Washington Post, 1912
Here’s what baseball writers will tell you about spring training in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It snows and hails and thunders and pours rain and gusts wind and freezes and scorches. There are plenty of lousy days for baseball and very few good ones.
Those writers, roaming around Charlottesville more than 100 years ago, won’t tell you much about the baseball they saw, but they’ll give you an earful about the rotten weather.
During Virginia’s hybrid time of still-winter-not-yet-spring – spwinter! – there’s no telling what any day will bring.
March weather in Charlottesville is like a grab bag at the dollar store – you’ll get something for your dollar, but you’ll probably look at it and think, “Really? I paid a dollar for this?”
So why did so many teams from 1892 to 1916 come to Charlottesville for spring training? Were they nuts? Or were the grumpy old baseball writers just annoyed that they had to spend a month in a place which was often snowy and always alcohol-free?
But, Charlottesville? “More fickle weather could not be found in any part of the globe,” one Washington Post reporter lamented in 1914 after an early March snowfall.
Who would choose Charlottesville for spring training?
These teams …
In 1894, the Baltimore Orioles came through Charlottesville as part of a nomadic spring training tour through the south and took both games against the University of Virginia. The Orioles, then part of the National League, went on to win the pennant. They were a powerhouse, those Orioles. Yup, chew on that O’s fans. A powerhouse.
In 1901, the Boston Red Sox (then called the Americans) spent spring training in Charlottesville. It was the Sox’ first season and, history will show that the first game ever played by the Red Sox, the first ball they ever hit, and the first run they ever scored, happened in Charlottesville.
There were a few others, but it was the Washington Nationals that spent the most springs in Charlottesville. They were officially the Washington Senators, but everyone called them the Nationals and so should you. (Although today we call them the Minnesota Twins.)
The Nats “springed” in Charlottesville in 1905 and ‘06 and then again, under manager Clark Griffith, from 1911 through 1916.
Griffith (third from the right) and his Nationals in Charlottesville. March 1915.
Griffith, today enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, told reporters each season that his choice of Charlottesville over warmer locales was purely strategic.
“My ball club, since training at Charlottesville, has started the season in as good shape as any, and better than most of them,” he said in 1915. “I am satisfied with the Virginia town.”
While some Nats, including future Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson and future Black Sox cheater Chick Gandil, publicly complained about Charlottesville’s chilly dampness, Griffith insisted the cold made his players hardy and prepared them for cool-weather games early in the season.
(Johnson disliked Charlottesville so much he spent at least one spring training on his own in Hot Springs, Arkansas working out the kinks and only made his way to Virginia when spring training was wrapping up. Johnson was the kind of legendary player who could do whatever he wanted.)
Walter Johnson. 1914.
But, Griffith had other reasons for choosing Charlottesville. As one Washington Post story slipped, Griffith also owned a “winter retreat” home there, so training his team nearby was a great convenience.
The University of Virginia opened Lambeth Field to the Nats and provided full access to their state-of-the-art Fayerweather gymnasium, which included a swimming pool, one the nation’s longest indoor tracks, and, perhaps most importantly, heat – where the Nats worked out during the frequent days when snow and rain kept them inside.
Plus, UVA came complete with a college team ready to scrimmage.
University of Virginia Cavaliers Baseball Team, 1913.
Griffith put his team up in a boardinghouse – a former fraternity – with a private cook, close to Lambeth Field. It was cheaper than paying for hotel rooms and “fancy” restaurant meals, as other teams did, and the boardinghouse kept everyone together, making it easier for Griffith to keep a close eye on his players and keep them out of trouble.
“Servitors at Mrs. Saunders’ boarding house, next to Nationals’ headquarters, where the training table for the athletes will be established.”
Griffith set strict curfews and mealtimes and banned smoking and drinking. “With less pampering,” The Washington Post reported, “the ball player gets down to earth, and is happy. He is not pampered here in the food line … and is better off.” (The favorite meal of the 1912 squad? Chicken with boiled potatoes and white bread “and that is where the bill of fare stops.”)
“It is no knock to Charlottesville to say that its amusement resources are limited,” The Post reported, explaining that two movie theaters were the only form of entertainment and were a mile away. Griffith also told reporters he was happy that Charlottesville was a “dry” alcohol-free town.
One reporter called the 1912 spring training camp “Eveless Eden” because, with everyone living two-to-a-room in a boardinghouse, wives and girlfriends were not allowed.
And in 1916, a bunch of players called it “Camp Muskrat,” after trapping muskrats and minks nearby. They sold a few pelts up in Washington and one night convinced Mrs. Saunders, their longtime boardinghouse cook, to serve muskrat for dinner. (“The muskrat was finally passed around to the various tables. Wherever it went, it left a trail of sickened athletes in its path,” The Post reported.)
But, after every season, Griffith threatened to leave Charlottesville. Some years, he blamed the weather, some years he blamed the inability to secure the right boardinghouse or fraternity or cook, and one year he blamed UVA which had considered increasing its fee to use its field and gymnasium.
The Nats were courted by cities and towns in North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. Havana, Cuba tried to lure them away.
But, he kept coming back.
And, everyone complained about the weather.
“Now the threat is that Mr. Griffith and his men will finish their stay as they started it, in weather that cannot fittingly be discussed in polite circles.” ~ Washington Post 3/24/1912
“The Nationals are practically frozen in their camp. It is one of the coldest and generally disagreeable spells of bad weather that Charlottesville has experienced since Thomas Jefferson put it in on the map.” ~ Washington Post, 3/4/1914
“Fearing a snowstorm or perhaps a cyclone (for almost anything can happen over night in this burg), Manager Griffith is pushing his players to the utmost these good days.” ~ Washington Post, 3/12/1915
“Manager Griffith has never been convinced that he can depend upon the weather reports. He has been double-crossed time and again while here.” ~ Washington Post, 3/13/1916
Finally, in 1917, he threatened to leave Charlottesville for good, and he actually did. He packed his team off to Georgia and that was the last they saw of Charlottesville.
It still snows here in the spring. And, just like those cranky sportswriters from 100 years ago, I complain about it.
The winds are often gusty and cold. Spring rains will chill you to the bone. It will sleet on you.
Last week, just five days after a snowfall, it was 80s degrees and the air conditioner in my studio wouldn’t start. This morning it is damp and 55.
The University of Virginia still plays baseball here in March.
A little cold won’t stop won’t stop a bunt. Shortstop Daniel Pinero. March 2016.
I love this place.