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Greetings from Catalina Island
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Greetings from Catalina Island

Spring Training Home of the Cubs from 1921 to 1951
For more than a century, baseball's Spring Training-that early appetizer before the summer's full menu-has delighted fans with its atmosphere of hope and promise. Nowhere, however, has Spring Training come so close to perfection as on the Cubs' private paradise: Santa Catalina Island, 25 miles off the coast from Los Angeles.

The story of the Cubs introduction to Catalina begins with the arrival of William Wrigley Jr., self-made chewing gum king, on the baseball scene in 1916. That year, Wrigley bought a share of Chicago's National League entry, and over the next five years steadily increased his stake. Wartime privations hit some industries hard, but chewing gum thrived. Not only was Wrigley able to take over the Cubs, but in 1919 he unburdened the distressed owner of Catalina Island of the property for some $3 million, sight unseen.

The Cubs and Catalina became Wrigley's twin passions, and by the spring of 1921 he had arranged a marriage: the ballclub would train on the island in preparation for his first season as principal owner. With sportwriters sending dispatches back to frigid Chicago chronicling the Cubbies island frolics, Catalina seized an advertising bonanza as a new vacation mecca.

Though Wrigley's association with the Cubs lasted just 16 years, his impact has been lasting, exemplified today by the venerable ballpark on the North Side of Chicago bearing his name. And for three decades his influence was felt every February, when Cubs players from all over the country would travel west for Spring Training on the "Isle with a Smile," Santa Catalina. Baseball has no modern equivalent of William Wrigley. By the time of his death in 1932, he ranked, with Jacob Ruppert and Horace Stoneham, as one of the game's most influential owners. His players revered him and fans responded to his efforts with record-setting gates. He was almost universally esteemed and today, 64 years after his death, the worst thing anyone can say about him is that he loved Rogers Hornsby too much.

As a boy, Wrigley sold soap door-to-door from a two-horse wagon. Propelled by enthusiasm and charm, he claimed he could "sell pianos to the armless men of Borneo." After years of giving away free gum with purchases of soap, Wrigley realized that gum was what his customers really wanted. Starting from scratch, Wrigley went into business and sold enough chewing gum to amass one of America's largest fortunes. Still, he remained throughout his life the same big-hearted, back-slapping jolly bartender of a man who had first come to Chicago in 1891.

Catalina before Wrigley was largely undeveloped. After taking over, Wrigley brought the island to life. In Catalina's one real town, Avalon, he installed street lights and sewers, erected hotels and built the world's largest dance hall, the Avalon Grand Casino. Within a decade he had invested six times the island's price on improvements. But most of Catalina remained untouched, with its mountains and bays protected and virtually no automobiles allowed.

When the Cubs first stepped off the steamer onto the Avalon wharf in 1921, they were struck by the rugged beauty of the place. Over the years they got to know it intimately, because Cubs managers liked to use the rough terrain and mountain trails for conditioning. The island is home to mountain goats, and winter-softened Cubbies often suffered long workouts hiking along goat paths. Third baseman Randy Jackson complained of shin splints, and Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett anguished, "I hope they've got banked turns in the National League infields, because one of my legs is shorter than the other from trying to navigate those damn hills."

A typical spring visit for the Cubs began in mid-February, when pitchers, catchers and rookies arrived. The rest of the team followed a week later. Around March 10 the Club would break camp and sail for Los Angeles for a couple of weeks of exhibition games in California.First stop was L.A.'s Wrigley Field, home park of the Los Angeles Angels (Wrigley's Pacific Coast League team), for a half-dozen or so games. The Club would then move slowly across the Southwest, playing a game each day in towns along the way before finally heading north from Texas.

After deciding to bring his Cubs to Catalina for Spring Training, Wrigley built a diamond and a practice field in Avalon, with the ballfield's dimensions matching those of Wrigley Field in Chicago. Ringed by eucalyptus trees, the field was located below Wrigley's mountainside country club, which housed the players' locker rooms. Like the windows and rooftops on Waveland Avenue in Chicago today, the clubhouse patios provided a sociable left-field perch for viewing the field below.

Wrigley was a familiar face at the ballfield, usually sitting in the bleachers to watch the workouts. For Wrigley, all business stopped when the Cubs were playing. He traveled on road trips with the team and rarely missed a home game. His love of the game was genuine. As a boy, he had worked from age 10, and had felt envious of those able to attend baseball games. As an adult, he evened the score.

Though he was an attentive owner, he didn't try to run things himself. Shortstop Woody English remembers Wrigley's first words to him when he joined the Cubs in 1927: "He called me over and said, 'Woody, I'm not going to tell you how to play baseball, that's your business. But if there's anything else you need help with, you let me know.'"

Cubs players had real affection for their owner. It helped that they were better paid than most other Major Leaguers. Wrigley admired his players and treated them accordingly. He fostered personal relationships with his players. Springs on Catalina always included social functions-fishing trips, barbecues at Wrigley's mountaintop mansion, mountain goat rodeos with players wielding lariats. All helped solidify Wrigley's status among his players.

The Cubs spent their weeks on the island playing mostly inter-squad games. The regulars versus the goofs, they were called. The games were free and well attended by island residents and visitors. Every spring day a steamer arrived carrying tourists on day trips, with the Cubs the chief attraction.

Occasionally, outside competition would visit the island. The PCL Angels were regular visitors, and more than once the New York Giants contested the Cubs on Catalina. Joe E. Brown, one of Hollywood's biggest names in the 1930s, put together teams of movie stars to take on the Cubs. They were a popular attraction, though not much of a test.

With Wrigley's efforts to glamorize the island, Hollywood celebrities became frequent visitors and Catalina a featured location for movie making. Cary Grant, Clark Gable (Mutiny on the Bounty was filmed there) and Errol Flynn (whose rumored rendezvous with a 15-year-old was an island scandal) were among the stars who might be spotted on Catalina. Buffalo were imported for one picture and they now roam wild. Natalie Wood's 1981 drowning off Catalina put the island back in the national spotlight.

One spring, a workaday radio man named Ronald Reagan accompanied the Club during Spring Training. Assigned to acquaint himself with the Club for the coming season's broadcasts, Reagan spent several weeks on Catalina, often taking uniformed workouts with the team. Among other diversions, Reagan found time to visit a Hollywood studio and sit for his first screen test. That was in 1937, and one wonders how the world might be different today had the Cubs been training in Florida.

On baseball matters, Wrigley deferred mostly to General Manager Bill Veeck, Sr. When Wrigley took over the Club, Veeck was a Chicago sportswriter. His harsh criticism of the Cubs caught Wrigley's eye. Wrigley said something to the effect of, "If you're so smart, you run the team!" and handed him the reins of the Club. It was an inspired choice. Veeck soon brought in Manager Joe McCarthy, and before long the Cubs were contenders. And, of course, Veeck's son, Bill Jr., would go on to become one of the game's most flamboyant and innovative owners.

With Veeck running the show, the Cubs made steady progress toward the top of the National League. Wrigley's willingness to invest money made it possible for Veeck to assemble a core of Hall of Famers (Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler, Hartnett and Hornsby) in the 1920s that led to a pennant in 1929, and three more in the '30s. From 1922-39, the Cubs suffered only one losing season. In 1927 the Club became the first NL team to draw more than a million fans and repeated that feat in '28 and '29.

After the 1928 season, Wrigley went over Veeck's head to acquire Hornsby at the astounding price of $200,000 plus five players. Hornsby was Wrigley's favorite player and the Rajah rewarded him with an MVP season in 1929. But Veeck threatened to quit, and he stayed only when his boss promised never to meddle again. Hornsby took over as manager in 1930, but after Wrigley's death in 1932, Veeck got rid of him.

So it was with the happy confidence of success that Cubs players would start their preseason rituals on an island in the Pacific. Thus their fond memories of Catalina: "We kind of fell in love with the beauty of it," remembers English. "I spent 11 birthdays on the island, and I really enjoyed it out there. Even Hornsby loved it, even though there weren't any race tracks."

Bill Jurges, 88, spent 10 preseasons on Catalina and describes it as "a great place to train." He remembers that big-name bands-like Harry James and Jimmy Dorsey-would play on weekends at the eight-story Casino where the ballroom could accommodate 5,000 dancers. The Cubs would import girls from the mainland to provide partners for the dances, although wives and families were welcome on the island and often accompanied the players.

Wrigley died in 1932 and Bill Veeck Sr. a year later. The foundation of talent that they left behind would last the decade, but it eventually dissipated. P.K. Wrigley, William's son, took over, but he had little passion for baseball. Out of loyalty to his father's love of the Cubs he didn't sell the Club, but he never succeeded at building a winner (after the war, the Cubs fell into a 30-year slump). P.K. honored his father's memory by keeping Wrigley Field, baseball's most beautiful showcase, spotless, comfortable and sunlit. In 1937, he and Bill Veeck Jr., then the Club's treasurer, planted the outfield ivy, now a symbol of tradition for all baseball fans.

The Cubs left Catalina Island in 1952. Several years of bad weather led to the move, capped in 1951 by the first snow the Cubs had seen on the island. P.K. also had interests in Arizona, and he chose Mesa as the Cubs new training site, where the Club still trains today.

In 1975, the Wrigley family ceded 86 percent of the island to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit foundation charged with protecting the island's land and wildlife. P.K.'s son, Bill, still has a home on the island. His grandfather's palatial mansion is now a bed and breakfast with a view of the bay, and the old casino has been restored to its 1930s splendor. The ballpark is gone, but the country club is being renovated for a 1997 reopening, featuring a Cubs-themed restaurant and bar. The Wrigley Memorial, featuring a botanical garden and the Wrigley Mausoleum, has become one of the island's tourist attractions. Despite the renovations, there are fewer and fewer people left who remember the Cubs' years on Wrigley's island. If ever baseball's late-winter regimen of calisthenics and conditioning was held on Elysian Fields, it was on Catalina.

Thanks to Catalina Islanders Stacey Otte and Audry Bierold for their help with this article.

©1998 Spring Training Inc.
This article first appeared in the 1997 issue of Spring Training.

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