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The Land of the Nonbreaking Curveball – Sports Illustrated March 11, 1963

The luxurious extras that make spring training a spa for most ballplayers are missing from the Colt .45s’ bleak camp in Arizona, where the ghost of an old prospector walks in the rarefied air.

Mickey Herskowitz

In the Arizona desert,
Stands a giant of earth and stone,
Mighty Superstition Mountain,
With its mystery and its gold.
A miner out prospect in’
Found his fortune and his fame,
Found the gold of Superstition—
Just plain Dutchman was his name.

In the worn, gingerbread ball yards in the South and the West, where big league baseball comes once a year, spring training is an uncorrupted ritual. And part of that ritual has always been the playing of our national anthem.

But not at Geronimo Park in Apache Junction, Ariz. Here the day’s battle is joined by the scratchy voice of Walter Brennan, reciting the folk ballad, Dutchman’s Gold. No disrespect is really intended to one’s country or to baseball. But long before Apache Junction became the springtime home of the Houston Colt .45s, it was the home of Superstition Mountain and the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine, supposedly hidden in those mysterious hills.

The residents of Apache Junction cling to their legends and raw western traditions, partly because there is little else. But now this barren, rustic Arizona resort town is at once baseball’s new, and perhaps last, frontier. Immortalized in song and story, Superstition rises above it, in the distance beyond center field in Geronimo Park. Since 1900 at least 50 persons have died violently there—in the mountains, that is, not center field, although the Colts had one or two close calls last spring. The 50 died seeking the lost treasure of Jacob Walz, the man described in the ballad above as just plain Dutchman.

Houston’s sophomore team is training in circumstances unlike any of its fellows. No other big league players rough it quite so much as the Colt .45s, who train in the desert, under a sky so high that all outfielders curse it. They are far removed from the simple pleasures of life, such as a motion picture theater (18 miles away) and a dog track (35 miles away). More than 2,000 miles from Florida’s white, sandy beaches, spring training has returned to Sparta.

In other years and other places, spring training had seemed almost a reward to the players for signing their contracts. Most teams congregated along the Florida seashore, where the players’ wives could relax on the beach, and newsmen could protect their tender skins under the sheltering palms. The public expected its heroes to train in such exotic settings, just as it expected movie stars to dress well and marry often.

But Apache Junction defies all the popular notions of spring training. The very name rolls angrily off the tongue. Compare, if you can, the softness, the cooling sounds of Palm Beach, of Sarasota, of Clearwater. Time drags its heels through the sand in Apache. To the west, Mesa is 20 minutes away, Phoenix almost an hour. It is a 45-minute drive to the statue of Tom Mix on the highway to Tucson.

There is hardly any fishing, no lolling on the beach, no watching bronzed beauties wiggle by in bikinis. Last year when Owner Roy Hofheinz first took the Colts to Apache Junction, what the players did mostly was complain. The fielders couldn’t follow the ball because of the high sky, a sort of optical illusion caused by the lack of a proper background—no trees or buildings, just flat desert land. Once the ball is above the fence, it’s all sky, blue and cloudless.

Pitchers complain because, in the dry Arizona air, they can’t break a sweat and the ball carries. So do their voices. The players must tend to their language, which is a nuisance, because every indelicate word can be heard in the stands.

One of the few Colts to find Apache Junction attractive a year ago was Clint (Scrap Iron)Courtney, who in his catching days with the Browns and the Senators was a leader of lost causes. Courtney is now a player-coach in Houston’s minor league chain. In the off season he farms and ranches at Hall Summit, La., where the folks put heavy store by one’s ability to suffer and sacrifice.

“I lak it heah,” announced Courtney one day, picking his teeth with a cactus needle. “A man orter be able to keep his mind on baseball.” Courtney killed a rattlesnake one afternoon in the parking lot at Geronimo Park, bludgeoning it with a fungo bat.

Most baseball teams in spring training are distracted by what the managers refer to as camp followers, and they are almost always girls. But not the Colt .45s. What follows them is a character named Superstition Joe, a grizzled old prospector of unknown age and origin, who rode down out of the hills one morning last March to see what he could see.

Joe is so much a caricature of a gold prospector that he has to be genuine. His ten-gallon hat is faded and frayed, worn stovepipe style. His silver-gray beard is the texture of Brillo, and there are tobacco stains at the corners of his mouth. He is short and bow-legged. He is, truth to tell, a poor man’s Gabby Hayes.

No one knows much about Superstition Joe, or how long he has been seeking his poke in the mountains. But he took a liking to the Colt .45s and visited them regularly, watching and seldom saying a word. Once he let Bill Giles, the Colt publicity man, borrow one of his mules so Manager Harry Craft could pose astride it, waving a pair of six-shooters in the sky.

By the time the Colts left Apache Junction, with a record of 14-7 against big league foes, the writers were calling Craft “the Desert Fox.” The Colts even won the honorary Cactus League title and went on to finish eighth in their first season—which was two notches higher than anyone said they would. Craft decided that Apache was a handsome training site, free of distractions and ideal for purposes of turning soft muscles hard.

Houston’s second spring period is not, of course, proving as severe as the first. At this time a year ago the .45s still viewed Apache Junction with suspicion, as if expecting at any moment to have an arrow go twanging through their batting helmets.

Even Willie Mays of the Giants dropped a fly ball last spring in an exhibition game at Geronimo Park. Al Spangler, Houston’s left fielder, dropped so many that Paul Richards, utterly exasperated, brought in a specialist to hit high fungoes to him for two hours every afternoon for one week, by Spangler’s count 148 fly balls a day.

When writers covering the team harped on the failures of his outfield—supposedly the team’s strong point—Manager Craft challenged them: “I’ll bet you that none of you could get out there and catch four out of 10.” One of the writers offered to make Craft the same wager about one of his outfielders. “No bet,” growled Harry.

There are no taxi or bus services in Apache, and because of the transportation problems the players spend long hours at such frivolous pursuits as ping-pong, shuffleboard and cards. Players without personal autos hitchhike or walk the two miles over a dirt road to the ball park. They save time by cutting through the prairie, which is vacant except for snakes and wild rabbits.

Lizards in the brush

Pitcher Dick Farrell bought a pair of low-top work boots, armed himself with a .22 pistol and hiked daily through the sand and underbrush. In Texas, boxers who tote .22s are dealt with severely. But in Arizona pitchers are allowed to carry sidearms. At the end of spring training, Farrell’s box score included four jackrabbits, two lizards, one snake, one quail and about 300 broken beer and whisky bottles. Craft never was able to track down the source of those bottles.

For all their grousing, the Colts are as proud of Apache Junction as the Marines are of Parris Island. It is a romantic sort of place, and stories about it flourish, none more intriguing than that of the actual coming of the Colts. In the winter of 1960 the .45s were scouting around for a spring training base, inspecting several cities. Gabe Paul, then the general manager, visited Apache Junction on a suggestion from Paul Richards, then managing Baltimore. What Gabe didn’t know was that Richards had invested in real estate there. What Richards didn’t know was that a year later he would succeed Gabe Paul as general manager of the new Houston club.

Actually the .45s could, with only a small twinge of conscience, claim to be the first baseball team in history to have a town created for it. Apache Junction was already there, of course, but the .45s put it on the map as neatly as an autograph on a new ball. The town, not yet incorporated, was 3 years old and struggling when the Colts entered the scene. To attract them the town agreed to build a compact but stylish new park, at a cost of $100,000.

The survival of the town depends, eventually, on its ability to attract tourists, and it has been obvious for some time that the Dutchman couldn’t do it alone. The town fathers saw the Colt .45s as the vehicle they needed. “People in the East,” predicted one, “will be reading the dateline, and they’ll remember it. I can just hear them broadcasting exhibition games from here around the country: ‘It’s a balmy day in Apache Junction, 70 and a cool breeze.’ ” He was daydreaming in the spring, of course. In the summer it gets to be a balmy 120, and during peak months of July and August cold water has to be brought in from Phoenix. It arrives at a frosty 93.

Five years ago Apache Junction was exactly that—a junction of Apache trails, just cactus and sagebrush and wasteland, where once Geronimo’s fierce braves roamed. But now the relentless Arizona real estate boom has embraced it, and there is talk of another Scottsdale, the swinging city 30 miles away that a decade ago was more desolate than Apache Junction. In the dead center of Apache’s craggy landscape sprawls a modern swank motel, last year the Superstition Ho, now less romantically called the Marshall Inn. It contains 146 rooms, a kidney-shaped swimming pool, a playground for tots and riding stables.

The legend of the misplaced treasure lode figures strongly in the place, the decor of which is pure frontier. There’s a Lost Dutchman Dining Room, a Jake’s Saloon and a Paladin Room, where the trail riders wash the dust from their parched throats with shots of red-eye. The joint is off limits to the players, but they walk by and occasionally press their noses against the glass. What else there is in Apache Junction you can find across the street: a bar, hash house, supermarket, a branch of the First National Bank of Arizona and a few business offices.

A year ago the population of the town was 2,500, mostly retired old folks and real estate agents. Yet when the Colts played their first intrasquad game in Geronimo Park, a crowd of 2,600 overflowed the stands. If you assume that no sensible person would drive the 35 miles from Phoenix to see the Colts play each other, then this means that 104% of the population of Apache Junction showed up for the game.

At times in early spring Superstition Mountain wears a light snowcap, and it makes a peaceful sight. Yet for more than a hundred years seekers of the lost gold mine have been snooping around the mountain, stirring up the legend—and trouble.

The legend has it that a young Mexican named Carlos discovered the mine in the 1840s while fleeing the wrath of Don Miguel Peralta, the Mexican land baron whose daughter Carlos had seduced. Carlos stumbled upon the ore while hiding in the mountains from two Indians sent by Don Miguel to track him down. Later, trying to return to Mexico with enough gold to purchase Don Miguel’s goodwill, he lost his footing in a rain-swollen stream. The heavy gold nuggets he carried made it difficult to swim, and Carlos drowned. He thus became the first of many to die because of the treasure.

But word of the mine spread, and years later three Mexican youths who had lived on the Peralta ranch showed it to a white-bearded prospector—Jacob Walz. He shot them all, and later five others, including his own nephew, to protect the secret of the mine. (The real estate business in Arizona is not nearly so cut-throat nowadays.) Walz’s name has been spelled at least three other ways—Waltz, Walzer and Wolz—a practice that continues to this day in spring training, usually with rookies from Latin America.

When Walz died in Phoenix in 1891 he reportedly left a map, giving the location of the treasure. But all efforts to reach the mine failed, and the authentic map—if there ever was one—has long since vanished among countless fakes. So the Dutchman (who was really a German) apparently carried the secret of the mine to his grave and started the longest, bloodiest gold hunt known to the West. The people around Apache Junction claim that during the peak tourist season two bodies a month—cold bodies—are carried out of Old Superstition, strapped across the backs of burros.

Some die of their own carelessness. Some are shot by other prospectors, greedy and trigger-happy. Others are said to have been killed by a small, unapproachable band of Indians, still living a primitive mountain life and guarding the secret of what Jacob Walz called “the richest gold mine I ever heard of.” No one has yet been killed by a line drive sailing out of Geronimo Park.

The Colt .45s have no hard rule against it, but they discourage their players from embarking on any impulsive gold hunts into Old Superstition. Bonus Babies, worth 50 grand and up, are absolutely forbidden to.