The start of our 30 baseball book reviews during the month of April looks back already to to those glory days of March:
The book: “Under The March Sun: The Story of Spring Training”
The author: Charles Fountain
How to find it: Oxford University Press, 336 pages, $24.95
The scoop: Maybe the best way to start this April baseball book review series is to take one last look at March, and the renewed madness is brings with major-league baseball’s connection to its fans.
Fountain, a Northeastern University journalism teacher who did a biography of Grantland Rice, says he spent the first part of his research on this in 2006 back at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., in 2006 and ended it two years later in L.A. talking to Dodger executives about their move to Glendale, Ariz.
So, yes, this is a bit Dodger heavy, but, as Fountain writes in his acknowledgments: “It is quite impossible to write a history of spring training without a long look at the history the Dodgers made in over 60 years in Vero Beach, and the history they made in leaving for Glendale. And it would have been quite impossible to write that history without the cooperation of many in the Dodgers organization.”
But that simply gives the L.A. reader a connection he woudn’t have otherwise to the subject, including a very detailed chapter or two on how Jackie Robinson was able to make it into Daytona Beach for his first spring training in 1945 — with the help of sportswriter Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier as his enabler, just as much as Branch Rickey, it appears.
In all, Fountain’s words about the annual rites of spring training read like a poem, with historical context swept in at the appropriate times.
“The March sun refreshes the body and soul,” he writes near the beginning.
He then has this marvelous quote from Charles Steinberg, the Dodgers’ VP of marketing and public relations whom he calls the “P.T. Barnum of Dodger Stadium”:
“Spring is the essence of baseball’s core. Baseball itself is pristine and devine. Everything you needed to play baseball was in the Garden of Eden. You had the grass. You had the dirt. You had a branch from a tree to make a bat. There had to be a cow somewhere to give you the ball and glove. I was telling this story once and some wise guy said: ‘Yeah, they even had a snake for the media.’ But you had everything you need. Out in the sun. You don’t need a manufactured court; you don’t need a metal-rim basket. You just need a bat and a ball and the good Lord’s earth to play on.”
Greenberg, a non-practicing dentist, then goes on to talk about ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, where human development goes through stages.
“It’s the same thing with the early days of spring training. They play catch, which is the atom of baseball. These days of baseball start with the players doing that which we could do, too. And then as these days reach their finality before the exhibitions begin, they take off. In the first days of spring training, that’s where we watch the development of the game from the atom — the cell — to the magnificent art form that is the best in the world.”
And by the time Fountain reaches the end, he concludes: “Spring training is tastiest in small portions. The writers who wax most rhapsodic about the spiritual and rejuvenating powers of spring training are the columnnists and magazine writers who come in for a week or so at a time, absorb just the right quotient of sunshine, then retreat to worship from afar. The beat writers, who are in the sun every day for a month and a half, harbor no such illusions. They X out the days on the calendar like a prisoner awaiting parole.”
Oh, so that’s how it begins and ends, eh? Kinda sounds like dating a great looking girl.
Considering this is the last few days of players in Florida and Arizona before they break camp, maybe this section is most appropriate today:
Few lament the end of spring training. There is little like it in the American experience, something whose beginning is awaited impatiently and greeted eagerly each year, yet whose demise is met with indifference, relief, even glee. Any baseball player or fan will tell you: as good as spring training is, it’s easily trumped by opening day.
He then has another gem of a quote from Steinberg:
“The funning thing about spring training, I find, is that starting the day after the season, spring training is the most important thing in the world. You count the days, you literally count the days, until pitchers and catchers report. In variably, on the last day of the season, we put up on the scoreboard how many days until spring training starts. Also in variably, in my experience, the day after spring training, you don’t think of it again until the end of the season.”
So long, March. When does the real season start again. We’re done smelling the grapefruits and cactus.
How it goes down in the scorebook: You ever see a scorecard from a spring training game? They have to do something about making those things easier for people in the stands to use. Like, have five slots per position in the batting order. And, although you can’t have names on everyone’s backs, at least a recap of who’s in the field on a scoreboard or PA announcer. Sure, even they’re confused. It’s one confusing mess. One glorious, confusing mess of baseball.
Did you know: Fountain includes a list of where every team held its spring training camp from 1901 to the present.
Los Angeles was a spring home for several teams, including the Chicago Cubs (1903-04, ’48-’49), the New York Giants (’07, ’32-’33) and Chicago White Sox (’08).
Catalina Island was a famous spring home for Philip Wrigley’s Cubs, depending on the WWII situation (1922-’42, ’46-’47, ’50-’51).
Pasadena was the spot for the White Sox (1946-’50) and Cubs (’17-’21).
San Bernardino was home for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1935, ’37-’42, ’46, ’49-’52) and the St. Louis Browns (’48 and ’53).
Burbank — yes, Burbank — hosted the Browns from 1949-52, who also spent a year in Anaheim (’46) before they moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles.
Redondo Beach was the home for the Boston Red Sox in 1911.
Hollywood took care of the Pirates in 1948 (where the PCL Stars were a Pirates farm team)
Long Beach was a Chicago Cubs home in 1966.
Santa Monica did the Cubs OK in ’05.
And glorious Palm Springs, which first had the White Sox (’51), was the long-time home of the Angels from 1961 to 1992, when they moved to Arizona.
And one more Did You Know: Before the Dodgers spent 60 years in Vero Beach (1949-’08), they had spring one year in Havana, Cuba (1947) and the Dominican Republic (’48).
Further reading: On spring training, find David Falkner’s book, “The Short Season: The Hard Work and High Times of Baseball in the Spiring” (1986) (linked here).