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Spring Training History Articles

Yankees Go West in 1951
Greetings from Catalina Island
The '47 Dodgers in Havana
History of the Cactus League
Spring Training Standings, 1984-2006
Grapefruit League Attendance, 1996-2006
Spring Training Attendance, 1975-2005

History of the Cactus League

The origin and development of Arizona's Cactus League is a story of entrepreneurial initiative and community leadership, of planning as well as happenstance. It includes club owners trying to gain a competitive edge for their teams, and owners who simply liked the idea of spending spring in the Grand Canyon State. Prominent names figure in the Cactus League story, names like Bill Veeck, Horace Stoneham, Del Webb, and Dwight Patterson. But ultimately the story of the Cactus League is one of baseball and sunshine.

In the Arizona springtime, baseball can be played as it is played best -- outdoors, in the daylight, in the sunshine, with neither rain nor cold as hostile detractors. And if this be the perfect clime for playing the game, it is no less ideal for the baseball spectator. As Roger Angell wrote in "Taking Infield":

Teams in Florida and Arizona play with identical rules and before the same sort of audiences, but
the two spring flavors are quite different...
Arizona baseball is slower, sweeter, and somehow
better fixed in memory.
Angell's observation suggests another dynamic fueling the Cactus League: competition for spring training with Florida.

The Arizona circuit is decidedly junior. The Cactus League first fielded more than one major league club in 1947 while the Grapefruit League dates back 75 years to 1914. And the Cactus League has always been the smaller of the two, currently fielding eight teams to the Florida circuit's eighteen. Still, the discrepancies between the two leagues, in terms of longevity and size, have done little to lessen arguments about which league is "best."

These friendly but vigorous disputes commenced the first spring major league clubs called Arizona their winter home. Arizona supporters solicited more teams to locate in their state, citing Florida's inhospitable March rains and late-winter chills. The Florida towns, reacting to the threat of a major-league exodus, reminded their ballclubs of Arizona's sandstorms, the greater travel distances involved (remember, it was not until 1958 that the majors had a home town west of St. Louis), and the shortage of other major league opponents for exhibition games.

The ballplayers themselves often got caught up in comparing the relative benefits of the two training and exhibition leagues. Bob Feller, ace right-hander of the Cleveland Indians, was asked about the suitability of Arizona's climate for conditioning a pitcher's arm. It was the spring of 1948, the second spring the Tribe trained in Tucson. Rapid Robert, who had enjoyed the agreeable weather of Fort Myers and Clearwater, Florida in previous years, reportedly said, "I don't think it's good for a pitcher out here (Arizona)." The dry heat, he explained, made it tough for players to work up a sweat and loosen up. Mel Ott, the manager of the New York Giants who had trained in Phoenix the previous year, laughed when told of Feller's remark: "What's he complaining about after the season he had last year?" The manager had a point. After preseason training in Tucson in 1947, Feller proceeded to lead the American League in wins, games started, strikeouts, shutouts, and innings pitched with a whopping 299.

The controversy persists and probably always will. Yet for most spring training fans, there's no real argument. The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues are each immensely enjoyable, Arizona and Florida are each fascinating and unique. The real dilemma for patrons of exhibition baseball is wishing they could be both places at once.

1929: The First Camp
Although no major league team was west of St. Louis until 1958, teams had been training out west as early as 1903, the Chicago Cubs' first year in Los Angeles. In 1905 the Cubs moved to Santa Monica. Spring training stops followed in Champaign, Ill., New Orleans, La., Vicksburg, Miss., Hot Springs, Ark., and Tampa, Fla., before the ballclub settled in Pasadena, Calif. from 1917 to 1921. Then came Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, the Cubs' winter home from 1922 through 1951.

Other teams that headed to California for spring training in early years were the New York Giants in Los Angeles in 1907, the Chicago White Sox in L.A. in 1908, and the Boston Red Sox at Redondo Beach in 1908. The White Sox moved north to San Francisco for spring training in 1909 and 1910.

It was not until 1929, however, that the first spring training game was played in Arizona, when the Detroit Tigers hosted the Pittsburgh Pirates at Phoenix on the afternoon of March 26. As reported by Sam Greene in the January 17, 1929 issue of The Sporting News: "After preliminary skirmishes among themselves at Phoenix, the Tigers will play their first exhibition game versus the Cubs at Los Angeles on March 20th. Four more games follow on succeeding days and the Tigers return to Phoenix to face the Pirates March 26th, and the Cubs the following day. That night the team will leave Phoenix for good and make its way home by way of El Paso, Houston, Beaumont, Fort Worth and Shreveport." In all, twenty-three exhibition games were booked that spring for the Tigers.

What brought the Tigers to Phoenix in 1929? Several reasons are hinted at in the accounts of the day. The Tigers of the 1920s were a decent team that, while successful, had never finished higher than second place in the American League. As the decade wore on, the team slipped into the league's second division. Ty Cobb was player-manager from 1921 through 1926, posting winning seasons in all but his first. With players like Cobb, Heinie Manush, Harry Heilmann and a young second baseman named Charlie Gehringer, the Tigers were a high-scoring club. But their pitching was shaky at best and certainly not capable of keeping the rival New York Yankees' bats in check. In fact, the '20s belonged to the Bronx Bombers, who averaged better than 93 wins a year during that period, and won six American League pennants.

Cobb's last year as manager was 1926. After the season, he summed up his tenure with his usual tact: "Maybe I was not a managerial success, but just as surely I was not a managerial failure. What we could have done with a couple of pitchers! If I'd had them, the Yankees would have had to wait a few years to become the terrors of baseball. In every other way but pitching, we spit in their eye."

In 1927, former Detroit third baseman George Moriarty gave up his job as an American League umpire to manage the Tigers. The ballclub finished the season with an 82-71 record, but in 1928 bad trades and aging stars caused the bottom to fall out: future Hall-of-Famer Carl Hubbell was sold to the Giants for $40,000, home attendance dropped 300,000 to 475,000, and late in the season the Tigers played before their smallest home crowd in history, a cozy 404. Mercifully, Moriarty was allowed to take up umpiring again in 1929.

The spring of 1929 found the organization eager to make changes. Owner Frank Navin brought in 32-year-old former Washington Senators manager Stanley Raymond ("Bucky") Harris to run the team. Navin and Harris developed spring training plans during a two-day meeting in early January, deciding that Phoenix would be their training site. The idea of training in Phoenix may originally have come from Jack Zeiler, one of Navin's western scouts, who made most of the arrangements for the encampment of the Tigers in Phoenix. Zeiler was the first to promote Phoenix and Arizona as locations for spring training baseball. He wrote back to Detroit at length about the suitability of the Phoenix area for baseball training.

Ticket sales were up that year in Detroit, but the team was down. The Tigers finished the regular season 70-84, 36 games out of first place. After that finish, owner Navin decided Arizona had not much to offer in terms of preparing a ballclub for the upcoming season. The Tigers did not return to Phoenix, and have not been back to Arizona since.

Changing Face of Baseball
During the 1930s nearly all teams conducted spring training in either Florida or California. There were exceptions, with teams playing in San Antonio, Biloxi, Savannah, New Orleans, Lake Charles, and even as far south as Mexico City, Puerto Rico, and Havana. But these stays usually lasted only a year or two. Interestingly, the two '30s teams that chose training camp sites outside of Florida or California -- the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants -- were the first to set up permanent camps in Arizona after the war.

The war changed everything. Baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis established the Potomac Line, barring teams from training west of the Mississippi River or south of the Potomac River from 1943 to 1945. The line was drawn up in conjunction with the U.S. Office of Defense Transportation in an effort to relieve the overcrowded railways which were being used to carry troops and supplies. The two St. Louis and two Chicago teams were allowed to train in Missouri, Indiana, or Illinois.

Spring training articles from the war years often reminisced about better days in warmer climes with more hospitable surroundings, with one writer referring to the annual preseason preparations as "The Battle of the Chilbains." Not surprisingly, then, the game went through some major changes in 1946, and attendance climbed to more than 18 million, a 70 percent increase above the 1945 gate.

At the same time, players formed a committee demanding minimum salaries, a pension fund, and shorter spring training schedules. The threat of unionization and the raiding of major league rosters by the Mexican League (numerous signings and suspensions resulted) signaled the beginning of change in the conduct of the game. Baseball was poised to be included in America's post-war boom.

The Cactus League is Born
Arizona newspapers of the period mention that the "Cactus League" first took root in 1945 when the Cleveland Indians persuaded the New York Giants to join them in Arizona for spring training. Those discussions may have gone on, yet 1946 saw the Indians training in Clearwater while the Giants were in Miami.

Both teams, however, were owned by men eager to take advantage of what the times offered. Horace Stoneham of the Giants and Bill Veeck of the Indians were instrumental in bringing the game to Arizona in the spring of 1947. Stoneham recalls getting a phone call from a friend:

He told me what a great spot Tucson would be and said something about a deactivated war base that
was available. We weren't too happy with Miami and I told him we'd be interested if another club
also would come out so we could have some exhibition games.
Apparently Stoneham saw in Veeck a kindred spirit:

I'd heard Veeck was shopping around because the Indians weren't drawing many people in Clearwater,
and one thing Bill can't stand is no customers around. Well, you know Veeck. He wanted to know
when the next plane was leaving for Arizona. I told him he could train in Phoenix and we'd take
Tucson. Bill, after giving me a big okay, called the next day. "I'm a little slow," he said. "It
just came to me that I have a ranch near Tucson. How about a switch? Me, Tucson, you, Phoenix?"

Veeck told a slightly different story. According to the Cleveland owner, he loved Tucson, thought the weather would be fine for baseball, and decided to move there if he could get another owner to follow with a team. Stoneham's Giants was the team he convinced to give Arizona a try. Whatever actually transpired between these owners, this marked the beginning of the Cactus League -- spring training in Arizona.

It was a strong if slow start, with the Indians and Giants playing relatively few games in Arizona that spring of 1947. The Indians, with 28-year-old Bob Feller coming off the best season of his career, drew 15,597 fans for seven games. Meanwhile, Mel Ott's Giants drew 23,192 for eight bookings in Phoenix.

Comparisons to Florida were immediately drawn. While the attendance figures were not exactly staggering, The Sporting News pointed out that "the local entrepreneurs of these cities stolen from the desert scanned the sports pages daily, and claimed that many a training base in Florida did not do as well." One advantage touted by Arizona supporters was its drier climate. Local papers did not hesitate to brag that the Indians had only one rainout that first spring and the Giants two. The disadvantage of having fewer major league teams to play against (the White Sox and Cubs, in California at the time, made regular exhibition games trips to the Arizona parks) was seen as merely a short-term liability. As one paper put it, "more Big Time entries were likely to be lured from Florida."

The differences in social climate between Florida and Arizona, though discussed less often and less openly, became an issue as well. The eighteen years separating the first Arizona spring training game in 1929 and the games of 1947 brought profound changes to the country and to the game of baseball. Not the least of these was the inexorable erosion of racial barriers.

World War II had made these changes, first as a matter of economics, ultimately as a matter of conscience. Black athletes represented a large untapped source of talent. Gabby Hartnett, manager of the Cubs in 1940, remarked: "If managers were given permission, there'd be a mad rush to sign up Negroes." Other managers concurred. In 1944, Veeck suggested to other baseball owners that they recruit blacks from the Negro Leagues to make up for the shortage of white players during the war. He went so far as to take his proposal to Commissioner Landis, who was against the idea. But Landis died in November of 1944, and his successor, Albert "Happy" Chandler, a Kentucky governor and senator, was much more receptive to the idea of blacks in major league baseball. Chandler is quoted as saying: "If they (Negroes) can fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific, hell, they can play baseball in America."

When Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers raised the issue with the Dodgers' top brass in the early 1940s, he was told he could proceed "as long as his purpose was not a crusade but the economics of strengthening the roster and widening the fan market." But by the time Jackie Robinson made his debut in January of 1946 with the Dodgers' Montreal Royals farm team, the issue had become moral as well as economic.

For Rickey there was no turning back. The going would not be easy, and Rickey knew well the complexities of the task that lay before him:

I had to get a man who would carry the burden on the field. I needed a man to carry the badge of
martyrdom. The press had to accept him. He had to stimulate a good reaction of the Negro race itself
for an unfortunate one might have solidified the antagonism of other colors. And I had to consider
the attitude of the man's teammates.
In Robinson, a superb athlete who was college-educated, had been an Army lieutenant during the war, and was newly married, Rickey found such a man.

Robinson's presence met with a good deal of resistance from the start, and threatened to change how and where spring training would be conducted in the years to come. In the spring of 1947, several Brooklyn players signed a petition which said that if Robinson was brought up from Montreal they would not play for Brooklyn. Fortunately, that idea soon died. But there were other problems that spring, problems that sent the Dodgers from Daytona Beach, where they had trained in '46, to Havana, Cuba in 1947 and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1948.

From The Sporting News came this headline: "Jackie Robinson Florida Obstacle." Following that banner was an article that included some strong language:

The threat to the future of baseball training in Florida is not in the departure of the (St. Louis)
Browns and (Pittsburgh) Pirates... But Jackie Robinson is a real obstacle to training here.
Because the Dodgers have Robinson, they can't get a training camp in Florida. If Robinson is a
success and other teams follow the lead of the Dodgers, the structure of Florida training will be
shaken. In addition to other factors well known to all, there is the fact that most Florida cities
have laws prohibiting athletic contests involving mixed white and negro teams.

Named NL Rookie of the Year in 1947, Robinson was that success. Other teams did, albeit slowly, follow the Dodgers'lead. The laws and attitudes in Florida changed enough so that by 1950 (the Dodgers settled in Vero Beach in 1949 and have been there ever since), the Dodgers, with Robinson, set a new spring training attendance record.

The Sporting News had no reservations in explaining why 232,000 fans throughout Florida and the South paid to watch the Dodgers in 1950: "Jackie Robinson's terrific drawing power was undoubtedly the main reason the Flock packed 'em in in the minor league towns." This, then, was the dawning of a new era for baseball.

But what does Jackie Robinson have to do with the incipient Cactus League? Both the Giants and the Indians were close behind the Dodgers in introducing black players to the major leagues. Just as the Dodgers had sought a neutral environment in Havana to integrate Robinson as a member of their team, the Indians and Giants found the lessened racial tensions in Arizona to be an advantage. Cleveland's Lary Doby became the American League's first black player several months after Robinson's debut in 1947, and the not-yet-venerable Satchel Page went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA for the Indians in 1948. The '49 Giants included second baseman Hank Thompson and outfielder Monte Irvin, both blacks.

The Blooming of the Cactus League
It was not until 1952, five years after the Indians and Giants set up camp in Arizona, that another team would call the Grand Canyon state its spring home. As early as 1949, however, Dwight Patterson, an Arizona rancher and builder, was working hard to bring a big league team to Mesa, a small town near Phoenix with a population of 17,000. In those days that made Mesa, after Phoenix and Tucson, the third largest city in the state.

Oddly enough, the New York Yankees played an important role in bringing that next team, the Chicago Cubs, to Arizona. Today's sports pages often give the impression that George Steinbrenner has always owned the Yankees. Not true. Back in 1951 the Yankees were co-owned by Phoenix resident Del Webb, who was also president of a thriving building company in Arizona. Webb had become a good friend of Giants' owner Stoneham, and in '51 persuaded Stoneham to swap training camp sites for one year. This sent the Giants to St. Petersburg, Fla. and brought the Yankees (including an impressive 19-year-old rookie named Mickey Mantle) to Phoenix.

The temporary switch in locales was evidently based on considerations of friendship rather than business, as Stoneham remarked:

We have found Phoenix ideal for spring training, and frankly I hesitated a long time before
agreeing to this arrangement... At the same time I have always appreciated that Phoenix is Del
Webb's home town, and that he is eager to show off his team to his neighbors and friends.
To that extent it was a pleasure to accede to his request for the transfer. I want to emphasize,
however, that the Giants will be back in Phoenix in 1952.

And that turned out to be the case. For although the Giants and Yankees had successful seasons culminating in their 1951 World Series face off, each quickly returned to their original spring training circuit, where they have remained.

Philip Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, also owned Catalina Island 20 miles off the California coast from Los Angeles. Because the Cubs were his team and he enjoyed being on the island in the springtime, it made sense that Wrigley had utilized Catalina as the Cubs training base since 1922. But by the spring of 1951, when the Cubs traveled to Phoenix for a series of exhibition games with the Yankees, the club was becoming disenchanted with Catalina. Reportedly there were too many distractions in Los Angeles and Catalina Island was too windy. For 30 years, apparently, the winds on Catalina had been just fine. But not so in '51.

Yankee co-owner Webb, hearing that Wrigley was restless, persuaded Wid Matthews, the Cubs' director of player personnel, and manager Frankie Frisch to look at Mesa as a possible training site. Webb got Matthews together with Dwight Patterson, who showed off what Mesa had to offer. After one look, Matthews declared, "This is it." Patterson later commented that it was the fastest spring training deal ever made.

But there was still plenty of work to do to grease the wheels. Concerns were raised that Cubs attendance might not be strong with the Giants less than 20 miles away. Patterson and his baseball pals formed a group known as the HoHoKams, then guaranteed the ballclub $22,000 and arranged for the Cubs to play in Mesa's Rendevous Park. Thus the Cubs were persuaded to give Mesa a try, and wound up making Mesa their winter home for the next 14 years. After spending the spring of '66 in California, and the next 12 exhibition seasons back in Scottsdale, Ariz., the Cubs returned to Mesa, and to HoHoKam Park, their present day spring training home.

The remainder of the 1950s was relatively stable for the Cactus League, the only newcomers being the Baltimore Orioles, practicing in Yuma in 1954 and in Scottsdale from 1956 to 1958, and the Boston Red Sox, who trained in Scottsdale from 1959 to 1965. Those two teams ended their spring training stays in Arizona with moves to their current bases in Miami and Winter Haven, Fla.

With stability came a parity of sorts between Arizona and Florida. At the end of spring training in 1957, The Sporting News compiled attendance figures for all preseason games played in the two states. The average gates were nearly identical, with Arizona averaging 2,535 to Florida's 2,526. Of course, that year the Cactus League fielded only four teams while the twelve others made up the Grapefruit League.

Expansion West
Major league baseball expanded, for the first time in this century, in 1961 and 1962. This first wave added four new franchises to the majors and increased Cactus League membership by two. Palm Springs, Calif. became the winter home of the Los Angeles Angels in 1961, and remains so today. The Houston Colt '45s landed in Apache Junction, Ariz. in 1962, but that experience was less than satisfactory. The Apache Junction project -- including the $150,000 Geronimo Park, a hotel, and a training area -- was dreamed up by W. Winfield Creighton, who must have been that town's most enterprising citizen. Still, Creighton's grandiose plan never came to fruition. Houston endured training in Apache Junction for only two seasons, with the team's then general manager, Speck Richardson, summing up the town as "the bare minimum -- and a lot of rattlesnakes." Even Patterson called it "a farce." In retrospect, the multi-million dollar sports complexes now dotting the spring training landscape suggest that Creighton's Apache Junction dream failed only because his was an idea ahead of its time.

The second wave of expansion, in 1969, brought two more teams to the Cactus League: the San Diego Padres set up camp in Yuma, Ariz. where they remain today, while the Seattle Pilots, later the Milwaukee Brewers, settled in Tempe. After a number of springs in Tempe followed by several training camps in Sun City, Ariz., the Brewers, in 1986, moved into the new Compadre Stadium in Chandler, Ariz. Also in 1969, Charlie Finley moved his colorful Oakland A's to Mesa from Florida. The club relocated to Scottsdale in '79 and now spring trains in Phoenix.

Major league baseball's most recent expansion, in 1977, added two teams to the American League and one to the Cactus League. The Seattle Mariners first trained in Sun City and more recently moved to Diablo Stadium in Tempe. This increased the number of Cactus League teams to eight. No longer do any of the Arizona-based ballclubs want for competition.

Spring Training in Arizona Thrives in the 1980s
Six teams now train in the greater Phoenix area, another trains in Tucson, another is based in Yuma. The Angels play their home games in Palm Springs, but discussions have started which may lead the team toward a Phoenix-based facility. The Cubs, with additional seating added to HoHoKam Park in 1984, became the first team in spring training history -- Florida or Arizona -- to draw more than 100,000 fans into its home park in a single season. The club's annual economic value to Mesa, according to a recent survey of tourists and businesses, was put at over $37 million. This is no small impact on a local economy, and as the the economic stakes rise, so does the competition for the teams. Arizona and Florida each boast, accurately so, of their invigorating "winter" climates. But there's more than weather involved in choosing a spring training site these days, and stories about Florida's efforts to lure teams from Arizona, and vice versa, continually make news.

The movement of major league ballclubs from one training site to the next will inevitably occur, and new towns will call teams their own. But one thing is certain: after more than 40 years of steady growth, the future of Arizona's Cactus League is strong. Spring Training fans know a good thing when they see it...and they like the Cactus League.

"History of the Cactus League" was written by Rick Thompson. We extend special thanks to Steven P. Gietschier, Director of Historical Records at The Sporting News, for his assistance in researching this article. Thanks also to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

©1998 Spring Training Inc.
This article first appeared in the 1989 issue of Spring Training.

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