Film to highlight Hot Springs’ baseball history

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) - Before Arizona and Florida became the traditional homes of spring training for Major League Baseball, teams took advantage of the thermal waters in Hot Springs to sweat out the offseason and get ready for the year ahead.

Backers of an effort to better document that history announced Thursday a documentary film about the era is in the works.

Spring training in Hot Springs dates back to 1886 and a succession of Hall of Famers - from Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson to Rogers Hornsby - sampled the pleasures of the city as they got into playing form. The resort city had illegal but openly run casinos along with two horse racing tracks and a nice golf course.

But nothing lasts forever, and in the 1940s, clubs moved to spots deeper in the Sun Belt.

Filmmaker Larry Foley, who counts a documentary on the Buffalo River that played nationally among his credits, has begun assembling the pictures and stories he’ll need to describe Hot Springs’ baseball history in, “The First Boys of Spring.”

“I think there’s going to be incredible interest in this,” Foley said, adding that brief mentions of the project on Facebook and Twitter each drew impressive responses.

The Arkansas Humanities Council awarded Foley, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, a grant of $25,000 for seed money, though Foley said he is looking for more investors. The city’s tourism commission, Visit Hot Springs, is also backing the project.

The city has developed the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail that highlights 26 sites where visitors can find historic markers that detail aspects of its spring training past, including sites connected to the Negro Leagues.

Rex Nelson, who is on the Humanities Council, said the film is the perfect fit for a state grant because it will help attract visitors while portraying an aspect of Arkansas in a favorable light.

“Hot Springs is the place where spring training actually began,” Nelson said.

Foley said he eagerly jumped at the chance to produce a film on the topic and said he’s already found stories that will be fun to tell, including a game in which Ruth smacked a home run about 500 feet. The ball landed in an adjacent alligator farm; his plaque on the history trail is at the Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo.

Foley screened a trailer Thursday for the film, which features baseball historians recounting events interspersed with photos of long-ago stars. A voice in the trailer explains that anyone who enjoys visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., should visit Hot Springs.

The plan is to debut the film in October 2015 at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and have it ready for national broadcast the following spring. The film is expected to draw international interest, particularly in Japan and South Korea, where baseball is also popular.

Foley said he is eager to connect with older residents who remember the games off-field antics, or at least recall tales told by their relatives.

“We’re really looking for good stories,” Foley said. Some of those stories could include legends such as Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker and others.

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