I was reading this piece on the Baseball Page earlier today, that has a nice discussion about the history of Spring Training (particularly the early history). I know that sometimes I become so accustomed to “Cactus League” and “Grapefruit League” that I forget that it wasn’t always like that. If you’re interested in the history of the Cactus League specifically, their web site offers a nice summary.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Spring Training involve issues of race. When Major League Baseball re-integrated with Jackie Robinson in 1947, it was a huge concern how an integrated Dodgers team would be accepted in Florida. One of the reasons that Robinson spent 1946 with the Dodgers’ minor league club in Montreal, was the idea that Canada was less hostile territory for an integrated team. (Even if that team did travel to other cities).
Larry Doby didn’t join the Indians until July of 1947, so his first Spring Training with the team wasn’t until 1948. Team owner Bill Veeck claimed that Tucson (where the Indians trained from 1947 until 1992) would be less hostile for African American players than some Florida locales. There may be some truth to that claim, or at the very least it is possible that perception guided Veeck’s decision to move the Indians to Tucson. I should point out that this decision still happened several months before the Indians actually integrated.
In fact, one of the excuses that many Major League clubs used when asked why they would not integrate during the 1940s, was to claim that they were concerned about hostilities during Spring Training in the South. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Major League Baseball came forward in 1942 to say that they had nothing against integration, that it was a decision left to individual owners. Because of that, many owners were publicly pressured to state whether or not they planned to integrate their teams during the 1940s; hence, the hostile Spring Training excuse. While that was a legitimate fear, teams often moved their Spring Training sites from year to year. It’s not like today where they have multi-million dollar complexes that they’re contractually tied to.
One team that did have difficulties during Spring Training was the Cleveland Buckeyes, the city’s Negro League team. In 1946, the Buckeyes were the first Negro League team to integrate, with Erie, Pennsylvania, pitcher Eddie Klepp. Like many Major League teams, the Buckeyes shifted their Spring Training site from year to year. It often depended on where they could get a good deal; one year when funds were short the camp was actually held near Canton, Ohio. In 1946, they left to spend Spring Training in Birmingham, Alabama; the only season that the team would go to camp with an integrated roster.
When the Buckeyes arrived in uniform for an exhibition game at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, they were stopped by police from taking the field. The team was told that Klepp could not take the field with the other players, or they would be forced to cancel the exhibition game. Klepp was forced to change out of his uniform and sit in the “whites only” section of the ballpark. While African American teams were welcome in the South, it was only as long as they remained segregated and played against other African American teams.
Today, Spring Training has become its own modern industry. While it’s still a way for the players to get in shape prior to a long season, there’s a lot of money to be made by hosting players in various municipalities around Phoenix and throughout Florida. I think that people often forget that Spring Training was much less centralized and not always welcoming to non-white players. It’s just one of the many issues that the integrators of the 1940s (and the 1950s) faced.