Molars, Mustaches and Mongooses: Bygone Tales From Spring Training

The Dodgers were the first team to use a plane for spring training games in Florida. (via Bill Larkins)

The Dodgers were the first team to use a plane for spring training games in Florida. (via Bill Larkins)

The gentle and nearly meaningless competition in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues provides a wonderful quiet space in which we can listen to the true voices of baseball, which are silent in winter and are not always heard in the heat and roar of the summer races.
— Roger Angell, “Voices of Spring

Baseball is a summer sport, but to be ready for Opening Day in April, players have to start playing their way into shape when most of the country is still shivering under dark skies and hoar frost. Accordingly, baseball players have gone south for the winter since at least the mid-19th century. Last year, Alex Skillin noted that no less than Boss Tweed himself had sent the New York Mutuals down to Florida in 1869, and that Cap Anson helped set the practice in stone by taking his Cubs to Hot Springs, Ark. and bringing a reporter along for the trip, “a decision that helped sprout the myth that Anson invented spring training.”

During most of the day’s hours, spring training barely has anything to do with baseball. Reading stories about springs long past reveals a great deal about mundane details of hotel encampments, searching for a fourth player for bridge, and meeting sullen heroes of past years whose loquacity extends no further than profane cliches. Spring training is about trying to stay in shape, and stay sane, while being fully conscious that a single slip-up could get one’s name off the locker and sent packing straight back to the minor leagues, in favor of someone just slightly younger and better.

At the end of the day, it may be better for us than it is for the players. Branch Rickey helped to invent the modern notion of “spring training” with the creation of Dodgertown in 1948 — a home base for the Dodgers with enough seats for thousands of fans to watch Jackie Robinson play in the spring. As Carl Erskine also notes, “The Dodgers were the first team to use airplanes to travel within the state of Florida for spring-training games.”

While many other teams (including the Dodgers) had been traveling to Florida to train for decades, Dodgertown was a full-service establishment, capable of accommodating hundreds of employees for a half-century, and serving as a model for bright and shiny facilities built by dozens of teams in the decades to come. Florida’s Grapefruit League was a destination, and its rhythms were increasingly regimented. Arizona was less populated for years. (Now, there are 15 teams each in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues.)

Of course, for those of us who are not actually in Florida or Arizona in February and March, the dribs and drabs that we get from news wires and beat reporters may not seem like much — after all, spring isn’t spring until April 21 — but the announcement of pitchers and catchers reporting still means a blessed end to what George F. Will calls “the wasteland that stretches like the Sahara between the World Series and spring training.” After the sun-starved winter, he prefers Cactus to Grapefruit, writing, “Florida’s sunshine is fine, but Arizona’s seems tactile, drenching the diamond.”

That sun can inspire some insanely stupid ideas. In spring training in 1948, according to Bill Plaschke, young left-handed pitcher Tommy Lasorda decided that he wanted to force the Dodgers to trade him. So he came up with a plan: shortly before he was scheduled to pitch, he went fishing without sunscreen until “his starchy body was burned so badly he could hardly walk.” He wrapped his body in gauze and three t-shirts, got on the mound, and hoped to throw well enough for the Dodgers to be willing to trade him to a team where he’d have a chance to pitch in the majors. No luck: he twirled five shutout innings, and they punished his success by promoting him from Class D to Class A. Lasorda, needless to say, remained a Dodger.

Spring training can also help to provide a little leeway in salary negotiations. Erskine recounts in his memoir that when he was renegotiating his contract in 1954, he asked Dodgers general manager Buzzy Bavasi for $30,000. As it happened, Bavasi had made a $10 bet with Hank Greenberg, who was then the general manager of the Indians, that he wouldn’t give Erskine what he wanted. So, minding the bet, Bavasi countered Erskine’s request by offering $28,500 plus whatever it would cost to bring his whole family to spring training. No dice, said Erskine — spring training expenses usually ran under a thousand dollars, and so he countered the spring training offer by asking the Dodgers to pay for him to get gold dental inlays. Bavasi acceded.

Of course, spring is a time for frivolity. “I always grew a mustache in the winter just to have a little fun in spring training,” Roy Campanella wrote in his autobiography. But the late-’60s Tigers had a more memorable tradition: The Mongoose. “This mysterious creature was kept in a large box, guarded by the assistant clubhouse attendant, a local lad named Gator,” George Cantor explained in his book The Tigers of ’68. “A new player was told to look through a small peephole to see The Mongoose. When he did, Gator would release a spring, and a raccoon tail would suddenly come flying out of a hole at the top of the the box. The unsuspecting viewer’s scream and wild leap, some of them attaining impressive measures in height and length, were always a highlight of the Lakeland experience and an initiation rite of the Tigers.”

It’s marked by agonizingly tense boredom, waiting to play, fear that one will not be good enough or will see one’s place claimed by younger, greater talent. A children’s book author followed a 13-year old batboy in Scottsdale, Ariz., with the San Francisco Giants in 1994. Overjoyed at the chance to shadow catcher Kirt Manwaring, he nonetheless notices tension in the air. “While Kenny performs his pregame chores, he must duck around players who have their own anxieties,” Joan Anderson calmly explains. “Some are fighting for their jobs; others hope to nail down a starting position.”

Players who have written about similar moments are less sanguine. “A spring training clubhouse can look like a prison scene — lockers so small they seem like cells, racks of bats stacked like so many wooden gun barrels,” pitcher Jim Brosnan writes in The Long Season, his account of his 1959 campaign. “The bats bearing names of players no longer with the club are stacked for the last time in a Cardinal clubhouse.”

But you could never allow yourself to be seen looking bored. “There really isn’t much to do in spring training, and it’s a lot like being in the army, where the sergeant will never say something to you if you look like you’re doing something,” wrote Jim Bouton, a pitcher-diarist like Brosnan. “That’s what pepper games are, really: looking busy without actually doing anything.”

Roger Angell found something miraculous in the freshness, the newness of it all. In the spring of 1977, months before the best summer of Oscar Gamble’s career, he remembered seeing him in the Yankees clubhouse. Reporters clustered around the team’s stars, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, “and other high-priced, long-faced celebrities,” as Angell writes. They ignored Gamble, who they couldn’t know was due to hit 31 homers that season. “One day, Gamble began to yell and wave a towel. ‘Hey!’ he called out. ‘When some of you writers goin’ to talk to me? Who wants the Oscar Gamble story? No crowds down here. Plenty of room to talk to old Oscar today!’ Everybody laughed, because, of course, we had just no idea….”

Angell also ran into a young Peter Gammons, torn with an almost religious dilemma related to his beloved Red Sox. “It’s going to be an interesting season. I have one problem, though,” he told Angell. “My wife’s sister is getting married on June 24th, and we’re playing Baltimore that day. I wonder if it would be all right if I missed the wedding.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

To Leo Durocher, though, spring was like any other part of the year: a time for a gambling and the good life. As a young Yankees shortstop, he got invited to escort a wealthy young woman to a debutante ball in St. Petersburg, and got spotted by his manager in his tuxedo. When he returned to the club long after curfew (“one doesn’t leave that kind of an affair early, does one?” he pointed out), his manager called him to his office, reamed him out and told him never to be seen wearing it again. On another occasion, in Hot Springs, Ark., with the Dodgers, he won a $660 country club bingo game and was awoken by his general manager, Larry McPhail, who immediately yelled “You’re fired!” and by way of explanation, “You’re a gambler!”

It would not be the last time anyone lobbed such an allegation toward him; Commissioner Happy Chandler suspended him for the entire 1947 season for allowing a group of gamblers around the actor George Raft to use his apartment for their high-stakes games.

For his part, Durocher appeared to agree about the evils of gambling, chiefly when the instigator wasn’t him. In 1934, his Cardinals teammate Dizzy Dean was holding out from playing with the team in spring training on behalf of his brother Paul, who he believed deserved a richer contract. Meanwhile, he was playing extremely high-stakes golf, eventually winning double his own salary — $16,000 or $17,000. But he finally came to terms with the team and started playing baseball again, and by the end of the spring, he lost every penny he’d won. By the end of the year, though, he was the National League MVP and a world champion with the Gashouse Gang Cardinals.

“That’s how Diz’s greatest season started,” Durocher writes with bemused incredulity. “Holding out for his brother and playing golf. The greatest argument against spring training ever made.”

References & Resources

  • Bill Plaschke with Tommy Lasorda, I Live For This!: Baseball’s Last True Believer
  • George F. Will, Bunts: Curt Flood, Camden Yards, Pete Rose and Other Reflections on Baseball
  • Carl Erskine with Burton Rocks, What I Learned from Jackie Robinson: A Teammate’s Reflections On and Off the Field
  • Roy Campanella, It’s Good to Be Alive
  • George Cantor, The Tigers of ’68: Baseball’s Last Real Champions
  • Joan Anderson, Batboy: An Inside Look at Spring Training
  • Jim Brosnan, The Long Season
  • Jim Bouton, ed. Leonard Shecter, Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues
  • Roger Angell, Late Innings: A Baseball Companion
  • Leo Durocher with Ed Linn, Nice Guys Finish Last

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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6 years ago

My only complaint is that the title doesn’t include “(Part 1)”. More of this, please!

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

Great article, Alex. By the way, if Erskine had actually gotten his $30,000 in 1954, it would have been the equivalent of $263,000 today, which is a little more than half of the starting MLB salary today (about 507,000, I believe). That $507,000 today would be the equivalent of $55,000 in 1954, which is almost twice what Erskine was asking. So, one of the best pitchers in baseball was making less than half of what a rookie makes today in the majors. Gee, think that free agency made a difference? Players today should kiss Marvin Miller’s picture-and Seitz, the arbitrator in the McNally case. Of course, $30,000 was still far more than most people made in 1954.