The Cactus League
Get up close and personal with Major League Baseball! Fifteen teams—half of all Major League clubs—practice and play in ten beautiful stadiums in Central Arizona during spring training. Some of America’s most beloved teams square off in a league of their own: the Cactus League! The Los Angeles Dodgers, the Colorado Rockies, the Texas Rangers, both Chicago teams, and more prepare for the summer season in beautiful weather and a relaxed atmosphere. Off-season games are a favorite pastime during March and April. Many fans even got a chance to meet the players.
Baseball has never been more popular in the Valley of the Sun. Over the past decade, the League has nearly doubled in size from eight to fifteen teams. The 2011 opening of the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick provided a state-of-the art facility for the Colorado Rockies and Arizona’s own Diamondbacks. This expansion has spiked interest in baseball, drawing a record 1.59 million residents and tourists to the 233 game run in 2011. The 2010 and 2011 economic impact reached just over $357 million.
This rapid evolution generates a few growing pains. Stadium construction and renovation is a major expense for cities. Ticket prices are rising, along with the cost of favorite baseball munchies. Yet new fans appear every day. Game attendance was up by 200,000 in 2011, soaring above the record highs of 2010.
Arizona's popularity as a spring training venue springs from innovative planning that helps turn our gorgeous winter climate into a resource for revenue and entertainment. The story of the Cactus League shows how Arizona took advantage of our natural features to build a multimillion dollar enterprise around the national pastime.
The Cactus League established its Arizona roots in 1947 when the Cleveland Indians and New York Giants set up training bases in Arizona. However, its history started much earlier. Teams began pre-season trips around the turn of the century. Most sources agree that the first organized spring training began when the Chicago White Stockings went to Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1886.
In the early 1900s, spring training consisted of a couple weeks practice at a spring training site followed by a series of exhibition games en route home in time to start the season. California’s famous warm climate drew teams to train in the “Orange League” as early as 1903, and the practice continued for five decades. Train routes determined the location of most game stops. Yuma, Bisbee and Tucson became popular stops for clubs training in California as they made their way back home. The first of these exhibition games occurred in 1909 when the Chicago White Sox, who trained in San Francisco, played in Yuma and Tucson. (That same year, the Warren Ballpark was constructed in Bisbee.) When the train connected Phoenix to the coast, it too became a stop on the spring training circuit. Throughout the decades, the White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Giants and St. Louis Browns all stopped in Arizona for spring exhibitions.
Some say the signing of legendary hitter Larry Doby from the Negro National League to the Cleveland Indians established the Cactus League in Arizona. In 1946, Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, purchased a home near Tucson. The Indians began training in Phoenix upon Veeck's assertion that Arizona was more open to integration than other locations. Veeck convinced Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who also had a home in Arizona, to move Giants spring training to Phoenix. In 1947, Indians and Giants became members of the Orange League to play exhibition games. From those two teams sprouted the Cactus League. Their first game was played in March 8, 1947 at Tucson's Randolph Park (later renamed Hi Corbett Field). That spring, fifteen games were played in Phoenix and Tucson. It was start of the longest running spring rivalry in baseball, which would see 500 games before the tradition was broken.
In 1952 the Pacific Coast League (PCL), the West Coast’s minor league, became a quasi major league when they were granted open classification, and began to limit access to big league teams. After the enactment of new rules prohibited Major League games in PCL cities the week before the coast league season started, the Orange League fell apart. The Cubs moved to Mesa, Arizona in 1952, followed by the Browns, who became the Baltimore Orioles, to Yuma in 1954. (The Pirates and the White Sox fled to Florida.) By 1954, all sixteen teams were training in either Florida or Arizona.
Throughout the next decades, Arizona hosted the Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees, (Mickey Mantle's spring training started in Arizona), and the Houston Colt .45s. These teams would relocate after a few years, despite the construction of new facilities. In 1967, the Cactus League seemed to be on the verge of collapse. However, western expansion of the Major League created four new teams, two of which (Seattle Pilots and the San Diego Padres) chose Arizona to train. Suddenly, the Cactus League was larger than it had ever been! Ground broke on Hohokam Park in Mesa in 1976.
By the 1980’s, spring training had become a multi-million dollar industry. A special task force created by Governor Rose Mofford found that the Cactus League provided $160 million to the Arizona economy. Governor Mofford set up public-private partnerships between state, county and city governments and private participation. These ventures gave facelifts to aging facilities and enticed more teams to Arizona. Opening in 1992, the Scottsdale Stadium was a product of such partnerships.
The strategy worked, stabilizing the Cactus League to eight teams, and opened it to the possibility of rapid expansion. Since 1994, seven additional teams have chosen to train in the Phoenix area, sparking facility improvement, construction of new facilities, and the expansion of Central Arizona’s enjoyment of the official national pastime!
Information summarized from the article "From Dust to Diamonds: The Evolution of the Cactus League" by Rodney Johnson. Visit the virtual museum at the Play Ball Experience for the comprehensive story of the Cactus League.