Meet Me in Waxahachie: The Offbeat, Unlikely, and Forgotten Cities of Spring Training

No MLB teams train at Apache Junction anymore, but it once housed the Houston organization. (via Marine 69-71)

In 1993, the then California Angels moved their spring training facilities to Tempe, Arizona, from Palm Springs, California, creating a generation of fans who know only of teams preparing for the season in either Florida’s Grapefruit League or Arizona’s Cactus League. The trend had begun decades before with teams centralizing in these two regions to take advantage of their ample sunshine, minimal rain, infrequent winter storms, and the presence of other teams to provide competition. Prior to this, major league teams convened for spring training in such disparate places as seaside resorts, spa towns like Hot Springs, on California islands, and even international locales like Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Cities featuring spa resorts were common locations for spring training beginning in the 1880s. Cap Anson brought the Chicago White Stockings to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1886, and its popularity grew from there, hosting 10 different major league teams between 1886 and 1928. This includes familiar names such as the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, as well as franchises associated with bygone sporting eras such as the Cleveland Spiders and St. Louis Browns.

While Hot Springs was the most frequented, other spa towns like Marlin Springs, Mineral Wells and Hot Wells–all in Texas–were also popular destinations. The teams enjoyed the supposed healing powers of the mineral water treatments and the presence of hotels that could host them.

Long since absorbed into San Antonio, Hot Wells no longer exists. However at its height of popularity, it was a resort community that attracted movie luminaries like Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbank, and Georges Melies and dignitaries such as Theodore Roosevelt and Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, who all ventured to the eastern shore of the San Antonio River to enjoy the supposed health benefits of its sulfur-laden hot springs. Between 1915 and 1917, it also attracted the St. Louis Cardinals, led by future Hall of Fame inductees Rogers Hornsby and player-manager Miller Huggins.

While it offered accommodations that attracted movie stars and dignitaries, it was also home to the Terrell Hotel. The Terrell was described as seedy, but it was also affordable and allowed the budget-conscious Cardinals of the 1910’s a way to stay at a spa resort without having to pay the rates that were charged in Hot Springs. The team used the hotel as its clubhouse, with the players dressing in their rooms for practice each day. When practice was done, they would return to the hotel and soak themselves in tubs full of hot mineral water.

While the accommodations were modest compared to others in Hot Wells, its baseball field was nonexistent. The Redbirds began training for the upcoming season in an unfenced field on the outskirts of town. There was no diamond on the field, so the team was forced to step off the distance between bases, and from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.

In 1916, there was another cause for worry in the Cardinals camp. Tensions along the United States-Mexico border escalated following the actions of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. On March 9, troops under the lead of Villa crossed the border into New Mexico and raided the small town of Columbus. Ten civilians and eight soldiers were killed in the attack. In the days following, President Woodrow Wilson authorized an expedition under the command of General John Pershing. Troops and airplanes were mobilized from military bases in nearby San Antonio to aid in the campaign.

The uneasy atmosphere of the region affected Hot Wells and the team, but as the Cardinals headed north to begin the season, their focus shifted toward the 19-year-old Hornsby’s offseason physical growth and the extra power that had accompanied it.

Another small Texas town with a spa resort that attracted major league teams was Marlin Springs. The town, which is currently named Marlin, is located southeast of Waco, in Central Texas. The first team to train there was the Chicago White Sox in 1904, and for 14 seasons, players began their season in the town. The Cardinals and Reds made appearances in 1905 and 1907, but beginning in 1908 the New York Giants, under manager John McGraw, made Marlin Springs their spring home. They trained there until 1918. The city deeded Emerson Field to the Giants in 1910, and the team-maintained control of the field until the 1970s.

One reason the Giants and other teams liked Marlin Springs was that the small town offered few distractions, allowing the players to focus on training for the upcoming season. Without an active nightlife to carouse in, the young athletes who made up the roster found other ways to entertain themselves.

Staff ace Christy Mathewson would play games of checkers against local residents in the hotel lobby, with competitors waiting in line for their chance to play against the future Hall of Famer. Others would play bridge or golf, and Jim Thorpe, the gold medal winner of the 1912 Olympic decathlon, took tennis lessons. Pitcher Rube Marquard showed that even without a wild nightlife, he could still find ways to create mischief and one evening shot several lights out with a pistol.

In addition to the spa resorts of Hot Wells, Marlin Springs and Mineral Wells, which hosted the Chicago White Sox for five seasons including the 1919 Black Sox team, over a dozen other Texas cities were home to big league camps in the decades prior World War II. These included larger burghs like Dallas, San Antonio and Houston, as well as the warm-weathered coastal and border towns of Galveston, Eagle Pass  and Brownsville. Texas was such a popular spot that in 1921, seven of the then-16 teams in the major leagues spent spring training there.

The Detroit Tigers came to Waxahachie, south of Dallas, in 1916 and returned the following two seasons. The Reds prepared for their 1919 championship season there. The teams would stay in the Rogers Hotel, located on the northeast corner of the courthouse square, and walk 10 minutes to their practice field. That field is still in use by the local high school and has been renamed Paul Richards Field after the longtime major league baseball player, manager, and team executive who was born in the town in 1908.

Every year around Valentine’s Day, half the major league teams will begin reporting to their training facilities in Arizona, most of which are centered in Phoenix. Their spring training complexes are modern and impressive, with multiple diamonds, batting cages and accommodations befitting superstar athletes. When the expansion Houston Colt .45s went to Apache Junction, Arizona, for their inaugural season 56 years ago, they experienced something far different.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Colt Manager Harry Craft with Rusty Staub. (via Astroland)

The city, located 35 miles east of Phoenix in the shadows of the Superstition Mountain range, was described as consisting of Red Garter’s Saloon, a gas station, small supermarket and not much else. It lacked much in the way of human population but had plenty of animals, including cattle and snakes–lots and lots of snakes. The snakes proved to be about the only distraction other than the saloon, with the reptiles involved in practical jokes and hunting. One of the more sinister pranks involved hiding a dead snake in a player’s pants pocket while he was on the field.

As for shooting the snakes, the Brookline, Massachusetts-raised Turk Farrell wore a Colt .45 six-shooter handgun as he walked from the team’s accommodations at the Superstition Ho Motel to Gerimono Park, the team’s training facility. Years later, former Houston player Joey Amalfitano recalled, “The closer the gunfire, the closer you knew they were to the clubhouse. They used to come in with their conquests and hang them up on a mesh fence.”

And why would the Colt .45s front office choose to go to this desolate location? Team executives such as owner Judge Roy Hofheinz and general manager Paul Richards bought land in the area, believing it was about to become part of a real estate boom, with the team facilities as the centerpiece. Alas, it never happened, and the team relocated its practice facilities to Cocoa Beach, Florida, in 1964.

In February and March of 1936, the Cincinnati Reds, under the leadership of general manager Larry MacPhail, were a part of several historic firsts, as they became the first team to train outside of the continental United States, splitting the spring between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and the first team to travel by airplane.

The primary reason for their spring training plans was not the training opportunities the islands offered, nor was it any immediate financial benefits. Rather, it was for the publicity it offered. Reds publicity director Gene Karst recalled how the local media were supportive of the team but “didn’t have much manpower to dig up feature material,” so he and the team took it upon themselves to create material for them.

By chance, the team happened to be in San Juan for its first telephone call to the mainland. As visiting celebrities, various Reds representatives were guests of Puerto Rico’s governor at the phone company office as he received the call from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. The team execs were unprepared for when the governor suddenly thrust the phone to them to talk. The men had come from the hotel, more specifically the hotel bar, before the visit and slurred their speech in addition to being tongue-tied. Later they found out the phone call was being carried live over a Cincinnati radio station.

The Reds played several games against Puerto Rican All-Stars, including one that featured Latin American legend Martin Dihigo, and a doubleheader against the American Negro League Newark Eagles. The Eagles ace and future Hall of Fame inductee Leon Day was scheduled to pitch but was unable to due to illness, so the team used 20-year-old Puerto Rican Hi Bithorn instead. This was the first game Bithorn pitched against a major league team, but it would not be his last, as he went on to pitch in parts of four seasons for the Cubs and the White Sox. He stayed involved with the sport on his home island until his early death at the age of 35.

The Cincinnati Reds face off against two Dominican teams in the ballpark in Ciudad Trujillo. (via The National Baseball Hall of Fame, Viva Baseball Exhibit)

The team split toward the end of camp, with about 24 men heading to the Dominican Republic for several games. On the morning the Reds arrived, they were greeted by a large crowd in the port, including government officials. One notable attendee was William Pulliam, head of customs and brother of Harry Pulliam, who had been president of the National League.

The flight home from the Dominican Republic was noteworthy for being the first team flight in baseball history. Early in the morning, the players, coaches, and team personnel took off on a Pan Am flight known as “The Southern Clipper.” The Catalina flying boat then flew to Haiti and Cuba for refueling before arriving in Miami, Florida around 5 in the evening. The press was supposed to film them landing but was unable to make it, so the following day the Reds staged a fake landing for the newsreel cameras. The footage features them exiting fully dressed in their uniforms and immediately playing catch and pepper after exiting the plane.

Whether it was in a circa-1900 spa resort in the south, a Caribbean Island or the modern complexes in Florida and Arizona, a near constant of modern spring training has been that it is held in areas with favorable climates. For several years in the 1940s, this was not the case.

During the years of World War II, the United States was forced to make some changes domestically, and baseball was as well. The 1942 season began with 61 players who were on rosters in 1941 having already enlisted or having been drafted, and more were lost as the season progressed. The 1943 season started with over 200 players from the 1942 season in some form of military service. Teams had to make other adjustments, too.

One of the more visible changes was that, due to gas rationing, teams were limited to areas east of the Mississippi River and north of the Mason-Dixon line. The two St. Louis teams that found themselves west of the Mississippi had to find locations that were reasonably close. Indiana hosted a bevy of teams, with six of the then-16 teams in the major leagues using facilities in the state. The Chicago Cubs and White Sox shared facilities in French Lick. The Tigers were located in Evansville, the Pirates in Muncie; the Indians called Purdue University in Lafayette home, and the Reds played at Indiana University in Bloomington.

This also lead to some spring training locations that would otherwise never have been considered. The Brooklyn Dodgers trained at the Bear Mountain Inn in the Hudson Valley region of New York. When the Dodgers reported, there was deep snow on the ground, which proved much better conditions for the ski jump located close to their practice fields. Pitcher Clyde King recalled looking at the nearby Hessian Lake and seeing people ice skating while the players were going over their drills.

Their cross-city rivals, the Yankees, found themselves in more conducive training conditions in Asbury Park, New Jersey, the seaside city that has found fame as the home of Bruce Springsteen. However, both teams could envy the Giants, who found themselves in posh accommodations at the 47-room John D. Rockefeller mansion and practiced on what had been his private nine-hole golf course.

It is February of 2018, and any baseball being played in Bear Mountain, Terre Haute or Waxahachie is of the schoolyard or recreational variety, with the professionals all far away in Florida or Arizona. And while there is a certain novelty involved in being able to look past the playing field to see ski jumps or figure skaters, the Dodgers facility in Glendale does not require the players first having to push snow drifts out of the way to run practice drills.

No Major League teams are practicing in Apache Junction, but the Oakland A’s and Chicago Cubs are a short drive away in Mesa. And as spring training games begin in multimillion-dollar complexes in centralized areas, residents in dozens of towns across America, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic can wander over to where the greats once played in their own backyards.

References and Resources

Eric Robinson is a Fort Worth, Texas-based writer, researcher, and presenter on baseball history and sometimes more. He is co-chairman of SABR's Asian Baseball Committee. For more information please check out his website, Lyndon Baseball Johnson, and/or Facebook page.
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87 Cards
6 years ago

25-year– San Antonio resident here.

A few years ago, the local water authority plugged the well at the Terrell Wells Hotel (the ruins thereof) due to oil and other contaminants leeching into the watershed. The sulfur in the water was likely pooled on top of a deposit of sour-crude oil (sour/sweet crude gets its flavor from its sulfur content-the higher the sulfur, the more sour is the crude). The Hotel, which has its own literally fiery history, probably got the last of the sulfur pool then the crude filled in the well-head. Stinky water a a frequent complaint of the Hotel guests.

6 years ago

San Bernardino, CA hosted the Pirates in the 1930’s and the Browns in the 40’s. They played at Fiscalini Field, which had an enormous plam tree in CF.