Cubs Spring Training in ... Indiana! 108 since 1908, part VII.

The Cubs begin playing baseball in Arizona today. They face Milwaukee in their first Spring Training (ST) game of 2016 at the Brewers' ST ballpark. On Friday and Saturday they play at their ST home, Sloan Park in Mesa. The new ballpark opened in 2014 and was hailed as one of the finest training facilities in Arizona, with the largest seating capacity at 15,000. In fact, when the Cubs moved north to begin the regular season at Wrigley Field, the old ballpark's primitive clubhouses were several steps down in quality from what the players were getting used to in Mesa.

Sloan Park's naming rights were purchased last year by the Sloan Valve Company of suburban Franklin Park. Appropriately, Sloan was founded in 1906, the first year the Cubs played in a World's Series. They lost to the White Sox in the first ever crosstown series played in any city. (The first World's Series, as it was called back then, was in 1903. There was no Series in 1904 because the NL champion New York Giants refused to play. They didn't recognize the legitimacy of the new American League, declared a "major league" just three years before in 1901.)

Also appropriately, Sloan's first products were flush valves for toilets and urinals ... appropriate considering Wrigley Field's historic men's room troughs, and the opening day restroom problems last year's construction caused, as reported by Barry Petchesky of Deadspin.com.

Cubs Den posted an excellent photo gallery of Sloan Park images. It looks very nice. I wish we could visit. Wait 'til next year!

But what about the Cubs of 1908? Did they even have Spring Training back then? The answer is, YES! And if they held ST now where they held it then, it would be much easier for Chicago residents to take in a game or two.

(Excerpted, and slightly edited, from the book Waiting for the Cubs by yours truly, aka Admin)

In 1908 the Cubs trained in West Baden, Indiana, a resort known for its natural springs whose waters, like its namesake Baden Baden in Germany, were reputed to have health-restoring properties.  The players didn’t exactly have to rough it.  The West Baden Springs Hotel, built in 1902, featured a six-story domed atrium, the largest in the world until the Houston Astrodome was built in 1963.  The luxury hotel was known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and was a favorite of celebrities.  It fell into disrepair for decades, but has recently been restored to its original splendor.

The Cubs left for southern Indiana on March 4, 1908 [108 years ago tomorrow!], having just hired a new trainer, A.B. Semmens.  Good physical health was a concern even then.  Semmens was hired, according to the Chicago Tribune, as “an expert on sprains and ‘charley horses,’ the only horses a dutiful player is supposed to know anything about,” a not-so-veiled reference to gambling, the vice of greatest concern in 1908, but maybe not so much of a concern for Cub management. The West Baden Springs Hotel was, and is now, located within a mile of the French Lick Casino.  Gambling, although technically illegal in 1908 Indiana, was somehow okay in French Lick.  Political connections, then as now, meant everything when you wanted to make a buck.

The Cubs at Spring Training in Indiana at the West Baden Springs Hotel. The dome is visible in the background.

The Cubs at Spring Training in Indiana at the West Baden Springs Hotel. The hotel's famous dome is visible in the background at left. Chicago History Museum, SDN-005537.

Legend has it that one day during the late 1920s a gentleman stood at the hotel's registration desk checking in. There was a short line and a man behind him became very impatient. He began berating the hotel clerk for working too slowly. The man checking in turned and said something like, "Leave the kid alone, pal. He's doing the best he can."

But the rude hotel guest would not let up. Soon the first man was checked in and the impatient one made his way to the front of the line. "Who does that guy think he is," he said, "telling me how to talk or not talk?"

The clerk looked at the man and calmly said, "Al Capone."

The man visibly paled, picked up his luggage, and immediately left the hotel without registering.

The Cubs practiced on a ball field completely surrounded by a double-deck bicycle track (see photo above), very close to the hotel. And they were not alone. The St. Louis Browns, the Cardinals, the Red Sox, the Phillies, the Reds, the Pirates, and even the White Sox used the West Baden Springs Hotel grounds for Spring Training. They could have called the group of ball clubs the "Limestone League" after the plentiful nearby quarries.

West Baden Springs Hotel. Vintage illustration.

West Baden Springs Hotel. Vintage illustration.

Southern Indiana was an attractive site because by March it could be reasonably warm (it will be in the high 50s this weekend, going up to the high 60s next week), and it was a short train ride away for teams who were used to longer trips from Chicago, for example, to Boston, New York, or Philadelphia.

Inside the dome at the West Baden Springs, Indiana, Hotel.

Inside the dome at the West Baden Springs, Indiana, Hotel.

There was no air travel in 1908. The Wright Brothers had indeed made their first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, in 1903, but their humble airplane had traveled only 852 feet and remained airborne for all of 59 seconds. They continued to experiment and modify their flying machines, but little more was heard from them. One French newspaper even doubted they had ever flown at all, reminiscent of those who would deny that man has walked on the moon.

Until 1908. By August of that year the Wrights had finally developed a machine that could fly greater distances and stay in the air as long as an hour. They demonstrated their "Flyer" in front of both commercial and military interests in the United States and France.

Orville Wright flies over Fort Myer, Virginia, near Washington, DC. 1908.

Orville Wright flies over Fort Myer, Virginia, near Washington, DC. 1908.

Air travel as we know it was truly born the year the Cubs last won a World's Series.

(Since the Cubs have already won the 2016 World Series by acclamation, "Waiting4Cubs" is reviewing the upcoming season with notes on the joys of winning it all, while comparing this year to the Cubs and the world of 1908, the last time the Cubs took the championship. This is part VII. Click here to find parts I-VI.)
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