Hundreds of people filled the Hot Springs Convention Center on the final Saturday of August to hear former professional baseball stars Andre Dawson, Goose Gossage, Jim Edmonds and Al Hrabosky. In other parts of Arkansas, thoughts were turning to football season, but Hot Springs continues to capitalize on its baseball heritage.
Credit Steve Arrison, the man I refer to as the P.T. Barnum of Arkansas. Arrison, who heads the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, is always looking for ways to promote the Spa City. He hit on a great one several years ago with the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a series of markers that draws visitors from across the country.
In 1887, Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) to Hot Springs to train for the coming season. Through the years, five fields were constructed as more teams came to Arkansas. For decades, though, Hot Springs failed to capitalize on its heritage as the birthplace of spring training.
Thanks to the late Mike Dugan and other baseball historians, extensive research was done. Arrison took that research and ran with it.
In addition to establishment of the Historic Baseball Trail, what's now known as Hot Springs Baseball Weekend was created. The highlight of this year's event was the naming of a room at the convention center in honor of Dugan, who died Feb. 4 at age 66 following a short bout with brain cancer.
"Mike was a tireless supporter of our city," Arrison says. "It would take most of a day to outline his contributions to Hot Springs. He was the guiding force in our establishment of Hot Springs as the birthplace of spring training."
Arrison and Dugan didn't stop with the establishment of the baseball trail and a weekend focusing on the sport. In late 2018, a 160-foot mural depicting five baseball legends who played in Hot Springs was completed downtown. The mural by Texas artists Chris Arnold and Jeff Garrison depicts Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Lefty Grove.
The biggest step in making Hot Springs a regional baseball capital, however, has been construction of a complex known as Majestic Park. The public got its first look Aug. 27 during opening day of Hot Springs Baseball Weekend.
"We're making tremendous progress on construction at Majestic Park," Arrison says. "It will be the premier baseball facility in the region when it opens this fall."
A bronze statue of Ruth will be installed at the entrance.
"There are only two bronze statues of Babe Ruth in the world," says Robert Muldoon, a member of the Friends of Majestic Park board. "One is outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore and the other is in Japan. Hot Springs is going to change that and honor Ruth by erecting an eight-foot bronze monument."
Arrison thinks the statue will become a tourism attraction in its own right.
"Baseball fans from everywhere will come to see this monument to the most famous man who ever played the game," he says. "It will outlast all of us and stand tall in front of Majestic Park to remind future generations of the history of the site where Ruth first attended spring training with the Boston Red Sox."
The Red Sox leased the property in 1909. It was named Majestic Park after their spring training headquarters downtown, the Majestic Hotel. From 1908-18, the site hosted spring training games for the Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Browns.
Ten artists submitted proposals for the statue. Sculptor Chad Fisher was selected, and Friends of Majestic Park members are raising money to pay for the statue. It was Dugan's idea to form the friends' organization. Noted Ruth historian Bill Jenkinson, a frequent visitor to Hot Springs, is consulting with Fisher on the project.
Majestic Park will have five fields at the site of the former Hot Springs Boys and Girls Club. The Tigers first used the site for spring training in 1908, and Ruth attended his first training camp as a Red Sox team member there in 1915. The site later was used by teams from the Negro leagues, hosting the likes of Hank Aaron and Robinson. Majestic Park will host state and regional tournaments.
"Nowhere else can young people say they played on the exact site where legends of the sport played," Arrison says.
Nine college teams from four states will compete Feb. 3-6 in what's known as the Dugan Invitational Tournament. Arrison plans to make it an annual event.
"Teams from Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma will compete in the first of what will became a long list of tournaments held at this amazing facility," says Derek Phillips, the Majestic Park general manager. "Southern Arkansas University and Henderson State University will be two of the teams. SAU won the most recent Great American Conference regular season title, and Henderson won the conference tournament. Henderson's participation is especially significant because Mike Dugan was once sports information director at the school."
The college games will be played on Babe Ruth Field. It's 400 feet to center field, and the stadium has grandstand seating. All five baseball fields at the complex have artificial turf infields and outfields along with state-of-the-art lighting systems.
"Majestic Park isn't wasting any time fulfilling its mission to provide topnotch baseball and bring visitors to Hot Springs," Arrison says. "We're now major participants in the baseball tourism market. Majestic Park is going to fulfill its promise of becoming a significant tourism generator for the city."
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.