What follows is the first of periodic throwback reflections of Jim Henneman's 45 years of spring training experiences. This one is an imaginary idea of what it might have been like during the early years of the 20th century, when train was the main means of travel. The others will take a look at his first spring training in 1974 and how things have changed; some recollections of the years in between, and conclude with a "wish list" journey to baseball's past.
ABOARD AMTRAK ENROUTE TO SARASOTA, Fla. -- Don't let the dateline on this column throw you. It's just an attempt to reclaim part of baseball's colorful past and fill in the blanks on a missing link in what has otherwise been an eventful experience. And to give an idea about how stories sometimes looked when they were written during travel between cities.
In more than 50 years of covering baseball in one form or another, I've been able to touch a lot of bases, but there's one thing my immediate predecessors experienced that I had only heard about. I was a little too late to the game to take a road trip by train, the way it was done throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Some of the stories told were as legendary as some of the people telling them. Throughout the years I've been fortunate to cross paths with writers like Milton Richman, Red Smith, Dick Young, Barney Kremenko, Jim Ogle and Jimmy Cannon, and they all seemed to have stories of road trips that were often more memorable for the travel than they were for the games. And it was amazing how many of those stories centered on Babe Ruth and his New York Yankees teammates, even decades after his death. The Babe's no longer with us and neither are those writers, but his impact and the romance of those times still lingers.
I've always been envious of those who covered the game back then, during the times when men went to day games wearing coats, ties and fedoras and the ladies wore dresses and fancy hats. There were Sunday double-headers and either Monday or Thursday, sometimes both, was an off-day.
Much of the time on those off-days, of course, was consumed by train travel, which gave writers time to mingle with players and managers, usually in a private dining car, where I was told things could get testy. At least that's what they told me, that's how I envisioned it, that's my version of a part of baseball history I missed and how I often dreamed it was -- and I'm sticking to it.
So, in the seventh inning of my career, I decided to do something about it -- to come as close as possible to re-creating a road trip the old fashioned way. I figured spring training would be the perfect place to start. I'm sure most participants went to Florida (Arizona wasn't in the picture back then) the same way they traveled from city to city -- by train.
As you read this, the Orioles will be preparing to play their first exhibition game of the year. As I write it I am on Amtrak's Auto Train, which makes a daily 4 p.m. departure from Lorton, Va., just outside Washington, D.C., with a scheduled 9 a.m. next day arrival in Sanford, Fla., just outside Orlando. It's an 810-mile trip that is scheduled to take 17 hours -- almost identical to the distance between New York and Chicago, so it's as close to perfect for my "wish list" round trip as could be envisioned.
To be sure, there's a big difference between this train and the ones Babe rode in his day. For one thing, my car, along with 219 others (plus one motorcycle) is in one of the carrier cars in back. The train stretches out for three-quarters of a mile -- equaling its stable mate that travels in the reverse direction at the same time every day as the longest train in North America.
Something else that's different -- I'm toughing it in coach, rather than taking the sleeper players were usually afforded. Enough room to either write or stretch out and close enough to the one great similarity I envisioned -- the lounge and dining car, which is less than 20 yards from my seat.
That, I told myself, is where I want to spend as much time as possible. That's where I want to hang out and let my imagination run rampant. It won't be Kevin Costner's "Field of Dreams," but the lounge car fits nicely into my "wish list" trip.
I chose the 5 p.m. seating for dinner (choice of three entrees included in the price of a ticket) to free up more lounge time. I sat with a father and son who were going to see the Daytona 500.
"Something he always wanted to do," the dad said, "and this year the dates worked out."
Somehow, it didn't seem necessary, or even appropriate to tell them I was sort of, kind of, doing something I always wanted to do, too. They were taking the train to see cars make left-hand turns racing around a track; I was taking a train instead of a plane on a fantasy trip about players who make left-hand turns running around bases. I don't think either would understand.
While the lounge car was the main object of my attention, I couldn't help but make the comparisons. In the old days, Babe was said to regale his audience with tales while puffing on a cigar at the bar, while others occasionally engaged in more demonstrative demonstrations, a common occurrence in areas where adult beverages are consumed (They are also considerably more expensive than in Babe's heyday, so a personal supply is advised).
I envisioned my laptop on the table where I took up residence as a Royal or Underwood typewriter and wondered if back in the day anyone ever complained about the ungodly noise those things could make -- as an irate flying companion once did to me years ago.
The typewriter has been gone from the scene longer than most of today's players have been alive. Writers today type to tweet on their phones before they write on their computers.
No place shows the difference in times, however, more than the lounge car. It is now more of a social hangout than a gathering spot for telling stories embellished by those adult beverages. The phone, as it is in everyday life, is king in the lounge, which shuts down at 11 p.m. (not sure how Babe would've handled that). You don't have to leave, but no more food and drink. For me, the story, or at least as I envisioned it, was over.
There wasn't much sleep -- but sleep wasn't what this was all about. This was about trying to re-create a romance with baseball's past. To try and capture a feeling of what it was like in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
To be honest, I really don't think it can be done. But it's all good. Sometimes things are best left for our imagination. I'm still envious of those who traveled in those times, but consider myself fortunate to have come to spring training, in one role or another, 45 times.
And this year I'm especially thankful -- because I came the old fashioned way.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Ed Sheahin/Gary Sousa/PressBox