More reliable than groundhogs, more exciting than seeing the first birds migrate home: it's the wonderful sound of wooden bats smacking balls in batting practice as professional baseball teams make their annual pilgrimage to their spring training sites across the south.
Spring Training: As Old as the Light Bulb
Baseball historians say spring training got its start around the early 1880s.Which team started it and where is a matter of passionate historian arguments, but most agree that spring training was here to stay by 1889. That's when the Phillies spent two weeks in Jacksonville, Fla. for dedicated pre-season training.
Cactus and Grapefruit Replace the Bayou and Havana
Currently, Major League Baseball teams spring training locations and games are evenly split between the Cactus League in Arizona and the Grapefruit League in Florida. More exotic locales like Havana, Cuba hosted the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s and New Orleans was the spring site for the Yankees. Spring training in those days was used more as an exhibition tour for potential fans across the country than a way for part-time professional players of the day to get back in shape for the season.
The Pastime During War Time
Politicians had to balance the needs of the war effort during World War 2 with the morale benefits of keeping Major League Baseball up and running. Railroad capacity was reserved for moving troops and supplies, so teams weren't able to get down to their usual spring sites. An agreement between the league commissioner and the head of the Office of Defense Transportation ensured that the teams could get far enough away from their home towns to have their training camp away from distractions of home, but close enough to avoid wasting precious war resources.
Moneyball: Spring Training Edition
What started as a necessary evil to work off post-season rust and get the part-time players of the past back into playing shape has evolved into big money opportunities for the teams and their host communities. The Cactus League brings in $300 million a year to the Phoenix economy, according to a study by the Arizona Republic in 2011. The Salt River Fields near Scottsdale, Ariz., spring home of the Diamondbacks and Rockies organizations cost $100 million when it was built in 2010.
The real history of spring training is not in the stats, the historical anecdotes or the money the teams and cities spend or make during these six weeks in spring. The true legacy of spring training is written in the memories and traditions of the millions of fans who look forward to spring break pilgrimages to watch their teams up close for the first time in months.