Arizona's Buckhorn Baths House Spring Training History
March 3, 2012
Chicago Sun Times
Hope springs eternal at the Buckhorn Mineral Baths, Motel and Wildlife Museum in East Mesa.
The roadside motel has been closed since 1999, but everything is in place as if owners Ted and Alice Sliger slipped out for a desert dip. Letters are unopened in the mail slots behind the motel’s front desk. A ribbon of pink neon still glistens on the outside of the motel.
Baseball’s New York Giants discovered the Buckhorn Baths in 1947, and players made the 15-acre resort a spring training stop until 1972.
Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Gaylord Perry and Ty Cobb were regulars at the baths. So was Ernie “Mr. Cub” Banks, who still believes the restorative powers of the baths helped him hit 15 home runs during one spring training.
The Buckhorn Baths gave birth to spring training in Arizona.
The Sligers bought the promised land in 1936 and opened the baths in 1939, tapping into the mineral waters of the East Salt River Valley. It operated under the same owners for 63 years. The business opened in 1926 as a gas station and general store on U.S. Highway 60,
a k a The Apache Trail.
The Mesa Historical Museum and Mesa Preservation Foundation has begun evaluation on preserving the Buckhorn site.
In the not-too-distant future, baseball fans and devotees of Western culture will be able to soak up the Buckhorn Baths, motel and museum. The baths closed in 1983, and in 2005 the site was put on the National Register of Historic Places. The Cubs’ new spring training site, which is slated to open in spring 2014, is about 13 miles west of the Buckhorn Baths.
Fans can see pieces of Buckhorn history today.
Giants and future Cubs manager Leo Durocher loved the place so much he commissioned a 1954 silver platter for the Sligers when the Giants won the World series. Durocher and Giants owner Horace Stoneham considered the Sligers part of the team. That tray with engraved signatures is now on display at the Play Ball! exhibit with other Cactus League items at the Arizona Historical Society Museum at Papago Park, 1300 N. College Rd., in Tempe. Stoneham invited the Sligers to come along on the team’s 1960 goodwill tour of Japan. Museum visitors can see items from that journey including tour booklets and custom made Giants transistor radios at Play Ball! exhibits at 51 E. Main St. in downtown Mesa, and the Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts (Playballexperience.com for details.)
During the Buckhorn’s heyday, players would congregate in the motel “trophy room” to watch a mid-sized black and white television. The room still contains the television, surrounded by sofas and chairs accented by wagon wheels and covered in leopard skins. It’s Arizona’s answer to Graceland’s Jungle Room.
The trophy room contains 403 stuffed animals. A fireplace is handmade from animal horns and stones representing every mineral from Arizona.
Dolly the four-horned sheep was born on the property. It was difficult for Dolly to eat since one horn intruded on her jaw. She died young. Dolly now watches over her flock from above the fireplace.
The mineral springs are directly behind the trophy room.
While searching for their own water source in 1939, the Sligers sunk a well. The water wasn’t cold, but it became gold. The water was 112 degrees and filled with minerals. Ted and Alice immediately turned the property into a tourist attraction, adding Pueblo Revival cottages, a bathhouse that could serve up to 75 people, cafe and beauty shop. Later they built a nine hole “desert golf course” (no grass) between acres of cactus and sagebrush.
Plans call for restoration of the site and new Little League fields. Housing for tournament players is already in place in the “tourist court” cottages.
The Mesa Historical Museum called in the Historic New England preservation group for an assessment. They called the Buckhorn Baths the most important site in the West in need of preservation because it goes beyond baseball to touch on car culture and the birth of tourism. The Society for Commercial Archaeology has listed the baths as No. 1 on its list of most endangered roadside places in the United States.
“I’d love to see the Buckhorn Baths open again,” Banks said last week after an autograph session in Chicago. “I took baths there. A lot. It helped me out, and the Cubs should be using the baths. Now! They had a masseuse in there, exercise areas. The Giants and the Cubs used the baths a lot. The Indians came up from Tucson. We didn’t stay there, but we traveled there from our hotel.” The Giants’ Stoneham invited his top players to use the baths, but not the entire team.
A pristine wood sign near a palm tree garden details the contents of the odorless water: “silica-calcium, sodium-nitrate, chlorides-sulphates, magnesium, bicarbonates, potassium, hydrogen.” Sounds just like Theo Epstein’s computer programming.
Gaylord Perry immediately flew to Mesa from his home in North Carolina when he learned that Alice Sliger had died in November 2010. She was 103. Alice lived on the property until three months before her death. Ted died in 1984 at the age of 81.
“Behind their place was hundreds of acres of nothing but desert,” Perry recalled this week from Arizona. “We would go for a long walk, take a long run. You’d take a sun bath, they would wrap you up. You’d get a massage. We’d be there a week to 10 days before spring training. Mentally it absolutely got you ready for baseball season. My Dad loved that museum, and I loved it too. Ted would tell you stories every day about how he started with the gas station, how he stuffed animals, things like that.”
Coincidentally, 15 feral black cats prowl the grounds.
Ted Sliger was a sportsman and a taxidermist. The walls are adorned with deer heads and the head of a large sea bass. You cannot miss a 4,000-pound stuffed buffalo called “Old Renegade.” I picked up a faded postcard in the motel’s lobby that explains how Old Renegade was ousted from his herd. In part, the back of the postcard reads, “… Living alone did not improve Old Renegade’s temper and he became so destructive to the property of cattlemen that the Arizona Game and Fish Commission ordered his destruction, and called upon Ted Sliger to do the job. After a hunt of two days Old Renegade was killed while charging his attackers. Now mounted life size, Old Renegade is on display at Ted Sliger’s Buckhorn Museum.”
Sharon Brossett was Alice’s caregiver the last three years of her life. She connected with Alice because they were both Mormons.
Brossett is now general manager of the property and takes care of Ted Jr., the Sligers’ 63-year-old son who inherited the property. “I have a career in taking care of older people,” she said during a conversation in the trophy room. “I have never known anyone as sharp as Alice was at that age. That woman conducted her own business until a week before she passed.”
Brossett looked around the trophy room. Fighting cocks were on a nearby table, sparring for eternity. An angry bobcat is in full plunge mode. Woodchucks stand on a counter. “I was with Alice for a year and a half before I was ever allowed in this room,” Brossett said. “She protected it like a mother hen. Preservation was her focus ever since I met her. Before the real estate market fell out, a lot of people were willing to buy it. She was never serious about the offers because they weren’t including keeping all this intact. When she would hear they would destroy these animals, she stopped negotiations right there.”
The museum and preservation foundation began intensive research of the site in November.
Lisa Anderson, CEO of the Mesa Historical Museum, explained, “Our group is working to secure the material culture, cataloging the baseball items, the Native American collection, Ted’s gun collection, art collection. We’re creating a team with professionals from other museums throughout the valley. We’re looking at a three- to five-year plan to find a solution for the future of those collections.” Precious outdoor neon would be preserved.
The gas station that was the birth of the Buckhorn complex was a little less than a mile down U.S. 60 from the present site. “On Christmas Eve 1935, which was Alice’s birthday, Ted and Alice went to a party,” Brossett said. “The gas station-house they occupied burned to the ground. This place got its name because the only thing that survived the fire was one buckhorn. After the house burned down, they lived in a tent on this property while they rebuilt.”
The Buckhorn Baths is a much deeper experience than a bathhouse and historic baseball site.
“It is significant on so many different levels,” said Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation. “Baseball is just one. It is the largest collection of taxidermy of Arizona wildlife. It has the world’s largest metate (stones to grind corn into corn meal) wall. There’s over 1,000 metates in this wall. This a project few have ever encountered throughout the country.”
For warm baseball memories from Ferguson Jeknins, Gaylord Perry and the future of the historic Buckhorn Baths, visit blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra.