Cactus League Evolution Still Involves Fans
March 3, 2012
The Arizona Republic
Today’s baseball fans would have a hard time recognizing the Cactus League during its formative years in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The Chicago Cubs in 1952 would walk two blocks from their motel down Main Street in Mesa to rickety Rendezvous Park, where kids got in for 25 cents, the best seats went for $3 and downtown businesses closed for the afternoon so more people could attend the game.
While the small, wooden ballparks of yesteryear were unquestionably more intimate, with Cubs legend Billy Williams once trading a couple of autographed balls for half a barbecued chicken, most people seem to think fans, players and Arizona’s economy are far better off today.
When Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins was traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Cubs in 1966, the Cactus League had four teams, two in Arizona and two in California. A full roster of 40 players would train on one field.
Today, half of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams train in the Valley and each team has seven or eight fields for a variety of fitness and baseball drills that would have been incomprehensible to players four decades ago.
“The facilities are outstanding,” said Jenkins, who raises money for his charitable foundation by signing balls during games at Hohokam Stadium. “The conditions you play in make you a better player.”
The gleaming, modern constellation of Cactus League ballparks are more comfortable and far larger. Fans can choose from 15 teams, all within an hour’s drive of each other, rather than just the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians, the first two teams that gave birth to the fledgling league in 1947.
Cactus League President Brad Curtis said fans can still get autographs if they know their way around spring training complexes, although everyone acknowledges professional autograph hounds have made players more reluctant to sign.
“For the fans, it’s better,” Curtis said, with the traditions of baseball still celebrated during Cactus League games.
Despite yearly price increases that have pushed ticket prices for the best seats into the $30 range, good seats still are cheaper than during regular season games, he said.
“You can still get a $6-$7 lawn seat and watch major-league players,” Curtis said. “I still think its cheaper in spring training. I still think it’s a bargain.”
Author Susie Steckner, an Arizona native who wrote a new book about Cactus League history, Cactus League: Spring Training as a fundraiser for the planned Cactus League Museum, said she can still take her sons to Tempe Diablo Stadium and get autographs.
“I think you can still have an intimate experience. I think spring training is still about the fans. It has retained that element,” Steckner said. “I don’t think fans are missing out. It’s just different.”
Robert Johnson, a Valley public-relations consultant also working toward establishing a Cactus League Museum, said the league has evolved, just like every other aspect of life.
“It’s absolutely different but so are the times. Players are more sophisticated and have greater needs,” he said, citing today’s advanced training facilities.
In the league’s early years, “it was really all about the weather. Now, it’s an event in and of itself,” Johnson said.
Bud Page, head of the Mesa HoHoKams, the civic group that sponsors the Cubs each year, said the Oakland Athletics were drawing 1,500-1,700 fans to Rendezvous Park when he joined the group in 1974.
The Cubs now draw more than 12,000 fans to some games, although tickets are still available for most games this year.
“We had no concept of the magnitude of people getting involved and following the team of their choice,” Page said.
Major League teams barnstormed in Arizona in the early part of the 20th century, but the league didn’t come about until owner Horace Stoneham moved the Giants to Phoenix in 1947.
Bill Veeck, the colorful Indians owner, moved his team to Tucson that same year and hotelier Dwight Patterson persuaded the Cubs to move to Mesa in 1952.
Other teams gradually floated in and out of the league, including the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, who both trained in Scottsdale at various times.
Johnson said even though there’s still room for improvement, today’s league is exactly what Cactus League pioneers such as Patterson envisioned, with hotels and ballparks full of fans.
“This is what the pioneers of the Cactus League wanted it to be. They wanted it to be an opportunity for people to discover Arizona,” Johnson said.