Arguably the state’s most historic baseball site — many would contend there’s no debating it — will return to action this spring in Hot Springs as the revamped and renovated Majestic Park baseball complex.
The five-field complex is set up to host everything from youth ball to pro ball, the latter on its 400-feet-to-straight-center Championship Field. Majestic’s renovation was funded through a $7.8 million bond issue approved by city voters.
The Majestic Park site, of course, served as one of the first Major League Baseball spring training locations. It may very well have been the first. The site as used for baseball dates to 1908 with the creation of a practice field by the Detroit Tigers. Back then, major league clubs deployed players to Hot Springs to be “cleansed” of off-season sins by the area’s renowned thermal springs, and to get back in playing shape.
The Red Sox in 1909 were the first team to make Hot Springs an official spring training site. That team, of course, included Babe Ruth. The Reds, Dodgers, White Sox and St. Louis Browns (later the Baltimore Orioles) soon followed suit and made Hot Springs their spring headquarters. Red Sox players gave Majestic Park its name in honor of the grand, old Majestic Hotel, which served as the team’s home away from home.
It was spring training in 1918 when the Red Sox first experimented with playing Ruth in the field. Having previously used Ruth as a pitcher exclusively, the Sox wanted to take advantage of his hitting. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like Ruth, many Hall-of-Fame players would train in Hot Springs over the first half of the 20th century — Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson to name a few. The park even hosted the 1952 Negro World Series (in which Aaron played) and a 1953 exhibition game with Robinson, by then a trailblazing, world-famous Brooklyn Dodger. That game pitted Major League all-stars against Negro American League all-stars.
The site also served as home of the Hot Springs Bathers, a minor league team that started up in 1887 and played on and off through 1955. (Other names used by the team were Blues, Vapors and Vaporites.) One of the great things about Minor League Baseball — which Dwain Hebda visits inside this month’s issue — is the creativity behind team names. As unique and colorful in baseball’s infancy as they are today, team names helped tell a story. Consider the old Arkansas State League, which existed in various carnations from 1894 to 1935.
In addition to the Bathers, the league was home to the Little Rock Rose Buds, the Pine Bluff Pine Knotts, the Argenta Shamrocks, the Fort Smith Soldiers, the Newport Pearl Diggers, the Camden Rainmakers, the Helena Hellions, Morrilton Cotton Pickers, Fayetteville Educators, Rogers Rustlers, Bentonville Officeholders, Texarkana Nobles and the Brinkley Infants.
(Not sure what the story could be behind the Infants, but if anyone knows it, we have a space in the back of the book each month that’s yours, if you want it.)
Two bucket-list items for all Arkansans — the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail and the 2015 documentary, The First Boys of Spring, by Arkansas filmmaker Larry Foley.
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