Santa Catalina 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 Hotel, where they dined on braised oxtail and Catalina headcheese. Unattached Cubs made new friends among the Hollywood starlets who traveled on the SS 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 joined 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.”
Like the Wrigleys, Reagan quickly fell in love with Catalina. On the 1937 day that he 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, he 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 to 750,000 annual travelers from 90,000.
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 K-12 Avalon 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 the island, once welcomed by the Cubs during its 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 Island Museum, which offers exhibits featuring the celebrated Cubs era.
— Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America who now lives in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @joeguzzardi19. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.