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'Sobering Up', barnstorming and Cuba: The history of Cardinals' spring training

Spring Training took a variety of forms before the team settled into Florida.

And so it begins...
And so it begins...
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

For nearly as long as men have been paid to play baseball, there has been some kind of organized spring gathering to whip them into shape. For the Cardinals, some form of spring training has gone on for well over 100 years.

In the early days, well before Tony La Russa was busted for sleeping one off in his car at a Florida intersection, spring training was sometimes referred to as "sobering up." In fact, many sources recount the Chicago White Stockings first setting up a spring training camp in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1886 for exactly that purpose - to sober up. Six years later, the 1900 Cardinals would use the very same Whittington Park in Hot Springs as their spring base.

Spring Training around the turn of the 20th century was sometimes indistinguishable from barnstorming. In fact, the whole notion of a formal "spring training" seems to have evolved organically from the tradition of barnstorming - playing a handful of soft, local semi-pro teams in preparation for the formal professional season.

After spending 1900 in Arkansas, the Cardinals bounced around for the next 13 years, training in several places in Texas, along with stops in Indiana, Mississippi and Georgia. On a few occasions, they saved money by just training in St. Louis. While coaches would push for some kind of spring camp, owners often resisted what they saw as an unnecessary expense.

The New York Giants set up what is generally considered the first "permanent" spring training facility in Marlin, Texas in 1908. No longer just a half-hearted barnstorming trip or a chance to sober up, Manager John McGraw insisted on eight-hour daily workouts in preparation for the season.

Beginning around 1910, a relocated Pittsburgh laundromat mogul named Al Lang sought to bring the Pirates and other major league clubs to Florida, including the Cardinals. He finally succeeded in 1913, reportedly luring the St. Louis Browns by offering to pay all of the team's expenses. The Mayor of Tampa lured the Cubs by offering to pay $100 per player.

The Cardinals joined the exodus to Florida by setting up camp in St. Augustine in 1914. With the Cubs, Browns and Phillies all around to scrimmage against, the first makings of The Grapefruit League were taking shape.

That first Cardinals stint in Florida only lasted one season. For the next twelve years, the team continued to bounce around, mostly in Texas, and even spent a season in Stockton, California. But throughout the 1920s, more and more teams were setting up spring camps in Florida. The Cardinals made Florida their permanent home beginning in 1927. They tried out a few locations before settling permanently in St. Petersburg in 1938.

But even as something like the modern Grapefruit League was taking shape, there was still a bit of barnstorming going on. In 1936, 1937 and 1940, the Cardinals made spring trips to Cuba, twice to play a Cuban National Team and once to play the New York Giants - who were training in Cuba at the time.

During World War II, in a move intended to limit travel, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ordered teams to train closer to home, so from 1943-45 the Cardinals trained in nearby Cairo, Illinois.

When the Cardinals returned to St. Petersburg after the war, they moved into a new ballpark. Their previous facility, Waterfront Park, was demolished. On its location was built a new, modern facility, dubbed "Al Lang Field," after the man who worked so hard to bring spring baseball to Florida in the first place. The Cardinals would continue to call St. Petersburg home until moving to Jupiter in 1998.

Pitchers and Catchers report today. Baseball is back.