The Roots of America’s Pastime are Surfacing in the Ouachitas
by Josh Williams
photography courtesy of Larry Foley & the Garland County Historical Society
“An old friend once told me, ‘This is a simple game: You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.” Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, the youngminded, right-handed fireballer from the movie Bull Durham was right. Baseball might be an easy game to play, but to master it is a whole different ball game. The odds of becoming a major league ballplayer are about one in a million, literally. One of the greatest players in
history, and the last man to hit .400 in a season, Ted Williams said, “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” Being a professional ballplayer takes years of practice, dedication, lots of natural talent and a little luck. Every February the game’s veterans, and young hopefuls alike, shake off the winter rust by participating in what’s iconically known as spring training, and spring training began in the foothills of the Ouachita mountains.
Baseball in this country can trace its roots back to 1792 when a Pittsfield, Massachusetts law banned the playing of “baseball” within 80 yards of the town meeting house. Another early reference to “base ball” was in 1823 when it was played on Saturdays on the outskirts of New York City in what is now Greenwich Village. The first team to play baseball under the modern rules were the New York Knickerbockers, who were founded on September 23, 1845, as a social club for the upper middle classes of New York City. Baseball in Hot Springs can be traced back to 1886, when owner of the Chicago White Stockings (today’s Cubs) A.G. Spalding and playermanager Cap Anson needed a place to get their players in shape and “boil out the alcoholic impurities” from their hardliving employees. They heard about this hiding place-turned-sanctum called Hot Springs, Arkansas. The mountainous terrain and healing thermal waters were quintessential in rejuvenating player’s minds and bodies after arduous 154-game seasons and winters of debauchery. The White Stockings won the pennant the same year they initially
visited the town, and seeing the results of Chicago’s training regimen, other team owners followed Spalding’s lead in the coming years, thus giving birth to spring training in The Spa City.
And what a monumental birth it was, not only for spring training in Hot Springs, but for spring training in the United States as a whole. The 143 degree waters and challenging topography performed miracles of sorts on the players’ brokendown bodies. The town also offered many opportunities for these players to let loose and unwind. Some of the game’s biggest stars spent many a spring in “The Valley of the Vapors.” Babe Ruth hit a 573-foot home run (the longest in recorded history) at Whittington Park on St. Patrick’s Day in 1918. Joe DiMaggio played golf at Belvedere Country Club on Park Avenue. Walter Johnson and Cy Young hiked the trails in Happy Hollow. Stan Musial watched the races at Oaklawn Park. John McGraw was arrested at the Arlington Hotel for gambling in a local saloon. Honus Wagner coached the high school basketball team. Smoky Joe Wood rode an ostrich. But these aren’t the only players with ties to Hot Springs.
Larry Foley, the chair of Journalism at the University of Arkansas said, “Hot Springs
was a haven for more than 250 major league baseball players. Actually, about forty-five percent of baseball players in the Hall of Fame today have physical ties to Hot Springs. It’s astounding what role Hot Springs has played in the development and culture of major league baseball, and most people don’t know anything about it. It has escaped the general attention of the community for too long and it’s time that these stories be told.” The telling of these stories has now become a reality.
This October, a documentary film titled The First Boys of Spring, which was written and directed by Foley, will premiere at the 24th annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival on October 10. The film is also narrated by Arkansas’ own Billy Bob Thornton. The film documents all of the baseball infused happenings that took place in Hot Springs around the turn of the century. “I’m a huge baseball fan and a huge history buff,” said Foley, “and I thought there might be enough here to tell the tale; sure enough, there was. I was enjoying the story and learning so much, that two years went by before I realized it. It’s a really fun story. It’s an excellent story. It’s about Hot Springs in the ‘Golden Era’ and it’s something I hope the town will be proud of. It’s high time we told these stories. They’re too rich not to tell. People will walk out saying ‘who knew?’ Where else can you find a spot in this country where baseball players fed chickens to alligators?”
That’s what Hot Springs can do to a person. It’s easy to see why people of all walks of life gravitate toward this place. It has an air of mystery. It is quirky and eccentric. It possesses strange, mystical powers that make it hard to leave. Bill Jenkinson is a renowned author and baseball historian who was instrumental in the forming of the Hot Springs Baseball Trail. “I remember my first visit to Hot Springs back in the summer of 1960”, Bill said. “We were on the way to visit my Aunt Stella and I remember driving past the bath houses, being struck by this great sense of romanticism and history, even as a thirteen-year-old. I don’t know of any other place in the country like this.”
Baseball proponents Foley and Jenkinson, along with the invaluable help from Visit Hot Springs’ CEO Steve Arrison, Hot Springs native and baseball buff Mike Dugan, The Garland County Historical Society and many others have made public the annals of baseball history in this quaint little mountain town, and it’s about time. Baseball is our game. It’s American as apple pie and hot dogs. It’s the gentlemen’s game. It’s time that the people of the Ouachita region recognize what they have. Walt Whitman probably said it best: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game—the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”
For more on the colorful and storied history of baseball in Hot Springs visit www.hotsprings.org or call 1-800-SPACITY