Doc­u­men­tary re­counts ex­ploits of ma­jor lea­guers liv­ing large in Hot Springs

The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Outdoors - Pho­tog­ra­phy cour­tesy of The Gar­land County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and Larry Fo­ley, il­lus­tra­tions cour­tesy of Sean Fitzgib­bon

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.

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