The history of spring training, like the history of baseball itself, is one of ongoing professionalization and standardization. Major league teams today have permanent complexes in Florida and Arizona, with modern facilities and highly trained staff, efficient marketing and an ability to monetize almost anything related to spring training. But in the early days of spring training, teams lacked set destinations. Depending on the year and where the manager felt like spending his spring, teams trained in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, California (even Catalina Island!), Cuba.
One of the reasons teams drifted from location to exotic location in the earliest days of spring training was because managers were looking for ways to control their players, to find the dry spots where a manager might find a drink but a player could not. (In later days, Casey Stengel, one of John McGraw’s great managing disciples, solved this problem for himself by telling his players that they weren’t allowed to drink in the hotel bar, because that was where he did his drinking.)
John McGraw for many years favored Marlin, Texas, because it was in the middle of nowhere, and – he hoped – better suited to enforcing his rules. McGraw, who managed the Giants from 1902 to 1932, worried about his players — about their health, their nutrition, their dispositions, their domestic lives, their drinking habits, the degree of their commitment to the game. So in 1908 he decided on a spring training site that would allow him more control over all his worries. Marlin was a little town of 4,000, one hundred miles south of Dallas in central Texas, and known as far away as — well, Dallas — for its hot springs. Marlin was no stranger to big league baseball. The Cincinnati Reds had trained there a few years earlier, but had given it up as too remote from major population centers.
Marlin’s isolation and its unexotic character were just what made it attractive to McGraw. He was going, he said, to enforce strict discipline for the coming season. It was time for his players to “get wise to the fact that I am not going to be imposed on any longer. . . . I’m going to put my heel down good and hard.” Yet, while Marlin was removed from the fleshpots of Dallas, San Antonio or Houston, it also provided adequate rail service to those and other places for exhibition games.
Spring training was simpler in 1908 than today. The Giants did not have ten coaches, each specializing in some aspect of the game. They had one old-timer, Arlie Latham, who had been a first-rate ballplayer, but was “probably the worst third base coach who ever lived,” according to Giant outfielder Fred Snodgrass. Wilbert Robinson, a catcher on the old Baltimore Oriole teams on which McGraw had played third base, served as a pitching coach of sorts until he was hired to manage the Brooklyn Superbas in 1914.
The ball field was two miles from the Giants’ hotel, and every day, twice a day, morning and afternoon, the Giants would walk from the hotel to the field along the railroad tracks. Once at the field, McGraw insisted they run several times around it (he was big on that), and naturally they took batting and fielding practice. Snodgrass remembered that as a rookie in 1908, it was practically impossible for him to get up to the plate in batting practice. The youngster was an outsider, and the he later claimed in his interview with Lawrence Ritter for The Glory of Their Times that veterans were not about to make it easy for him to take away one of their jobs.
In fact, though, McGraw’s spring routine included two weeks of early work with the pitchers, catchers and rookies. Pitchers tended to get more out of shape in the off-season than other players, he believed, and he wanted them to run and field bunts and sweat until they shed their winter fat and were ready to pitch when the regular season arrived. Wilbert Robinson would work with the pitchers and catchers. McGraw always liked to take personal charge of the rookies. After the second week, he’d usually made up his mind whom he would keep, assign to a minor league team, or send home with a handshake and best wishes.
In the spring of 1910, the town of Marlin deeded the ballpark, with its recently sodded field and rebuilt stands and fences, to the Giants for as long as they continued to train there. Each morning, the players, some in old Giant uniforms, some in uniforms they’d worn on previous clubs, followed McGraw down the railroad track to Emerson field, named after the local postmaster who’d raised the money for its improvements.
McGraw regularly pitched batting practice. At eleven o’clock, he led everybody on a jog around the field and back to the hotel for a hot shower in the common bathhouse (there were no private baths at the Arlington) and then lunch — or “dinner” as their Texan hosts called it. As Christy Mathewson noted, it was hard to get used to sitting down to the day’s biggest meal at noon, with the afternoon practice still ahead, and then making do with a leftover “supper” in the evening when the players were hungriest.
McGraw insisted that everybody — rookies and veterans alike — spend a portion of every day at sliding practice. He stood by and personally supervised each man’s effort in a ten-foot-long pit. Only feet-first slides were permitted, because McGraw believed that sliding headfirst simply ran a man directly into the tag, whereas doing it feet first, especially with a “hook” or “fadeaway” maneuver, got the runner to the base just as fast and with more chance of evading the tag.
Once the regulars were on hand, McGraw organized intrasquad games between them and the “Yanigans” (rookies), usually umpiring himself from behind the pitcher. By mid-March the squads were traveling to Waco, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Dallas for games; and at the end of the month the Giants broke camp and, usually still split up, began barnstorming their way back toward New York.
For six weeks of every year for eleven years, 1908-1918, the New York Giants were part of the cycle of life in Marlin. The men who made up the country’s best known baseball team became familiar faces to the residents of the little town on the central Texas prairie. Fish fries at the nearby falls of the Brazos River, benefit intrasquad games for local charities, the annual community dance at the Arlington organized by Art Devlin just before the Giants left town each spring — such events became a part of Marlin’s existence that was taken for granted. As were McGraw’s losses at poker and his winnings at bridge (with Mathewson as his partner), Mathewson’s simultaneous checker games with the town experts, the manager’s fondness for late-night visits to hear local African-American musicians playing ragtime, and Larry Doyle‘s penchant for throwing firecrackers under the lobby chairs of napping sportswriters. There was occasional friction as well, such as the time pitcher Richard “Rube” Marquard decided to break the tedium by discharging his pistol out of the window of his room. McGraw had to threaten to abandon the town before the Marlin police chief would agree to forget that particular disturbance.