Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sports embodied the optimism we all shared for better days ahead. Now, unfortunately, we are seeing just how eager some are to use them as a tool to advance agendas and narratives that should stay in the realm of politics and as far removed as possible from the places we go to for entertainment, camaraderie and inspiration. Major League Baseball’s recent decision to relocate the All-Star game away from Georgia is just the latest example, and it demonstrates how this trend continues to evolve and escalate.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Arkansas, we can look to the past for proof that sports are much better used as a unifying force than a vehicle for division and political strife.
As fans head back to major league ballparks, it’s appropriate to remember our state’s unique role in shaping this celebrated pastime. Long before the Diamond Hogs were a top-ranked team, Major League Baseball team owners found the state a prime location to condition players and get ready for the upcoming season, launching the tradition of spring training.
As the first baseball franchise to undertake a preseason residence in 1886, the Chicago White Stockings owner considered several locations before eventually landing on Hot Springs. Several factors influenced this decision, most notably the mild winter climate that allowed for outdoor training and the city’s waters purported to have curative properties that were ideal for recovery.
More than 100 future Baseball Hall of Famers trained in the city at one point during their careers including Babe Ruth. The Sultan of Swat demonstrated his well-known slugging skills during spring training in 1918, hitting what has become recognized as the first 500-foot home run.
After major league teams left to train in warmer locales like Arizona and Florida, the Negro Leagues adopted the training grounds and established Hot Springs as a premier location for African-American baseball players to play and train. Its presence was so significant that an additional ballpark was constructed to accommodate the number of teams playing in the community.
The Historic Baseball Trail in Hot Springs celebrates the community’s distinctive place in the game’s past. The stops along the route take us back to the locations where baseball legends honed their skills, dazzled fans on the diamond and launched the spring training tradition.
Baseball is supposed to bring us together, not divide us along political or cultural lines. It’s time we got back to that and rejected efforts to use sports as a wedge to alienate and polarize Americans. Because of our state’s particular history with and connection to what is still referred to as America’s favorite pastime, Arkansans know this is still possible. As a new season gets underway, we must leave politics on the campaign trail and out of ballparks, stadiums and arenas that still hold the promise of uniting and captivating us in ways that transcend backgrounds and beliefs.