Cactus League

The Cactus League celebrates its 70th year this month.

Spring training is almost as old as baseball itself. Major League teams have been using warm weather sites for spring training for over a century. Camps have been set up from the southern U.S. to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. In the late 1800’s, the Chicago White Stockings and Cincinnati Red Legs held organized baseball camps in New Orleans, while the Washington Capitals put on a four-day camp in Jacksonville. By the turn of the century, spring training had become a baseball ritual, with most American and National League teams heading to warm climates so players could train and managers could evaluate talent. Major League Baseball did not move west of Kansas City until 1958, so most teams trained in Florida, where the Grapefruit League was established in 1910. As America made sacrifices during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged major league baseball to continue playing, believing the National Pastime boosted homeland morale. During the war years, teams scaled back and moved spring training closer to home. The New York Yankees ended up in New Jersey, the Red Sox moved to Boston’s Tufts College, and the Reds held camp in Bloomington, Indiana.

One day in the mid-1940s, New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham stumbled onto the Buckhorn Baths and Mineral Springs resort in Mesa, Arizona. While settling into a hot bath from one of the many mineral springs on the property, he thought of his players and how the water could prepare their muscles for the upcoming season. In 1947, Stoneham and Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck, who owned a ranch in Tucson, agreed to bring their teams to Arizona in the spring. The Indians would occasionally travel to Phoenix to play the Giants, the Giants would return the favor in Tucson, and the Cactus League was born. Chewing gum magnate Phillip K. Wrigley not only owned the Chicago Cubs, he owned Catalina, a rocky island about 20 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. In 1952, Wrigley moved his team from the wind-swept island’s Avalon Park to the warm sunshine of Mesa. But for a one-year stint in Long Beach in 1966, the Cubs have been a Cactus League fixture for six-and-a-half decades. Two years after the Cubs moved to the desert, the Baltimore Orioles set up shop in Yuma, about three hours west of Phoenix along the Arizona-California border. After moving to Scottsdale for three years, the Birds flew to Florida in 1959 and found a new nest in the Grapefruit League. The Boston Red Sox called Scottsdale home from 1959 to 1965, when they returned to Florida. The expansion California Angels established a spring base in Palm Springs – 250 miles from Phoenix and three hours from Yuma — after joining the American League in 1961. The Oakland A’s bolted from Florida for the Cactus League in 1969, when they made the Valley of the Sun their permanent spring training home. Two expansion teams moved to the desert that year as well, as the San Diego Padres took the O’s former spot in Yuma, while the Seattle Pilots set up shop in Tempe. The Pilots were short-lived. In 1970, they moved to Milwaukee and became the Brewers but they did not move their spring training base: the franchise is now entering its’ 48th season in the Cactus League.

The Cactus League added an eighth team in 1977 when the Seattle Mariners joined the American League. The circuit remained unchanged until the early 1990s, when the Angels and Padres moved their spring training headquarters to the Phoenix area. In 1993, the expansion Colorado Rockies replaced the Indians in Tucson. Five years later, the White Sox and newly-formed Arizona Diamondbacks joined them there, placing three teams in the Old Pueblo [all four MLB teams that trained in Tucson ultimately left for the Phoenix area]. By the early 2000s, the Cactus League was booming, as several franchises left the unpredictable weather and long bus rides of Florida for sparkling new complexes located on Phoenix’ west side. In 2003, the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals sparked the Cactus League’s growth spurt and continued the “shared complex” trend that had begun in 1994, when the Mariners and Padres moved into the Peoria Sports Complex. Nearly as shocking as the Dodgers move from Brooklyn to L.A. in 1958 was the team’s departure from their Dodgertown home in Vero Beach, Florida, after 60 years there. In 2009, the Dodgers and Reds moved their spring training bases to the Phoenix area –while the Indians returned after a 19-year hiatus — giving both the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues 15 teams each.

What is springtime without baseball? Each year, refugees of harsh American winters descend upon the desert, where fans can see half of all MLB teams play without ever having to drive more than 47 miles. With ten facilities hosting 15 teams, the Phoenix metropolitan area boasts the greatest concentration of professional baseball facilities in the U.S. The Cactus League attracts locals, baseball nuts, spring breakers and vacationing families. The atmosphere is relaxed, admission is cheap, and seats are close to the action. Fans sit in box seats, bleachers, or on picnic blankets spread on the lawn beyond the outfield wall. Low humidity, pleasant temperatures, and bountiful sunshine compliment the intimate experience only spring training can offer. While the mostly cloudless skies – former Giants and Padres executive Chub Feeney called them “high skies” — can pose problems for players trying to track down fly balls on the field, they are a delight to fans young and old.

A beloved Arizona treasure, the Cactus League is convenient. The Phoenix metro area is served by a major international airport, an effective freeway system, and a host of top-quality hotels and restaurants. “The Grand Canyon State has much to offer, with the red rocks of Sedona, alpine mountains and the Canyon itself all just a little more than a two-hour drive from Phoenix,” says Scottsdale resident Mike Turner. As a long-time member of the Scottsdale Charros, an all-volunteer, nonprofit group that has been hosting spring training since 1961, Turner has been joined by community leaders like Jim Bruner, Ed Reading, and George Adams as Scottsdale’s Goodwill Ambassadors. Many credit the Charros for saving the Cactus League. In 1967, they brokered the Cubs return to Arizona and in the late 80s the Charros oversaw bonding for a new stadium that kept the Giants in Scottsdale.

Cactus League ballparks are uniquely charming. Tempe’s Diablo Stadium, with its dramatic rock outcropping backdrop of the Tempe Buttes, has been home to the Angels since 1993. Sitting in the heart of Old Town, Scottsdale Stadium is a short walk or trolley ride from dozens of bars and restaurants, including the legendary Daily Dose Grill. The A’s had been at Phoenix Municipal Stadium – a long fly ball from the Papago Buttes and Phoenix Zoo – since 1969. In 2014, they moved into HoHoKam Park in Mesa, where the Cubs had resided since 1979. Chicago moved a few miles away to sparkling new Sloan Park. Bordered by Sheffield and Clark Streets, “Wrigley Field West” attracts the Cactus League’s largest crowds. Opening Day 2014 drew 14,486 fans, the largest crowd ever to see a Cactus League game. The record was short-lived, as a few weeks later 15,276 patrons came out for a game against the Angels. Baseball is big business. According to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and the Cactus League Baseball Association, over $800 million is generated annually within the state by spring training.

Nothing beats watching spring training baseball, where fans can sip a cold beverage in the warm sunshine. Senses are heightened: the smell of fresh-cut grass, the sound a bat makes as it drives a liner into the outfield gap or the pop a live fastball makes when it hits the catcher’s mitt. The pace of the game is perfectly suited for the relaxed atmosphere. Players interact with fans when not jogging in the outfield grass [while the game is taking place], and spring training is the only time we see coaches and managers sitting in folding chairs along the backstop, rather than in the dugout. The basic mission of spring training is to evaluate talent. “Split squad” games, where the team is divided into two groups, allow more players an opportunity to see action.

The 2017 Cactus League season opened Friday, February 24. Games will be played daily through Saturday, April 1, when the season concludes with the Mariners traveling to Scottsdale to take on the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields.