The Cactus League: A Brief History
By Rodney Johnson
Pre Cactus League Years
The Chicago White Sox were the first big league team to play a game in Arizona in 1909 as they barnstormed back to east after holding training camp in California. For the next three decades, the White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates played spring exhibition games against local teams in Arizona nearly every spring.
In 1929 the Detroit Tigers became the first club to hold their spring training in Arizona. They played several games against local teams and two exhibitions against big league competition at Phoenix Riverside Park. But in 1930 the Tigers moved their spring camp to California and never returned to Arizona.
Beginnings of the Cactus League
Bill Veeck, who owned a guest ranch near Tucson, purchased the Cleveland Indians in June 1946. The following year he convinced New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham to move his club’s spring training operation to Phoenix while the Indians would train in Tucson. Cleveland trained at Tucson’s Randolph Field (later renamed Hi Corbett Field) while the Giants set up shop at old Phoenix Municipal Stadium located at the corner of Central and Mohave.
In 1948 Larry Doby, who joined the Indians during the 1947 season, arrived for spring training in Tucson becoming the first African American to play in the Cactus League. That October Cleveland became the first Cactus League team to win the World Series.
One of the more interesting trades in baseball history occurred in 1951 when the New York Yankees and their cross-town rivals swapped spring training sites. The Giants trained in St. Petersburg, FL while the Yankees trained in Phoenix. The one-year-only swap was at the request of Yankees co-owner Del Webb who wanted to show off his World Series champion Yankees in his hometown. Phoenix fans were treated to seeing the first spring season of Mickey Mantle and the last of Joe DiMaggio. The Giants and Yankees met in the World Series that year.
In 1952 the Chicago Cubs became the third team to take up residence in Arizona when they moved their spring training base from Catalina Island off the California coast to Mesa’s Rendezvous Park. The Cubs have spent every spring since in Arizona except for 1966 when they trained in Long Beach, California.
The St. Louis Browns had trained in California since 1948. When the franchise moved to Baltimore for the 1954 season and became the Orioles, they shifted their spring training camp to Yuma, Ariz. to become the fourth Cactus League team. Their stay was a short one however as they moved their operations to Daytona, Fla. the next season.
October of 1954 saw the first all-Cactus League World Series when the Giants swept the Indians in the fall classic.
After playing as a three-team circuit in 1955, the Cactus League got back to four teams when the Orioles returned in 1956, this time to brand new Scottsdale Stadium. The O’s remained the tenant there for three years before returning to Florida to train in 1959. Their stay in Arizona saw the start of Brooks Robinson’s Hall-of Fame career.
Scottsdale Stadium wasn’t to remain empty for long. The Boston Red Sox took up residence there from 1959-65. Cactus League fans were treated to the final two seasons of Ted Williams career and the beginning years of Carl Yastrzemski’s.
Major League Expansion Grows the Cactus League
When the Major Leagues added teams through expansion in 1961-62, the Cactus League benefited with its own addition of two teams. In 1961 the American League Los Angeles Angels set up camp in Palm Springs, CA near the California-Arizona border. The Angels played half of their games in Palm Springs and half in Arizona. The following year when the National League expanded, the Houston Colt 45’s opened spring operations in Apache Junction, AZ at newly constructed Geronimo Park as the Cactus League swelled to six teams.
While the Angels continued to train in Palm Springs though 1992, the Colt’s lasted only two years in Apache Junction before moving to Florida in 1963.
In 1964 the Giants moved from “old” Phoenix Municipal Stadium to a new Phoenix Muni. Willie McCovey inaugurated new $891,380 park with the first hit there and Willie Mays hit the stadium’s first home run.
The Cactus League Shrinks, Then Sees New Round of Expansion
After the spring of 1965, the Cactus League reached a low point when the Cubs left Arizona to train in Long Beach, Calif. and the Red Sox moved closer to home by leaving Scottsdale for Winter Haven, Fla. Only the two original teams, the Indians and Giants, remained in Arizona with the Angels and Cubs having bases in California.
In 1967 after just one season in Long Beach, the Cubs came back to Arizona, but instead of returning to Mesa, they moved into Scottsdale Stadium.
In 1967 the Cactus League once again benefited from Major League expansion. In 1969 the American League Seattle Pilots (Tempe) and the National League San Diego Padres (Yuma) joined the ranks of teams training in Arizona. Charlie Finley’s A’s became the third addition to the league that year when they brought spring training back to Mesa, The A’s would win World Series titles three straight years (1972-74) while training there.
The Pilots showed up to spring training in 1970 wearing one uniform and left to wear another. During the spring the bankrupt Seattle team was sold to Milwaukee businessman and future MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. When the club left spring training, they left as the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers played two more springs in Tempe before moving to Sun City in 1973. Tempe wouldn’t find another tenant until 1977 when expansion would once again benefit the Cactus League. Ironically, it was another Seattle club that would call Tempe their spring home. The American League Mariners would play at Diablo Stadium from 1977-92.
New Stadiums Drive Competition With Grapefruit League and Growth
The Oakland A’s got a new ballpark in Mesa when Hohokam park opened on March 11, 1977 and Rendezvous Park was razed. The A’s only spent two springs at the new park before they swapped locations with the Cubs. In 1979 the Cubs returned to Mesa and the A’s became the fourth team to call Scottsdale their spring home. Then in 1984, the A’s and Giants traded places when the San Francisco club moved to Scottsdale and Oakland took over Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
A shiny new Compadre Stadium in Chandler lured the Milwaukee Brewers away from Sun City in 1986. Two years later on March 26, 1988, 9,812 fans packed the new ballpark to see the Cubs play the Brewers, setting a new Cactus League attendance record.
Enticed by a new stadium and complex, the Indians left Tucson for Florida in 1993. Once again, it was expansion that softened the blow as the Colorado Rockies took up spring residence at Hi Corbett Field. That same year, the Angels left Palm Springs for a renovated Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Scottsdale Stadium was razed following the 1991 spring season and replaced by a beautiful new ballpark designed by famed architects HOK who also designed Baltimore’s Camden Yards.
In 1994 a new era began when the city Peoria opened a new $32M complex and the San Diego Padres relocated from Yuma to share the new facility with the Seattle Mariners. The idea of shared facilities was one that would drive ballpark construction for the future.
As teams demanded bigger, better facilities, a new Hohokam park would replace the smaller park of the same name in 1997. The new park would set a Cactus League single game record for attendance that year when 12,833 fans saw the Cubs play the Rockies on March 28.
In 1998 the Arizona Diamondbacks were born and so was a new-shared complex with the Chicago White Sox in Tucson. Brand new $37M Electric Park opened that spring giving Tucson three teams and swelling Cactus league membership to ten.
Even though Compadre Stadium was only 12 years old, the Brewers were lured to a new $23M complex in Maryvale for the 1998 spring season.
In 2003, The Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers relocated their spring operations from Florida and moved into a new $48M shared complex in Surprise as Cactus League membership grew to 12 teams.
The Cubs set a new single game attendance record when they drew 12,917 to a game in Mesa against the Diamondbacks on March 30, 2007. The Arizona Office of Tourism estimated that the Cactus league added more that $300M to Arizona’s economy that spring.
In 2006, the White Sox and Dodgers announced that they would be moving their spring operations to a new complex to be built in Glendale. The Dodgers moved from their Vero Beach Grapefruit League complex while the White Sox relocated from down the road in Tucson in 2009. Camelback Ranch in Glendale opened to rave reviews. Featuring the largest (13,000) seating capacity in the Cactus League and a 1,300-foot lake system. The campus became a model for spring training bases.
That same year, the Cleveland Indians returned to the Cactus League at a new complex in the town of Goodyear. The Cincinnati Reds joined the Indians in Goodyear in 2010.
With the addition of the Dodgers, Indians and Reds, the Cactus League now boasts a 15-team circuit. Half of all Major League teams now train in Arizona and for the first time, the Cactus League is equal to Florida’s Grapefruit League in size.
The growth of the Cactus League is bittersweet for Tucson as the move of the White Sox to Glendale triggered clauses in the Rockies and Diamondbacks contracts that allowed the clubs to get out of their leases. In 2011 the two clubs opened a fabulous new facility at the Salt River Indian Community in Scottsdale. The move left Tucson without spring training baseball for the first time since 1947. The Phoenix Metro area now hosts all 15 Cactus League teams in close proximity to each other; another distinct advantage over the rival Grapefruit League. The Rockies and Diamondbacks have set Cactus League attendance records as they host a game nearly every day all spring.
In 2014 Mesa opens a new ballpark for the Chicago Cubs and the Oakland A’s move into Hohokam Park in 2015. Phoenix Municipal Stadium will be turned over to the Arizona State University Sun Devils storied baseball program. The move closes the book on Phoenix Muni as a spring training park. It opened as the jewel of the Cactus League in 1964. Tempe Diablo Stadium, which opened in 1969, becomes the oldest park still hosting spring training.