Hot Springs, Arkansas: A bedrock to the Negro Leagues

HOT SPRINGS, ARKANSAS – Driving down Central Avenue in Hot Springs, Arkansas, it’s kind of hard to find a couple of the legendary stops where greats of the Negro Leagues put in work by playing exhibition games and holding spring training.

And if you’re a tourist who didn’t do your homework to find out about some of the historic places in the city with a population of just 35,193 people (at last count), then you’ll probably kick yourself when you go ghost and leave town and then find out later you missed out on bits of American history.

That might be viewed as a bit of an exaggeration, but the Negro Leagues have produced some of the greatest names in once was America’s most popular sport. After all, it was Jackie Robinson who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Robinson brought a band of players (Jackie Robinson All-Stars) made up of MLB All-Stars to Hot Springs in 1953 to play the Negro American League All-Stars.

Former home run king Hank Aaron, the last Negro League player to make it to a major league roster, came to town in 1952 to play in the Negro League World Series as a member of the Indianapolis Clowns. Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Monte Irvin, and Buck Leonard all made their way to the town famous for its thermal bathhouses and gangster hideouts. And they all made it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The institution of Negro League Baseball is finally getting its due. It took 100 years in the making, but Negro League players once obscured and overshadowed, are getting the type of recognition and acknowledgment that have passed them by.

The historic National Baptist Hotel and Bath House was earmarked as a destination for Negro League players and Black entertainers who visited the city of Hot Springs. Erected in 1923, the National Baptist Hotel and Bathhouse, formerly known as the Woodmen of the Union Building, was the apex of a thriving Black community in the Pleasant Street Historic District. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

The Negro Leagues was founded in Kansas City, Missouri in 1920. But Black baseball in Hot Springs goes back two decades before then. If you were to take a seven-hour drive down to Hot Springs, Arkansas, you’ll find that the Negro Leagues, like Major League Baseball, made a home for itself smack in the middle of The Ozarks. The history is as rich here as any when it comes to baseball in general and the Negro Leagues.

Years after he integrated Major League Baseball, Robinson played in the city where former President William “Bill” Clinton lived and went to high school. Paige and Gibson made their rounds around Hot Springs, including visiting and staying at the National Baptist Hotel and Bathhouse (formerly the Woodmen of the Union Building), a place that housed Black celebrities and Negro League ballplayers when they came to town.

Interestingly enough, the same year that the Negro Leagues was founded, Hot Springs, designated as the “Birthplace of Spring Training” opened up its arms and welcomed the barnstorming group of baseball players all the way up to the mid-1950s. Negro Leaguers would play exhibition games and hold training camp at Highland Park, Whittington Park, Sam Guinn Stadium and Jaycee Park (Majestic Park).

Hot Spring didn’t just welcome outsiders to the city to play ball. They had their own coalition of baseball squads, including the Hot Springs Giants.

So, how rich is the baseball history in this city?

Well, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Aaron, Gil Hodges, and Walter Johnson are a few of the baseball stars to play in Hot Springs. Their stay as well as that of players from the Negro Leagues is well-documented on the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail. Kansas City may be the birthplace of the Negro Leagues, but Hot Springs might be considered to be the famously adopted getaway for Black ballplayers to hone their baseball skills.

Hot Springs
Hot Springs, Arkansas, is referred to as the “birthplace” of spring training baseball as Major League Baseball clubs, including Negro League players, descended on this tiny city for exhibition games. Majestic Park was one of the playing fields that players and teams used. Among the MLB Hall of Famers to play at Majestic Park were Henry “Hank” Aaron and the great Jackie Robinson. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

However, don’t expect to see triumphant markers lying around or a megaphone blaring any grand announcements about the Negro Leagues. The fields that these historic athletes played on have either been replaced by another entity or have simply been overrun by weeds and other vegetation. It is a grim reminder that history can fly away like the wind if it is not preserved properly.

As Major League Baseball helps usher in the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Negro Leagues, News4usonline Editor Dennis J. Freeman caught up with baseball historian Mark Blaeuer to talk about the history of the Negro Leagues in Hot Springs.

Dennis J. Freeman: What ultimately led to the deterioration of the Negro Leagues coming to play in Hot Springs?

Mark Blaeuer: “Several Negro Leagues, major and minor, developed from Rube Foster’s Negro National League, who ch started in 1920. There were, however, earlier leagues. These Negro Leagues rose and fell for a variety of reasons, both societal and economic. A great book on this is Neil Lanctot’s Negro League Baseball—the Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, which came out in 2004. There was the well-known factor of white baseball siphoning off the best Negro Leagues talent, beginning with Jackie Robinson. As players like Robinson, Roy Campanella, and others excelled in so-called Organized Ball, many Negro League fans began to follow the Brooklyn Dodgers, for instance. Radio, and later, television, enabled people to tune in to games nationwide, as opposed to focusing on local teams: this contributed to an erosion of minor league and Negro League fan bases in general. Speaking of Hot Springs in particular, the medical profession came to see thermal bathing as more recreational than therapeutic, so one of the main attractions to holding spring training in Hot Springs evaporated. I guess the short answer to your question is: “It’s complicated.”

Dennis J. Freeman: During its heyday, how often would teams from the Negro Leagues play in Hot Springs? 

Mark Blaeuer: “I don’t have an exact figure here, and I suspect it varied from year to year. In the 1930s, and into the 1940s, as failing Negro League teams used barnstorming tours to supplement financial shortfalls in their home cities, Negro League teams stopped in Hot Springs, possibly 5-10 times per summer. Locally, an African-American entrepreneur named Phelix Wright promoted these games. There would also be exhibition games during the Spring, as when the Baltimore Elite Giants (training at Sam Guinn Stadium in the early 1940s) took on the New York Black Yankees in a 1944 series. I’d say a couple of powerhouse Negro League teams, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the early to mid-1930s may have been the best clubs training here.”

Dennis J. Freeman: Was Hot Springs just an exhibition playground and training town for the Negro Leagues?

Mark Blaeuer: “I wouldn’t use the word “just.” I believe summer exhibitions actually counted in league totals. The 1952 Negro American League championship series (12 games) between the Indianapolis Clowns and the Birmingham Black Barons, was held in different locations across the South, in barnstorming fashion; the Hot Springs game occurred on October 1, with Indianapolis winning 6-4 at Jaycee Park.”

Hot Springs
The Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail features a unique mural of baseball greats that include Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige (far right), Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove (not pictured), and Honus Wagner. The “Playing Cards” mural is located in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. Artists Chris Arnold and Jeff Garrison created the mural. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

Dennis J. Freeman: How often did JR (Jackie Robinson) play in Hot Springs? The same question could be asked of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell?

Mark Blaeuer: “We know of Robinson playing here once, on October 22, 1953. The game was between his Jackie Robinson Major League All-Stars (which also included Luke Easter and Gil Hodges) and the Negro American League All-Stars. The latter team won, 14-9, at Jaycee Park, and then the two teams (barnstorming after the regular season was over) traveled by bus to Little Rock and played another game the same night! I can’t point to Paige definitely competing in a ballgame here, but he trained in Hot Springs in 1932 with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, then returned for baths in subsequent years before the season started. In 1944 he gave a sort of pitching exhibition at Sam Guinn Stadium, during the Baltimore-New York series; he’d been taking the Hot Springs baths for three weeks before that. He was a member of neither the Elites nor the Black Yanks.

“On April 12, 1948, he was at a Jaycee Park game featuring the Black Yankees. It was reported that he’d be wearing a Black Yankee uniform and that he might pitch briefly (that was his first year playing for the Cleveland Indians, but at this time he was getting ready to travel with his own barnstorming team). On April 25, 1948, it was reported that he might pitch briefly for the Hot Springs Black Bathers (not the minor league Hot Springs Bathers) against the Muskogee Cardinals that day at Legion Park (formerly Fogel Field). In March 1949 he was here bathing and hiking prior to spring training with the Cleveland Indians in Tucson. The January 20, 1953 Afro-American (Baltimore) reported that he’d be here bathing in February, while a member of the St. Louis Browns. Josh Gibson was here for spring training with the Homestead Grays in 1931 and with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1932 and 1935. In March 1943 he was here trying to recover from “a nervous breakdown,” which in reality was a brain tumor; he was with the Grays again by that time. He was reported as being here again in April 1944. Bell trained here with the Crawfords in April 1935.”

Dennis J. Freeman: What is the big deal about the National Baptist Hotel and Bathhouse? Are there efforts to restore the building or at least some parts of it dedicated to players of the Nero Leagues? 

Mark Blaeuer: “This was the finest African-American hotel in Hot Springs when it officially opened in 1924 as the Woodmen of Union (before that, the Pythian, which was also on Malvern Avenue, would have been considered the best). The WOU was full-service, with thermal baths, medical offices, a large auditorium, and other features. It was vacant by the early 1940s but briefly reopened as the Good Samaritan Hotel. In 1950 it was purchased by the National Baptist Association USA, hence the familiar name. It closed again in the early 1980s, after becoming unable to compete with newer and/or more prominent hotels and bathhouses here. Finally, after narrowly escaping demolition several times, it was rehabilitated to provide 64 housing units—opening as Home Harbor in 2012, with a chunk of the renovation funding obtained via the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. I’m aware of no efforts to dedicate any part of it to Negro Leagues history, even though several teams stayed there in the 1920s and 1930s.”

Dennis J. Freeman: Did the National Baptist Hotel and Bathhouse fall victim to whatever happened to the historic Black section of Hot Springs? 

“There was a decline in thermal bathing in general, by the late 1940s, which didn’t help. Yes, Malvern Avenue lost a number of historic Black businesses over time.

Negro League teams would play exhibition games and hold training camp practices at San Guinn Field. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

Dennis J. Freeman: Did Negro League players actually play at Majestic Park or just at Fogel Field and Sam Guinn Stadium? 

“The Homestead Grays may have trained at Majestic Park in 1930. Negro League teams played at Jaycee Park in the 1940s and 1950s. Many early African-American teams played at Whittington Park into the 1920s, including the Memphis Red Sox and Chicago American Giants.”

Dennis J. Freeman: To your knowledge, were there any efforts at all from the city to keep or restore any of the historic baseball fields?

Mark Blaeuer: “All had disappeared except Fogel and Jaycee by the 1990s. Jaycee was recently demolished, and Fogel/Legion has, for years, been “overflow parking” for the Alligator Farm—although as a sizable green space it retains the feel of an old ballpark. As part of the Baseball Trail project, home plate was painted onto the Weyerhaeuser parking lot, c. 2012, where Whittington Park had been. The city is now in the early stages of rebuilding Majestic Park as part of a  complex of diamonds, although the Majestic Park footprint probably won’t be identical to the historic one, due to the presence of a former Boys and Girls Club building (now owned by Champion Christian College).”

Dennis J. Freeman: How big of an attraction were the players from the Negro Leagues when they played in Hot Springs? Who were the big names who came and played?

Mark Blaeuer: “As late as the 1940s and 1950s, Negro League games could still bring in 1,500 to 2,000 fans in Hot Springs. I don’t know the racial makeup of the crowds at that time, but one African-American player from the 1890s, Dave Wyatt, who played with the Hot Springs Arlingtons among various teams, wrote in February 5, 1910, Freeman (Indianapolis): “The attendance in all cities was good. Of course, there were separate grandstands in all places for white and colored spectators—strange to me, but the whites were in the majority at all times and were greatly interested in our players.” Satchel Paige was famous here, as elsewhere, due to his remarkable personality as well as his huge talent. Baseball Hall of Famers (and former Negro Leaguers) who can be documented as having been in Hot Springs for baseball-related reasons include Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Rube Foster, Bill Foster, Mule Suttles, Cristobal Torriente, Hank Aaron, Buck Leonard, Roy Campanella, Oscar Charleston, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Judy Johnson, Biz Mackey, Cumberland Posey, Jackie Robinson, Bullet Rogan, Hilton Smith, Smokey Williams, and Jud Wilson.”

Dennis J. Freeman: Can you talk about some, if any, Hot Springs resident(s) who played for the Negro Leagues?

Mark Blaeuer: “Art Pennington is the first who comes to mind, a tremendous player with various clubs, most notably the Chicago American Giants. Lou Dials was born here—he played in the 1936 East-West All-Star Game of the Negro Leagues. John Williams played for the Chicago American Giants in 1948—he was employed in Hot Springs as a police officer. Herbert Buster played with the 1943 Chicago American Giants. Eddie Stuckey was with the 1948 Norfolk (Virginia) Royals, a top Negro minor league team, after getting a tryout with the Indianapolis Clowns early that year. Lewis “Snook” Wesson, perhaps best known locally as a long-time bath attendant, appears to have played in the 1940s with the Indianapolis Clowns, Birmingham Black Barons, and New York Black Yankees. I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone!”

Editor’s note: Mark Blaeuer is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Garland County Historical Society

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