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Under the March Sun

The Story of Spring Training

Chicago White Sox v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

“In the spring training jungle, the line between predator and prey is thin and ever shifting.”

Late last summer, my wife presented me with this book, for my birthday. It was recommended to her by a bookseller at one of the local bookshops. (Our neighborhood, thankfully, still has a few.) I thanked her profusely, noted the title, and set it on one of the great piles of unread books that haunt the house. I figured I’d pick it up come 2019 spring training time and enjoy a little history, a few anecdotes and fun stories, and it would get me in the mood for the looming baseball season. Clearly, I didn’t look too closely at the dust jacket or inner flaps. It put me in a mood, all right, but not the one I’d expected.

Under the March Sun is, in fact, a history of spring training, but not the one I was expecting. There is a little baseball here, but more to the point, there is a lot of Baseball, Inc. here. What Charles Fountain has written here, and written very well, is a socio/political/economic history of spring training with baseball being simply the backdrop and a chief product.

Spring training originated as a sort of short-term fat camp, where out-of-shape, out-of-season ballplayers could go work out and get themselves into playing shape ahead of the season. While Cap Anson and his White Stockings are generally credited with being the first manager and team to head south (Arkansas, at the time) to get in shape, in the mid-1880s, they weren’t. Spring training was actually first practiced by, of all people (and perhaps fittingly), William “Boss” Tweed, who sent the New York Mutuals (his team of amateurs) to New Orleans in 1869. The Cincinnati Reds, the first professional team, followed suit in 1870, as did the White Stockings, six years before Anson joined the organization.

Other teams quickly joined the parade south. Remember, in those days virtually all professional teams played in the Northeast quarter of the U.S., and so to get a jump on summer, they headed down and away, though not all to Florida or Arizona (more on this state in a bit), as today. In the first decades of the 20th Century, spring training might be found anywhere from the tropical climes of Champaign, Ill., to Havana, from Hot Springs (Ark.) to Marlin Springs (Texas), from Catalina Island (Calif.) to West Baden (Ind.). The point was to find somewhere warm, cheap, and vaguely remote to burn away offseason fat and get ready for the season.

Fairly early on, a few teams realized that these southern and western states had fans that might be separated from a few dollars to see honest-to-goodness big leaguers play, and so they set up barnstorming tours at the tail end of spring training, playing and earning their way back home for the regular season. The idea was to recoup the losses incurred by taking the team out of town, sheltering, and feeding them for a few weeks. If you could mitigate your expenses, good. If you could break even, great.

World War II, of course, disrupted a lot of the travel. But once the war ended, spring training continued, but brought along new considerations. A (pitifully) small handful of owners, among them Bill Veeck, began to question — and act against — the strictures of the segregated South, and turned their attention to Arizona. Arizona was a spring training outback at the time, but a place generally more welcoming to black ballplayers. Or, at least, less hostile toward them. The book spends a good deal of time examining the role played by black sportswriter and advocate Wendell Smith, who used his platform in a number of black-owned newspapers to illuminate the plight of black ballplayers in spring training and beyond. In general, though, most teams moved from place to place in the spring in order to minimize costs.

Along the way a number of teams, most notably the Dodgers, recognized the advantages of having more than just a few temporary playing and practice fields and created what we would know recognize as spring training facilities. Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., became the model for modern spring training: multiple fields, dormitories for both MLB and MiLB players, and a permanent stadium (though those were around in most spring training sites long before) all located closely together, with amenities like restaurants and golf courses nearby. And one of the benefits the Dodgers discovered was that such a setting and amenities encouraged visitors. And those visitors brought their wallets.

And this is where the meat of the book really takes off. From here, Fountain (who teaches at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism) chronicles the rise of spring training-as-revenue-generator and what it’s meant for ballclubs, and more so what it’s done to the states of Florida and Arizona, their communities and citizens. I intend this as a book review, and not a book report, so I’m not going to go into great detail, but Fountain takes us down the rabbit hole of public funding, where communities have been made by enticing a team to come set up shop, then decimated by their leaving for greener pastures.

Fountain spends a great deal of time chronicling the infighting in city councils, business groups, tourism boards, and citizens groups over whether to pursue a team — and if so, how far to pursue it. He looks at cities’ economic arguments for and against courting spring training baseball, how teams negotiate deals with starry-eyed communities, and how more pragmatic communities approach the pros and cons.

As Fountain explores Spring Training, Inc., he examines a few teams and their spring communities in depth: the Dodgers, as above, and also their partnership with the Chicago White Sox at Camelback/Glendale (note: the book was published in 2009 and written before the deal and complex were officially completed); the Atlanta Braves, their relationships with both their Disney hosts, and the structure they’ve tried to build into their organization; and the Boston Red Sox’s love affair with Ft. Myers and how the Minnesota Twins have managed to cope with and rival it (to some degree). Fountain covers the almost-Oasis League (Las Vegas’ attempted foray into spring training), and the Houston Astros’ sad departure from St. Petersburg for a younger, hotter city. A little history, a few anecdotes and fun stories this is not.

But what it is instead is far more interesting, and as we fall deeper and deeper into the reality of Baseball, Inc., especially around these parts here lately, it helps illuminate how the cogs turn and the sausage gets made. Under the March Sun doesn’t have any, “and then Yogi said to Lefty” stories, but it has a whole lot for the fan whose interest goes beyond how that new kid in AA ball looks against San Francisco’s split-squad.

Couldn’t find a similar Sox image, but this is a nice one from TigerTown in Lakeland, FL. Gets the spirit and point across.