PLAY BALL! Remembering Spring Training During the ‘Golden Era’ of Baseball
By Tom Palermo, President & Publisher // February 24, 2019
first-hand account of the glory years of baseball
EDITOR’S NOTE: The 2019 Major League Baseball Spring Training season has begun and we thought it appropriate to republish the following story to celebrate the game’s rich history.
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Most baseball fans have to access the digital world to learn about the likes of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Goose Goslin, Hank Greenberg – and what it was like back in the “Golden Era” of our national pastime.
Not so for my brother Jim and me. All we had to do was pull up a chair with our Dad to get a vivid first-hand account of the glory years of baseball: “When major league baseball consisted of flannel uniforms in 100-degree heat, legal spitballs and violent slides into second base with sharpened spikes raised. No night baseball – and don’t forget about those gloves,” said Dad.
“Seems like today’s batting gloves are larger than the ones worn 80 years ago by the fielders like Jim Bottomley,” he said.
Ever since we can both remember, our Dad, who passed away at 90 years old in 2010, regaled us with stories about some of baseball’s greatest all-time players from a first hand, eyewitness account.
Beginning in 1927, when our Dad, Vincent “Jimmy” Palermo, was 6-years old, until just before World War II, he was a member of the St. Louis Browns. The Browns became the Orioles after moving to Baltimore in 1953.
My father’s recollections of his youth were not clouded by living through the depression, fighting in the European Theater during World War II and raising four children with our mother Nadine.
“My first job with the Browns was at 6-years old as the mascot of the team,” Dad recalled.
“My main responsibility as the mascot was to ‘help’ the bat boy. At the age of 9 I was promoted to bat boy, and by the time I was 16 I was managing the visitor’s clubhouse at Sportsman Park – which was home to both the Cardinals and Browns at that time,” he said.
His duties consisted of taking care of all the player’s needs, which sometimes included signing their autographs for them, which begs the question of how many of those balls “signed” by big league players are real? He also assisted the trainer by massaging arms and dispensing pain-killers.
What a job! During those years, the American League featured players that fill the Hall of Fame today – and our Dad knew them all.
Some of our favorite stories are those, of course, about Babe Ruth. First meeting the Babe at age 6, he literally grew up with Ruth over the next 10 years. The Babe named our Dad “Little Dago” because of his Sicilian heritage when they first met in 1927 and they quickly became good friends until Ruth’s death in 1948.
BOOT CAMP BY TODAY’S STANDARDS
In February 1998 I did a story about the then Florida Marlins spring training and told Dad about the trip out to Space Coast Stadium to cover the current World Series champs. The conversation jogged his memory of the 13 years of spring training experience he had with the Browns from 1927 to 1940.
The Browns held their spring training back then in San Antonio, Texas and during those years they had a Class A minor league team located there in the Texas League.
When I explained to him that the Marlins had an army of coaches, a team doctor, trainer, assistant trainer, strength coach, minor league strength coach, nutritionist, and massage therapist, as well as all the support staff for the staff and facilities like weight rooms and such – he just smiled and we knew we had better sit down because Jim and I knew what was coming…
“In the 20s and 30s the players all worked during the offseason because most of them were paid salaries of only $3,000 to $10,000,” my Dad explained.
“With today’s players, they are expected to be in shape when they report for spring training because it’s all they do. Red Kress (shortstop for the Browns in the 1930s) was an electrician during the offseason and Oscar Melillo (Brown’s second baseman and selected to Babe Ruth’s 1931 All-Star Team) sold real estate,” he recalled.
“Players back then literally required a period of a month to work back into shape because their responsibilities during the offseason and lack of access to facilities didn’t allow them to keep in top shape.”
To illustrate the point, Rogers Hornsby, who played for and managed both the Cardinals and Browns said, “People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for Spring.”
A strict disciplinarian, Dad recalled Hornsby didn’t let his player smoke, drink or go to the movies. Predictably, Hornsby wasn’t popular with his players, or Dad either, who worked with Hornsby for five seasons.
In the early 1900s, the New York Giants trained in the small town of Marlin, Texas and their training was, well, training. It was more like boot camp than spring training by today’s standards.
Each day began and ended with what amounted to a five-mile forced march along railroad tracks. If there was a scrimmage it was usually an intrasquad effort, or maybe a game against a local or minor league team.
Each spring, the Giant’s groundskeepers had to arrive early to groom the field because livestock had grazed on the outfield over the summer and fall.
At these early camps, conditioning was overseen by the player themselves since, as a rule, teams employed only the manager and a single coach-if that.
As for the training room facilities, they were rudimentary by today’s standards.
“The training room consisted of one trainer, a lot of different rubbing ointments, ace bandages, ice packs, painkillers and if you were lucky, a small whirlpool for the pitchers’ arms,” said Dad.
“Each day began with running, running and more running to get those legs in shape. There were no weight rooms, of course, and a pitcher might use a rubber ball to squeeze to strengthen his wrist and arm. The legs and torso muscles had to be exercised by running and with medicine balls,” he said.
And finally, as to the much-debated question of which era’s players are better?
“I think there are as many good players today as there were back in the 1920 and 1930s, but they have to be spread out between too many teams,” Dad said in 2005.
“Today’s top players could have certainly played in those days. But, there are also a lot of players hitting .190 who wouldn’t have made it on the Brown’s minor league team in San Antonio.”
FOR MORE GOLDEN ERA STORIES LOG ON TO WhenItWasAGame.net
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Palermo is the president and chief executive officer of Maverick Multimedia, Inc., which is the publisher of Space Coast Daily, as well as many other print and digital products.
A resident of Brevard County, Florida for the past 35 years, Palermo has more than 39 years experience in the media business as a publisher, editor and industry consultant. During his career in both corporate and small business entrepreneurial environments, he has founded dozens of local, state, regional and national print and digital publications.
Palermo has written thousands of articles and columns for daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, trade publications and websites – and hosted a weekly radio talk show for seven years.
In 2005, Palermo founded Maverick Multimedia, Inc., which specializes in media-specific IT development, niche multimedia custom publishing and devising comprehensive strategic business and marketing plans.
Palermo is also co-founder of Brevard Production Inc., an organization that owns and produces some of the most significant and compelling annual special events in the region including the Central Humanitarian Awards, the Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame, Space Coast Public Service Awards, Space Coast State Fair, Cocoa Beach Spring Training, Space Coast Seafood & Music Festival, the Space Coast Oktoberfest, Space Coast Home Shows, Space Coast Health Fair and many more.
The founder and president of the Space Coast Publishers Guild, Palermo works diligently on behalf of his industry in regard to innovation, and in upholding the highest standards of integrity and professional journalism.
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