For 30 years between 1921 and 1951 (with the exception of two years during World War II) the Chicago Cubs trained and frolicked on Catalina Island, a jewel located 26 miles off the Los Angeles coast.
Catalina Island is such a glorious spot that the Four Preps, who, during their heyday, charted 11 gold records, memorialized it in “26 Miles,” a paean about “the island of romance, romance, romance.”
The story behind the Cubs’ arrival on Catalina is a tribute to team owner William Wrigley, Jr. On a 1919 visit, the soap turned chewing gum potentate’s wife, Ada, woke, looked out her hotel window, gazed across the Pacific, and declared that she wanted to make Catalina her home. Wrigley quickly concurred, and two years later bought the island.
Wrigley’s investment paid off handsomely for the owner, the Cubs’ players, its fans, its broadcasters and the Catalina Chamber of Commerce. For the Cubbies, Catalina was a lark. After morning practice, the players were free to fish, hunt, horseback ride, play golf, barbecue and swim in the Pacific. The bravest Cubs roped and wrangled in a Wrigley-organized rodeo.
Players stayed at the exclusive St. Catherine’s Hotel, where they dined on braised oxtail and Catalina headcheese. Unattached Cubs made new friends among the Hollywood starlets who traveled on the S.S. Catalina from Los Angeles to enjoy an afternoon of baseball. One ingenue was Norma Jeane Mortenson, aka Marilyn Monroe. Others were Betty Grable and Grace Bradley, the future Mrs. Hopalong Cassidy.
During the Cubs’ three decades on Catalina, the team won four National League pennants. Among the most well-known Hall of Famers are rotund RBI record holder Hack Wilson, pitcher Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean, 373 game winner Grover Cleveland Alexander (who once hurled 16 shutouts in a single year), and taciturn slugger Rogers Hornsby, who between 1922 and 1925 hit over .400 three times. When Hornsby join the Cubs, he took his place in the batting order with sluggers Wilson, Kiki Cuyler and Riggs Stephenson to form a home-run-hitting quartet with the wonderful nickname, “The Four Bludgeoneers.”
WHO broadcaster Ronald “Dutch” Reagan provided the Cubs fans back home in frigid Chicago with the spring training games’ details. Like the Wrigleys, Reagan quickly fell in love with Catalina. On the 1937 day that Reagan arrived, Catalina was a balmy 82 degrees. Reagan, an unsuspecting Illinois native, ran to the pier, dove in and immediately learned that the water temperatures were often a frigid 40 degrees. Jokingly, Reagan claimed in order to avoid hypothermia, he walked “on top of the waves.”
Wrigley created the now common spring training, all-inclusive package deal. The owner’s slogan for Catalina was: “In all the world, no trip like this.” Soon, posters that pictured three bear cubs tossing a ball under the bright California sun lured Chicago’s winter-weary fans: “The Cubs are here! Why don’t you come, too?” By 1929, Wrigley’s public relations campaign increased the island’s tourism from 90,000 to 750,000 travelers.
By 1952, however, the Cubs moved to the more easily accessible Arizona where other major league teams also trained. From time-to-time, Cubs old timers returned to Catalina for reunions. Baseball is still played there – the Avalon High School Lancers play their games at the old ballpark. But today, Catalina’s 4,000 permanent residents are suffering from California’s statewide shutdown order.
Visitors to Catalina, once welcomed by the Cubs during the island’s glory days, and which pre-COVID-19 drew about 1 million tourists annually, have been asked to stay away.
When the island reopens, make sure to plan a stop at the Catalina Museum, which offers exhibits featuring the celebrated Cubs era.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.