Baseball’s spring training can trace part of its origins story to Hot Springs, as those who follow the Spa City’s numerous historical markers and Arkansas history buffs likely already knew.
Thanks to a documentary film from University of Arkansas journalism professor Larry Foley, recently aired on the Major League Baseball Network, that story is gaining a national audience.
Foley’s “The First Boys of Spring” aired this month on MLB, most recently on Sunday, and it chronicles the story of how Hot Springs, with its famed therapeutic mineral baths, became a home for spring training from the 1880s through the 1930s. And for a little icing on the cake, it’s narrated by Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton, who was born in Hot Springs and grew up in the area.
A prolific documentarian who’s written and produced 35 films since 1993, baseball buff Foley had wanted to tell Hot Springs’ story for years. He said “The First Boys of Spring” has received the most attention nationally of any project he’s ever done, and Foley’s won five Emmys and been nominated for 13 more.
“I knew all along that I might have a story here that was different than anything I’d ever worked on,” Foley told Arkansas Business.
Baseball icons who trained in the Spa City include Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Smoky Joe Wood, Honus Wagner, Satchel Page and even Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier in 1947. In fact, more than a third of the inductees in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, participated in spring training in Hot Springs.
Foley’s other films feature subjects and topics, most related to Arkansas, such as the Buffalo National River, Razorback football’s 22-game winning streak from 1963 to 1966, former Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, a lost World War II squadron, the architecture of Fay Jones and the art of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. His films have been broadcast on PBS, ESPN, ABC and CBS.
His latest documentary began production in March 2014 and took 14 months to film. It premiered at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival last fall, and in June he screened it at the 28th annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball & American Culture. The film has been added to the baseball hall’s museum library, and Foley will screen it in northwest Arkansas on March 13 at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Springdale.
Foley, a former reporter, anchor, assignment editor and producer for KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock, said the old Chicago White Stockings became the first team to set up official spring camp in Hot Springs in 1886. Teams were drawn to the Ouachitas by the resort city’s renowned therapeutic mineral baths, which were expected to shake off players’ “winters of sedentary indulgence” and “boil out alcoholic microbes.” Pitchers and catchers would come to town three weeks early to soak in a bath once a day before the start of training, and the springs’ renowned healing properties had many true believers, he said.
“They believed it,” Foley said. “Spring training in the South really caught on in Hot Springs because of it.”