Cub Spring Training on Catalina Island

Cub Spring Training on Catalina Island

Bating practice on Catalina Island

Bating practice on Catalina Island

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                                                                                                  Cubs Spring Training on Catalina Island

How many baseball fans are aware that for 30 years the Cubs held Spring training on their own private paradise?

The spot was Santa Catalina Island, located in the Pacific Ocean, 25 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Starting in 1921, the Cubs visited the island every spring. They continued to train there until 1951, except during the war years of 1942–45. Every February Cub players from all over the country would travel west for spring training on the “Isle with a Smile.”

The Cubs and Catalina Island were the twin passions of their owner, the chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley. In 1919 Wrigley bought controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island and started bringing his team there for Spring training in 1921. (I wonder how much gum you have to sell at a nickel a pack in order to buy your own tropical island!). In doing so, he became the first baseball owner to bring a major league club out West for spring training, Wrigley invested millions more in needed infrastructure and attractions to the island, including a 5-star hotel, a ball field with training facilities, and the Catalina Casino.

A typical spring training for the Cubs began in mid-February, when pitchers, catchers and rookies would hop the steamboat in Los Angles for the three-hour trip to Catalina. The rest of the team followed a week later. The trip did not come without a cost: almost everyone experienced severe sea-sickness on the way over in the choppy winter waters off the coast of Los Angeles.

An amazing array of baseball stars spent their springs in the bucolic setting, including Charlie Root, Phil Cavaretta, Charlie Grimm and Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Gabby Hartnett, Joe McCarthy, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Hack Wilson. Around mid March, the club would break camp and sail for Los Angeles for a couple of weeks of exhibition games in California. First stop was Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, home park of the Angels (Wrigley’s Pacific Coast League team), for a half-dozen or so games. The club would then move slowly across the Southwest, playing a game each day in towns along the way before finally heading north from Texas.

After deciding to bring his Cubs to Catalina for spring training, Wrigley built a diamond and a practice field in Avalon, the island’s principal city, with the field’s dimensions matching those of Wrigley Field in Chicago. Ringed by eucalyptus trees, the field was located below Wrigley’s mountainside country club, which housed the players’ locker rooms. Like the windows and rooftops on Waveland Avenue in Chicago today, the clubhouse patios provided a sociable left-field perch for viewing the field below. Wrigley was a familiar face at the ball field, usually sitting in the bleachers to watch the workouts.

With Wrigley’s efforts to glamorize the island, Hollywood celebrities became frequent visitors and Catalina a featured location for movie making. Cary Grant, Clark Gable (Mutiny on the Bounty was filmed there) and Errol Flynn were among the stars who might be spotted on Catalina. Buffalo were imported for one picture and they now roam wild. Natalie Wood’s 1981 drowning off Catalina put the island back in the national spotlight.

So it was with the confidence that a new season brings, that Cubs players would start their preseason rituals on this beautiful resort island in the Pacific. “We kind of fell in love with the beauty of it,” remembered Woody English. “I spent 11 birthdays on the island, and I really enjoyed it out there. Billy Jurges spent 10 preseasons on Catalina and describes it as “a great place to train.” He remembers that big-name bands-like Harry James and Jimmy Dorsey would play on weekends at the eight-story Casino where the ballroom could accommodate 5,000 dancers. The Cubs would import girls from the mainland to provide partners for the dances, although wives and families were welcome on the island and often accompanied the players.

The Cubs’ last season on the island was 1951. A spell of bad weather, including a snowstorm, may have played a role in convincing the team to move spring operations to Mesa, Arizona. Only a plaque noting the location remains now on the grounds of what is currently the Catalina Island Country Club, though its clubhouse is the same structure that Wrigley built for the Cubs

-Gary Livacari

All photos from public domain

Background information edited from article in the South Bay Daily Breeze; and the Catalina Island Wikipedia page. Read more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Catalina_Island,_California

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I'm a baseball historian who also loves to write. My forte is identifying ballplayers in old photos, and my specail interest is the Dead Ball Era.

2 Comments

  1. Gary Livacari · March 13, 2016 Reply

    How did the Cubs come to choose Catalina Island?

  2. Gary Livacari · March 14, 2016 Reply

    Wm. Wrigley bought the island about 1920 and decided it would be a good place for spring training.

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