Documentary recounts exploits of major leaguers living large in Hot Springs
The earliest big leaguers didn't migrate to the balmy climes of Arizona and Florida to slough off the idleness and over consumption they accrued during the winter. Hot Springs, with the lure of its thermal waters that promised to draw out the offseason's lingering effects, brought teams and players from the northeast and Great Lakes region long before the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues beckoned.
Spring training originated in Hot Springs, where some of the richest characters in the baseball canon converged to ease into the long season and avail themselves of the city's pleasures, which the more dissolute often found too tempting to experience in moderation.
Their exploits are told against the backdrop of Hot Springs growing into its identity as a resort destination in “The First Boys of Spring,” Emmy Award-winning documentarian Larry Foley's mosaic of outlandish personalities playing the game as it evolved into the country's initial sports obsession.
The film premieres opening night of the 2015 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and features vignettes from 1886, the year the Chicago White Stockings became the first team to decamp to Hot Springs, to 1955, when the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues became the last.
“It's not a film of dates and names,” said Foley, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas. “It's a story of America as seen through the baseball players that came to Hot Springs during those years, and the things that happened while they were there.”
The germ was planted after Foley and his grandson trekked the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail several years ago. Much of the source material came from historians who helped develop the trail, including Bill Jenkinson, Tim Reid, Don Duren and Hot Springs resident Mike Dugan.
Foley said the film was informed by his affinity to “tell stories about Arkansas that place it in the national consciousness,” a formula he's followed in documentaries about the Buffalo National River, “The Buffalo Flows,” the origin story of Fayetteville, “Up Among the Hills-the Story of Fayetteville,” and the 1964 Arkansas Razorback national championship football team, “22 Straight!”.
Foley said Billy Bob Thornton's narration overlays the film with a distinct Arkansas quality. The Oscar winner's 1955 birth in Hot Springs coincided with the Detroit Stars holding their final spring training in the area, a departure that marked the end of Hot Springs as a way station on the long path from spring to autumn.
“He grew up as quite a baseball player,” Foley said. “He tried out for the (Kansas City) Royals after high school. He has a voice that's wonderfully connected to the state of Arkansas. Knowing he loves baseball, he was a guy I reached out to. It was a great thrill to learn he wanted to do it.”
Other contributors peculiar to Arkansas include Razorback basketball coach Mike Anderson, who voices Satchel Paige, and Rex Nelson, who plays the public address announcer at a
re-enactment of a 1912 exhibition game between the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates, the two teams who visited the area with the most frequency.
Foley said the 1923 Red Sox and Pirates were the last teams to train exclusively in Hot Springs. The area's mercurial spring weather and the taming of the Florida wilderness drove spring training farther south, Foley said.
“The weather was unpredictable, wet and cold, and in the early days Florida wasn't a place to go with all of its mosquitoes and swamps,” he said. “As they began to drain the swamps and kill the mosquitoes, Florida began actively recruiting baseball teams.”
The pivot began with the “bellyache heard round the world,” the good times-induced bout of dyspepsia Babe Ruth acquired in Hot Springs during the run up to the 1925 season.
Ruth began training in Hot Springs when he was the Red Sox's left-handed ace. The prodigious swing that would power the New York Yankees to four world championships and blast the game out of the Dead Ball Era announced itself at Whittington Park on St. Patrick's Day, 1918.
The 573-foot home run he thundered into the alligator farm during an exhibition against the Brooklyn Dodgers is memorialized by the baseball trail marker in the parking lot where the park once stood. According to the film, Ruth's penchant for launching tape-measure shots beyond the park's confines tolled on his wallet.
Red Sox owner Harry Frazee fined him $10 for each lost ball.
Ruth continued to visit Hot Springs after a leveraged Frazee, needing to pay creditors that financed his 1916 purchase of the team, sold him to the Yankees following the 1919 season.
By day Ruth jogged mountain trails, golfed and sat in the thermal waters. By night he was immersed in endeavors less salutary.
“He ate, he drank, he gambled, he partied,” Dugan says in the film.
The Yankees attributed their poor showing in 1925 to Ruth's pleasure tour, a bacchanal Foley said rollicked along unchecked after Ruth put his wife on an outbound train. It relegated New York to 30 games out of first place in the American League standings and Ruth to appearing in only 98 games.
The seventh-place performance convinced the Yankees that their moneymaker was too valuable to be left to his own devices in Hot Springs.
“Babe Ruth became the biggest money generator in baseball, and when he joined the Yankees, the new ownership wanted to get him out of Hot Springs,” Reid said in the film. “He was just having too good a time.”
Clubs continued bringing parts or all of their teams to Hot Springs as the first leg of a training regimen that concluded in Florida, but the Yankees decreeing it off limits to Ruth effectively ended its run as the pre-eminent spring training destination.
“Babe Ruth was the biggest draw in baseball,” Foley said. “When the Babe quit coming to Hot Springs, that was the end of it.”
“It's not a film of dates and names. . . It's a story of America as seen through the baseball players that came to Hot Springs during those years, and the things that happened while they were there.”
At left, Babe Ruth practices his swing. At right, Rogers Hornsby, a member of National Baseball Hall of Fame, taught at Doan Baseball School in Hot Springs in the 1930s.
Above, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, considered the greatest Negro Leagues team of all time, also trained in Hot Springs. At left, a 1910 photo depicts spring training in Hot Springs.