure agony. In all likelihood, he was suffering from a torn rotator cuff. At age twenty-five, Smoky Joe Wood was, essentially, finished as a pitcher.
Joe resurfaced a few years later as a converted outfielder with the Cleveland Indians. There he joined best friend and fellow Hot Springs devotee Tris Speaker. As late as 1922, Joe Wood was playing All-Star caliber baseball with Cleveland in his adopted position. That year, he batted .297, scored seventy-four runs, and drove in ninety-two. Miraculously, considering his shoulder ailment, the thirty-two-year-old marvel even managed to record eighteen assists from his spot in right field.
Joe Wood could have played for a few more years, but, when offered a baseball coach’s job at Yale University, he accepted. Within a year, he was the head coach, and kept that position until 1942. Despite his earlier health problems, Joe lived to the advanced age of ninety-five, enjoying life to the end. He never forgot his time in the Valley of the Vapors. Joe suffered a lot of adversity during his athletic career, but not in Hot Springs. By hiking the mountain trails and taking the hot baths (even playing some memorable games), he rose to the top of the baseball world. He didn’t stay there long, but his legend remains.
Babe Ruth, of course, is known primarily as baseball’s greatest slugger. But, we should not forget that he began his career as a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher. Babe first visited Hot Springs in March 1915. That was his official rookie year, and he did all the same things that Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and Smoky Joe Wood had done before him. Ruth doggedly hiked and/or ran the mountain trails while also undergoing the standard course of hot baths. As time passed and Babe became increasingly fond of playing golf, he also logged long hours on the links. Ruth repeated that process in 1916, 1917, and 1918. The results were astounding.
In those four years, despite transitioning from pitching icon to legendary slugger, Ruth threw over 1,000 innings while winning seventy-eight games. He did this without any hint of a sore arm. That should tell us something about Babe’s training.
The Babe, of course, is famous for his playboy lifestyle. It is true that Ruth liked to party, and there is evidence that he did a lot of that in Hot Springs. Yet, we should recall that partying hard is not exclusive to working hard. It may surprise modern observers, but Babe Ruth trained as hard as any player in baseball history. There were times when he was asked by management to reduce his efforts during pre-season training. Babe just seemed to do everything at warp speed. When competing on the field, Ruth was the ultimate warrior, never taking a backward step and NEVER giving anything less than 100%.
Babe is also one of the pitchers who played a lot of baseball in the Valley of the Vapors. He logged many innings during intra-squad games with his Boston Red Sox teammates, usually at Majestic Field. Additionally, he often pitched in exhibition games against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Whittington Park. For example, on the day (March 24, 1918) Ruth launched his historic 500-foot home run, he hurled three scoreless innings against those Brooklynites.
After joining the Yankees in 1920, Babe returned to Hot Springs on his own for five straight years (1921-1925) to engage in pre-spring training. By then, he was no longer a pitcher, but he still benefitted from the tried-and-true regimen of hiking, golf, and hot baths. Consistent with his spontaneous nature, Ruth would often rush from the bath houses to his next activity without bothering to cool down and dry off. As a result, he tended to “catch the flu,” which greatly displeased Yankee management.
None of that was the fault of the Hot Springs community, but, nevertheless, those episodes ended Babe’s long association with the Valley. Yet, Ruth truly loved Arkansas, and, for the rest of his days, he recalled how his training there had helped him to become a legendary pitcher.
Many historians, including myself, regard Robert “Lefty” Grove as the greatest left-handed pitcher in Major League history. Born and raised in Western Maryland’s hard-working coal region, Grove grew up with a fierce determination to succeed. His fiery temperament and remarkable ability to hurl a baseball at blinding speeds ultimately empowered him to win 300 games in the Big Leagues. However, it wasn’t easy.
Grove was beset with particularly painful arm conditions in both 1934 and 1938. The first episode threatened to end his career. In response, according to biographer Jim Kaplan, Lefty trained in Hot Springs in early 1935, and effectively regained his former stature. Lefty’s focus on cardiovascular training was a common thread throughout the saga of pitchers visiting Hot Springs.
As testimony to the thoroughness of his physical recovery, Grove pitched 273 innings in 1935. Consider this as well: on July 27, 1935, Lefty threw approximately 251 pitches in a fifteen inning loss to his former team, the Philadelphia Athletics. That marathon performance was no fluke. Grove had preceded that outing with games of 160 and 158 pitches, and followed it with pitch-counts of 163, 150, and 182. Whatever Lefty did in the Valley back in February, it really worked.
Then, after suffering another setback in 1938, Grove returned to Hot Springs in 1939 and 1940. Remarkably, he again achieved great results. In his fortieth year, Lefty pitched 191 innings while amassing a record of 15 & 4. That season (1939), he won an eleven-inning 170-pitch outing in Washington on May 14. No wonder Lefty Grove came to the Valley when he was in trouble.
Ultimately, Grove stayed in the game through 1941 when he posted his 300th victory. We can only wonder what he might have achieved if Lefty had visited Hot Springs more often.
Is there any pitcher who can challenge Cy Young ‘s reputation for endurance, stamina, and longevity? Perhaps not. But, if anyone can, it’s Satchel Paige.
Leroy Robert Paige was born into abject poverty in Mobile, Alabama in 1906. He tried to help support his ten siblings by hustling nickels and dimes in any way that he could. At age twelve, after missing too much school and getting caught in one too many hustles, Leroy went to reform school for the next five years. Yet, all was not lost. That is where he learned to pitch, falling in love with baseball along the way.
Satchel (the origin of that nickname is still fuzzy) first pitched professionally in 1926 for the Chattanooga Black Lookouts at age twenty. Unfortunately, when discussing the first two decades of Paige’s career, there is some guesswork. Major League Baseball was not integrated until 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the so-called color line. Until then, African-American players performed in the old Negro Leagues where statistical accuracy was not always assured. They simply didn’t have the same resources as the Major Leagues. Accordingly, researching Satchel Paige is not easy.
We should also recall that the Negro League schedule was much shorter than that of MLB. In order to remain financially solvent, those old Black teams played regularly against a combination of Minor League squads, town teams, and even semi-pro outfits. Of course, occasionally, they also competed against Major Leaguers, but those games were only a small part of the annual itinerary. As a result, we will never know the full statistical legacy of any of the great Negro League ballplayers. Such is the case with Satchel Paige.
Satchel moved up to the Negro Major Leagues halfway through the 1927 season when he joined the Birmingham Black Barons. Paige was string-bean thin, standing six-feet-three and weighing only about 170 pounds. Yet, somehow, his musculature was extremely efficient in catapulting a baseball at astonishing speed. Throwing from the right side, Satchel was an immediate sensation at Birmingham. In league games only, he compiled a 7 & 1 record. During unofficial games, and there were many of those, we have no way of knowing exactly what he accomplished.
This was the beginning of a long professional career which was marked by the contrasting elements of extraordinary success and painful turmoil. Negro League franchises of that era were notoriously unstable. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really. They were fighting a no-win scenario by competing with the Big Leagues who held all the winning cards. Negro teams came and went. Players switched loyalties, and walked out on contracts. Owners fined them and, often, even suspended them. Satchel Paige was at the center of the mayhem. Never wanting to be tied down by anyone, he jumped from team to team, league to league, even country to country.
Yet, somehow, amidst all the madness and confusion, great baseball was played. The pageantry that accompanied the exemplary athleticism was just as remarkable. There too, Satchel Paige was at the heart of the cultural phenomenon. Wherever he would wander, Satchel was the center of attention. It was that kind of life.
As of 1931, Paige was playing for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a franchise that would soon make its mark as the greatest-ever to not play in the Major Leagues. At the conclusion of that campaign, Paige went to California to play in an integrated winter league. It was the first of nine times that he would spend his so-called off-season in that fashion. It was at the conclusion of that initial winter tour that Satchel Paige first came to Hot Springs.
Was it because he had worn out his arm by pitching without rest during the winter months? Was he simply joining fellow Negro Leaguers who had already been training in the Valley for many years? Or, was it just a typical Satchel Paige whim? Whatever the reason, the man came to town and trained in early 1932. He then proceeded to enjoy one of his finest seasons, including a no-hitter against the New York Black Yankees.
Some of Paige’s teammates that year were Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Ted Radcliffe, Judy Johnson, Jud Wilson, and Cyclone Joe Williams. All of them were legendary ball players. The Pittsburgh Crawfords of that era (early to mid-1930s) was a team for the ages. On page 45 in his outstanding book (Baseball in Hot Springs, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, 2016), historian Mark Blaeur features a photo of Paige and his mates in Hot Springs. That image is an invaluable, cultural treasure.
As Satchel Paige’s pitching acumen improved, so did his social and financial influence. When Dizzy Dean (a favorite in Hot Springs) barnstormed after leading the Cardinals to World Series victory in 1934, Paige was invited to join him. Satch and Dizzy went head to head in several epic confrontations, and, at the end, it was hard to determine who had been more dominant.
Satchel’s career continued arcing upward for several more years, when, unaccountably in 1943, he suddenly failed. No one knows for sure why this happened. There are many theories, but arm fatigue is the most likely explanation. By that time, Satchel Paige had been pitching throughout almost every calendar year for seventeen years. Whatever the cause, it was a genuine downturn. Satchel’s official Negro League record was an uncharacteristic 6 & 8, accompanied by a dismal 5.95 E.R.A.
The solution? In early 1944, Satchel Paige returned to Hot Springs to train and regain his lost effectiveness. Almost predictably, the plan worked to near perfection. His E.R.A. that season dramatically dropped to 2.30. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Many of America’s greatest pitchers came to the Valley when faced with career Armageddon. The strategy worked almost every time.
While pitching mostly for the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1940s, Satchel still performed for other teams when opportunity arose. After the 1946 season, he teamed with fellow pitching icon Bob Feller in one of baseball’s greatest-ever barnstorming tours. Just as in 1934, the tour organizers understood that the best man to oppose their star “white” attraction was Satchel Paige. Feller and Paige did not disappoint, engaging in some of the most memorable pitching battles in the annals of the game.
By 1948, Satchel Paige was forty-one, and most baseball fans assumed that he was finished. They were wrong. As mentioned, Jackie Robinson had “broken the color line” one year earlier, and the process of integration was on its way. So, when the Cleveland Indians invited Paige to join them, he finally got his chance to pitch in the Big Leagues. He did so on July 9, thereby becoming the oldest man in MLB history to begin his career (two days after turning forty-two).
On that occasion, Satchel relieved Cleveland Indian ace Bob Lemon, and pitched two scoreless innings. That was just the start of a remarkable run. As The Tribe successfully competed for the American League pennant, Paige went 6 & 1 while recording an excellent 2.48 E.R.A. Even more remarkably, on August 13 and August 20, the old master hurled consecutive complete game shutouts. Satchel Paige pitched briefly in that year’s World Series, becoming the oldest man ever to do that as well. After all those years of interminable waiting, Paige got his chance on the big stage, and performed magnificently.
Satchel spent two seasons with the Indians, and eventually played three more with the St. Louis Browns (1951-1953). What he accomplished in 1952, at age forty-six, is truly astonishing. Paige logged a 12 & 10 record while posting a 3.07 E.R.A. over 138 innings. On July 1, he lost an eleven inning heartbreaker to his old teammates in Cleveland while throwing an estimated 183 pitches. Then, on August 6, Satchel did the seemingly impossible for a man of his years by vanquishing the Detroit Tigers 1-0 in twelve innings (hurling 162 pitches in the process).
By the way, during this improbable stretch of Major League success at such an advanced age, Satchel Paige trained at Hot Springs in 1948, 1949, and 1953. The linkage almost certainly was not coincidental. Satchel pitched occasionally until age fifty-nine, and lived peacefully until 1982 when he passed in Kansas City during his seventy-sixth year.
There will always be much about this man’s life that remains unknown. However, this we do know. Satchel Paige pitched prolifically for over twenty-five years, often competing in more places and logging more innings than any of his contemporaries, Black or White. During his remarkable, but turbulent career, Paige played for teams all over the United States as well as in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba. Along the way, he also came to Hot Springs where he added his name to that long list of true pitching legends.
Carl Hubbell is another Hall of Fame pitcher who similarly trained in Hot Springs when his body needed help the most. Since his signature pitch was the screwball (notoriously damaging to the arm), Hubbell’s longevity was always in doubt. Carl was born in rural Missouri, and spent much of his youth throwing everything he put his hands on, including baseballs. Yet, he didn’t develop Major League ability until relatively late in life. In 1926, near age twenty-three, he was signed by the Detroit Tigers and invited to spring training. Player-manager Ty Cobb was not impressed. He was also worried that Hubbell’s primary use of the screwball would, almost certainly, shorten his career.
It wasn’t until 1928, when scouted by the New York Giants, that Hubbell was taken seriously. The great Christy Mathewson had also thrown the “scroogie,”which he referred to as his fade-away. Legendary Giants skipper John McGraw, who had managed Christy, was still piloting the Giants at that time. Thinking back to the success that Mathewson had enjoyed, McGraw was willing to give Hubbell a chance. It was a very profitable decision. Carl was an immediate success in the Big Leagues. He went on to record 253 career wins while pitching for the Giants through the 1943 season.
However, in order to make it that far, Carl Hubbell had to survive some significant physical adversity. By 1936, Hubbell would wince in pain every time he threw his screwball. He bravely battled on, and was on track for his tenth straight 200-plus-innings season (including four over 300 innings) well into 1938. Then, during the fifth inning of the August 18 encounter with the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds, Carl’s arm finally failed him. The Dodgers rallied for four runs, and, when Hubbell returned to the dugout, he told manager Bill Terry that he could not straighten his left arm. Four days later in Memphis, bone chips were surgically removed from his elbow, and no one knew if King Carl Hubbell would ever pitch again.
Carl had trained in Hot Springs before, but, when he returned in February 1939, it was a matter of athletic life or death. By running and hiking the mountain trails while also taking the hot baths, Hubbell gradually began to recover. He didn’t start an official Major League game until May 14, but, when he did, it was a beauty. That’s the day that Carl recorded a ten-inning win over the Philadelphia Phillies while throwing an estimated 151 pitches. He was back. Two months later in St. Louis July 25, Hubbell did even better. He won a complete game thirteen inning marathon over the Cardinals by hurling approximately 183 pitches.
In 1940 at age at age thirty-seven, Carl Hubbell logged 214 innings for the Giants. He proceeded to win eleven games in each of his final four complete seasons, thereby cementing his reputation for toughness and reliability.
When it was all over at the conclusion of the 1943 season, the “Meal Ticket” had won 253 games (all with the Giants), and amassed the sparking career Earned Run Average of 2.98. As was the case with Lefty Grove, Hubbell pitched mostly in the 1930s which is known for its high offensive production. Accordingly, Carl’s E.R.A. was remarkable. Along the way, Hubbell also pitched 36 shutouts and 260 complete games.
Certainly, Carl’s personal work ethic was the primary factor in his ability to pitch again from 1939 through 1943. His surgeon, Dr. J. Spencer Speed, also gets much credit. Yet, can we be certain that it would have happened if Hubbell hadn’t trained in the Valley of the Vapors when his arm had reached the breaking point?
Major League teams should study the history of baseball in Hot Springs. If they did, maybe they would send some of their high-priced pitching talents to The Valley for some old fashioned training.
Of course, none of what we have discussed establishes scientific proof of anything. I am obligated to acknowledge that. Yet, the story is truly compelling. Was it all just coincidence? Or was there actually some organic magic created by that combination of mountain hikes and hot baths? Were there other, unknown factors at work? The air? The food? Who knows for sure? We’re certain that it worked for Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, and Lefty Grove, as well as many others. Why not give it a try? In Hot Springs, Arkansas, pitchers became legends.
OTHER LEGENDARY PITCHERS WHO TRAINED IN HOT SPRINGS:
Grover Cleveland Alexander
“Bullet” Joe Rogan
Joe “Cyclone” Williams