Only in Anniston can a $1,250 check, finicky spring weather, a $600 deficit, a visit by one of New York’s Major League Baseball teams and a month spent with a future Hall of Famer remain a city’s most memorable sporting moment.
We can argue over that last part, and it’s OK. This isn’t politics. Gentlemanly disagreements are welcome.
But how can you dismiss Casey Stengel?
I can’t. When MLB teams gather in Arizona and Florida each spring, I’m captivated by the month Stengel and the team he managed, the minor league Toledo Mud Hens, spent in Anniston training for the 1930 season. Former Calhoun County Commissioner Eli Henderson installed a marker on Quintard Avenue a few years back that recalls the weeks Ty Cobb played baseball here in 1904, but there’s one significant difference.
Cobb couldn’t wait to get out of town. Stengel “looked over the entire South,” The Star wrote at the time, “and decided Anniston was the best place for his training camp.” On that, Stengel trumps Cobb.
It’s laughable now to imagine Anniston hosting a high-level minor league team for spring training. There’s no stadium, no suitable opposition. But before MLB teams built palatial warm-weather complexes, minor-leaguers routinely shopped around for spring sites. The Mud Hens trained in Biloxi, Miss., in 1928 and 1929, and then Stengel went searching for a new deal.
On Oct. 4, 1929, a Friday, Stengel arrived on the 5:45 afternoon train for a series of meetings with city leaders and representatives from the Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Anniston Baseball Association, operator of the local minor-league team at Johnston Field. They met that night and again Saturday and struck a deal.
The contract called for Anniston’s deep-pocketed types to pay the Toledo team $1,250 and guarantee a sufficient number of exhibition games against local players, not to mention accommodations and the use of Johnston Field. In return, Anniston would receive half of all gate receipts, which were expected to recoup the city’s expenses. Six Anniston men — Paul Beard, Joe Eros, Charlie Varn, L.H. Carre, C.A. Hamilton Jr. and W.H. Peacock — signed the contract that Saturday.
Stengel — who’d already won two of his nine career World Series rings — returned to Anniston on March 5, 1930. Most of his players and reporters from the Toledo Blade newspaper arrived two days later on a train from Rome, Ga. The season was a month away.
“Now that about all of us are here, we want to make Anniston like us and we know we are going to like Anniston,” Stengel told The Star. “I picked this town out for the training season and I am sure the boys will like it, particularly after they get acquainted with the people.
“They’ll see that Anniston appreciates their presence when this big barbecue comes off next Tuesday. I’ve been here before and I know you people’s attitude toward visitors.”
Ah, yes. The big barbecue, a Relay for Life-sized outdoor event with Casey Stengel as the guest of honor. What I’d give for a time machine.
Noble Street closed that Tuesday afternoon, every business, every shop. Nothing else mattered. The city’s civic clubs — Rotarians, Kiwanisians, Civitans — canceled weekly meetings so members could flock to Johnston Field; so, too, did doctors in town for an Alabama Medical Association convention. Restaurant owner Leo Pruett camped out overnight at the ballpark to oversee the barbecue prep. The band from Anniston’s Alabama Military Institute performed. More than 1,000 people showed up, each paying $1 to attend. Mayor Sidney J. Reaves gave Stengel and the players a key to the city.
“The warm hospitality shown today at the barbecue is a demonstration of the friendly attitude that will be met by the visitors throughout the time they are in Anniston,” The Star’s editorial board wrote.
Then came baseball. So, too, did spring rains, which canceled practices and hampered ticket sales. But it didn’t stop Stengel’s team from hosting one of his old teams, the New York Giants — yes, those New York Giants — on March 26. (The Giants, as did most teams of that era, played games during their train rides north after spring training.) The Mud Hens won, 11-0, at Johnston Field.
The following week, on April 4, Stengel and his players left Anniston for Toledo, where they went on to win 88 games that summer and finish third in their league, but they never returned to the city. Four years later, Stengel began his Hall of Fame managing career in the majors, which included five straight World Series titles with the Yankees.
And the deep-pocketed Annistonians who put up the $1,250? March’s rains had left them $600 in the hole.
“Well,” Stengel said about Anniston fans, “they will come to see ball games in good weather.”
Phillip Tutor is The Star’s commentary editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org