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Baseball's desert baths

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MESA, Az.---Let's say you are operating a roadside motel and mineral bath on the dusty outskirts of Mesa, Arizona.
Horace Stoneham finds your Buckhorn Mineral Baths, Motel and Wildlife Museum in 1947 when he owns the New York Giants.

Ted and Alice Sliger are running the operation with the wild west panache of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Ted likes to wear cowboy hats, fish and hunt. He is an amateur taxidermist. Over time more than 400 animals native to Arizona become preserved for time in the motel's "Trophy Room." Dolly, a rare four-horned sheep hovers over the room's fireplace.

Ted and Alice are homesteaders in the most honest sense. The baths begin as a 1935 trading post and the Sligers live there for seven years before electricity arrives. Stoneham is from New York and knows the best of times. Ted and Alice are from rural Arizona and know the worst of times.

Their paths cross on Highway 60 (The Apache Trail) in East Mesa.......

......Stoneham comes to Arizona on a hot tip from his friend Bill Veeck, who purchased the Cleveland Indians in 1946 and moved their spring training site from Florida to Arizona. Veeck's minor league Milwaukee Brewers trained in Florida in the mid-1940s and he finds the racial climate more accepting in Arizona.
Barnum Bill has also never seen a four-horned sheep.

In an continuing effort to break down barriers, when the 1960 baseball season ends Stoneham takes his San Francisco Giants on a 16-game goodwill tour of Japan.
Stoneham loves Ted and Alice so much he invites them to come along on the trip.

Let's say this would never happen to Alex Calderwood, the fashionable owner of the Ace Hotel empire.
Ted and Alice are very excited about their incredible journey.
Giants with Goodwill Tour Sign.jpg
Courtesy of the Mesa Historical Museum

"Alice documented that trip from from the minute they packed their bags," said Lisa Anderson, CEO of the Mesa Historical Museum, who is working diligently with the Mesa Preservation Foundation to bring back the baths. "We have the travel bags. We have photos of them with the bags. Then throughout the trip Alice took some amazing home movies. The films are fascinating. They are sitting on the plane. Alice wrote down everything in pencil on boxes, on the back of pictures, pretty much everything. It makes me wonder if she knew if she was preserving for the future."

Alice died in Nov., 2010 at the age of 103.
She was believed to be the oldest graduate of the Arizona State Teachers College, the predecessor of Arizona State University. She taught school in Mesa. Ted died in 1984 at the age of 81.


During a long conversation a couple weeks ago in the motel's "Trophy Room" Anderson continued, "We have home movies, the camera she used. When they arrived in Japan the government gave them gifts. There's transistor radios they made for the Giants and they are stamped with the San Francisco Giants logo."

Alice donated hundreds of baseball related items to the Mesa Historical Museum. They will be part of a permanent Cactus League Experience museum that will open in the next few years (Next to the new Cubs Spring Training home in Mesa?)

Decatur Illinois' own Hobie Landrith, Willie McCovey, WIllie Mays and other 1960 Giants placed flowers at the Atomic Bomb Memorial Shrine in Hiroshima. After the game the Giants played the last game of the series, defeating a team of Japanese All-Stars 4-1 before a crowd of 12,000 fans.

Of course the San Francisco connection with Japan dates back to 1949 when the great Lefty O'Doul (who should be in the Hall of Fame) was manager of the San Francisco Seals and brought his minor leaguers through a barnstorming tour of Japan. General Douglas MacArthur said O'Doul's role in Japan's post-war recovery was "the greatest piece of diplomacy ever."

In 1958 O'Doul opened his own spa of a different kind, Lefty O'Doul's Bar & Grill in downtown S.F.

Sligers under Giants sign Japan.jpg
Ted and Alice in Japan (Courtesy of Mesa Historical Museum)

* * *
The iconic Buckhorn Baths shut down in the mid-1980s, not long after Ted died. The motel closed in 1999, but Alice lived on the property until three months before her death.

I was one of the first journalists to tour the complex since it closed.
Everything is pretty much in place, including portraits its of ballplayers in the bathhouse and all the stuffed animals. (I was told a two-headed sheep has been put away in storage).
The Buckhorn motel, the way they left it...1999

"It's a time capsule," said Vic Linoff, President of the Mesa Preservation Foundation in a phone interview earlier this week. "You seldom get an opportunity to deal with history just reaching a certain end point and not changing. When it closed in 1999 it was essentially the same as it was in the 1950s when all the baseball players were there.
"In addition you had a woman who can best be described as a documented hoarder. She kept everything but she was also a meticulous record keeper. Early photographs have the names of all the people on the back. We were there a while back and under the check in counter there were 25 to 30 binders. You can got into a binder and see which room Willie Mays slept in at the Buckhorn. Not only do you have artifacts, you have documentation about those artifacts."

Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry went to the baths for several years in a row when he played for the Giants. He kept in touch with Ted and Alice. In fact, when Alice died, Perry caught the next plane out of his home to North Carolina to attend her funeral.

"I loved that place," Perry said earlier this week after a charity golf tournament in Scottsdale, Az. "I brought my Dad there one year. I brought my son there another year. Alice was like a second mom. She always looked after you and there never was a dull moment. Ted would be telling stories. Then she would tell you stories about Ted and how they survived out there with the Indians (not from Cleveland).
"It was history that you read about but you were right there where people lived it and told you about it. You felt like you were a part of them."
Perry in Bath.jpg
Gaylord Perry gettin' down.

Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins remembers going to the Buckhorn Baths in 1967, his first spring training with the Cubs. Not all spring training players used the baths. "It was a novelty thing to go over there," Jenkins said earlier this week. "Our trainer Al Scheuneman, who is now deceased, told me 'Ferg, we have an opportunity to go to these hot tubs at Buckhorn.' I said, 'What's Buckhorn?' So I went over there with Billy (Williams) and (outfielder) Byron Browne. We figured out what it was all about under supervision. We didn't just jump in the water. We used the baths, got on tables (they're still there) got wrapped with hot towels and went through the massage therapy that was supposedly good for your body. It was like the saunas you see now. It loosened up your body. Back then guys didn't have personal trainers or work out areas. The baths were ideal."

Bathhouse - Entrance#5CA558.jpg

Ernie "Mr. Cub" Banks told me he thought the mineral water was so restorative he hit 15 home runs in one spring training.
The well with the rich mineral water can be easily restored. There are only three mineral wells in the state of Arizona.

Alice's former caretaker and property general manager Sharon Brossett said, "President Truman sent his sister here (Mary Jane). When she started coming she was in a wheelchair (she had suffered a stroke). The second year she was in braces. The third year she came she had canes. The last year she visited here she walked out on her own. We have pictures of her."

The front desk of the Buckhorn Mineral Baths, Motel and Wildlife Museum still has a rack of souvenir postcards. They are faded from sitting in window-tinted sun since 1999. One postcard with an aerial view of the enchanting 15-acre escape promises, "Beneficial in the treatment of arthritis and kindred ailments."

Willie McCovey with Ted Sliger.jpg
Willie McCovey and Ted, not going hunting.

Fergie Jenkins remembered the stuffed animals. "Ted was a hunter for sure," Jenkins said. "In the lobby he had antelope, muledeer, javelinas."
I told Jenkins all the animals are still there.
"Are they really?," he asked with a laugh. "Welcome to the halls of whatever."

Brossett said, "Ted also liked to fish. He would go up north to Pine Top (in the White Mountain Range, about 150 miles from Mesa) to fish and come back with a pick-up truck load of fish. They would have big fish fries out here for the players. He also took a lot of the Giants with him. He made an adventure out of it."

* * *
The very patient Sharon Brossett has been helping Anderson sort through stuff over the past year. Anderson said, "Literally, when I first came over here a year ago there were some spaces where things were as tall as me."
The preservation foundation's Linoff said the first step is for the Buckhorn project to acquire the property from the City of Mesa. Talks are underway.

"This is an extraordinarily complex project that could be upwards of $10 million to do the entire thing," Linoff said. "Through our studies there's no way a for-profit could come in buy the property, restore it and operate it profitably. It takes a non-profit working with the city, where the city acquires it and the non-profit raises the restoration money." The new Buckhorn Baths would also include Little League fields. One entity would operate the spa, another entity would operate food and lodging and the historical museum would operate the tourist attraction aspects.
"And all that would all be managed by the foundation," Linoff said.
Lisa (left) and Sharon (Photo by D. Hoekstra)

As Mesa (pop.467,000) continues to grow, the Buckhorn real estate becomes more valuable. A Walgreen's already anchors a shopping mall across the street from the baths. The Sligers owned that 40 acre piece of property. A Jack in the Box is on another corner. Linoff said, "One of our fears is as the city grows out east Wal-Mart or Lowe's or something like that could buy that land. Frankly the property would have more value if the land was cleared. We're very concerned about losing that property."

Readers who have Arizona Spring Training memories, photos or other items should visit
Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience. You'll also find a very cool virtual exhibit here.

Thanks for reading. Now I have to towel off.

Look for more history on the Buckhorn Baths in my March 4 Sun-Times Travel story.

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1 Comment

Does anyone have any photos of the tour that happened in 1960 in Tokyo? The American school there in Tokyo had cheerleaders that were chosen to represent and cheer for the S.F. Giants. They were on top of the dougout and on the radio. Surely there must be some photos ????

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.


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This page contains a single entry by David Hoekstra published on March 2, 2012 3:17 PM.

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