When play begins next year at Majestic Park in Hot Springs, I plan to be there. I have two sons who played youth baseball and enjoyed following them across the state. They're grown now. I probably won't know any players at Majestic, but I'll be there for Mike Dugan.
I wrote about Dugan, Arkansas' Mr. Baseball, in Sunday's column. He died Feb. 4 at age 66 following a short battle with brain cancer, leaving behind a wife, a daughter and hundreds of friends across the state.
Majestic Park, a five-field baseball complex on the site of the former Hot Springs Boys and Girls Club, will host youth baseball games and tournaments. This was one of the first spring training sites for professional baseball. The Detroit Tigers used it for spring training in 1908, and Babe Ruth attended his first training camp there in 1914.
Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson and Honus Wagner were among other legends of the game who played or trained at the site, which is at the corner of Carson and Belding streets in the center of Hot Springs. The complex is funded by a $7.8 million bond issue approved by Hot Springs voters. The fields will have artificial turf infields and will be lighted for evening play. What's known as Championship Park will accommodate high school, college and even professional play.
Dugan, a Hot Springs native who was an expert on the history of baseball in the state, helped lead the campaign for the complex. The effort to complete construction is being supervised by Steve Arrison, chief executive officer of Visit Hot Springs.
"Mike was a personal friend, but he also was a valuable source of support and inspiration for all of us who love Hot Springs," Arrison says. "Because he was a nationally recognized expert on baseball history, Mike was a guiding light in the painstaking and laborious research that uncovered the history of Hot Springs as the place where baseball spring training began in the late 1800s. Mike worked with our nationwide array of baseball historians to document the hundreds of major leaguers who played here. Then he helped come up with the idea of a baseball trail.
"Mike's vision wasn't merely focused on the past. He worked tirelessly to create a national-class youth baseball complex. He then cheerfully devoted his time and energy to make that dream a reality. The tragedy is that he didn't get to see the dream completed."
In 1909, the Boston Red Sox leased the property and named it Majestic Park after their spring training headquarters at the Majestic Hotel. From 1908-18, the site hosted spring training games for the Tigers, Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals.
Majestic Park later was the home of the Ray Doan Baseball School and George Barr Umpire School. Instructors at those schools included Dizzy and Paul Dean, Grover Alexander, Rogers Hornsby, Cy Young, Tris Speaker and Schoolboy Rowe. One of the schools was even attended by legendary female athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias. She excelled in baseball, basketball, golf and track and field, winning two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics before turning to professional golf.
Jaycee Park was built on the site in 1947 and was the home field for the Hot Springs Bathers of the Cotton States League of minor league baseball. Dugan also was an expert on the Cotton States League. The team had first played in the league at Whittington Park from 1938-41 before play was ended by World War II.
The Bathers came back at the new park in 1947 and stayed in business until 1955. They were affiliated with the Chicago White Sox from 1948-51, the Cardinals in 1954, and the Kansas City Athletics in 1955. The Bathers won championships while playing at Majestic Park in 1948 under George Sobek and Joe Holden, and in 1950 under John Antonelli.
The Cotton States League attempted to evict the Bathers in 1953 for signing two Black players, brothers Jim and Leander Tugerson. Neither ever played for the team.
Jackie Robinson, however, had played in an exhibition game at Majestic Park in 1947. In 1952, a game in the Negro League World Series was played there as the Indianapolis Clowns took on the Birmingham Black Barons. The Clowns had an 18-year-old shortstop named Hank Aaron.
Majestic Park will have displays to honor Negro League baseball, along with individual displays on Ruth, Aaron, Robinson, Wagner, Zaharias and Young.
Dugan also was instrumental in helping Arrison create the annual Hot Springs Baseball Weekend. Andre Dawson, Jim Edmonds, Goose Gossage and Al Hrabosky will be among the featured guests when the fifth annual event is held Aug. 27-28 at the Hot Springs Convention Center. Dugan had been scheduled to moderate the various discussions, as he had done in the past.
While Dugan was serious about studying baseball, he believed the sport should be fun. It's why I plan to show up at Hot Springs Baseball Weekend in August and at Majestic Park next year. It just sounds fun.
Thomas Boswell wrote in his 1984 book "Why Time Begins on Opening Day": "Baseball has traditionally possessed a wonderful lack of seriousness. The game's best player, Babe Ruth, was a Rabelaisian fat man, and its most loved manager, Casey Stengel, spoke gibberish. In this lazy sport, only the pitcher pours sweat. Then he takes three days off."
Whether it's attending the horse races, eating out or going to a magic show, I've always associated Hot Springs with fun. Dugan loved his hometown and would want us all to make that association. The laughter of ballplayers at Majestic Park will be his legacy.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.