Trucks and trains and the promise of spring

Before there was Truck Day, there was this:

“While most of you guys and gals will be plowing through snow this morning, the advance guard of the Boston Red Sox will be shoving off from the South Station aboard the Seaboard Orange Blossom Special heading for Sarasota and the 1938 training season.’’

That was Hy Hurwitz, writing in the Boston Globe on March 1, 1938. Fans of the late Johnny Cash may recognize the name of the train that took the Sox south for the spring. He immortalized it in song.

Hey talk about a-ramblin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
Talk about a-travellin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
It’s that Orange Blossom Special
Rollin’ down the seaboard

Hurwitz’s story made no mention of the bats, balls and gloves being hauled to Sarasota, but noted the presence of the one player on board at the start of the trip—“”the elongated Ted Olsen, the former Dartmouth captain and a sophomore pitcher of the Red Sox.” But Olson wouldn’t be alone for long. In Providence, the train stopped to pick up catcher Gene Desautels and by 6 that evening, when the train pulled into Washington, D.C., “the party will be increased considerably. It will even be possible to have a few kibbitzers around the bridge table.’’

The passengers who jumped aboard in D.C. included player-manager Joe Cronin, Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove, and coach Herb Pennock, another Hall of Fame pitcher.

From the beginning, in 1901, when the Boston Americans boarded a train to the team’s first spring training site, Charlottesville, Va., many ballplayers took to the rails to go south. In 1908, team president John I. Taylor led the Sox contingent on its trek to Little Rock, Ark., a journey that also included a ferry ride from New York City to Jersey City.

Listen to the words of manager Rough Bill Carrigan, the Holy Cross man, before he embarked south in 1929, and you can hear echoes in John Farrell’s spring forecast:

“I am predicting nothing, but I am hopeful,’’ Carrigan said. “Our players this year are more seasoned than any group which I have had with me. The newcomers have had more experience than the lads we have brought up in other years, and the holdovers from last year are more settled, with a year more of playing in the big show behind them.’’

Things didn’t work out as well as Carrigan had hoped: the club, which had won back-to-back World Series titles when he was player-manager in 1915 and ’16, finished last for a third successive season, and Carrigan retired from baseball to become a banker.

During World War II, wartime travel restrictions kept the team pretty close to home; the Sox trained at Tufts University in Medford in 1943, in Baltimore in 1944, and in Pleasantville, N.J., in 1945.

By 1953, Hurwitz was lamenting the passing of an era. The Boston Braves, in their last season in Boston, took a train to Washington, then boarded a National Airlines flight for Tampa. The Red Sox, meanwhile, rode the rails all the way to Sarasota, but it wasn’t the same.

“There was a time when ball groups leaving the city were well-stocked with players,’’ Hurwitz wrote. “This season is entirely different, for the modern player likes to make his own way to camp.’’

Soon, most everyone would be making the trip by plane, or by driving their own cars to camp. And no one paid much attention to how ballclubs shipped their equipment.

“People asked us for years and years if we drove the truck down,’’ said Billy Broadbent, a former Sox clubhouse man who now serves as the team’s video coordinator. “We didn’t. We always used a moving company. But this is a big-time operation now.’’

The day the truck left for spring training might draw a mention or a photo in the papers, and the occasional stray TV camera. That all changed with the arrival of the team’s new owners, maestro Charles Steinberg in tow. It was Steinberg’s idea to give Groundhog Day a rival as harbinger of spring; suddenly, Truck Day had gone uptown. Fans were invited, TV cameras jockeyed for position, marching bands were enlisted, and “Big Al” Hartz, the man behind the wheel for the 1,400- mile trip, had his 15 minutes of fame—like the groundhog, every year, same time, same place.

“Al needs an agent,’’ said Kevin Carson, operations manager for New England Household Moving and Storage.

“It has turned from simply a moving job into a moving event.’’

With Fenway Park South and JetBlue Park a year-round operation, much of the essential equipment is shipped directly by the manufacturers to Fort Myers. And with Fenway Park used by football teams this fall—Notre Dame and Boston College, and eight high school teams—home clubhouse manager Tom McLaughlin, equipment manager Edward “Pookie” Jackson, and clubhouse men John Coyne and Steve Murphy packed up a truck in November that took the gear the players had left behind to the Fort. Medical equipment, clubhouse trunks, pitching machines, all made the trek south.

“It used to be there might be a couple of players who may have lived in the area who reported early,’’ McLaughlin said. “It’s completely different now. We have close to 20 guys here already. We need to get stuff here early. It helps us to get these guys set up and ready to go.’’

There will be some baseball equipment hauled on Wednesday, but much of the shipment will be personal items belonging to players, uniformed personnel and team staff.

“Bikes and kids’ stuff, golf clubs and fishing poles,’’ McLaughlin said. “Some years, there’s a lot of kids’ stuff. Depends on the age of the team, really. Young teams don’t have all that much stuff.’’

The inventory of materials the Sox use in spring training remains impressive, regardless of how it arrived here. McLaughlin, who is in his 31st spring-training camp, went down the list.

–A couple dozen bats per player. Figure around 32 position players, that’s 64 dozen bats.

–1600 dozen baseballs. “And we don’t plan to have any left at the end of camp,’’ McLaughlin said.

He explained the progression. Balls used in games and in live batting practice end up being used for pitchers’ fielding practice drills, and batting cage work. Eventually, they make their way to the minor league teams, who use them in batting practice. “They get so beat up,’’ McLaughlin said, “they’re almost like tennis balls.’’

–Close to 50 dozen hats. Hats for practice, hats for games, hats for St. Patrick’s Day, hats for Opening Day.

–Undergarments and other accessories provided by Nike: 3 or 4 different varieties of short-sleeved shirts, about 12 dozen shorts, cold weather gear, anticipating the April 4 opener in Cleveland.

–a palette of Double Bubble gum. 8 containers in a box, 25 boxes.

–30 to 40 boxes of sunflower seeds, all flavors.

— Around 8 five-gallon buckets of powdered laundry detergent, plus lots of specialty products to take out the grass stains and pine tar. How do you remove pine tar?

“Elbow grease,’’ McLaughlin said. “You can’t buy that by the pound.’’

–Jocks and cups and shower slides, towels and washcloths and toiletries, and on and on it goes.

The Sox clubhouse men will assist in the loading and unloading of the truck. Big Al plans to pull out around noon, lay up for the night in south Jersey, make his way to Florence, S.C., by Thursday night before completing the bell lap by Saturday morning. In Florida, he’ll be met by another driver, Rob Russo, who is already in Fort Myers, having already delivered on another job.

Billy Broadbent will take care of his video equipment, but his days of heavy lifting are over. He didn’t mind any of it. For Broadbent, Truck Day, even before it became an event, meant something.

“You spend the whole winter anticipating what the team is going to be like,’’ he said. “Then you go to spring training when the truck goes, and you’re among the first to see it.

“There are a lot of hours, a lot of work, but that’s still a major benefit. And it’s something I’ve never taken for granted.’’




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