Cactus League History

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Susie Steckner, author of the new book Cactus League: Spring Training, and Cactus League expert Rodney Johnson talk about the rich history of Arizona’s Cactus League.

>>> Spring training baseball has been an important part of Arizona's first 100 years of statehood. And the cactus league has become one of Arizona's most celebrated traditions. Tonight we'll meet the author of a new book about the cactus league and we'll hear from a baseball researcher who traces Arizona spring training roots to before statehood. But first a little something from "Horizon's" video archives. A cactus league story we first aired back in 1994.

>> Each spring Arizona becomes a baseball lover's paradise.

>> Bases loaded, 3-3 tie in the sixth. Fouled up and the count evens up at 2-2.

>> Make the cubs win and buy a program.

>> Whoa! Go get 'em!

>> Baseball was popular in the west long before Arizona became a state. But the excitement of spring training didn't begin taking shape until 1947. That's the year Cleveland Indians and New York giants came to Arizona to establish their preseason training camps. Cleveland chose Tucson as its base. Largely because the Indians owner had a ranch nearby. The New York giants set up shop in Phoenix, a decision based at least partially on the proximity of the buck horn mineral wells east of Mesa.

>> We put a big banner up when we first welcomed them to our place back in '47. We had a big banner, welcome to buck horn, New York giants.

>> Alice and her husband Ted discovered the hot springs in 1939. When the giants came to town, their business boomed. Team owner was sold on the therapeutic effect the bath and massages could have on his players.

>> One time they told us if one of the boys back was giving him trouble, and he said if we could have him so his back wouldn't give him trouble, we would win the pennant.

>> We helped him and his back got better and they won the pennant.

>> Buck horn remained the giants spring home until the team built its own facility south of Phoenix near Casa Grande. The cactus league is rich in baseball history. Willie mays, Ernie banks and Ted Williams are just a handful of the many baseball legends who trained in Arizona. Another big treat for baseball fans came in 1951. For that one year, the New York Yankees came to Arizona, trading places with the New York giants. It was Dimaggio's last spring and the first for a young player by the name of Mickey mantle.

>> That's a homer.

>> In 1952, the Chicago cubs became the third ball club to come to Arizona. Establishing a training camp in the city of Mesa.

>> He wanted to know the name of the stadium. So I told him I'd introduce him to the name. The stadium's name is Patterson field. His name. Same guy.

>> Dwight Patterson is the man credited with making the deal that brought the cubs to the east valley.

>> Well, he's done a lot for not only the cactus league, but the community and for a lot of baseball people.

>> To the people of Mesa, Patterson is somewhat of an institution. They call him the father of the cactus league, and in 1991, they named the cubs ball field in his honor.

>> It's Patterson field. I'd take it or leave it. It doesn't make any difference to me. Just so they play ball.

>> As of 1994, nine teams are members of the cactus league. And each year they bring millions of dollars to the state.

>> I do as much business in February and march as I do almost the rest of the year. It's packed solid day and night. We have to turn down oh, 200 reservations a night during baseball season.

>> Charlie has owned the pink pony restaurant in Scottsdale for 40 years. The business has thrived due to its reputation as a baseball hangout. It's a reputation that began through Charlie's friendship with Hall of Famer dizzy dean.

>> Mickey mantle, Billy Martin, you name them, they've been in here. And then we have our collection of World Series bats. This is one of them here. It's got all their names and everything on it. You get American and national league.

>> Since I've been to the pink pony, I have got to know and became -- become good friends with guys like Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams, and Jimmy fox, TY COBB, who used to be a loner and he used to come in and eat by himself.

>> The players don't visit the pink pony as often as they used to, but the fans still show up, searching for a piece of baseball history. The cactus league has a history that spans nearly 50 years. It has become a vibrant part of Arizona's economy, and a unique component of our western culture.

>> No upper body movement. That's his problem.

>> And quite a bit has changed since we first aired that story about two decades ago. Some of the people and places are gone, but the cactus league is stronger than ever. Here to tell us more about Arizona's cactus league history is Susie Steckner, the author of "Cactus League: Spring Training." Published just this year, the book features more than 200 photos, portions of the book sales benefit the nonprofit Mesa historical museum and its permanent collection of cactus league artifacts and memorabilia. Also joining us is Rodney Johnson, an Arizona baseball his terrorral and --an and president of the local chapter of the society for American baseball research. This book, this book, this cactus league -- there's so many photographs, so much history here, how did you get started? Why did you get started on it?

>> The Mesa historical museum has been working to preserve the history of the cactus league, and I'm a writer and a history geek, and when they asked me to do this project, I jumped at the chance. And my family also donated a New York giants banner that was used to welcome the team back to spring training in the '50s, so I'm just hooked on the project.

>> It's so fascinating. We learned '47 was the official start with the Cleveland Indians and the giants, New York giants, but before that, barnstorming teams played through Arizona for decades, correct?

>> Right. Teams that trained in California mainly would barnstorm their way back from their training camps to their eastern homes for the opening of the season. And they would make stops based on the train schedule. Yuma was popular, and then eventually Phoenix and Tucson as well as the train lines expanded. But they would make stops on their way back, and Phoenicians would get a chance to see big league ball.

>> Why did -- do we know why the orange league in California, why that faded and the cactus league bloomed?

>> Well, in the case of the cubs, Catalina island was a very remote location, and it was tough to get fans over to that part of California. And Rodney --

>> I think the biggest reason that the orange league, or teams that trained in California stopped training in California was the Pacific coast league. The Pacific coast league had the power. They were designated open classification. They were nearly a major league. They were between minor league and major league ball, and they proclaimed a rule that because of their classification, that major league teams could not hold exhibition games there. One week before the start of the Pacific coast league season. And that left not enough time for teams to train out there. So slowly they migrated to Arizona, and that's one of the last year that the orange league had the teams trained in California, was 1953.

>> Now, years before that, I want to look at a photograph here of riverside park in Phoenix. This is literally along the river bottom down there on central Avenue, 1929, Detroit tigers training in Phoenix. This is courtesy of you, Rodney. I didn't realize it, we had teams training here in 1929.

>> You had a team training here. The Detroit tigers were the first team to hold spring training camp in Arizona, and that was 1929. The reason they came here is primarily a guy named George grantHAM suggested it to the tigers, and they had a new manager, Bucky Harris, and they thought, why not? The rail line had opened that year to go directly to the West Coast, making it possible for them to take trips out to the West Coast to train out there. So they came and trained for one year in 1929, found that nobody came much came to their practices or their games, they did play two spring training games against major league teams, one against the cubs and one gets the pirates before leaving here. But that was the extent of spring training in Arizona for an Arizona-based team until 1947.

>> And Detroit left and never came back and they're still not back.

>> Never came back.

>> We've got a photography of the giants, welcoming back the New York giants. We heard a little bit in the package as well, a big attraction there.

>> Big attraction. And a big piece of cactus league history. Not only the giants there, but players from other teams there, and Alice slagger and Ted slagger were almost the ambassadors of the cactus league for years and years.

>> Our next photograph is I think we saw this in the package as well, Boston red Sox players in Scottsdale, and on the far right if we get to the next one in a second, we will see Ted Williams standing by a horse and I didn't -- I had forgotten the red Sox were here, and were here for quite a while.

>> They came after the Orioles left. They were here from 1956-1965.

>> There's a splinted splinter right there.

>> Mt. Middle is the manager, and on the left is jackie Jensen. The golden bear.

>> All right. We have a schedule as well here of the New York giants, 1966 spring training schedule. And it's fascinating to look at this visual, because it's also -- it's all so quaint. From a previous time.

>> It is.

>> 1956. Let's keep it moving. We've got "Sports Illustrated" on the cover. This one is interesting in a variety -- we've got Willie Mays, everyone looks happy, they're in Arizona somehow, but this was a controversial photograph.

>> Right. This photo was taken at Phoenix municipal stadium where the giants trained, and Leo's wife was the movie star, Lorraine day. They took this picture in center field and it graced the cover, and before you knew it angry letters were coming in to "Sports Illustrated" because Lorraine day had her hand on willie mayes' shoulder. And it prompted many racial epithets being thrown around, and people threatening to cancel their subscriptions and it was -- it gist went to show that we had -- still had a long way to go toward integration.

>> And cactus league had a long way to go as well. There's a picture of Ernie banks, it's actually on the cover of your book. He's basically pointing to a spring training schedule for the cubs. And again, quaint. Wooden boards, it was such a different time.

>> It was such a different time. Just a dreamy time. I love looking at all these photos and hearing all these stories from people who remember the games back then.

>> And from 1971, our last photograph, is an amazing one of Reggie Jackson, and Hank Aaron. The Atlanta braves had not trained here, but Rodney, they came through and freedoms the grapefruit league would come through, wouldn't he?

>> Especially after baseball expanded to the West Coast. The dodgers and the Angels. 1971 the braves opened their season in Los Angeles against the dodgers for opening day. So at the end of spring training on their way back they made a stop in Arizona before they went on to the California and opened the season against the dodgers.

>> We got about 30 seconds left. Cactus league in good shape right now? Healthy?

>> Strong as ever. For shush. 15 team powerhouse, 1.5 million fans going to games last year.

>> 15 teams, 16 would be better, wouldn't it?

>> Soon to come.

>> You think so?

>> Oh, we're not far behind away from that.

>> Is the cactus league a stonger unit than the grapefruit league?

>> Definitely. The stadium, the facilities are better, the weather is better, john what you, say is better about the grapefruit league. I just -- this is the place to be if you're a major league May it's great to change.

>> The book is fascinating. Thank you for being here.

>>> Friday on "The Journalists' Round Table," we'll take a look back at the state's presidential preference election and more candidates are jump nothing Arizona's congressional races. Those stories and more, Friday on "The Journalists' Round Table."

>>> That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening. Captioning Performed By LNS Captioning

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Susie Steckner:Author, Cactus League-Spring Training; Rodney Johnson:Cactus League;

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