By Jay Mark
Special for The Republic | azcentral.com
Ah, March. While folks back East are still praying for an end to an interminable winter, we in Arizona are enjoying longer days and basking in a warm sun.
Perfect springtime weather for taking in some of American’s national pastime — Cactus League baseball.
2017 is a milestone year for spring training baseball in Arizona. As you sit in one of our 10 intimate ballparks you’ll be continuing a tradition that began 70 years ago.
PHOTOS: Cactus League 2017
Professional baseball teams have played springtime practice games since early in the 20th century.
Call it “baseball barnstorming.” Teams traveled by rail across the country looking for a ball field and local teams near the tracks for some pick-up games.
These informal scratch contests started to become more formal after World War II.
Enter Cactus League
What would become today’s Cactus League began in 1947 with just two teams.
Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians practiced in Tucson.
Horace Stoneham, who owned the New York Giants, had a winter home in Phoenix. Veeck persuaded his friend to bring the Giants out to Arizona for spring training. That would provide some competition for the two teams.
What solidified it for Stoneham was the chance discovery of a recently opened health spa with hot mineral water — the first of its kind in the Valley.
Stoneham decided to bring his best players out to the Buckhorn Baths for a week of pampered spa treatments. Thus started a Giants tradition that would continue for more than 25 years.
Here come the Cubs
The third post-War team to make the Valley its spring training home was the Chicago Cubs.
For many years, chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley brought the team out to his Catalina Island retreat 20 miles off the coast from Los Angeles.
When World War II disrupted activities on the West Coast, the team finally landed in Los Angeles — something management didn’t like. Too many distractions.
That’s when Mesa businessman, rancher and Chamber of Commerce leader Dwight Patterson persuaded Wrigley to relocate the Cubs to Mesa.
After a tour of Mesa and Rendezvous Park, Clarence Rowland, president of the Cubs’ L.A. farm team, who was looking for the “healthful clean fun a smaller city can offer,” returned to California, saying, “One of the main reasons why the Cubs do not want to train in Los Angeles … is that the city offers too much night life and glamour.”
For the 1952 spring training season, the Cactus League had swelled to three teams. Except for a 12-year period between 1966 and 1978, the Cubs have called Mesa home.
Today’s spring training
In the 70 years since the first Cactus League games were played between the Indian and Giants, springtime baseball has expanded to 15 teams playing in 10 ballparks.
We’ve come a long way in seven decades. See you at a game.