To fans of baseball there are two words that will always bring a smile to their faces - spring training. It marks the start of the new season. It reminds us of sunshine, the smell of the fresh cut grass and the sound of leather smacking together around rawhide.
For over a century, baseball teams have traveled southbound to get out of the rain, cold and snow to work out the kinks and prepare for the long season's grind in warmer climates. Whether its black and white photos of players in hawaiian shirts, or fictional stories of Walter Matthau's character Morris Buttermaker striking out Ted Williams a la Bad News Bears, fans can't help but smile or be nostalgic over spring training.
After opening the season at Tennessee, the Northern Illinois baseball team is on their longest road stretch of the season, having just concluded a four-game trip in Lubbock, Texas. The team traveled straight from Texas Tech to Surprise, Ariz. for a four-day stretch at the Coca Cola Classic, where the Huskies will meet Arizona State, Oregon State, St. Mary's (Calif.) and Winthrop. (click here for game notes)
With a day to spare before the first game, the Huskies needed to get a practice in on Wednesday afternoon. Though the team had the option of working out at the Surprise Stadium complex, home of the two-time defending American League Champion Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals, the team reached out to the Chicago White Sox and obliged to the Huskies, allowing NIU to work out at the complex.
With the team on its own spring training trip right now, I began preparing for next week's notes and found myself in the NIU Media Relations archives to research next week's notes and waist deep in 100-plus years of NIU baseball history. With student worker Mark Scott and myself trying to find results from the 1960's era of Huskie baseball, we found some old photos and a document from the Huskies spring training trips from 1962 and 1965 that I thought were worth sharing.
First record of the Huskies heading south was in 1951 on a trip to Mississippi and then to Memphis, under then-Head Coach Ralph McKinzie's steady watch. From that year on NIU went almost annually to Louisiana or Mississippi to open its season, generally at the end of march. The '51, enshrined in the Huskie Athletics Hall of Fame, finished the trip down South 3-2 and finished 11-6, en route to the IIAC Championship.
The document in the gallery (the last photo) is a travel itinerary from the team's trip in 1965, where they traveled by train on the Illinois Central's Panama Limited line to Hammond, La., to play at LSU and Southeastern Louisiana.
The itinerary shows the team stayed at Strawberry Stadium on the campus of the Southeastern Louisiana for the first two nights of the trip, before leaving Hammond for New Orleans to play Loyola (La.). The itinerary also shows the team ate in each school's respective cafeteria for meals during the trip.
The photos caught my eye at first because of the old cars parked in front of the stadium, mostly 50's era automobiles. Not to mention a big, giant brick wall that read "Strawberry Stadium" on its backside. The stadium, erected in 1936, is still home to the Lions, but has since been renovated. And of course, the rest and relaxation photos of players laying in the grass and working on their Illinois tan was funny as well.
For fun, Google the stadium and compare the press box in 1962 to today... Drastic changes! The stadium is but a mere shadow of its former self in many respects.
With the advent of flying from location-to-location in today's world, its hard to imagine teams traveling by train for a long haul trip to play baseball. But, those were the times and I'm sure the trip resonated or still resonates to the guys on the trip. As skipper Ed Mathey said about this year's trip, "It's a day the kids won't soon forget."
Like I said earlier, spring training will always bring a smile to a baseball fan's face. It inspired me to write this posting and share some of the goodies from the archives, along with highlights from yesterday's big day for the Northern Illinois baseball team at Camelback Ranch.
I'd like to close by once again giving a big thank to the Chicago White Sox organization for providing us with video, publicizing us on their website and of course for letting us practice at the facility.