Arizona's Cactus League History - Unfiltered

February 24, 2012
Mike Sakal

When Susie Steckner was a kid, she always looked forward to going to spring training games at Phoenix Municipal Stadium with her father, an ardent San Francisco Giants fan.

Although the Giants had guys on the team like eventual Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, the game wasn’t so much about the teams, she said, as the experience of just being there. Those experiences carried over to sitting on the patio at home and listening to the games on the radio with her dad, and continued as she got older: a few beers, a bag of peanuts and a sunny day.

Although Steckner last attended a game with her father in 1995 shortly before he passed away, Steckner still maintains a tradition of going to games at Phoenix Muni and Tempe Diablo Stadium, currently the Cactus League homes of the Oakland A’s and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

After a whirlwind of a project that began in January of last year and completed eight months later, Steckner, in partnership with the Mesa Historical Museum and Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America Series have released the book, “Cactus League: Spring Training,” in time for the 2012 spring training season — the Grand Canyon State’s centennial year.

The book’s cover appropriately is a photo of Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks — Mr. Cub himself pointing to the 1960 spring training schedule painted on the wooden fence of Mesa’s Rendezvous Park where the Cubs trained. The book’s introduction was written by Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry who played for four teams that train in Arizona.

The effort includes 225 photographs relating to the history of spring training in Arizona through its old ballparks, players, fans and people who helped to lure teams to the Valley, as well insight on former Cactus League franchises like the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox. The book will be available beginning Saturday and Sunday during the Spring Training Festival at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts before debuting in bookstores and on Monday.

“I’m thrilled that the book is out in time for spring training,” said Steckner, a Valley-based writer. “I think people will like looking back at the journey and going back in time to see the impact spring training has had on Arizona. Baseball is huge in this state for many families and has helped shape its history.”

Steckner, a Valley-based writer, will be signing “Cactus League,” from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in Scottsdale and also has a number of future signings scheduled in the East Valley.

At a cost of $21.99, proceeds from “Cactus League” will benefit the Mesa Historical Museum’s ongoing exhibit, “Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience,” the only known exhibit in the United States dedicated to the history of spring training. The Mesa Historical Museum hopes the growing exhibit, which has grown to about 3,000 artifacts since its inception in 2009, will have its own museum in the future.

Steckner researched the photographs for the book, delved into archives and visited places such as the Francisco Grande Hotel in Casa Grande (where the Giants trained in the early 1960s) and Ted and Alice Sliger’s former Buckhorn Baths in east Mesa — where the Giants first lodged in 1947. Similar to her journey, readers also can journey back in time to see spring training’s slow beginnings when the state hosted just four teams before its transformation into a major tourist draw, with half of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams in Arizona each spring.

But it’s the never-seen-before and behind the scenes pictures that fill the book and hold one’s attention. Willie Mays sitting on a massage table at the Buckhorn Baths; Locker room shots of the Cleveland Indians at Tucson’s Hi Corbett in the 1960s; The Houston Colt 45s at Apache Junction’s long-gone Geronimo Park in 1962; Hitting greats Ted Williams and an elderly Ty Cobb conversing behind the batting cage at Scottsdale Stadium in 1960 when the Boston Red Sox trained there.

“It’s easy to get pictures of players on the field, but people want to feel like an insider, and many of these photos provide readers a behind-the-scenes look at how players lived and what they did during spring training,” Steckner said. “I can’t imagine players sleeping in bunk beds and holding trays while waiting in a cafeteria line today.

“People think of (Arizona) as this powerhouse when it comes to spring training, but it wasn’t always that way,” she added. “I think people will enjoy seeing how baseball first came to Arizona for spring training and how we got where we’re at.”

After looking through the book cover-to-cover, I would say she’s right.