I could almost hear the crack of the bat reverberating through 100 years of history. A moon was hanging in the morning sky and I imagined a ball soaring past it, then landing with a plop in a pond at the Arkansas Alligator Farm across the street. I was standing at the site of the historic Whittington Park, where, in 1918, Babe Ruth made history with a record-breaking home run – the first to fly more than 500 feet.
Today, the historic ballfield is an employee parking lot, and one of many stops along the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a free, self-guided tour that showcases the city’s rich baseball history. At my feet, a home plate base, permanently planted in the pavement, marks the spot of the 573-foot grand slam. The event, widely reported at the time, is still being celebrated today in a town where nostalgia for America’s favorite pastime is in full swing.
“Just the sheer length of it was astounding to everyone who saw it,” said Bill Jenkinson, a leading authority on Ruth. (He was the primary historical consultant for the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum in Baltimore, Md. and also helped with the creation of the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail.)
Witnesses included Ruth’s teammates (he was playing for the Boston Red Sox at the time) and members of the Brooklyn Dodgers who they were playing against, plus thousands of onlookers.
“It was reported that the crowd estimate that day was 18,000,” said baseball historian Mike Dugan who also helped research the local Baseball Trail.
Known as the “birthplace” of Major League spring training, Hot Springs hosted more than 300 professional ball players between the late 1800s through the middle of the 20th century, including 137 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition to the Great Bambino, the city welcomed many other legendary players: Cy Young, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby and Hank Aaron, among others. What attracted them to the city was Hot Springs’ nationally-prized, thermal spring water – purported to cure a wide range of ailments.
The trend started in 1886 when the Chicago White Stockings, now the Cubs, came to Hot Springs to “boil out the winter,” according to a front-page story appearing in the first issue of the weekly newspaper “The Sporting News.” The team practiced daily on a makeshift field at the site of what is now the Garland County Courthouse. When the White Stockings went on to win the National League’s pennant that year, other teams took note.
“Like any business that’s out there, the other teams copied success,” Dugan said. “So over the course of the next 30 years, Hot Springs became the hotbed for what we now know as spring training.”
Today, Hot Springs continues to be a most hospitable host to ballplayers with the construction of a new five-field baseball complex, and with events like the Hot Springs Baseball Weekend which invites major league players to town to help celebrate its unique connection to the game.
“Visit Hot Springs has, through the Historic Baseball Trail, its Annual Baseball Weekend, and many other efforts, made our baseball history a tremendous tourist attraction,” said Liz Robbins, executive director of the Garland County Historical Society, a treasure trove of information and memorabilia from Garland County’s past. “Headed by the amazing Steve Arrison, it’s also made our baseball history one of the reasons Hot Springs is a great place to live.”
Free and open to the public, the Hot Springs Baseball Weekend is a fun-filled, two-day event that brings the big leagues back to town with special guests, panel discussions, autograph sessions, tours and activities that celebrate Hot Springs’ unique place in baseball history.
The inaugural event was held in 2018 with special guests Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins, Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky, and several descendants of Babe Ruth. The weekend culminated with a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Ruth’s record-breaking home run. Jenkinson, who was also in attendance, was asked to recreate the event for Ruth’s family members and others attending the ceremony.
“Now what historian gets to do that?” he asked. “If there’s such a thing as an optimum experience, that was it.”
The Second Annual Baseball Weekend will be held Oct. 11-12, 2019. Hrabosky is returning for the event and will be joined by several other special guests including Ted Simmons, one of the top catchers in St. Louis Cardinals’ history, Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, and Dick Hughes, an Arkansas-born Cardinals pitcher who was a rookie sensation in 1967.
The weekend will begin at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11 with an “Afternoon With Al,” hosted by Hrabosky who will meet with youth baseball and softball players to discuss the game. Saturday, Oct. 12 will feature a full day of activities with a meeting of the Arkansas Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, guided tours of Hot Springs’ most famous spring training ballparks, and panel discussions with baseball historians and former major-league players from the state of Arkansas. The main event, “Lefty and Simba: Carlton and Simmons — A Look Back,” is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12 in Horner Hall of the Hot Springs Convention Center. It will feature a panel discussion with Carlton, Hughes and Simmons and will be moderated by Hrabosky. An autograph session will follow. For more information about this year’s event, click here.
The Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail comprises 32 markers detailing significantly-important locations around town where baseball players stayed, played and relaxed. The trail features an accompanying audio tour with colorfully narrated stories that can be accessed by phone or by a free, easy-to-use web app which also includes historical photos. To get started, pick up a trail brochure and spring training timeline at the Hot Springs Visitors Center located in the Hill Wheatley Plaza parking lot near the start of the trail.
Opened in March 2012, the trail was created by Visit Hot Springs along with a team of baseball historians, and members of the Garland County Historical Society.
“It was a great experience, one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had,” said Jenkinson, who researched the Trail along with baseball historians Tim Reid, Don Duran, Mark Blauer, and Dugan.
“Every one of those guys was a pleasure to work with,” Jenkinson said. “They all had something very important to contribute.”
According to Dugan, some of the highlights of the trail are Whittington Park and Majestic Field, where some of the greatest of the game played ball. Whittington Park, he said, was the “epicenter” of baseball in Hot Springs for 30 years. Built in 1894, it was used by the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the New York Giants. Today, you can still see some of the bleachers that were carved into the side of the mountain north of the field.
Majestic Field, which was built in 1909 for the Boston Red Sox, was named in honor of the former Majestic Hotel where the team stayed every year. Today, a new baseball complex is being constructed on the very site of the original field. It will feature four youth fields and one field for ages 14 and up.
“We’re going to name each of the fields after one of the old, historic ballparks,” said Dugan, who helped campaign for passage of the bond issue that is funding the project.
“We want the kids who come there to know the history of the site,” he said. “We want to teach them that history and to give them the opportunity to play on the same ground where Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Cy Young, Tris Speaker and Jackie Robinson played.”
Other notable sites on the Historic Baseball Trail include the Hot Springs Baseball Grounds (now the Garland County Courthouse), where the White Stockings practiced during their trend-setting 1886 visit.
“That’s where it all started,” Dugan said. “It was just a field that they could use and they turned it into a baseball diamond.”
The newest addition to the Trail is a 160-foot baseball mural featuring playing cards of five baseball legends who came to Hot Springs: Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Lefty Grove. Located on the south wall of the Craighead Laundry Building at the corner of Convention Boulevard and Broadway, it is titled “Playing Cards” and was created by Texas artists Chris Arnold and Jeff Garrison.
“The mural was such a neat idea,” said Dugan who had input on which players to feature and what cards to use. (All but the Lefty Grove card are based on actual baseball cards.) “The artist had the idea of how to present it.”
As a ball flies across the image, it crosses through the history of the game, Dugan explained. Where it passes over Robinson face, his image transitions from black and white to full color.
“It shows that Jackie is the one that turned baseball into a full-color game from being either black or white,” said Dugan.
As you make your way along the Historic Baseball Trail, you will learn an astonishing amount of history about some of the game’s most legendary players while walking in their very footsteps. You also have the unique opportunity to share in some of their same experiences. You can stay at the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, enjoy a traditional bath at the Buckstaff Bathhouse, or hike in the mountains where the players exercised. (According to the Historic Baseball Trail, the 1939 Brooklyn Dodgers took 10-mile hikes over the mountain trails to get their legs in shape for the upcoming season.)
Of course, the players were young and with money in their pockets (some of them for the first time), so they naturally found other ways to recreate in a town that was wide open and wild. It’s simmered down since, but you can still indulge in some fun at the very spots they enjoyed – betting on the horses at the historic Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort or having a drink at Arkansas’ oldest bar, The Ohio Club.
Part of the demise of spring training in Hot Springs was that the players were having too much fun here. But the main culprit was the development of DDT and its ability to control mosquitoes, said Dugan, which allowed teams to move further south, where the weather was even warmer.
While the teams moved on, many players continued coming to Hot Springs through World War II.
“A lot of the teams would send their pitchers and catchers here for two weeks before spring training to take the baths,” Dugan said. “They knew that it loosened up those arms.”
Pitchers like Lefty Grove, Sandy Cofax and Satchel Paige were all proponents of the thermal water.
“Satchel Paige swore by the hot waters in Hot Springs,” Dugan said. “He felt like it enabled him to pitch for over 30 years.”
Ruth also continued coming to Hot Springs but, after getting sick and missing half a season, his contract with the New York Yankees forbid him from ever returning here… although he did come back following retirement. Like the people before him and many since, Ruth just couldn’t get enough of Hot Springs’ relaxed, fun vibe. By keeping our unique history alive, the city ensures today’s visitors will want to come back too – to experience our past as well as our present.
Hot Springs’ baseball history has been the subject of multiple books and an Emmy Award-winning documentary. See the links below for more information.
“The First Boys of Spring,” an Emmy Award-winning documentary by Larry Foley
“Boiling Out at the Springs: A History of Major League Baseball Spring Training at Hot Springs, Arkansas,” written by Hot Springs native Don Duren. It is available at the Garland County Historical Society’s archives building and on their website.
“Bathers Baseball: A History of Minor League Baseball at the Arkansas Spa,” also by Duren. It is available on Amazon.