In 1918, on a spring afternoon in Hot Springs, a 23-year-old Babe Ruth hit a grand slam that at 573 feet might very well be the farthest a baseball has ever been hit. According to eyewitness accounts, the ball cleared the fence by some 200 feet before ultimately landing in a pond at the nearby Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo.
In 2014, on a summer afternoon, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Larry Foley stood 20 yards from that pond. With a camera trained on its waterline and a GoPro immersed underwater, his plan was simple: Get a shot of a baseball striking the water. That shot, he hoped, would help him create a visual of Babe’s legendary Hot Springs hit. The crew and the extras—10 alligators mulling about in the pond (that old gator farm is still very much open for business)—took their places on set. On cue, Foley tossed a ball into the water, creating the perfect splash effect. But when the ball bobbed up to the surface, a 9-foot 220-pound gator went off script, pitched forward and gulped it down.
Uh oh, I’m in trouble, thought Foley as his heart skipped a beat. When he’d approached the owner of the farm about the shoot, he’d gotten his blessing, with one caveat: Don’t let the alligators swallow the balls. Apparently, doing so could bench a gator. Permanently. But Foley needn’t have been too concerned. In a flash, Jamie Bridges, son of the farm’s owner, sprung into action. He grabbed the alligator by the tail and lifted him up out of the water in order to stop him from throwing his head back to swallow. Meanwhile, his wife, Suzy, produced a metal rod with pinchers at the end, and with a deft hand worked to grab hold of the ball lodged in the reptile’s gullet. After about 10 minutes of administering this bizarre rendition of the Heimlich maneuver on a thrashing gator, Suzy recovered the ball, now a flattened disk. Defeated, the reptile slithered away.
“This is just the kind of stuff that happens in Hot Springs,” says Foley, who’s just finished recounting the story in his home office in Fayetteville. “It’s this quirky place with tons of character.”
This month, that quirky place takes a star turn when Foley’s documentary, The First Boys of Spring, makes its debut at the 24th Annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Narrated by one of Hot Springs’ most famous sons, Billy Bob Thornton, the film tells the story of a little-known chapter in baseball history that unfolded here in The Natural State. Before the Grapefruit League in Florida and the Cactus League in Arizona, baseball spring training took place in Hot Springs. In fact, Foley says, it’s the place where the idea of training for the season caught on—and the place where baseball’s greats made history for four-plus decades during the formative years of our national pastime.
It’s a story that begins in 1886, when Cap Anson, manager of the Chicago White Stockings (now Cubs), brought his team to Hot Springs to shape up for the coming season. Back in those days, baseball players were a rough and rowdy bunch with a habit of spending their offseasons living large and imbibing heavily. The mineral baths in Hot Springs, Anson reasoned, were just the thing to “boil out the alcoholic microbes” that had built up in their systems during the winter. Plus, the area’s steep mountain trails could whip them into shape.
As it turned out, that year, the White Stockings won the National League Championship, signaling to teams across the country that there might be something to this notion of spring training. From that point on, up until roughly the mid-1920s, dozens of major and minor league teams—the Dodgers, the Red Sox, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the St. Louis Browns (now Cardinals), the New York Highlanders (now Yankees)—flocked to Hot Springs for spring training. In fact, a whopping 45 percent of the players who’ve been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame trained there at one time or another during their careers. “At its peak period, there were up to 250 professional baseball players training in Hot Springs at a time,” Foley says. “So we’re not just talking about an isolated deal here; we’re talking about something that in baseball lore is a very big deal.”
But the fact that all these teams showed up in Hot Springs in the early days of baseball, while a great backdrop for a story, wasn’t enough to base a documentary on, Foley points out. So when he buckled down two years ago to research the film after securing the necessary funding, he had to really mine the history of Hot Springs to get to the heart of the matter. The tale he uncovered and ultimately tells in The First Boys of Spring is one of a small, middle-American town whose personality and character managed to compete with the biggest personalities in baseball history. On top of the gator farm that fielded hits (two on the record) from the Babe, Hot Springs was a swinging resort town where horse racing (and ostrich racing), gambling, pool halls, nightclubs, gangsters—Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel were regular visitors—and “women of leisure” were all part of the landscape.
But while a great many years has past, many of the attractions that drew folks to Hot Springs back in the day are still very much on offer—from spas to the historic Oaklawn racetrack to the scenic mountain trails. Foley hopes his film will encourage baseball fans to come to town to take advantage of it all, that they’ll visit Hot Springs in the same way they make pilgrimages to Cooperstown, New York, where the National Baseball Hall of Fame is located. And that’s exactly what tourism officials in Hot Springs are also hoping for. Back in 2012, the city launched the Historic Baseball Trail, a series of about 30 markers that tell the story of spring training there. (In fact, it was the trail that sparked the idea for the film in the first place.) And given that Foley is an acclaimed filmmaker—his work has won five Emmys, been nominated for 14 and garnered numerous other awards—whose documentaries make waves and reach worldwide audiences, it’s a dream that may very well become a reality.
“I’m hoping that people will go down there and see where it all happened,” Foley says. “That they’ll stand on home plate where Whittington Park once stood and imagine Babe blasting a ball into the gator farm. As historian Bill Jenkinson said, ‘They’ll be standing in the footsteps of the greatest players of all time.’”
In addition to its premiere in Hot Springs at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival on Oct. 10, the film will also be showing Oct. 20 at the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock, Oct. 25 at the Fayetteville Public Library, Oct. 29 at the Fort Smith Public Library and at the Ouachita Arts Celebration in Mena on Nov. 7.