I could almost hear the crack of the bat reverberating through 100 years of history. A moon was hanging in the morning sky and I imagined a ball soaring past it, then landing with a plop in a pond at the Arkansas Alligator Farm across the street. I was standing at the site of the historic Whittington Park, where, in 1918, Babe Ruth made history with a record-breaking home run – the first to fly more than 500 feet.
Today, the historic ballfield is an employee parking lot, and one of many stops along the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a free, self-guided tour that showcases the city’s rich baseball history. At my feet, a home plate base, permanently planted in the pavement, marks the spot of the 573-foot grand slam. The event, widely reported at the time, is still being celebrated today in a town where nostalgia for America’s favorite pastime is in full swing.
“Just the sheer length of it was astounding to everyone who saw it,” said Bill Jenkinson, a leading authority on Ruth. (He was the primary historical consultant for the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum in Baltimore, Md. and also helped with the creation of the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail.)
Witnesses included Ruth’s teammates (he was playing for the Boston Red Sox at the time) and members of the Brooklyn Dodgers who they were playing against, plus thousands of onlookers.
“It was reported that the crowd estimate that day was 18,000,” said baseball historian Mike Dugan who also helped research the local Baseball Trail.
Known as the “birthplace” of Major League spring training, Hot Springs hosted more than 300 professional ball players between the late 1800s through the middle of the 20th century, including 137 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition to the Great Bambino, the city welcomed many other legendary players: Cy Young, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby and Hank Aaron, among others. What attracted them to the city was Hot Springs’ nationally-prized, thermal spring water – purported to cure a wide range of ailments.
The trend started in 1886 when the Chicago White Stockings, now the Cubs, came to Hot Springs to “boil out the winter,” according to a front-page story appearing in the first issue of the weekly newspaper “The Sporting News.” The team practiced daily on a makeshift field at the site of what is now the Garland County Courthouse. When the White Stockings went on to win the National League’s pennant that year, other teams took note.
“Like any business that’s out there, the other teams copied success,” Dugan said. “So over the course of the next 30 years, Hot Springs became the hotbed for what we now know as spring training.”
Reprint from: Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission, web site.