ARIZONA AT 100

Greg Hansen: Led by Veeck, trio planted seeds of Cactus League

2011-08-22T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Led by Veeck, trio planted seeds of Cactus LeagueGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 22, 2011 12:00 am  • 

In celebration of Arizona's centennial, the Star is featuring our picks for the 100 best athletes, moments and teams. Throughout the summer, we have been showcasing our list. Here is the third of Greg Hansen's top 10.

Hi Corbett, Roy Drachman and Bill Veeck

Before they died - Hi Corbett in 1967; Bill Veeck in 1986; Roy Drachman in 2002 - none came forward to claim to be The Father of the Cactus League.

I heard Veeck say that Drachman made spring training happen in Arizona.

I heard Drachman say that it couldn't have been done without Corbett.

The true story is that it required all three.

So here's the narrative that will spin forward for the next 64 years of Cactus League baseball: Veeck provided the entrepreneurial initiative (the money); Corbett supplied the political clout; Drachman worked the room and put everybody together.

Spring training games were periodically played in Tucson, and to a lesser extent, Phoenix, in the 1930s and early 1940s. But the genesis of the 1947 arrival of the New York Giants to Phoenix and the Cleveland Indians to Tucson began innocently enough in a doctor's office in Florida, 1945.

That's when Veeck, whose right leg would soon be amputated because of a World War II accident, was advised by a doctor that Arizona's drier climate would benefit his rehabilitation. A year later, Veeck bought the Cleveland Indians and the Lazy V Ranch near the Rincon Mountains.

In his book "Just Memories,'' Drachman wrote: "Bill wanted to see some Arizona spring weather charts, which I obtained for him, and we began talking seriously about trying to convince a couple of the teams to move into Arizona for their spring training.

"Bill and I drove to Phoenix to meet with (Giants owner) Horace Stoneham. At this time, Phoenix and Tucson had reached population levels to support the spring games, and since both Bill and Horace knew that the weather was dependable and acceptable, it didn't take much of a selling job to get agreement that in 1947 the Indians and Giants would launch big-league baseball in Arizona."

The Indians would leave Clearwater, Fla. The Giants abandoned Miami. The moves were not without comedy.

In a 1989 article in Spring Training magazine, Stoneham said, "I told Bill he could take Phoenix and I would take Tucson. After giving me the OK, Bill called the next day and said, 'I'm a little slow. It just came to me that I have a ranch near Tucson. How about we switch? Me, Tucson; you, Phoenix.' "

The Indians played their first game at what was then Randolph Park on March 6, 1947. Hall of Famer-to-be Bob Feller was the starting pitcher and a crowd of 5,500 overflowed into a park with a capacity listed at 4,934.

Since then, roughly 1,100 spring training games have been played in Tucson involving the Indians, who stayed through 1992, followed by the Rockies, the White Sox and the Diamondbacks.

In effect, the Veeck-Drachman-Corbett partnership lasted for 63 years until the D-backs and Rockies left Tucson after the 2010 spring training season.

Their legacy is not just that 14 teams train in the greater Phoenix area, but that over those 63 years Yuma and Casa Grande were also home to spring training teams. And there is little doubt that the Cactus League changed the nation's sleepy image of Arizona.

In '47, for example, major news outlets such as Fox-Movietone, Holiday Magazine, Sunset Magazine, Popular Science Films, the New York Times and Life magazine, among others, came to Tucson to follow spring training. It was Tucson's first experience as a destination for something other than a cure for asthma.

Corbett, who was chairman of the then-powerful Tucson Baseball Commission, persuaded city officials and the city Parks Department to spend about $300,000 to turn Randolph Park into a big-league caliber facility.

Mickey Mantle played here. So did Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Willie Mays.

Veeck's Lazy V Ranch became the unofficial party headquarters of spring training. It wasn't unusual to see movie stars such as John Wayne or William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd at the ranch, drinking beer and telling stories late into the night next to baseball legends such as Tris Speaker and Honus Wagner.

In 1998, Drachman, a wealthy real estate broker, was invited to throw out the first pitch when the Diamondbacks opened their initial spring training camp at Tucson Electric Park.

"It was quite special," he said that night. "We brought the Indians here 51 years ago and today we have three teams here and many more in Phoenix. Can you imagine the millions and millions of dollars spring training has brought to Arizona?

"And all because Bill liked our weather.''

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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