Charles Fountain teaches journalism at Northeastern University. His newest book, Under The March Sun: The Story of Spring Training chronicles the history of baseball’s annual six-week ritual and how it grew from a shoestring-budget road trip into a billion-dollar-a-year business. This week and next Fountain will be blogging about his adventures at Spring Training for Powell’s. With their kind permission we will be reprinting them here. Check out the final post below.
When St. Petersburg’s future mayor Al Lang was negotiating with St. Louis Browns owner Branch Rickey to bring spring training to St. Petersburg in 1914, the two men agreed that the city businessmen sponsoring the trip would pay for the Browns travel to St. Pete, and pay for their lodging while they were there. They also agreed that the comped traveling party would include five writers from the St. Louis newspapers. The newspaper guys were key for St. Petersburg. This whole spring training deal was an effort to get the city’s name out there, and how better to do it than through the datelines in big city newspapers. “There can be no cleaner, no more penetrating, no more exhaustive advertising for [our] city,” wrote the organizers, “than the letters and telegrams to their home papers, written by the high-class, competent correspondents and writers who always accompany these major league ball clubs during their spring training trips.” (My favorite part of that, by the way, is where it says: “high-class, competent correspondents and writers.” We sportswriters haven’t always gotten that kind of respect.)
Ninety-five years later, when the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear, Arizona committed to spending $100 million in public money to build a new spring training facility for the Indians and Reds, proponents talked about the national publicity spring training would generate, as Goodyear grows from rural farm village to a city with an expected mid-century population in excess of 400,000.
Nobody has ever been able to determine what the cash value of a newspaper dateline is, but for nearly a century, communities investing in spring training have touted their importance. When the Yankees came to St. Petersburg in 1925, for six weeks every winter, the dozen-odd daily newspapers in New York would carry daily stories with the St. Petersburg dateline, and St. Petersburg grew into a major city.
Hot Springs, Arkansas grew its early-century profile as a resort town by hosting eight different major league teams for spring training between 1900-1925. Before it was known as the home of Disney World, Orlando was perhaps best known to northerners as the long-time spring training home of the Washington Senators. Before they were a part of the American consciousness as Gulf Coast resort towns, Bradenton and Sarasota cracked the northern consciousness as the spring training homes of the Braves and the Red Sox.
Some towns are still best known to America as spring training destinations. Vero Beach, Port St. Lucie, and Lakeland, Florida all have their own individual charms, and the folks who live there do so for reasons other than baseball. But people beyond the borders of these smallish cities know them only as spring training datelines.
Some cities have outgrown their spring training datelines. Back in the early sixties, Fort Lauderdale was known for spring break and Yankees spring training. No more. The Orioles are there now, and spring training gets lost in the bustle of everything else that goes on in Fort Lauderdale. Even Yankees spring training, now in Tampa, is but a blip on the busy radar of that bustling city. St. Petersburg willingly let spring training go this year; the Tampa Bay Rays play their regular season games in St. Petersburg, of course, and the mayor felt that spring training might be in competition with the regular season.
But some towns still seek the cache of a national dateline. Peoria and Surprise, Arizona, anonymous suburbs northwest of Phoenix, bought themselves a bit of national presence when they brought spring training to town in 1993 and 2003, respectively. “Having Peoria, Arizona as a national dateline every spring was a real coup for us,” said Cactus League president and Peoria community services director J. P. de la Montaigne. Goodyear and Glendale feel the same way today.
But while these national datelines may have been, and may continue to be, good publicity for the warm-weather cities that host spring training, they are even better balm for readers in the cold-weather cities where those newspapers are published. Forget crocuses and robins. Nothing says spring to a winter-bound newspaper reader better than a spring training dateline from Florida or Arizona.