Back home again in Indiana

Despite the state motto (“The Crossroads of America”), Indiana does not loom large in the history of major league baseball. In 1884, the Indianapolis Hoosiers took the field for one season in the American Association. Another team with the same nickname won the 1914 Federal League championship—whereupon it was promptly moved to Newark. But as far as the National and American Leagues, nothing to see here—except for the Limestone League.

You say you never heard of the Limestone League? It’s not surprising. It lasted only three years and it was preseason baseball. As spring training goes, it wasn’t nearly as formal as a present-day Grapefruit and Cactus League season. If not for World War II, it wouldn’t have happened.

The war’s effect on baseball has been a popular topic for baseball historians. A familiar part of baseball lore concerns Franklin Roosevelt giving his okay to wartime baseball in his famous “green light” letter to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. But it was hardly business as usual.

Young men in peak physical condition were in demand by Uncle Sam as well as major league teams, but Uncle Sam had first dibs. The effects of conscription (enacted in 1940) on major league rosters, and the attendant degradation in the quality of play, were all too obvious, as 4-Fs and retreads dominated the rosters. No help was available from the minor leagues because those players were also caught in the draft. Indeed, most of the pre-war minor leagues had to suspend operations during the war.

But Uncle Sam needed more than manpower. For one thing, he needed transportation for troops and supplies. “Is this trip really necessary?” was a catchphrase coined to prod Americans to curtail non-essential travel. And after the war was a little more than a year old, the question was posed to major league baseball.

On Jan. 5, 1943, Joseph B. Eastman, head of the Office of Defense Transportation (ODT), held an emergency meeting with team owners and Commissioner Landis. The ODT was charged regulating transportation regarding personnel and goods related to the war effort, and didn’t want baseball players clogging up the trains and impeding troop movements.

There was no way to avoid travel during the regular season, but the meeting resulted in an agreement that each team would play three, not four, series at the home of each opponent. The total number of games would remain the same, but the teams would play longer series. Also, the 1943 season would start a week later than usual.

Eastman and Landis claimed that their agreement would save 5 million man miles, counting players, coaches, sportswriters, and the other camp followers who accompanied major league teams on road trips. It is not clear if that 5 million figure included savings from spring training, but the war’s effect on preseason travel was arguably greater than on regular season travel. I wouldn’t go so far as to say spring training was gutted, but it was severely restricted.

In short, Eastman, Landis and the owners set up a boundary around the northeast quadrant of the United States, where all the existing major league teams were located. The teams could go no further south than the Ohio River (where Cincinnati was located) or the Potomac (where Washington, D.C. was located). West of the Mississippi River was also off limits, aside from the two St. Louis teams, whose home base was on the west bank of the river. The Browns and the Cardinals could train in the designated area or anywhere in Missouri.

Of course, the eastern boundary was taken care of by the Atlantic Ocean, and a northern boundary was not necessary, because no one was going to head for colder climes for spring training anyway. Even so, spring training in those years was waggishly referred to as the Long Underwear League.

The agreement ensured that a balmy, palmy spring training was not an option for the duration. The deal may have been struck not just for patriotic reasons but also for good public relations. After all, how would Americans react to stories and pictures of ballplayers cavorting on Florida beaches while their peers were assigned to combat zones in Europe and Asia?

The teams had only two months to decide on locales, so they had to act fast, but actually the message was simple: Train anywhere you want, so long as it’s close to home. As a result, such unlikely venues as Bear Mountain, N.Y. (Dodgers) and Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Browns) played a small part in major league history.

For the record, the southernmost site was the Cardinals’ choice of Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio River flowed into the Mississippi. That was probably as warm a choice as the Cardinals (or anyone else) could make, but it was a long way from their former spring home of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Some teams didn’t even leave their metropolitan areas. The Senators went no further than a suburb (College Park, Md.), as did the Red Sox (Medford, Mass.) in 1943.

South Jersey found favor with a few teams, as the Yankees spent two springs in Atlantic City and one in Asbury Park. The Giants chose Lakewood for three seasons and the Red Sox trained in Pleasantville in 1945.

Curiously, the Braves set up camp one year in Washington, D.C. Presumably, the Senators (either the team or the politicians) had no veto power over that, or chose not to exercise it. World War II presented many novel situations on the home front.

The most stable spring training venue during the war years was Indiana, where six teams readied themselves for the 1943-1945 seasons. The presence of so many teams in one state created a de facto confederation. The numerous limestone quarries in southern Indiana (and the numerous buildings and monuments crafted from native limestone) inspired the name Limestone League.

The league was as follows in 1943:

Chicago Cubs              French Lick        (from Catalina Island, Calif.) 
Chicago White Sox         French Lick        (from Pasadena, Calif.) 
Cincinnati Reds           Bloomington        (from Tampa, Fla.) 
Cleveland Indians         Lafayette          (from Fort Myers, Fla.)
Detroit Tigers            Evansville         (from Lakeland, Fla.) 
Pittsburgh Pirates        Muncie             (from San Bernardino, Calif.)

Right off the bat, the above Indiana towns may seem like odd choices. One wonders why Indianapolis, the state capital and the state’s biggest city, was not chosen. But given the wartime restrictions, the choices made good sense. For one thing, the presence of local colleges (Indiana University in Bloomington, University of Evansville in Evansville, Ball State in Muncie, and Purdue University in Lafayette) assured that some sort of field house would be available for indoor workouts when the weather was too cold outdoors.

Of all the towns chosen, only French Lick had never hosted minor league ball. French Lick (2010 pop. 1,807) was too small to support a pro team. One can only imagine how the presence of not one but two major league teams must have affected the springtime social life of the locals. Since both Chicago teams were ensconced there in 1943 and 1944, it’s easy to imagine baseball fans in the Windy City rationalizing a pilgrimage to French Lick as a necessary trip.

Bloomington had been a longtime minor league town, having hosted Three-I League ball most seasons from 1902 to 1939. Lafayette had hosted minor league ball, but not since 1911 when the Lafayette Farmers played in the Northern State of Indiana League. Muncie had an even longer hiatus, as the last year of minor league ball there was 1908, when the Muncie Fruit Jars played in the Ohio-Indiana League.

The strongest minor league presence was in Evansville, a longtime member of the Three-I League (the Evansville Bees were affiliated with the Boston Bees/Braves just before the war). Indeed, the locals had been fortunate enough to witness Warren Spahn in some of his fledgling professional efforts before he went off to war.

One can conclude that the clubs were, for the most part, satisfied with their digs in the Hoosier State, though the Cubs and White Sox were dismayed to find their practice fields under water when they arrived at French Lick in 1943. Yet of the six teams that trained in Indiana from 1943-1945, only the White Sox shifted their operations, moving from French Lick to Terre Haute for 1945.

Terre Haute, by the way, had hosted minor league ball as far back as 1884 and had been a mainstay of the Three I League from 1919 to 1937. Terre Haute also hosted the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in the spring of 1943. Minor league teams that had not suspended operations were also subject to travel restrictions.

In 1946, Terre Haute rejoined the Three-I League, and the following year the Muncie Reds took the field in the Ohio State League. Since neither city had hosted minor league for decades, one can’t help but think that the presence of major league teams during spring training must have played a part in re-awakening interest in baseball in those two towns.

Though the three seasons of spring training in Indiana were just a footnote in major league history, there are still links to the past via the old ballparks where the teams played.

In contemporary Evansville, there is a major relic of the era. Bosse Field, the Tigers’ temporary home, was already a seasoned stadium when the Tigers moved in. Built in 1915, the park is still in use, and currently houses the Evansville Otters of the independent Frontier League. I’m guessing baseball fans in Evansville are pondering some sort of centennial celebration for 2015.

In Muncie, McCulloch Park, home of the Pirates, is still in use. At least, the field is still in use; the grandstand is long gone. Supposedly the longest home run in the field’s history was hit by Rudy York when he and the Tigers were visiting.

And in Terre Haute, Memorial Stadium housed the White Sox for the 1945 spring season. It first hosted baseball two decades earlier. The first game, on May 5, 1925, was between the Terre Haute Tots and the Peoria Tractors. The facility is still in use, but you wouldn’t recognize it. Located at 3300 Wabash Ave., it is still called Memorial Stadium, but now it is used for football and soccer by Indiana State University, who acquired the property in 1967.

In its baseball days, it must have been a formidable venue, as the distance down the foul lines was 440 feet and dead center was 592 feet away. All that is left from those days is the memorial arch that gave the stadium its name, but I’m guessing that the local tourist information office gets very few inquiries about the 1945 White Sox spring training season.

In the three seasons the six major league teams spent the preseason in Indiana, the locals had a rare opportunity to see big league players whose exploits they had read about in the papers or listened to on the radio. Although many of the game’s biggest stars were serving in the military, a number of familiar names showed up in Indiana.

Among those who took part in the Limestone League were Mel Harder, Lou Boudreau and Allie Reynolds (Indians); Luke Appling, Tony Cuccinello and Wally Moses (White Sox); Johnny Vander Meer, Bucky Walters and Hank Sauer (Reds); Rip Sewell, Al Lopez and Lloyd Waner (Pirates), Phil Cavarretta, Stan Hack and Bill Nicholson (Cubs); and Hal Newhouser, Rudy York and Paul Richards (Tigers).

To no one’s surprise, when spring 1946 rolled around, the Limestone League was history. All the teams went back to where they had trained in 1942, except for the Indians, who returned to Florida but chose Clearwater over Fort Myers, before heading west to Tucson, Ariz. in 1947.

Like their fellow Americans in other states, the good citizens of Indiana were glad to see World War II come to a victorious conclusion. Still, I’m guessing a lot of the local baseball fans felt a mild sense of loss in the spring of 1946 when it was back to business as usual.

Now, as we approach the 70th anniversary of the Limestone League, it is worth pausing to shine the light on the Hoosier State’s brief but notable moment in the major league baseball sun. When the state celebrates its bicentennial in 2016, one hopes there will be some attention paid to those three historic spring training seasons.

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Comments

  1. Matt said...

    As a life-long Hoosier, I never knew about this particular piece of our state’s history. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. mando3b said...

    Great story! As an alum of Indiana U, I especially appreciated it. I hate to nitpick, but the National League actually had two different teams in Indianapolis in the 19th century: the Blues were in the NL for 1878 only, and the Hoosiers took the field from 1887-89. If I have any details wrong, I’m sure other nitpickers will correct me!

  3. steve-o said...

    I moved to Indianapolis three years ago for my job. Not much here, complete lack of baseball culture, or really any other kind. So depressing.

  4. Carl said...

    In addition, Indiana was the home state of the Indianapolis ABCs, Indianapolis Clowns, and Indianapolis Athletics of the Negro Leagues.  I believe the ABCs were in the Negro National League and the Clowns were in the Negro American league.  The Athletics were the forerunner of the ABCs.

  5. Greg Simons said...

    steve-o, the Indianapolis Blues and Hoosiers mentioned above are alive and well as vintage base ball teams, if you’re interested.  (Full disclosure: I play on the Blues.)

    And Victory Field is a pretty nice Triple-A facility, too.  It doesn’t help being affiliated with the long-suffering Pirates, though.

  6. Frank Jackson said...

    Interesting to note Steve-O’s comment about a lack of baseball culture.  That may account for why Indianapolis is always absent whenever the topic of relocation or expansion comes up.  Plenty of people there and plenty of football and basketball fans.  Just not enough baseball fans.

  7. Greg Simons said...

    bucdaddy,

    Sorry for the offense regarding the Pirates.  My point is that it’s probably easier to get fans excited about the minor league affiliates when the major league team is doing well.

    I’d love to catch a Gerrit Cole start, and it would be great to see Pittsburgh top .500 this season.

  8. Greg Simons said...

    Frank, I think one reason Indy doesn’t get mentioned for expansion is that there are MLB teams all around that have split the fans’ loyalties.

    Live in Indy?  You may be a Pirates fan because of the affiliation.  (Or Milwaukee from earlier times.)

    Live NW of Indy? Probably a White Sox or Cubs fan.

    Live NE? Tigers.

    SE? Reds.

    SW? Cardinals.

    With the Colts and Pacers well established, I just don’t think there are enough sports-related dollars to support and MLB team.

  9. Matt said...

    I wouldn’t say there isn’t ANY baseball culture. I just think that, for the moment, we’re not a large enough market to support three “major” sports franchises here in Indy. Between the Colts and Pacers, we have 51 dates per year, plus there’s a rabid racing & college basketball culture here as well that sucks away entertainment dollars.

    Could that change in the future, esp. as our demographics change from increased population inflow? Absolutely.

  10. bucdaddy said...

    Greg Simons,

    Just for that, we’ll have Cole skip AAA and go straight to the majors.

    No prospects for YOU!

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