Povich Rewind: Big Chill Descends on Spring Training
By Scott Greene
With spring training at hand, one of the delights in covering baseball for Shirley Povich was the annual rite that took place for the Washington Senators in Orlando and later Pompano Beach. After the second edition of the Senators departed for Texas following the 1971 season, Povich still wrote columns for The Washington Post from spring training, but took note of the changes in a 1994 column.
There was a tap on his shoulder the other day and a certain baseball writer was being told by a functionary in a New York Yankees cap that he had transgressed.
“Step back on the grass, sir. You know the rules.”
This was behind the batting cage and the writer’s sin was standing in the dirt area around the cage. Two midget steps to the rear, and now the grass was under his feet and he had complied, his location now proper and acceptable.
The printed rules are a big thing in the Yankees’ spring training camp. “…No member of the media is allowed in fair or foul territory beyond first or third base.” And “45 minutes before the game, clear out of the dugouts and the clubhouse.”
There is more: “Still photographers and cameramen must stay in assigned areas.” … “The clubhouse is off limits when the game starts. No player may be accessed unless he has left the game.”
In baseball’s earlier and less-monied days, spring training used to be more fun for the writers and everybody else. The informality of rickety old clubhouses, wooden grandstands and the heavenly absence of TV crews and pompous public relations corpsmen brought players and writers together. They stayed and ate together in the same little hotels, called each other by first names and were uninhibited by lengthy instructions from PR departments.
Today, “access” is the buzzword. Yankees players are not approached, they are “accessed.” Of all the clubs, the Yankees are the most rule-crazy, but the others are not far behind.
In contrast there was the late Clark Griffith, owner of the old Washington Senators. He was team proprietor, team president and bottle washer. Griffith saw no need for a public relations staff. On many occasions he would call The Washington Post sports editor and other newspapers and say, “Walter Johnson is pitching tomorrow. Gimme a headline.”
Modern big league teams are enjoying the bounty of eager Florida and Arizona towns whose citizens build them modified big league stadiums for free. Lavish clubhouses with shining bathrooms and Nautilus equipment are what’s in style. Plus ample individual lockers for each player whose byline is affixed to his private estate.
Not so in the era of the Senators and their contemporary clubs of an earlier day. On entering the clubhouse on the first day of spring training each player searched out the hook on which he could hang his stuff and hoped to find a stool on which to sit. Nothing like the expensive lockers provided the New York Mets in their deal with the town of Port St. Lucie, Fla., which built them to specifications that provided an extra wide locker for the catchers in recognition of their heavier equipment or, mayhap, their broader backsides.
When the Senators set up camp in Orlando, Fla., in 1936, after moving from Biloxi, Miss., they quartered themselves in the downtown Angebilt Hotel, not a luxury address. However, it was on the same street as Orlando’s two movie theaters and thus advertised itself on its matchboxes as “Orlando’s only fireproof hotel. In heard of theater district.”
This is not to say all of the Senators were quartered in the Angebilt, which Griffith considered too rich and expensive for some of the team’s lesser rookies. So, shunted to Mrs. Mason’s boarding house at considerable less expense to the team were the likes of Mickey Vernon, Early Wynn, Walter Masterson and George Case, who at mealtime could practice their boarding house reach. It is memorable that from that group would evolve a two-time American League batting champion (Vernon), a Hall of Fame pitcher (Wynn) and an American League-leading base stealer (Case).
This was an era when the players, on road trips, were subsisting on $6-a-day meal money. Some of the savings types would show a profit by doting on hamburgers and hot dogs.
The Senators worked out at Tinker Field, named for Joe Tinker, an Orlando native and the old Cubs second baseman of the legendary Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame. Tinker Field had a wooden grandstand, wooden dugouts and wooden clubhouse, all graying and tilting. But it was not unlike other spring training camps in Florida in the late ’30s.
Joe Tinker was almost always present at Tinker Field, in a wheelchair. So it was that one day when a visitor in the clubhouse turned out to be Heine Groh, the old National League third baseman of Tinker’s era. Groh asked to be taken to Tinker, an old teammate whom he hadn’t seen in years.
When they met near the Senators’ dugout, Groh extended his hand and said, “Guess who I am?” Tinker studied his visitor a bit and then delivered his unforgettable reply. “I don’t rightly know,” he said, “but if you had hair, you little SOB, you’d be Heine Groh.”
It was an era when ballplayers spoke for themselves, no agents to arrange their contracts.
Vernon, after winning his second batting title, finally had to settle for a $22,000 salary, a concession by owner Griffith, who often expounded that “no ballplayer should as for $20,000.”
In a later year the Senators brought up pitcher Bobo Newsom from Chattanooga, where he refeused to play for Joe Engel, operator of the Senators’ farm team there, because of a contract dispute. Newsom claimed that Engel had reneged on a ‘gentleman’s agreement.” Engel, on visiting the Senators’ camp, rejected that charge with the simple statement: “How could there be a gentleman’s agreement, when there were no gentlemen involved?”
Helping to make the living easy in Orlando was Phil Berger’s Tavern, the home away from home for writers covering the Washington team. The gathering at Berger’s was a ritual, and Berger ran an orderly saloon, guarding all doors against pre-Berger inebriates.
Thus it was one night when a chap who already had too many snifters attempted to enter, and he was politely turned away by Berger. Presently, though, he appeared at another entrance leading from the adjoining hotel and was turned away again. Somehow, he found a third entrance leading to the tavern from yet another side. When he was confronted yet again by Berger he was taken aback and blurted, “Geez, do you own every joint in town?”
St. Petersburg was the capital of Florida training camps, for both the Yankees and New York Giants quartered there in separate and plush hotels. It was in St. Pete that Lefty Gomez of the Yankees complained: “They told me to put on 15 pounds and I’d get a better fastball. I did, and now I can’t break a pane of glass. I throw harder but the ball wasn’t going as fast.”
It was in St. Pete that Yankees great Yogi Berra, after bragging to writers how he was taking colored pictures with his new camera, grabbed a passing New York Mirror photographer and asked for some information. “Tell me Joe,” he said, “how does white go in color?”
Clustered on the Florida west coast along with the New York teams were the Red Sox in Sarasota, the old Philadelphia A’s in Fort Myers, the White Sox and Reds in Tampa and the Cardinals in Bradenton. It was in Bradenton with its typical old wooden ballpark and rickety wooden press box that the remembered Henry McLemore episode took place.
It was the day the Senators were in Bradenton to play the Cardinals that we encountered McLemore, the splendid baseball writer for the United Press. But now his left arm was being carried in a sling. What happened?
Whereupon McLemore, pointing to the three steps leading to the old press box, said, “That’s where it happened. In my time I have fallen three miles drunk. I fall three feet sober and look at the result.”
These are memories of those times when spring training was amore fun, less structured, more free spirited and more “accessible.”
March 10, 1994