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THE RITUAL OF SPRING TRAINING : For Baseball, It's a Special Time in Special Places

March 01, 1987|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

So what is there to say about spring training?

That it is a proving ground for prospects and a survival test for certain veterans?

That with the emphasis on year-round training, only pitchers require five or six weeks to prepare for a season?

That it is primarily a public relations vehicle in which the media happily go along for the ride?

That like the robin and groundhog, it is now a traditional and heartening signpost on the way to warmer times?

That it is the best part of the long season for all parties, including the senior citizen sitting in the grandstand shade at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the young woman in a bikini and high heels sitting near the home team dugout at Angels Stadium in Palm Springs?

The answer, of course, is that it is all of that and more, an annual rite that welcomes back the sights and sounds of the national pastime, unencumbered by the meaning and pressure of the season.

Ray Miller, a former manager of the Minnesota Twins, once said of spring training: "Every day is like those special afternoons in summer when you go to Yankee Stadium at 2 for a game that starts at 8. The stadium is so big, so empty and so silent that you can almost hear all the sounds that aren't there.

"I mean, you find yourself watching different things in the spring.

"Take Larry Harlow. There was a guy who never had remarkable statistics, but damned if he wasn't the most graceful player I ever saw."

A special time in special places. Palm Springs. West Palm Beach, Fla. Hot Springs, Ark.

Hot Springs, Ark.?

Cap Anson took 14 of his Chicago White Stockings there in 1886. Anson's goal, wrote a reporter who accompanied the club, was to "boil out the alcoholic microbes."

This was in the beginning, long before Nautilus, nutrition and programs dealing with substance abuse.

This, according to Dr. Harold Seymour in his authoritative book, "Baseball: The Early Years," was when some players returned from a winter of loafing and dissipation looking like overweight aldermen.

Among the players who journeyed to Arkansas with Anson was an outfielder named Billy Sunday, who ultimately left baseball with a batting average of .248 and became an influential voice in the campaign for Prohibition.

That 1886 trip--during which the White Stockings pledged to abstain from alcohol until the season was over--is generally considered the first spring training, though the 1870 White Stockings are known to have trained briefly in New Orleans, and Boss Tweed took the New York Mutuels, a team composed of city street workers, to New Orleans in the late 1860s.

Teams traveled by railroad then, and the growth of spring training generally paralleled the spread of the rails.

New Orleans and Hot Springs, easily reached, were still popular in the new century.

In his book "Babe," Robert Creamer wrote of Ruth: Early in 1925, he left New York for Hot Springs for his traditional prespring training-trip. He was fat. In January, he weighed 256 pounds. In Hot Springs, he played a little golf, jogged a little, took hot steam baths. But he also drank and ran around town with women and stayed up all night and ate like a hog. He was always on the go. He would take a steam bath, the hotter the better, and then without waiting for the cooling shower after the bath, would dress and rush off to a date. For the third straight year, he caught a terrible cold, sometimes called flu, sometimes called pneumonia and, feeling terrible, left for St. Petersburg, where the Yankees were training. Mineral baths aside, the workouts during those formative years of the 1860s, '70s and '80s generally involved Indian clubs, medicine balls and sliding practice. The 1878 Buffalo team traveled no farther than the downtown YMCA, which it rented on a daily basis. The 1888 Philadelphia Phillies traveled to the New Jersey resort of Cape May, where the players started each day by throwing salt water on each other, then took long walks on the beach followed by managerial lectures.

In 1888, two years after Anson had taken the White Stockings to Hot Springs, the Washington Senators became the first team to train in Florida, settling in Jacksonville, where they were housed in shacks on the outskirts of the city. If the Senators had a curfew, they broke it regularly.

Connie Mack, a young catcher with that team, later told reporters that "by the time we arrived in Jacksonville, 4 of the 14 players were reasonably sober, the rest were totally drunk. There was a fight every night, and the boys broke a lot of furniture. We played exhibitions during the day and drank most of the night."

The trip, however, that might have convinced all clubs that there was a significant reward if they undertook the expense of leaving the snow to prepare for the season was that made by the Baltimore Orioles in 1894. The Orioles, managed by Ned Hanlon, spent eight weeks in Macon, Ga., reportedly concentrating on nothing but baseball.

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