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 second post below.
The Cactus League, spring training baseball in Arizona, really had two beginnings. The first came in 1947, and it was a very small part of the American civil rights movement. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck had been watching closely the progress of Jackie Robinson, intending to integrate his own team as soon as the Robinson story played out. Veeck had had some uncomfortable run-ins with segregation while running spring training in Florida for the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, and he felt that Arizona would be more hospitable to an integrated team. So in 1947, he took the Indians to Tucson, persuading Horace Stoneham to bring the New York Giants to Phoenix so the Indians would have someone to play exhibition games against. There were no blacks at Indians spring training in 1947; Veeck integrated the Indians in July of that year when he signed Larry Doby. When he brought Doby to spring training in 1948, he found he was only partly right about Tucson and an integrated team. The city was not exactly welcoming, just less hostile than many places in segregated Florida might have been.
The real father of the Cactus League was a Mesa rancher and hotel owner by the name of the Dwight Patterson, who brought the Cubs to Mesa and worked to grow the league to seven clubs during the 1950s and ‘60s. But in a talk I gave at the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism yesterday, I skipped over Patterson and went right from Veeck to O.P.M. as the second beginning of the Cactus League.
O.P.M., as the politicians and business developers like to explain, is Other People’s Money, and it’s become the secret to spring training baseball in Florida and Arizona. In the mid 1980s, Florida had found a way to build sparkling new spring training facilities using O.P.M., instituting a tourist development or “bed tax” on hotel stays. The tax brought in millions of dollars to Florida counties and several used the windfall to build new, made-to-order, spring training complexes and lure teams from other Florida cities to theirs. Major league baseball teams, who’d always had to pretty much take what they could get from cash-strapped local governments in the smaller cities where they trained, were suddenly being given everything they asked for and more, the communities saying: “Hey, it’s not our money; the tourists are paying for this.”
Arizona didn’t have any OP.M., but when the Indians announced in 1991 that they would be leaving Arizona for Florida, and other Cactus League teams started looking hard at these new facilities in Florida, Arizona quickly figured out they’d better get some O.P.M. too. The state instituted a tax on car rentals in Maricopa County—Greater Phoenix—of $2.50 per rental contract, the money to go to the construction and maintenance of spring training facilities. The revenues helped stave off any more defections, building new facilities for the Cubs, Brewers, Mariners and Padres. But the money quickly ran out, and in 2000, Cactus League officials were able to attach a rider to a bill for a new football stadium for the Arizona Cardinals. That money, from a bed tax and an increase in the car rental tax, allowed Arizona to become the aggressor, luring six teams from Florida over the span of a dozen years. When the Cincinnati Reds move from Sarasota to join the Indians in the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear next year, the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues will be equal at 15 teams apiece.
But both Florida and Arizona have now run out of O.P.M., the revenues committed years in advance. And in this economy they don’t have any of their own.
Perhaps that’s the next book.