Before Scottsdale, before Sarasota, the big leagues came to Charlottesville.
For several years at the turn of the 20th century, professional baseball teams from the Eastern Seaboard traveled to UVA to get a leg up on the coming season.
Retired UVA psychology professor Arthur Schulman stumbled across Charlottesville’s connection to professional baseball while reading a book on the sport’s history. Soon after, he and his wife, Gayle (Grad ’80), were culling through old copies of the Charlottesville Daily Press, pulling together every mention of spring training around Grounds. The results were eventually included in an exhibit the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society produced in the late 1990s, Schulman says.
“We knew that the history of baseball in Charlottesville went pretty far back,” Schulman says. “We wanted to see what we could find.”
According to the historical society, the Boston Reds—a short-lived team that played in the Players’ League and the American Association before disbanding—were among the first to come to Charlottesville, playing an exhibition game against the UVA squad in March 1890. Five years later, the New York (now San Francisco) Giants trained in the city, and the Boston Beaneaters (today’s Atlanta Braves) spent four years in Charlottesville beginning in 1892. The formation of the American League in 1901 brought the modern-day Red Sox to town, and from 1905 through 1916, the Washington Senators (the modern-day Minnesota Twins) conducted spring training in Charlottesville. Several other teams—including minor league teams from Buffalo, Toronto and Montreal—played exhibition games here as well.
“It was clear that they didn’t come from Boston to Charlottesville by chance,” Schulman says. “They knew they had a place to play here, and they played on University fields.”
Sandy Gilliam (Col ’55), UVA’s history and protocol officer, agrees. The University’s baseball team, which was organized around 1890, had used the school’s all-purpose athletic field, now the site of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Gilliam says. But the field was “deplorable,” he says, and was littered with rocks and boulders.
“There was some agitation for a couple of years to do something about the athletic fields,” Gilliam says. “And the University, as a result of the Red Sox being here, began work on a proper athletic field. By 1902, it was finished.”
Known as Lambeth Field, the spacious playing area would also be the home of UVA football, baseball and track and field for several decades. An 8,000-seat stadium, the Lambeth Colonnades, was added to the field in 1913. Professional baseball teams often played exhibition games against the UVA team and also trained in what was then called Fayerweather Gymnasium—now an academic building that houses the art history program.
In later years, the teams stayed at Wright’s Hotel on West Main Street, in boarding houses, and even in a vacated fraternity house on Chancellor Street, according to the historical society. There are several newspaper accounts of teams taking time off for day trips to Monticello.
Those early visits to Charlottesville by professional teams occurred during the time when major league baseball was developing many of the practices that are routine today, like spring training, says Tim Wiles, director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“By then, they had some money to travel and it occurred to the managers of certain teams that if they went south, they could get warmer weather for training,” Wiles says. “They’d be in better shape and any opponent who hadn’t figured out to go south would be playing catch up, so the concept quickly caught on.”
As more highways were built and long-distance transportation became easier, teams moved on from Charlottesville to places like Florida and, later, Arizona, where the weather would warm earlier and training could begin sooner.
Even though Charlottesville has fallen out of favor as the home to spring training, the city’s connection to Major League Baseball remains intact. Among UVA’s notable alumni are Eppa Rixey, a 1912 graduate who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and current Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (Col ’06). And UVA has become a perennial favorite for MLB draft picks, missing only 11 drafts since 1965.