J. Frank Parnell: Review – The First Boys of Spring


By J. Frank Parnell

While the Chicago Cubs’ postseason dreams were turning to hard reality this week, I got a chance to see Larry Foley’s “The First Boys of Spring,” a film about spring training in Hot Springs, at Little Rock’s Ron Robinson Theater.

I mention the Cubs because the White Stockings, as they were known when the franchise began as one of eight charter members of the National League, were among the teams that rode the rails for spring training in Hot Springs.

The resort city’s baseball tradition began in the early 1880s and continued until about 1950 as preseason training shifted to Florida and Arizona. This was not spring training as we think of it today. Training meant hiking the hills around town, taking baths, playing a little baseball and enjoying the nightlife.

Foley, chairman of the University of Arkansas’s journalism department, has created several films over the years. He’s a self-confessed “baseball guy,” and this story must have been a joy to tell.

A chunk is devoted to Babe Ruth’s 573-foot home run hit from a baseball field on Whittington Avenue to the Arkansas Alligator Farm across the street. We know the distance because engineers used historical and aerial photos, along with surveying equipment, to figure it out. The field is gone but a concrete home plate marks the original position in a parking lot.

The Babe is said to have enjoyed his time in Hot Springs during his Boston Red Sox days. He indulged himself in his three favorite pastimes — pitching, hitting and carousing — and was among many stars of his day who warmed up in the baths and the bars before the season. Tris Speaker, Rogers Hornsby, Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Jackie Robinson, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb and many others were regulars. The film tells a few of their tales and others.

Baseball’s Negro leagues also came to Hot Springs, although black and white players lived parallel lives in the city. The director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City made a heavy contribution to the film. The leagues’ involvement also is covered with some excellent historical photos. After listening to the director’s comments, a trip to KC also might be a good idea.

Baseball fans should see “The First Boys of Spring.” I have my criticisms — it’s oddly edited and flies off on tangents here and there — but it lays out a story many hardcore baseball fans know nothing about. I also wonder why this interest in baseball took so long. In a city that has drawn tourists with horse racing, gambling, gangsters, military-surplus ducks and even an alligator farm that’s more than 100 years old, why in the world didn’t a baseball museum and baseball trail happen years ago? But I’m glad they’re here.

This seven-decade story must have much more to offer, and I’m sure baseball historians will continue to dig up stories from those golden days. In the meantime, take a trek on the interactive Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, www.hotspringsbaseballtrail.com. I couldn’t find a website for the Hot Springs Baseball Museum, although it has a Facebook page.

With baseball winding down, it might be a good time to hit the trail in Hot Springs.

larry foley the first boys of spring poster



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