March 6, 2004
You Could Look It Up
Spring Training, What's It Good For?
The history of spring training is one of ongoing professionalization and standardization, which is a 13-syllable way of saying, "All eccentricities have been stomped out of it."
In the early days of spring training, teams lacked set destinations. There were no permanent Florida or Arizona complexes, the Dodger installation at Vero Beach not coming until mid-century. Depending on the year and where the manager felt like spending his spring, teams trained in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Catalina Island, California, the Dominican Republic. Ernest Hemingway figures in a number of spring training stories because the hard-drinking Papa frequently crossed paths with the hard-drinking Dodgers when they trained in Cuba during the 1940s. Most of the stories revolve around Hemingway and closer Hugh Casey getting drunk and beating the heck out of each other. As Papa wrote in The Sun Also Rises:
"Oh, Jake," Brett said, "we could have had such a damned good time together."
"Yes," I said. "Isn't it pretty to think so?"
Today, teams have expensive stadiums waiting for them, some appendages of theme parks. There are no more holdouts, no Rickey Hendersons who report late because they can't be bothered to start on time. But for Dominicans with visa problems, punctuality is the rule. If the training season is used for anything more fun than training, it's kept on the down low.
One of the reasons teams drifted from location to exotic location in the earliest days of spring training was because managers were looking for ways to control their players, to find the dry spots where a manager might find a drink but a player could not (in later days, Casey Stengel solved this problem for himself by telling his players that they weren't allowed to drink in the hotel bar, because that was where he did his drinking). Prohibition was the law of the land from 1920 to 1933; half the country had been dry since 1912. It didn't matter. Despite (or perhaps because of) prohibition, the 1920s were America's most swinging decade to date.
"BABE RUTH'S ESSEX," 1921
The first Babe Ruth-era Yankees were a wild bunch, barely controlled by manager Miller Huggins, who was (a) no bigger than your thumb, and (b) supported by only one of the team's two owners. Fines and suspensions would not stick, and the players knew it. "Batting practice" was soon replaced by "Brothel practice," and rehearsing the hit and run play was more about not getting charged for running over the mayor's wife with your car.
The good side of Yankees ownership hoped to gain some control over the players by training them in the middle of nowhere. In 1921, the Yankees moved their camp from Jacksonville, Florida to Shreveport, Louisiana. It had not occurred to them that the players might acquire automobiles. A dealer put a sign bearing the words "Babe Ruth's Essex" on a car and then loaned it to Ruth. Predictably, the rest of camp was like something out of "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," with Ruth jetting about the back roads of Louisiana at impossibly high speeds. The car was fueled by gasoline, Ruth by his beverage of choice.
When the team barnstormed north, Ruth expanded his internal-combustion adventures, particularly after the club decided to allow players to drive themselves to East Coast away games. Ruth purchased a crimson 12-cylinder Packard, packed in teammates, friends, wives, girlfriends, and did his best to crack the sound barrier.
Shockingly, he got away with it until July. On June 8, Ruth was caught exceeding the speed limit on Riverside Drive in New York. The slugger was given a $100 dollar fine and ordered held until 4 PM - or just after the start of that afternoon's ballgame. The Yankees had Ruth's uniform delivered to his cell. With the expiration of his sentence, Ruth emerged from the jail, greeted the huge crowd that had gathered there, and then followed a motorcycle escort uptown to the Polo Grounds, where he made a dramatic entrance from the clubhouse in center field. The climax to Ruth's motorized gambols came the next month. After a successful road trip to Washington, Ruth, his wife Helen, two teammates, and coach Charlie O'Leary piled into Ruth's car to make the drive back to New York. The party was in a jocular mood; Ruth had hit two homers that day. Just outside of Philadelphia, the road took a sharp turn. Ruth missed it. The car skidded, tumbled off the road, and flipped over. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured (the Babe hurt his knee) even though O'Leary had been thrown from the car. Nonetheless, wild rumors flew. The next morning New Yorkers were greeted by the headline, "BABE RUTH KILLED IN AUTO ACCIDENT!"
IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED
In one sense, training at Shreveport had been too successful: the Yankees were so isolated, no one came out to see the team, costing the ballclub money. For 1922, camp was moved to New Orleans. The crowds returned, but at the cost of placing the eager ballplayers in a city famous for its temptations. This is what you call a pyrrhic victory.
Huggins cut workouts back to one a day, a tactical error in that it allowed the players more free time with which to explore their vices. During this era, newspapermen were usually discreet in reporting the off-field activities of the players; the Yankees were so public in their revels that the subject could not be avoided. Soon there were headlines: "YANKEES TRAINING ON SCOTCH."
For the first time, the club hired a detective to catch players breaking training. Introducing himself as a traveling salesman, the detective successfully ingratiated himself with the players. One night he led several of them, including Ruth and Meusel, to a party at a speakeasy. He then produced a photographer. A "souvenir" would be made. The players obediently lined up to have their pictures taken. The next day the "salesman" had disappeared, but the photo remained--in the hands of team secretary (general manager) Ed Barrow and co-owner Jacob Ruppert. Despite this humiliating episode, discipline remained a problem.
In 1925, the Yankees moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where alligators outnumbered people by a ratio of 10 to on--in 1920, the whole of Pinellas County, Florida had a population of 28,265. This was a very satisfactory arrangement; you can get luggage out of an alligator, you can get shoes, but you can't get him to buy you a drink. The alligator also serves as a barrier to the 28,000 with drink-buying capabilities.
There is no truth to the story that Babe Ruth once tried to feed Miller Huggins to an alligator. It was a manatee. That day, the Bambino learned that the gentle dugong is a vegetarian, and will not consume flesh no matter how often an unlubricated manager is shoved down its throat. Huggins fined Ruth $50 and told him to shape up.
The Yankees never quite broke with the training-is-partying tradition until Casey Stengel's arrival in 1949. Stengel had to start two-a-day workouts just to keep players away from the track (dog racing, no less). He caught Joe DiMaggio there, made an example of him, and that was that.
J'AI CASSE MA JAMBE. OU EST LA VACHE?
Livers are not the only part of the body that get damaged during spring training. The NFL takes a lot of knocks for having an excessively long exhibition season that makes money for the league but exposes the players to excessive risk of injury for little tactical gain. Baseball has not been subject to the same criticism, but should be, particularly in an era when players spend their winters working out rather than driving a truck and eating ma's butter-fried chicken and moose foie gras. (There is no truth to the story that the practice of moose-stuffing, so integral to the production of moose foie gras, was inspired by Babe Ruth's attempt to force Miller Huggins into a Yellowstone Elk)...
An abbreviated list of spring training fractures alone reads like the roll call at the Hall of Fame. Rabbit Maranville suffered broken legs in 1926 and 1934. The second break, which came when Maranville was 42, put him out for the year. He ended his career after an abortive comeback in 1935. Walter Johnson took a Joe Judge liner off his ankle in 1927, a blow which put an 18-game limit on his remaining career. Kiki Cuyler broke each of his legs in consecutive camps, 1932-1933. Whitey Lockman broke his leg in 1947. Ted Williams broke his collarbone in 1954 at roughly the same moment that Bobby Thompson broke his ankle. Bill Mazeroski broke his foot in 1965. Willie Davis broke his ankle in 1967. Hawk Harrelson busted a leg in 1970, probably by talking it to pieces. And of course, Jerry Hairston broke his finger this week.
THE CHILDREN OF HUGGINS
Miller Huggins has not been the only manager to fare poorly during spring training. Several have suffered heart attacks, including Gil Hodges, who was laid low on April 2, 1972. The lucky ones were only fired. In 1954, Cubs manager Phil Cavarretta was asked by ownership to provide an honest assessment of his team's chances. Honesty is not always the best policy: Cavarretta was fired on the spot for being "too negative." He was the first skipper to fail to outlast the exhibition season. Alvin Dark became the second when the Padres jettisoned him in March, 1978. Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson, who was found to have lied about military service in Vietnam, didn't survive the 1999 camp.
Frank Lucchesi of the Texas Rangers would up in the hospital when infielder Lenny Randle demonstrated his displeasure at being benched by literally breaking his manager's face. Anticipating Latrell Sprewell, Randle claimed he had been provoked by something Lucchesi had said.
Some managers have used spring training to hone their craft. Orioles manager Earl Weaver showed himself to be in mid-season form in the spring of 1981, when he forfeited a game by pulling his team off the field when the umpires wouldn't supply him with a corrected lineup card. In 1982, A's manager Billy Martin sent pitcher Steve McCatty up to the plate carrying a 15-inch toy bat because the umpires refused to let him use a designated hitter.
THAT RABBIT-BALL IS A REDHEAD
Spring training has often been used by baseball for stunts and experimentation. Women pitched against the Yankees and Dodgers in 1931 and 1934 respectively. The first night game between major league teams took place in spring training. The White Sox got to use a DH in 1967. The automatic intentional walk was tested in 1956, Charley Finley's three-ball walk in 1971. His orange baseballs were tried two years later, as were, at other times, the mysterious X-5 ball and a ball with a chip in it that was supposed to register with an automatic umpire. Owners also did their share of experimentation, seeing what the threat of spring training lockouts could do for labor negotiations in 1976, 1990, 1992, and 1995.
WHY ARE WE HERE? MANTLE IS THE LIE
Spring training performances are famously meaningless. In 1951, Yankees outfielder Mickey Mantle, 19, made the big club after hitting .402 with nine home runs in exhibition play. Mantle hit decently when the season started, but started a long, slow slide that saw him pile up the Ks. Not long after the season began his confidence was shattered and he begged Casey Stengel to take him out of the lineup. On July 15 he was sent down having hit .260 with seven home runs and a then-troubling 52 strikeouts in 246 at-bats (this would represent half a season of good contact for many of our present-day major leaguers).
Stengel had been seduced by Mantle's spring, even though it was obvious that Mantle lacked the maturity to cope with any setbacks he might encounter in the bigs. Mantle pouted, threw things, killed watercoolers--in short, he acted like a young Paul O'Neill. It was spring training though, and outlandish behavior just blended into the background.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
With too much time on their hands, everyone goes a little crazy.
LAST WORD: PRIORITIES
The papers of the late Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun were released to the public this week. During a case hearing on October 10, 1973, clerks passed this note to the bench: "Vice-President Agnew just resigned. Mets 2, Reds 0."