Winter 2019

Sultan of Sweat

By Nicolas Brulliard

Babe Ruth soaked and trained in what is now Hot Springs National Park. He also set a jaw-dropping baseball record.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1918, 23-year-old Babe Ruth stepped up to home plate in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The talented left-handed pitcher had long been clamoring for more playing time, and with a roster weakened by injuries and players who volunteered for service in World War I, the Red Sox manager reluctantly gave Ruth the first baseman position he coveted.

Ruth made the most of the opportunity. In the sixth inning, he hit a home run that, in the words of baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, “changed baseball forever.” After Ruth made contact, the ball flew farther than the players or spectators present had ever seen a baseball fly. Even his amazed opponents stood up and cheered. After that day, Ruth could no longer be seen as just a talented pitcher. His manager quickly realized the value of moving him up in the batting order, and he went on to become one of the greatest sluggers in history. The 1918 hit was not officially measured at the time, but nearly 100 years later some dedicated baseball sleuths determined that Ruth’s home run that day was the first to clear the 500-foot mark.

Ruth’s exploit didn’t take place in one of the sport’s hallowed grounds. Rather, it occurred at a small ballfield in a central Arkansas town (the ball likely ended its extended flight in a nearby alligator farm). That’s because before baseball teams headed for Florida or Arizona for spring training, Hot Springs was the destination of choice of team owners, who hoped that the area’s thermal springs and hiking trails would whip their players into shape. Nearly half of the players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame trained at some point in Hot Springs. “The number of teams coming in any given spring was just limited by the number of ballparks,” said Mark Blaeuer, a former ranger at Hot Springs National Park and the author of “Baseball in Hot Springs.”

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The National Park System counts only one baseball field: Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey. Home to the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans during the 1930s and 1940s, it is one of a handful of remaining ballparks from the Negro Leagues era, when baseball was segregated. In 1942, Larry Doby, a Paterson high school student, was recruited by the Newark Eagles during a tryout at Hinchliffe. Five years later, Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians, following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson, who had broken major league baseball’s color barrier earlier in 1947. NPCA worked on legislation to incorporate Hinchliffe into Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park. The bill passed in 2014, but the stadium, which suffered from years of neglect, remains in disrepair. “There are exciting opportunities to restore the stadium and put it to use for the park, community and historic interpretation,” said Cortney Worrall, NPCA’s senior regional director for the Northeast. “We continue our strong support for the park and its friends group.”

Not much is known about Native Americans’ use of the thermal waters, but it is likely that they visited the springs long before the United States acquired the region as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The area was first protected by the federal government in 1832, and in the following decades, log cabins were replaced by elegant brick and stucco bathhouses. Hot Springs National Park, which was designated in 1921, includes the springs, several of those bathhouses and the surrounding forests.

Some visitors believed that the waters could cure anything from malaria to syphilis, but the owner and the manager of the Chicago White Stockings (the team later known as the Chicago Cubs) just wanted to “boil out the alcoholic microbes” of their hard-drinking players, according to a reporter who tagged along for the team’s spring 1886 trip. After the White Stockings made it to the World Series that season, other teams decided to replicate their pre-season regimen. Spring training was born.

Central Arkansas’ spring weather beat March in Chicago, New York or Boston, where teams had to practice inside gymnasiums. In Hot Springs, players filled their days with games, mountain hikes and, of course, plenty of baths. But healthy living was not all that Hot Springs had to offer at the time: The town included a racetrack and several casinos, and a young Babe Ruth would often leave Hot Springs having borrowed his entire salary for the year, said Mike Dugan, a local baseball historian. Nightclubs and brothels also would keep players busy late into the night. “I always say that Hot Springs was Las Vegas before there was such a thing as Las Vegas,” said Tom Hill, the curator of the park’s museum.

The scene also attracted Al Capone and other notorious gangsters, and after several Chicago White Sox players allegedly were bribed by a gambling syndicate to throw the 1919 World Series, team owners became nervous that their players would be associated with underworld figures. By the end of the 1920s, most major league teams had moved their spring training away from Hot Springs — and its shady characters — to Florida, where the climate was more reliable, and the fields were plentiful.

Ruth, hoping to drop a few pounds, kept traveling to Hot Springs for pre-spring training, but most players moved on. Minor league teams and Negro Leagues teams filled the void, although African American players had to use segregated facilities. A couple of NFL teams trained in Hot Springs around 1950, but as improvements in medicine lessened the appeal of the springs’ health benefits, they stopped going, too.

Memories of Hot Springs’ rich baseball past faded in ensuing decades, but in 2011, local enthusiasts hired a surveying firm to figure out just how far Ruth had hit that March 17, 1918, home run. Using oral history accounts and old photographs, surveyors located home plate on the parking lot of a timber company and determined that the ball landed 573 feet away. (The stadium is gone, but the alligator farm is still there.)

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Baseball historian Jenkinson is not convinced the ball flew that far, but he’s certain it passed the 500-foot mark. What’s more, he thinks Ruth hit an even bigger home run a week after that one. Home runs that clear 500 feet are still extremely rare today. That Ruth hit two in one week with inferior equipment and without the benefit of advanced training methods — or performance-enhancing drugs — is shocking, Jenkinson said.

“If you follow the laws of human performance, it shouldn’t have happened,” he said.

In the alligator farm now stands a plaque, one of 31 around town that show visitors that long ago, Hot Springs was the center of the baseball universe. “We could have a plaque on every corner, but frankly, we had to stop,” said Steve Arrison, the CEO of Visit Hot Springs and the engine behind the city’s historic baseball trail. “You have to be able to see the town behind the baseball plaques.”

About the author

  • Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor

    Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.

This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue

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