Every summer, Hollywood pitches a new film about baseball to American moviegoers. Although the sport isn’t as popular as it once was, Americans still regard it as their ‘game’ and the nostalgia for baseball’s golden age sets in. This year’s baseball film entry is ’42’. I finally had the chance to see it the other night and it hit a home run in my book. It’s a solid baseball biography about the legendary Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers team owner Branch Ricky who had the courage to add Robinson to his roster of players. The only fault I found with the film is that it wasn’t made long before now.
As I watched, I thought of my recent visit to Hot Springs, Ark. Before World War II, Hot Springs hosted most of baseball’s biggest teams for spring training. The teams arrived by train and included the Chicago White Stockings (later to be the Cubs), the Cincinnati Reds, the Boston Red Sox, the Pittsburg Pirates and, of course, the Brooklyn Dodgers. At its height, Hot Springs had five fields where as many as 250 players came to train. Cy Young, Smokey Joe Wood, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth,Joe DiMaggio, Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean and yes, Jackie Robinson, were among the greats who trained or played in Hot Springs during its golden years of spring training. In fact, more than half of baseball’s Hall of Famers trained there at some point during their careers.
They were attracted by the area’s natural mineral waters that gurgle up from inside the earth at 143 degrees. Native Americans first enjoyed the healing properties of the thermal waters. Soaking in the hot springs became part of the baseball player’s daily regimen during spring training in Hot Springs. Prior to or after a practice or game, players would take a plunge at one of the turn-of-the-century bathhouses located on the city’s Bathhouse Row.
All of the historic buildings are now managed by the National Park Service. (The area became a National Park in 1921.) These grand bathhouses, each with their own architectural style, were built by promoters in an effort to outdo one another and attract those who sought relief in the mineral waters. Only two still function as spas. The Buckstaff retains a traditional style treatment with men’s and women’s tubs located on separate floors.
The Quapaw was renovated and reopened in 2008 as a full-service spa with four co-ed soaking pools that range from 99 to 104 degrees. Like many who come here, I relaxed in the tubs after a refreshing massage.
My friends and I also enjoyed a cool drink in the lobby lounge of the historic Arlington Hotel, located at the end of Bathhouse Row. The grand old hotel remains a popular stop for travelers, just as it was in the heyday of spring training. It too has its own bath house for guests.
On another day, you can take the self-guided tour of the Baseball Trail, just as I and my friend did. At each of the 26 stops, a pre-recorded message, delivered on your cell phone by punching in a special code, takes you back to the bygone days of baseball. At stop number 11, in front of the Arkansas Alligator Farm, you learn that Babe Ruth knocked a 573-foot homer from Whittington Park, once located across the street ,to that spot and and became baseball’s first 500-foot plus drive. The astonishing hit remains remarkable even today. Stop 21 is designated for Jackie Robinson who played an exhibition game at the Jaycee Field in 1953.
Although the major leaguers left Hot Springs shortly after the U.S. entered World War II in 1942, the hot, soothing waters of Hot Springs, Ark. continue to draw tourists who want to experience the bathing ritual as so many before them have done. Some even fill bottles with the scalding water from the fountains found on the street in order to take piece of Hot Springs, and a little of its history, home with them.
See more of my photos of historic Hot Springs on my blog’s Portfolio page. http://cherylcrooksphotography.wordpress.com/portfolio/ Learn more about the historic Baseball Trail at http://www.hotspringsbaseballtrail.com/begin-your-journey/