From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs used to call Catalina Island their spring home


The following article appears in the March issue of Vine Line. (Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Fly balls, sure. But the flying fish were a new one for Lennie Merullo, a born and bred Bostonian.

“It was unbelievable!” said the 97-year-old, the oldest living Chicago Cub and the last link to the team’s most recent World Series appearance in 1945.

The year was 1942, and the then-25-year-old shortstop watched the airborne sea creatures take flight and glide over the surface of the San Pedro Channel from the deck of a ferry. The boat was shuttling him and his Cubs teammates from Los Angeles to their rugged, idyllic post on Santa Catalina Island, where the team held Spring Training from 1922-42, and for a handful of years after that.

“That 26 miles felt like 2,600 miles,” Merullo said in a phone conversation from his Massachusetts home. “It took quite a while.”

The ferry could pitch and yaw over the chop, sending some landlubbing Cubs to the rails, while others shot pool, bowled or played cards below deck. For many, such as Merullo, it was the final leg of a journey that was thousands of miles long, and the payoff was six weeks of baseball in paradise.

“When you spotted the island from the boat, tears would come to your eyes,” Merullo recalled. “You’d think, ‘I finally made it!’ You wouldn’t believe what a beautiful island it was.”

The Cubs got to Catalina courtesy of their exceedingly wealthy and prescient owner, William Wrigley Jr., who purchased the island in 1919 as an investment and soon after, with cross-promotion in mind, decided to give his beloved team some sea legs out on the West Coast.

“He had lots of property,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “Early on, he understood the importance of real estate as an investment.”

Wrigley, a chewing gum magnate and the principal owner of the Cubs from 1918 until his death in 1932, purchased the wild isle somewhat on a whim. The previous owners fell into debt following a fire in Catalina’s main village of Avalon. Wrigley and his wife, Ada, visited and were immediately smitten with the place. They snagged it for $3 million, according to Hartig. That would be about $41 million today.

“He was like Walt Disney before Disney,” said Jim Vitti, author of two books about the Cubs’ 20-plus years on Catalina. “Wrigley was a genius.”

A genius, and perhaps a clairvoyant.

“When Wrigley bought the island, it was a tourist destination, but on a much smaller scale,” said Gail Fornasiere, director of marketing for the Catalina Island Museum. “There’s a quote of his where he said he wanted it to be a playground for the rich and poor. He wanted it to be for everybody.”

Wrigley poured millions of dollars into making the 75-square-mile island into a world-class tourist attraction and a hub for local jobs. He spearheaded efforts to build new roads, dig wells and erect a power plant. The classy St. Catherine Hotel sprung up in Avalon, and it was soon surrounded by hundreds of new bungalows, an Art Deco casino, a golf course and a dance club that lured the biggest names from nearby Hollywood, including Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Betty Grable and Olivia de Havilland. Wrigley even had an aviary that would grow to include 8,000 exotic birds.

“It’s a magic, amazing place,” Vitti said. “There’s nothing like it on earth.”

The inhabited, coastal parts of the island had a tropical, European quality, while the rugged interior—craggy and mountainous from ancient volcanic eruptions—was untamed. Wild boar and goats roamed the steep sagebrush-lined trails, and they were later flanked by bison, relics of an old movie production.

But Wrigley had more in mind.

In the 1920s, the concept of Spring Training was picking up steam, with teams generally hopping from city to city or barnstorming from a faraway destination toward home. The Cubs followed this model too, making stops in places as diverse as Hot Springs, Arkansas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Galveston, Texas; Selma, Alabama; New Orleans; Tampa, Florida; and Pasadena, California, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.

In March 1920, while the Cubs were training in Pasadena, Wrigley and manager Fred Mitchell took the team to the island on a glass-bottomed boat, Hartig said. All parties were impressed, and Catalina officially became the Cubs’ spring home starting in 1922 under manager Johnny Evers.

During the frigid last days of winter in the east, Cubs rookies and veterans would say goodbye to their families and their offseason jobs and board a train for Chicago. There, Vitti said, they would usually receive a send-off from fans and the press before climbing onto another train bound for Los Angeles. From LA, they’d set brief, if bumpy, sail for the island, where they would receive a heroes’ welcome.

“The island loved that they came here and embraced them completely,” Fornasiere said.

Prior to the Catalina years, the team would most often retreat to Hot Springs, where the players would soak in steaming tubs to “boil the winter out,” Vitti said. But the Cubs’ decades-long relationship with Catalina set some precedents for other teams and has been unofficially credited with creating Spring Training as we know it today.

“It was a huge tourist draw,” Vitti said. “Wrigley leveraged it so much.”

While most games were played on the mainland, the island proved perfect for spring’s relatively light, four-hour training days. Players worked on the basics—batting practice, long tossing, pepper—as well as goofier drills, such as throwing around medicine balls and playing leapfrog, Hartig said. The team also ran the island hills, usually as punishment.

“We did everything we could to get our arms in shape, to get our legs in shape, for the regular season,” said Merullo, a Cubs infielder from 1941-47. “We always thought we were in good shape—until we got there and started working. You could feel every muscle in your body.”

Marcelino Saucedo, 79, a retired teacher and coach who grew up on Catalina, was a high school ballplayer when the Cubs were wrapping up their island years in the early 1950s. His teams shared the major league-caliber training field with the professional players.

“The [Cubs] were there from 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock, so we got on the field at 2 o’clock,” he said from his home in Surfside, California. “Several ballplayers stayed and helped us. They taught us how to slide and field balls, all the fundamentals.”

Saucedo remembered the jovial air about the place when the team arrived and how players would blend seamlessly into island life, even attending high school games to cheer on their mentees. One such Cub was Chuck Connors, a first baseman who also played in the NBA and eventually starred in TV’s The Rifleman.

“[He] told me he’d give me a quarter for every base hit,” Saucedo said. “I told him, ‘Chuck, you owe me 50 cents!’ He said, ‘I meant line drives, not bloopers.’ He still owes me money!”

Beyond its vacation-like feel, Catalina was a positive setting for the Cubs and hosted some of the franchise’s most successful teams. While training on the island, the club clinched the 1929, ’32, ’35 and ’38 pennants, a stretch of success not since repeated. The organization also won the National League title in 1945, but this coincided with a wartime break from the island.

Cubs personnel lived at the St. Catherine Hotel, or later at the Atwater Hotel in Avalon, while players with families stayed at the bungalows near the field. Merullo, who was joined by family members for a few years, remembered the stunning views from his hotel balcony and the morning commute to practice.

“It was a beautiful walk,” he said. “You’d look forward to it.”

Players fished, hunted, rode horses and hazed rookies.

“And there was a little bit of drinking going on,” Vitti said, chuckling.

Wrigley was known to invite the team to his harborside compound for barbecues. Later, his son and heir, Philip K. Wrigley, hosted rodeos.

Spring Training fell during the tourist offseason, so the team’s presence was appreciated by all. Players had a rapport with the locals, often visiting schools and dining in the homes of some of the island’s 5,000 or so residents.

To promote his little paradise in the Pacific Ocean, Wrigley courted reporters and photographers, whose beats markedly improved for a few weeks while documenting the Cubs’ goings-on for weather-weary Chicagoans. Players and writers rubbed shoulders—usually at the bar or over batting practice—in a way that rarely happens in the modern game.

“He gave a junket to every reporter,” Vitti said. “It exploded tourism on the island.”

World War II interrupted the Cubs’ West Coast training, as travel restrictions grounded the team’s preseason activities to French Lick, Indiana. Catalina became home to military stations and was closed to tourists. The island’s white steamships were painted battleship gray and used to transport troops. Though the Cubs returned after the war, enthusiasm for Catalina had begun to wane.

“Isolation had its plusses and minuses,” Hartig said. “After [they] had been there for a while, you started to hear some complaining.”

The press corps grew weary of the locale, the journey and the lack of decent opponents on the island. Their postwar articles often reflected the ennui.

“The current National League champions are returning to their Catalina Island base for the first time since 1942,” wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune’s Irving Vaughan in 1946. “But they won’t find it quite as comfortable as in the past.”

There had been rumblings for a decade about packing it up, but William’s heir, Philip K. Wrigley, wanted to stay. By the dawn of the 1950s, the team had decided to move on to dry, dependable, accessible Mesa, Arizona, eventually leading to the formation of the Cactus League.

Rumors swirled in the mid-1960s about a return to Catalina, but it never materialized. In 1975, Philip K. Wrigley deeded more than 42,000 acres—about 90 percent of the island—to his newly established Catalina Island Conservancy, which still operates today. Hartig said the again-robust tourist trade and other private entities now control the remaining portion of the island.

Catalina, which today welcomes up to 1 million visitors per year, still proudly promotes its Cubs connection, with William Wrigley’s stamp on architecture, infrastructure and history proving indelible. While the island’s Wrigley Field has largely been built over, a plaque demarcating the spot remains for baseball
pilgrims who make the trek.

And many still do. Others, however, are just waiting for the right moment.

“I haven’t been back,” Merullo mused. “But I’m looking forward to it.

—Kerry Trotter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s