Spring Training History: When Ballclubs Flocked to Southern California | KCET
Spring Training History: When Ballclubs Flocked to Southern California
Every Februrary, major league ballplayers report to their spring training camps, where they prepare for the upcoming season under palm trees and sunny skies. But while all 30 clubs today flock to Florida and Arizona to escape the lingering effects of winter, for much of the twentieth century ball clubs pitched their training camps in sunny Southern California.
Baseball's preseason ritual has changed much since the Chicago Cubs arrived in Los Angeles by way of the Santa Fe Railroad on March 11, 1903, becoming the first major league club to call Southern California their springtime home. Then, the custom was for teams to practice in one place for two weeks, after which they would barnstorm back to their home cities, challenging college, minor-league, and rival major-league clubs along the way.
The Cubs practiced at Chutes Park, located near downtown at Washington and Grand. Curious Angelenos trickled onto the park grounds to glimpse the visiting players, which included the now-famous trio of Tinkers, Evers, and Chance.
"There are no bright and shining stars in the team, for all of them scintillate," a Times reporter wrote after observing the National League club's first practice. "While the team will remain here but two weeks, the practice in these warm days will do wonders in getting the men into condition."
On Sunday, March 15, more than 5,000 Angelenos streamed into Chutes Park to watch the Cubs face off against the Los Angeles Looloos in an exhibition match. The Looloos -- a Pacific Coast League team that later adopted a more dignified nickname, the Angels -- made a strong showing against the visiting National League club. Los Angeles held a 6-5 lead in the seventh inning, when the umpire refused to award a Looloos' batter first base after a pitch grazed his wool jersey. Some disgruntled Los Angeles fans hissed and questioned the impartiality of the umpire: Chicago player Frank Chance.
The controversy seemed to turn the game's momentum. In the top of the ninth inning, Chicago capitalized on a fielding error to tie the game and in the tenth scored the winning run, defeating Los Angeles in their Southern California debut by a score of 7-6. The clubs met for three more games before the Cubs departed on March 23, barnstorming back to Chicago.
After moving their spring camp to Santa Monica in 1905, the Cubs left Southern California for cities closer to their Chicago base. But other teams soon followed the Cubs' path to Southern California: the New York Giants in 1907, the Chicago White Sox in 1908, and the Boston Red Sox in 1911.
And in 1917, under the new ownership of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, the Cubs returned to Southern California. For several years, the Cubs took up residence in Pasadena's Brookside Park, only a short walk from Wrigley's mansion on Orange Grove Avenue. But soon after purchasing Catalina Island in 1919, Wrigley enlisted the Cubs as part of his ambitious project to turn the island into a major tourist resort. Building a baseball diamond whose dimensions exactly matched those of Chicago's Wrigley Field, Wrigley moved his Cubs to the island in 1922. The promotional value was obvious: each spring, Chicagoans waiting for their city to thaw would read newspaper reports of the Cubs enjoying sun-soaked Catalina.
Other teams soon established a presence in Southern California. In 1933, the White Sox took up residence at Pasadena's Brookside Park. Two years later, San Bernardino civic leaders wooed the Pittsburgh Pirates to their town with offers of a custom-built training facility at Perris Hill Park. In 1940, the city of Anaheim welcomed the Philadelphia Athletics to a newly built facility at La Palma Park.
By then, many teams were phasing out their barnstorming trips in favor of extended stays in their training camps. In Florida, a cluster of camps evolved into the Grapefruit League, and with four teams training in Southern California, the region began to rival the Florida as host of a spring training circuit. The Cubs, White Sox, Pirates, and Athletics scheduled exhibition games against each other, augmenting their schedules with contests against the Angels, Hollywood Stars, and other Pacific Coast League teams training in the area.
During World War II, travel restrictions prevented teams from traveling to California. But in 1946, preseason baseball returned to the Los Angeles area. The Pirates and White Sox returned to their respective camps in San Bernardino and Pasadena, and the St. Louis Browns moved into the Athletics' old facility in Anaheim for one season before encamping at Burbank's Olive Memorial Stadium from 1949 to 1952.
In an age before the big-league Dodgers and Angels, the presence of the nation's elite ballplayers, however ephemeral, stirred excitement across Southern California. Weekend matchups were well attended, and even on weekdays the bleachers filled with retirees and baseball fans on lunch breaks who came to see future Hall of Famers like Luke Appling, Bob Feller, and Satchel Paige.
Spring training also gave local athletes a chance to test their mettle against big-league talent. In a 1938 game against the White Sox, Pasadena City College shortstop Jackie Robinson recorded two hits off White Sox pitchers, though his team ultimately lost, 3-2. Robinson later impressed White Sox manager Jimmie Dykes in a secret 1942 tryout at Brookside Park. It proved an exercise in futility, however, as Robinson, who was black, would not break into the segregated major leagues until 1947.
Spring training in Southern California provided thrills for the big-league players, too. On Catalina, when players weren't running sprints up the island's steep trails, Wrigley -- an obsessive and passionate owner -- treated the Cubs to barbecues or fishing trips out of Avalon Harbor. On both the island and the mainland, Hollywood celebrities like Bob Hope and Carey Grant made appearances. And in March 1951, a promising young actress named Marilyn Monroe visited the Chicago White Sox' camp in Pasadena for a photo shoot. Ballplayers posed with Monroe, demonstrating batting stances or strolling with the actress through the training grounds.
Eventually, Arizona supplanted Southern California as the western alternative to Florida's Grapefruit League. Several factors drove teams across the Colorado River, including increasing urbanization throughout Southern California and lucrative offers from Arizona municipalities. The Cubs spent their final spring on Catalina in 1951, returning to the region once more in 1966, when they trained at Long Beach's Blair Field. The Pirates left after the 1952 season, and the Browns after 1953.
The California Angels were the final team to depart. From their inception as an expansion team in 1961, the Angels (a separate entity from the Pacific Coast League Los Angeles Angels) had trained for at least part of their preseason at Palm Springs' Polo Grounds, later renamed Angels Stadium in recognition of the longstanding association. But the team eventually outgrew its Coachella Valley facilities. When after 1992, they decamped from Palm Springs in favor of Tempe, the migration of teams from Southern California to Arizona was complete.