7 reasons to watch 'First Boys of Spring'

Documentary recalls original Spring Training camps in Hot Springs, Ark.

7 reasons to watch 'First Boys of Spring'

Larry Foley, a professor and chair of the journalism department at the University of Arkansas, recently told his 15-year-old grandson Jeremy: "I've gone about as long as I can stand without baseball."

Pitchers and catchers are about to report to Spring Training starting on Wednesday, thankfully. And few know better than Foley just why that is about to be the case.

He is the writer, director and producer of a remarkable documentary called "The First Boys of Spring" that will debut nationally Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network and then re-air at 9 a.m. ET on Sunday. It is a look at the halcyon days of Hot Springs, Ark., chronicling the mountain escape that not only gave birth to this annual rite of spring as we know it, but also served as a training ground for eight decades.

Here are seven reasons you need to watch "First Boys":

1. Why pitchers and catchers report first.

Major League clubs started training in Hot Springs in 1886, and even after the last full teams were gone by the mid-1920s, many individual pitchers and their catchers got things started on their own by returning to the tradition of taking the natural hot mineral baths to loosen their arms and muscles.

"To get the full effect of those baths, you had to take one a day for three weeks," Foley said. "You had an attendant and it was regimented. So guys like Satchel Paige and Lefty Grove just swore by it.

The First Boys of Spring

"It's pertinent and it's poignant that when we get ready for baseball, this story comes out about the birth of Spring Training, and the story that involves so many of the pitchers and catchers who went to Hot Springs and got ready for the season. That's how it started -- because of the mineral baths."

2. Where the Babe became the Babe.

In March 1918, Babe Ruth stayed at the famous Majestic Hotel and worked out with the Red Sox at Whittington Park. He gambled, caroused, took the baths, trained and hit arguably the longest home run in history.

On St. Patrick's Day of that year, Ruth hit a ball that landed in the Arkansas Alligator Farm. The field is a parking lot now, but the gator farm is still there -- and has been since 1902. Foley's crew used an original Boston 1918 newspaper account and a '65 aerial photograph to help "georeference" home plate, then measured and simulated the path of Ruth's clout. They determined it to be a 573-foot splashdown on the fly.

3. Billy Bob Thornton is the perfect narrator.

"Baseball remains today an American obsession for those who once played the game and wish they still did," Thornton says in the documentary.

That is definitely a first-person account. Thornton was born in Hot Springs in 1955 -- the same year that the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues became the last known professional ballplayers who trained there. -- and longtime MLB.com fans already know of Thornton's passion for baseball.

"[Thornton] lends the perfect authenticity and feeling for the story that we were after," said Foley.

4. The 2016 Chicago Cubs have roots as the first Spring Training team.

In March 1886, the Chicago White Sox, who later became today's Cubs, were the first team to train in Hot Springs. It beat the alternative of working out indoors at a Chicago gym or playing exhibitions in bad weather against American Assocation teams. Player/manager Cap Anson introduced the revolutionary training concept prior to that season. It made the cover of the first issue of The Sporting News on March 17, 1886.

5. Half of the Hall of Famers in Cooperstown trained in Hot Springs.

Cy Young received permission from the clubs he played for to work out on his own in Hot Springs, even while his teammates trained in other Southern towns. Stan Musial would go there with the Cardinals and owner Augie Busch to take the baths and get ready.

6. Color barrier: The proliferation and the parallel.

Just as Anson was the first to take a team to Hot Springs, the documentary cites his influence as among the most powerful in actually creating a color barrier in baseball.

In spite of that, much of "First Boys" is devoted to the passion and the rise of talent on both sides of that line. It looks at how Rube Foster, who thought Hot Springs would make his players stronger, became the first to take a Negro Leagues team from the north back to the south.

7. Whatever happened to Hot Springs?

Spring Training eventually went elsewhere, of course. In coming days, all eyes will be on the Grapefruit League in Florida and the Cactus League in Arizona. One of the biggest reasons it left Hot Springs was the weather itself -- often chilly, unplayable, not exactly balmy there in the Ouachita Mountains. Another was the Yankees' decision to get Ruth out of there, especially after the bellyache heard 'round the world; he was a huge draw and people went where he went.

Meanwhile, Hot Springs of today lives on with rich reminders of its baseball heritage, and is a must-stop pilgrimage, kind of like Cooperstown, N.Y., itself.

"The whole thing was like being a kid in a candy store for a guy who grew up playing baseball," Foley said. "I wanted to tell the story without a bunch of numbers."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.