Spring training in 2013 runs like a well-oiled machine. You have the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League; every team has their own (typically) state of the art complex in either Arizona or Florida. Ballparks are like mini major league parks – team shops, concession stands, and a set broadcast schedule. It’s a huge money maker as people flock from their chilly winter hometowns to the city their team calls home for the months of February and March. As teams angle for more state-of-the-art and up-to-date facilities, they move from town to town and in some occasions, they move back-and-forth between the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues. Small towns want the teams to drive the economic engine in their communities, even if it is just for a month and a half each season.
This wasn’t always the case. Teams spread out to training locales across the south, not necessarily restricted to Florida and Arizona prior to World War II. It was more about getting in shape and being physically ready for the new baseball season. In modern baseball, offseason workout plans are the norm; it’s not like the players lie around all winter, or go back to their day job during the winter. (Remember, players weren’t always paid millions of dollars. Many returned to jobs and places like factories and gas stations in the offseason). There would be some reports of the team’s spring performance in local newspapers in the past, but people typically didn’t travel to see their favorite teams during spring training. After World War II, training in southern states led to a lot of tension with integrated teams, something I wrote about last spring. When you specifically look at the Indians, their spring routine looked quite different in the first half of the twentieth century, than it does now in the twenty-first century.
Cleveland Area History (a great local blog, by the way) has a list of the spring training sites for all of the Cleveland teams of the past (not just the Indians, but excluding Negro League teams). When you look at the list for the Indians, you can see that until 1947, they tended to switch spring training sites annually (or after just a few years). They rotated between cities in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Texas in the first half of the century, and even spent one year training in Cleveland (1901) and several in Indiana (1943-1945). The year spent in Cleveland was the franchise’s first in existence, which is probably why they stayed close to home. The likely explanation for the years in Indiana was the fact that it was during World War II. Because of war-time shortages, travel became much more difficult and it was probably easier to stay close to Cleveland. After Bill Veeck moved the Indians to Tucson in 1947, they remained there until 1992. They moved to the Grapefruit League the following year, and moved back to the Cactus League five years ago.
I looked through a number of old newspaper articles for some of the references to the Indians’ spring training plans. There were very few references to the spring in the very early 1900s; as I mentioned, there wasn’t as much media coverage. In an article from the Plain Dealer in March of 1907, they claim that the fans of Macon, Georgia, were so excited to see the “Naps” that about eight to 10 people called the newspaper each day in order to find out when the team planned to arrive. The article also said that contrary to most teams’ customs, the Cleveland team, headlined by manager Nap Lajoie, would not bring a lot of “youngsters” with them. The players Lajoie would bring with him were pretty much slated for a spot on the roster.
In 1915, when the Indians trained in San Antonio, Texas, the Plain Dealer pointed out that many of the Major League clubs trained in Florida, “the state of gators, oranges and high priced hotels.” (Not much has changed.) The Indians were set to travel around Texas, and include a stop in New Orleans. They left San Antonio and started their cross-state trip sooner than expected since the team had experienced bad weather in the city. Once it was all over, the Indians were expected to take about a week to travel back north to Cleveland.
There was an interesting turn of events after the Indians won the World Series in 1920. From 1916-1920, the Indians had trained in New Orleans. According to the Plain Dealer, owner Jim Dunn lost $20,000 during the spring of 1920; a mistake he did not want to make again. Because of the “business ability displayed by Tris Speaker,” who made arrangements for the team to move their training to Texas, Dunn hoped to break even during the spring of 1921. As Speaker was courted by various Texas towns, each one supposedly claimed they had a “wonderful climate,” “a ballpark that made the Polo Grounds look like a pasture,” and “a hotel better than the Biltmore.” The savvy Indians pointed out to these cities that as reigning World Champs, they would draw a lot of fans to the ballpark. They asked these cities how much they were willing to pay for that privilege. In the end Dallas was selected because they offered the Indians $7,500; all they asked in return was that the Indians agree to play at least one day game for charity. Supposedly the Indians were fairly popular in Texas, due to Speaker, a native of the Lone Star State.
In 1924, the Indians had an interesting spring schedule. Members of the team first traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas, a destination for many teams during these early spring trainings, so players could soak in the rejuvenating baths of the hot springs. This year, the Indians also supposedly spent time in Hot Springs “strengthening their leg muscles by climbing mountains.” (Today, it’s just people like R.A. Dickey that do things like this). The Plain Dealer said that if the Indians didn’t win the World Series in 1924, it wasn’t due to a lack of baths, since each player supposedly had 21 each. After their soak in Arkansas, the team moved to Lakeland, Florida (now the permanent spring home of the Detroit Tigers). With modern spring training coverage, one constantly hears how so-and-so is in the “best shape of their lives.” In 1924 though, star pitcher Stan Coveleski was supposedly “heavier this spring than ever before.” After wearing extra sweatshirts during workouts, he was finally able to get his weight down to “respectable proportions.”
By July of 1946, Bill Veeck was already considering moving the team’s spring training site to Tucson. This was probably particularly alluring to Veeck since he owned a ranch near Tucson at the time. He hoped to find another team to train in Phoenix, so that the two could meet for exhibition games. Bob Feller went to visit the construction of the facility in November of 1946, and was pleased with the progress; even though the team would not arrive until February of 1947, the playing field was already ready for the Indians. You could see the changes starting to take place in spring training around this time; Veeck planned 37 exhibition games for the Tribe, and planned to charter a plane in order to travel to play the other teams. The New York Giants were training in Phoenix, while the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs trained in California. It was obviously becoming more appealing for teams to train in clusters, plus improvements in transportation (including less expensive, more available airplane flights), made travel easier as well. Owners were also realizing the potentially positive financial impact of spring training. Giants owner Horace Stoneham actually developed a luxury resort centered around the Giants’ spring training activities.
The Indians spent a long time in the Cactus League, and at Hi-Corbett Park in Tucson; their final year at the facility was in 1992. (The Colorado Rockies would then train at the park from 1993-2010.) When the Indians announced their departure in 1991, it was supposedly because Florida was “where the money is.” In a March of 1991 story in the Plain Dealer, Tony Grossi explained that Florida was aggressively trying to lure teams to the state, and that some Florida cities were trying to draw teams away from other Florida cities. A real estate mogul was supposed to donate 117 acres of land in Citrus County, north of Tampa, and the stadium was supposed to be a state-of-the-art facility that seated 8,200. The complex would also include four practice fields and “the most modern amenities a team could possibly need.” Funding would come from a 3 1/2 cent bed tax, donations from local businesses, and a grant from the state. The Indians would share revenue on tickets, parking, concessions, and billboard advertisements, and would agree to a long-term commitment. The county promised at least 5,000 season ticket holders, and supposedly already had 2,000 reserved.
This all sounded absolutely fantastic, I’m sure. But the Indians never trained in Citrus County, and they never received a new facility. They ended up in Winter Haven, located in Polk County, after the Red Sox left the Chain of Lakes complex for Fort Myers. Built in 1966, Winter Haven became a “marriage of convenience” for a team that suddenly needed a place to go for spring training. Despite the fact that it sounded at one point in 1991 that the team would end up in Citrus County, they instead made plans to train in Homestead, south of Miami. The city would build the Indians a $22 million complex, including a 6,500 seat stadium that would have a “distinctive tropical pink facade.” When Hurricane Andrew decimated Homestead and South Florida on August 24, 1992, the Indians’ new complex was extensively damaged. There would not be time to repair it by spring training. It may seem that August-February would provide enough time, but remember just how much damage Homestead (and the surrounding area) sustained. With so many homes and businesses requiring repair, construction materials actually end up scarce and in high demand in these types of situations. Even if the stadium was repaired, 80% of all homes in the area were completely destroyed. There would still be a lot of destruction in February of 1993.
The Indians were really stuck at this point. They couldn’t stay in Tucson because the Rockies were taking over Hi-Corbett. They had a complex waiting for them eventually in Homestead, but they felt they wouldn’t be able to move in until the spring of 1994 at the earliest. Even though they wanted to find a one-year deal somewhere, so they could still take up residence in Homestead, the best they could find was a 10-year deal with Winter Haven. Homestead went ahead with $8 million in repairs to the park, hoping to lure another team to train within its confines. A team never came. There was actually a rather sad story in the Miami Herald about the whole incident last summer, near the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew. The story has pictures of the stadium (still there) and also a shot of the devastation following Andrew. The article argues that the town has never fully recovered from Andrew. Right after the Indians made their move to Winter Haven official, Chairman of the Greater Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce Bill Swinford called the move “contemptible.” Swinford also said, “We have faced the worst that nature and the federal government can offer and survived and we’ll surely overcome this traitorous move by the Cleveland Indians and their owner.” Indians owner Dick Jacobs said that, “Homestead remains too chaotic and unsettled for a team to grow spring- training roots.” Jacobs added that there was conflicting information on how long the rebuilding of the area would take. Even if Homestead managed to get the stadium ready in time, there were probably few places for tourists to stay, and even eat, in town. Even though it was a heartbreaking blow to the already battered town of Homestead, the Indians were well within their rights. Their contract with the city of Homestead did have an out clause.
So the Indians began their grudging marriage of convenience with Winter Haven. The city never seemed overly-thrilled to have the team, but seemed really ready to get rid of them after their initial 10 year deal expired in 2003 (They were on year-to-year deals at that point). The town was actually losing more than half a million dollars each spring, and they figured the property was more valuable when put to other uses. The Indians preferred to stay in Florida because they thought there would be a bigger fan base, shorter and less expensive travel for both the team, its equipment, and fans, plus it’s in the same time zone as Cleveland. However, no Florida city presented a deal that was nearly as appealing as the one Goodyear, Arizona, offered. The Indians have a 20-year deal with the city, and also have options to extend the contract if they want to. They split ticket revenue with the city 80-20, with the Indians receiving the larger share. With many of the other issues – such as concessions, parking, and merchandise, the profits are split 50-50 with the city. The Indians’ maintain broadcasting rights, but are supposed to promote the town as much as possible on the air. The Reds joined them in the city in 2010, to complete the state-of-the-art haven for Ohioans in the desert.
There was a point when it looked like the Cactus League was struggling to survive; not that long ago it had dwindled to just seven teams. One of the things that may be driving teams back to Arizona is the fear of major weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes in Florida. Plus, even though a lot of the Grapefruit League teams are concentrated around Tampa, they are still scattered around the state. As an example, I’ve only ever visited two Grapefruit League parks in the four years I visited there; I’ve now been to all of the Cactus League stadiums. It’s really convenient to have all of the teams centralized in Phoenix, which I’m sure is appealing to teams. Plus communities in Arizona have been aggressive at recruiting major league teams. Suburban towns want their own complex to draw a team (or teams) into the area, as well as the fans. More far flung suburbs like Surprise (home to the Royals and Rangers), Peoria (home to the Padres and Mariners), and Goodyear are now officially on the baseball “map.”
In just over 100 years, spring training has changed from a roving getaway to get in shape, to a miniature major league experience, complete with spring training travel packages, regular television and radio broadcasts of games, and 5,000-10,000 people crowds on a daily basis. I’ve even seen a number of changes since I attended my first spring training game in 2003 in Winter Haven. While it’s still the laid-back experience I remember, I rarely (if ever) see the players doing sprints on the warning track after their removal from the game. I remember in 2003 the Yankees were in Winter Haven and after stars like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams left the game, you’d see them laughing and running together along the outfield wall. It sounds weird saying this, but it’s almost a more professional atmosphere now. Perhaps professional isn’t the right word; “formal” may be more appropriate. The games had a different atmosphere; almost more playful and informal. Now it’s really like a major league game, except that the lineup and pitchers change every couple of innings, and the ballparks are a bit smaller.
The other thing that has changed (and is getting worse) is how easily teams are willing to abandon one spring training site for another. Major league teams seem to be constantly building new stadiums and demanding public money to do so. Spring training complexes are stadium building on steroids. Just look at the Chicago Cubs as an example. The Cubs have trained in Arizona for many years; in the suburb of Mesa since 1979. Their current complex, HoHoKam, was just built in 1997 and was designed by HOK Sport, the same firm that designed Jacobs Field. The Cubs are one of the biggest attendance draws in the Cactus League, and knew that they could use that as a bargaining point in trying to obtain a new complex. They threatened to leave town or even worse, leave the state – now they have a new facility under construction elsewhere in Mesa. The Cubs are no special case; tons of spring training teams play an odd game of musical chairs every few years in the hopes of getting the most up-to-date facilities. When the Cubs leave HoHoKam, the Oakland A’s will move there from their current home at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Supposedly the Blue Jays are unhappy with their facility in Dunedin, Florida, and there are rumbles that the Milwaukee Brewers would like to leave Maryvale. The Houston Astros are tiring of their aging complex in Kissimmee, Florida, and are looking to move elsewhere. The Peoria complex is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, which practically makes it the senior citizen of spring training parks at this point. Any of these teams could probably jump between the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, so the balance may not permanently remain at 15-15 between the two.
At this point, there is no turning back. We’ll never return to a time when teams traveled around the south in the spring, or prepared for the regular season in relative anonymity. I must admit that I enjoy spring training, and look forward to traveling to see the Indians each season. It’s people like me that make the spring season so profitable for teams and communities. I guess you could say that cities were always bidding against each other to host major league teams – just look at cities in Texas in 1924 trying to court the Indians. The difference is the construction of these pricey complexes, with municipalities picking up the majority of the bill. Who knows what will be in store for the Indians once their contract in Goodyear ends in roughly 15 years. Someone may try to court them away from Goodyear, possibly away from the state of Arizona. Who knows what spring training will even look like in 20 years, or what the makeup of the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues will be. There will always be spring baseball though, and fans eager to watch it. After a long, cold winter, everyone is ready for a bit of sun and baseball.