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A Literary Chronology of Washington Spring Training History

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In 1901, 80 years before the establishment of Panera Bread, Ban Johnson established the American League. It had eight franchises, among them, the Washington Senators. The team's first official game came April 26, 1901, against the Philadelphia Athletics. In a misleading harbinger for the franchise's future, the Senators won, 5-1. But surely, even that felt like a comparative disappointment, given the success they'd already encountered. The team had trained before its season opener in Phoebus, Va., where they scrimmaged against the local team. The headline in the Post after one of these affairs said, "Smothered Phoebus Nine / Senators Wallop Their Opponents to the Tune of 33 to 0 / "Might Have Been More, but the Men Wanted to Get Practice Other Than that of Hitting the Ball and Running Around the Bases."

The story, datelined Hampton, Va., mentioned that Phoebus had used three pitchers during the seven-inning game, but they all looked alike, and "runs came in so fast that the small boys who were trying to keep score by cutting notches on a stick could not keep up with the procession."

If nothing else, the Phoebus nine was left with a strong impression of the Washington Ball Club, and declared it to be "the strongest one that ever trained in this part of the country." There was no mention of how many other clubs trained in Phoebus. The Senators finished 1901 in sixth place.

For three years following, the Senators spent their springs in Washington, D.C. But by 1905, folks saw the wisdom of decamping to some other part of the country, or at least some other part of the region. For 1905, it was determined the Senators would train in Charlottesville, Va. University of Virginia president M.E. Alderman, who had a name that could have only existed in the early 20th Century, offered the school's baseball field and the gymnasium to the Washington Club, and the Post later assessed that "the place is admirably adapted to spring work." The Senators had a splendid field on which to practice, and in the event of inclement weather, they will be "enabled to do useful work in a well-enabled gymnasium in reducing weight, hardening the muscles, and working the soreness out of the arms and legs. These are advantages that few, if any, of the major league teams will have."

After this, the Senators became springtime wanderers, however, always in search of better weather. They spent three years in Galveston (1907-09), one in Norfolk (1910) and one in Atlanta (1911). When everybody arrived in Atlanta, everything looked promising. "Manager McAleer, of the Nationals, Trainer McQuirk, twelve players and two newspaper scribes arrived here shortly before noon today and are now comfortably housed at the New Kimball," one of those newspaper scribes reported. The sun shined brightly, the scribe continued, and the thermometer registered in the 1960s. "The weather in Atlanta has been ideal for baseball practice."

Somehow, for all the fine southerly weather, the team returned to Charlottesville beginning in 1912. This would be their spring home until 1916, until the team decided to seek out a place that gave them a better... well, spring. For 1917, it was off to Augusta, where the weather wasn't as nice as they hoped. "That old jinx -- rain, hail and snow -- continues to follow the Nationals every time they leave port for a training camp," the Post wrote on March 1, 1917. The first workout followed a day later: "Pitchers will take the easiest sort of workout, loosening up those muscles which have lain dormant throughout the winter months. Saturday will undoubtedly find a lot of sore arms among the squad, and the boys will rest on the Sabbath."

A year later, the Senators (or the Nats, as they were often called by then), were a wanted commodity. Tampa sought to lure the team, and Edward C. Darlington, a Tampa-based aviator, called Manager Griffith with the pitch. Darlington declared that "Tampa is an ideal place for the preliminary work of major league ballplayers," the Post's J.V. Fitz Gerald wrote. "He believes the business men (from the Tampa Board of Trade) will offer the Nationals sufficiently attractive inducements to change their camp." The city had a fine diamond, a population of 60,000 and hotel accommodations could be "easily obtained." Plus, the Phillies trained in St. Petersburg, only 20 miles away. Darlington felt certain that Griffith could arrange a series of exhibition games with Pat Moran's one-time National League champions.

So, Tampa it was, from 1920 until 1929. Unfortunately for the Nats, Tampa's weather trumped its interest in maintaining the facilities, and the city billed the Nats for field upkeep. Griffith also disliked the "competition for patronage" that occurred with the establishment of the Tampa Smokers, a team that staged its games on afternoons when the Nats were idle or away. The Post, citing no sources, wrote of a "general feeling that this is the last spring" where the Nats will train in Tampa."

It was. Just in time, the Biloxi Amusement Association offered a contract, so the Nats headed to Mississippi, citing "a reassuring report on Biloxi's spring climate... given [to] Griffith by Casey Stengal, manager of the Toledo American Association team." The local baseball park was said to be the largest in the south. The club would be quartered at the Hotel Biloxi, facing the Gulf of Mexico.

Biloxi, by almost all accounts, enjoyed hosting the Senators. Live music, members from the city's chamber of commerce, and even the mayor himself often welcomed the team's arrival. Still, the club had a complaint. It was too far from other clubs. And the weather wasn't quite good enough. Shirley Povich, on June 14, 1935, broke the news that the Nats were abandoning the "Shrimp Coast" for a spot in the center of "Florida's citrus fruit industry." Yes, Orlando. The city, population 35,000, paid the Washington Ball Club $4,000 to make the move."

The money was better than anything thereafter.

When the team arrived in Florida in the last week of February 1936, Povich wrote that the "the townsfolk [were] apparently keyed to a high pitch of indifference."

World War II, not as opposed to chronic indifference, led the Nats to train between 1943 and 1945 in College Park, Md. The problems with College Park had more to do with the times than the location. The team had become accustomed to using a "robot pitching machine," which Clark Griffith had bought for 1,500 in 1942. But when the machine needed a repair, the Nats' batting practice regimen was endangered. "The machine operates with a heavy band of natural rubber that when snapped gives the force to the ball," one team official explained, "and we're having a [hard] time buying new rubber. It's high on the priorities list. There's no such item for a synthetic rubber substitute for what we need. It must be the best native rubber. I'm hoping the Government will release five pounds of it for us."

By 1946, though, rubber was widely available and the baseball players again headed south for training. In fact, conditions of the migration sounded similar to the present. Washington invited 65 players to camp, which began Feb. 17. It booked 33 spring training games. And yes, they were back in Orlando.

The Senators maintained Orlando as their spring site until 1960. The marriage turned out to be more fruitful for the writers than the ballplayers. Post writer Bob Addied reported in 1959 that "Orlando is a fascinating city and year by year it keeps getting bigger. Orlando shares one thing with Washington and that is the indifference with which it regards the Nats who have been training here for almost 25 years." The club, unhappy with the condition of Tinker Field, occasionally threatened to move elsewhere.

And it did -- but only because the Senators left Washington as well. The team's last season in DC came in 1960, and perhaps the bad news was apparent before the year even began. When the team reported to spring training (again in Orlando) on March 1, Addie wrote that "[t]he Washington Senators apparently aren't any more eager to start spring training than they have been to quit the American League cellar."

Only three men other than pitchers and catchers turned up for the first day of registration. The Senators finished the year 73-81. The next year, they were playing in Minnesota.

DC received a new club almost immediately, right in time for the 1961 season, which began in Pompano Beach, Fla. When club secretary Burt Hawkins made a preliminary trip down there to scout the surroundings, he found the townsfolk clamoring for booster caps and stickers. Also, on Route 1, the Post reported, "a billboard proudly proclaims Pompano Beach as "The Winter Home of the Washington Senators, something Orlando never boasted about when it was host to the old Senators." The Senators remained in Pompano Beach for a decade.

When baseball returned to DC in 2005, the Nats continued to use Viera, Fla., as their spring training site -- used by Montreal since 2003. Everybody was excited about the romanticized prospect of spring and sunshine and baseball, and though Viera lacked some of the metropolitan amenities, it received immediate high marks for weather and grilled panini sandwiches. When the Post Style section published a travel guide for Viera, it mentioned, under a headline "WHERE TO STAY," that there are almost no options available. It recommended the Cocoa's Days Inn. WHERE TO EAT was another complicated matter. "In the first weeks of spring training," one Style writer reported, "my colleague Barry Svrluga, The Post's witty and wise Nationals beat writer, set a land record for consecutive meals at Panera Bread (2290 Town Center Ave.); his streak ended at 15 lunches, and only because the Nats started playing day games. Surely, I figured, I could do better. Nuh-uh: I recommend the chocolate-chip muffins at Panera."

By Chico Harlan  |  February 11, 2009; 11:56 AM ET
 
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Next: Nats Sign Adam Dunn For 2 Years, $20 Million

Comments

Great post, Chico. Thanks for the history lesson (and I hope that you're in training so as to break Svrluga's Panera streak).

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 11, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Outstanding, Chico.

I must say, you have really upped the level of your game this season. I am almost ready to retract all of my critical comments from last season.

Posted by: CvilleNat | February 11, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Terrific read, Chico. Thanks for doing all the research.

Posted by: AshburnVA | February 11, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

I remember my grandparents went to Florida in '69 to visit relatives. They ventured to Pompano Beach for several games, and came back home with wonderful stories of hanging out with players and coaches. All of us got baseballs that had been signed by different players. I still have that baseball, and remember all of their stories.

Posted by: 1of9000 | February 11, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Great read, Chico.

At some point don't we just have to throw the following lineup out there and hope it clicks:

Milledge, cf
Dukes, rf
Zimmerman, 3b
Johnson, 1b
Willingham, lf
Guzman, ss
Flores, c
Hernandez, 2b

Posted by: BobLHead | February 11, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Guzman, ss
Milledge, cf
Johnson, 1b
Dukes, rf
Zimmerman, 3b
Willingham, lf
Flores, c
Hernandez, 2b

Posted by: MrMadison | February 11, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

"Why is a Philadelphia player doing a chat with the Washington Post?

Posted by: Scott_in_Shaw | February 11, 2009 11:26 AM "

Because Eli Saslow invited him.

Posted by: nunof1 | February 11, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Stop it.

I suppose you only read news stories about America, nothing from another country?

Oh wait, that's probably true...

Posted by: natbisquit | February 11, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of ST, any chance of a repeat of the Great Nick Johnson Hairdo Poll of 2008? (I missed on submitting a question in time for the Bally chat - I gather from blog postings that he and Nick keep in touch.)

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/nationalsjournal/2008/03/nick_johnsons_hair.html

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 11, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Wait, Philadelphia is in America?

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 11, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Chico, excellent piece, I enjoyed it.

Posted by: Section505203 | February 11, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Who'd guess that Povich was the first to bring snark to the DC baseball beat? Wonderful!

-----

Povich wrote that the "the townsfolk [were] apparently keyed to a high pitch of indifference."

Posted by: JohninMpls | February 11, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Check out the new post. Seriously. Check it out.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 11, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

good stuff thank you!

Posted by: longterm | February 11, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

The new post is calling me with its siren song (and o! what a song!), but if young Mr. Harlan could take the time to write this treatise, then I can bloody well take the time to say how dang much I enjoyed it. Truly, an excellent read.

Posted by: Scooter_ | February 11, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

"The thermometer registered in the 1960s"? Great Caesar's Ghost, that's hot. Maybe, we need to revisit the whole global warming idea...

Posted by: fischy | February 11, 2009 10:24 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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