Cactus League expands from humble roots
Reds latest team to move spring headquarters to Arizona
Robert Brinton first sold the Cactus League program when he was 6 years old.
Fifty-eight years later, Brinton has bought into the program, too. As president of the Cactus League, he has watched the Arizona Spring Training league evolve into a baseball power that rivals its older East Coast counterpart, the Grapefruit League.
There will be 15 teams training in Florida's Grapefruit League when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training on Feb. 18, and with the recent arrival of the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Ariz., 15 teams will now train in Arizona.
"We were down to seven teams in the early '90s and my vision was to see if we can get 10 teams here," said Brinton, who lives in Mesa. "To end up with 15 teams shows the hard work of many people working together over the years. It's been more successful than we could have ever dreamed."
The leagues have come a long way. The Cactus League started in 1946 with the Cleveland Indians in Tucson and the New York Giants in Phoenix. The Grapefruit League started in 1908 with an exhibition game between the Reds and the St. Petersburg Saints. The Chicago Cubs were the first team to train in Florida when they arrived in 1913.
When the Cubs became the third team in the Cactus League in 1952, Brinton was a boy who wanted to be ballplayer when he grew up. On game days, he camped outside of Rendezvous Park in Mesa to sell four-page black and white programs for 25 cents.
Baseball is his family business. Brinton's father, Dilworth, was a member of the civic group HoHoKams and worked closely with Dwight Patterson, often referred to as the Father of the Cactus League, to bring the Cubs to town.
Cactus League expansion
Robert Brinton has worked with the Cactus League for the past 20 years, and in 2008, was named president of the organization. He is also the president of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau and has worked closely with Major League Baseball to make Spring Training a productive and enjoyable experience.
"Baseball's Spring Training has always and will always be special, and in so many ways it's the harbinger of summer and excitement for sports fans like no other sport can do," said Laurel Prieb, who serves as Major League Baseball's vice president of western operations & special projects in Phoenix. "The history and timing of the game and Spring Training yields itself to an exciting couple of months that obviously does great things for tourism in Florida and Arizona and stirs the imagination of fans everywhere excited about their team's prospects."
Following the example set by Indians, Giants and Cubs, the Baltimore Orioles set up camp in Yuma to officially form the Cactus League. The Orioles moved to Scottsdale in 1956 but were replaced by the Boston Red Sox in 1959.
In 1962, Houston's Colt .45s moved to Geronimo Park in Apache Junction. Oakland (Mesa), San Diego (Yuma), and the Seattle Pilots team that eventually ended up being the Milwaukee Brewers (Tempe) moved into Arizona in 1969.
From the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, the Cactus League was made up of the Angels, Cubs, Indians, Brewers, A's, Padres, Giants and Mariners. The Cubs trained in Scottsdale from 1967 to 1978 and moved to their current site, Mesa's HoHoKam Park, in 1979.
Cleveland left for Florida in 1993 but returned to Arizona last season and will now share a facility with the Reds. The Padres and the Mariners became the first teams to share a Spring Training facility when they moved into the multi-million dollar Peoria Sports Complex in 1994. The Brewers moved into a complex in Phoenix in 1998.
A state-of-the-art facility is the new norm for Spring Training.
The Reds' $23 million complex features six full practice fields plus two half-fields for infield work, and space for agility drills. There are multiple bullpens and covered batting cages. The facility also features a 43,000 square foot, two-story building for offices, clubhouses and rehabilitation.
"It's a new chapter for us," said Dick Williams, Reds vice president of baseball operations. "We've been in Florida for a long time. We are the oldest team in baseball and we take history very seriously. We loved our time in the Grapefruit League and now we look forward to the Cactus League."
The Reds are the latest team to make the move to the Phoenix area but they will not be the last. Last season, the Dodgers moved from Vero Beach, Fla., to Glendale to share a facility with the White Sox, who moved north from Tucson. Next year, the Rockies and the D-backs will leave Tucson for a new facility on Salt River Pima-Maricopa Native American Community land near Scottsdale. In 2003, the Rangers moved from Port Charlotte, Fla., into a facility with the Royals in Surprise.
"This is the final year for those teams in Tucson and it is unfortunate because of the tradition there, but it's also about change and evolution," Brinton said. "If you go back 20 years ago to Yuma, owners wanted to keep the teams apart and now the whole goal is to spend more time on the field than on the bus.
"Consolidation was simply something that was going to happen at some point and it was a matter of when," he continued. "Having done that, you will see easier access to players and travel will be easier. That was a real key factor."
The state of Arizona is also reaping the rewards of the Cactus League. According to figures compiled by Brinton's group, the Cactus League generated an estimated $359 million in revenue for the state from out-of-state spenders.
"Even though the fan base is not year-round, the presence of the team is year-round which helps everyone," Brinton said. "The same can be said for Florida. It really is a good thing to have Spring Training in Florida and Arizona. Now there is parity."
In a strange twist, it's Brinton's beloved Cubs that could offset the balance of teams between the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. The Cubs are considering relocating their Spring Training location from HoHoKam Park to a spot near Naples, Fla., possibly as early as 2012.
"We have partnered with the Cubs and plan on doing everything we can but it's still a decision the Cubs must make," Brinton said. "The city and state, everyone is trying to make sure they stay in Arizona. They've been here a long time."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.