For more than a century, baseball spring training was strictly a professional endeavor — a time for athletes to shake the cobwebs of winter and prepare for the 6-month season that starts every April.
But that was before towns and teams discovered they could add to their coffers by persuading snow-weary fans to buy tickets, food, souvenirs in intimate ballparks where autographs are as common as hot dogs.
The 30 big-league teams, evenly divided between Florida and Arizona, spend March playing meaningless exhibition games that count only in the minds of managers who need to reduce rosters to 25 players by Opening Day. Newspapers print won-lost records and “standings” from the Grapefruit League and Cactus League, respectively, but few fans notice.
They’re more concerned with the play of red-hot rookies or rehabbing veterans whose spring performances can influence the pending pennant races.
Spring training is simply a baseball hors d’oeuvre. Established players rarely play more than a few innings and often skip road games; virtually all games are played on natural grass in daylight; and schedules are determined by geographic proximity rather than league rivalry.
If history serves as an accurate barometer, spring training was a cool topic even before it became a hot travel destination. Here are a few of the reasons:
Babe Ruth might have been an intimidating figure to opposing pitchers but was once chased off a spring training field by an alligator.
In 1886, the Chicago White Stockings (pictured above – forerunners of today’s Cubs) made the first spring training trip. Manager Cap Anson, concerned about his club’s portly condition, decided the Southern sun and therapeutic springs of Hot Springs, AR, would help round his players into shape.
Some spring training sites were selected for frivolous reasons. The Detroit Tigers trained in Augusta, GA, from 1905-07 because it was the hometown of star player Ty Cobb, nicknamed “the Georgia Peach.”
Florida became a spring training hub after the Boston Braves, who had been training in Galveston, TX, shifted to St. Petersburg in 1922.
Ordered to train close to home because of wartime travel restrictions, all big-league teams trained in Northern climes from 1942-45. The Brooklyn Dodgers threw snowballs as well as baseballs at Bear Mountain, NY.
The movie 42 was correct in showing that the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers skipped Florida to protect Jackie Robinson from prevailing segregation practices but wrong to portray Panama as the place. Actually, it was Havana (pictured above).
In a unique baseball trade, the New York Yankees and New York Giants traded training camps in 1951. After the Giants trained in St. Petersburg, FL, and the Yankees in Phoenix, the 2 teams met in the World Series, then reverted to their original sites the following spring.
The Miami Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks are the only teams that go north for spring training.
Roger Dean Stadium (pictured above), which the Marlins share with the St. Louis Cardinals, is the only Grapefruit League park shared by 2 teams. There are 5 shared parks in Arizona.
Cubs Park, the newest and largest spring training ballpark (capacity 15,000), opened this month after the Chicago team ended its 35-year tenure at HoHoKam Park. That stadium, now being renovated, will host a new tenant, the Oakland Athletics, in 2015.
Cactus League attendance records for a season and a game fell last spring. More than 1.7 million fans watched 255 games over an exhibition-game schedule that stretched over 37 days while 13,721 watched the Chicago White Sox play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Ballpark at Camelback Ranch in Glendale on March 23.
Though much smaller in size, several spring training parks resemble the home parks of their occupants. Among the most prominent are jetBlue Park at Fenway South, a Fort Myers facility modeled after the venerable home of the Boston Red Sox, and the Tampa-based George M. Steinbrenner Field, named for the late owner of the New York Yankees.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 36 baseball books and a contributor to USA TODAY Sports Weekly, New York Natives, and Latino Sports. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.