Before he was The Bambino or the Sultan of the Swat, George Herman Ruth was a left-handed pitching ace fresh off a 24-win season for the Boston Red Sox as he strode to the plate at Hot Springs’ Whittington Park.
With one mighty swing, the left-hander’s reputation and career trajectory changed.
When the ball finally landed, inside the nearby Arkansas Alligator Farm beyond the right field boundary, Babe Ruth owned the longest recorded home run in baseball annals – 573 feet, measured and verified for posterity in Cooperstown.
With one blast, The Babe signaled a transformation from full-time pitcher and seldom-used outfielder to the game’s greatest slugger of all-time. In two years, the evolution would be complete following a World Series title in 1918 he clinched on the mound, and a trade to the New York Yankees (in return for cash to produce a Broadway play) to become a one-man offensive juggernaut.
Over the years, other legends would come to Hot Springs, from presidents to Prohibition gangsters, lured by the fast life, bright lights and natural wonders that abound in this slice of heaven among the Ouachita Mountains. Just an hour’s ride from Little Rock, Hot Springs earned its name centuries ago from geothermal water inside the mountains, and still draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to see the history and enjoy the medicinal baths.
The View from Above
Lawrence and Amy Friedrich step out of their Bigfoot camper at the base of Hot Springs Mountain Tower to stretch their legs before getting an eagle-eye view of the town. En route from their home in San Diego to see their son’s family in Virginia for Christmas, they made the decision on a whim to check out the Hot Springs community.
“We retired three years ago, and we’ll go anywhere now,” Lawrence explains “This is our first time at Hot Springs, but it’s our 44th national park.”
They spent the night at the base of the mountain in the Gulpha Gorge Campground before deciding to explore.
“Oh my,” Amy says, “I just find this whole town a real gem. There’s so much history here. We just came from the Visitor’s Center, and it’s the best I’ve ever seen.”
A quick elevator ride takes the Friedrichs to the top of the observation tower – 216 feet above the gift shop, 1,256 feet above sea level, to an inspiring view of the Ouachita Mountains, the nearby Diamond Lakes and sprawling Hot Springs. Downtown is wedged between West and Hot Springs Mountains, with bustling Central Avenue showing off famous Bathhouse Row, the business district and landmarks including the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa.
To the east, there’s the Magic Springs Theme and Water Park. In the distance to the south, historic Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort still casts an imposing figure, 115 years after it opened. In just a few minutes, one can take in the surrounding beauty, including world-renowned hiking and biking trails and Lake Hamilton, lined with resorts, casinos and million-dollar lake homes.
It’s time for the Friedrichs to hit the road. Next stop: The Clinton Library in Little Rock before road tripping over to Memphis’ Graceland. But for our Doing More Today team, the journey has just begun.
From Baseball’s Cap Anson to Mobster Capone
Before Major League Baseball teams descended into Florida and Arizona to tune up for a new season, they headquartered in Arkansas for spring training. A temperate March climate, compared to snow-bound cities up North, provided the perfect thaw from the offseason. The famed bathhouses offered medicinal benefits to work the kinks out after a day at the park. And the nightlife — from swanky cuisine to fast-paced casinos to thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn – was a perk.
The journey began in 1886, when Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings south to Hot Springs. Teams and Hall of Famers followed, from Honus Wagner and Al Simmons to Arkansas-born brothers Dizzy and Daffy Dean. Before he surpassed The Bambino as the greatest home-run hitter of all-time, Hank Aaron played in Hot Springs as a member of the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns.
Perhaps no one enjoyed Hot Springs more than Ruth. He spent off-field time attending races at Oaklawn and playing cards at the casinos, hiking West Mountain, golfing on private courses and soaking in the spa of the Arlington. While taking a mineral bath, he negotiated a new contract, the highest in baseball history at the time, that earned him a payday of $1,000 a week. That was more than the president made, to which Ruth retorted, “I had a better year.”
The Arlington, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1924, drew the high rollers. It remains popular today. Even before a scheduled $60 million renovation, the hotel’s elegance is obvious at every turn thanks to craftsmanship from a bygone era that workers match in painstaking detail. President Bill Clinton stayed here when coming home to visit family – he spent part of his boyhood in his stepfather’s house just up Park Avenue. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan visited while in office.
And for about nine years, a Chicago businessman headquartered at the Arlington when seeking a respite from the stress of everyday life. His given name was Alphonse.
“This was Al Capone’s hotel of choice,” said Alan Sims, general manager of the Arlington. The Capone Suite, room 443, remains the most popular destination for guests 95 years after the resort’s grand opening. “From his window, he had a vantage point of Central Avenue and the Southern Club owned by Owney Madden, allowing him to keep an eye on everything. He would book the entire floor for his entourage to ensure security.”
As word spread of Hot Springs’ notoriety and fast times, other underworld figures followed.
Scarface, Bugsy … and Lucky Gets Pinched
Capone used a tunnel to go from the Arlington to casinos or dinner at the Southern Club and Ohio Club or frequent a legendary underground bowling alley. In a rush, he called a cab – just to cross Central Avenue safely.
Originally a cigar store, the Ohio Club still stands. The upstairs casino has been turned into apartments while the ground floor and loft provide intimate dining and a nightclub packed to capacity even for a Tuesday lunch crowd in search of gourmet burgers. Owner Mike Pettey restored the venue to its Prohibition-era heyday, evoking memories of live performances from Al Jolson and Mae West, and heated gaming from the likes of Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Bugs Moran and Lucky Luciano.
“So much of this place is like an onion,” Pettey said. “The more you peel, you more you find.”
A few doors down, Bobby J. Rains gives tours at the Gangster Museum of America while his wife, Jennie, manages the gift shop out front. The brainchild of Hot Springs businessman Robert Raines, the museum has unique galleries, black-and-white photos of Hot Springs’ more infamous visitors over the years, gaming equipment and videos that detail some of the town’s seamier history. Rains, one of seven tour guides, brings the history to life.
He tells the history of the English-born Irishman, Owney “The Killer” Madden, a New York racketeer under Dutch Schultz who reinvented himself as a successful businessman in Hot Springs. A brief documentary details how Capone navigated beneath the city to gain access to the speakeasies. There’s a death mask of John Dillinger, one of only three made, and a separate gallery honoring the town’s rich baseball heritage.
A mugshot of Luciano, every bit as famous as Capone, came from his arrest in Hot Springs on the orders of the mob-busting U.S. Attorney from New York. It was the same Thomas Dewey who, according to Rains, said Hot Springs “was where policemen dressed up at night in tuxedos to protect gangsters from ordinary people.”
All of that ended in the 1960s, when Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller vowed to clean up illegal gambling and proved to be true to his word. Still, the legal fun continues; only now, families can enjoy it together.
The Hot Springs of Today
By sunrise, Central Avenue has filled with a steady stream of cars. A few hours after the sun has climbed, the people fill sidewalks up and down Bathhouse Row. An elderly couple pose for a selfie in front a cascading spring at Arlington Park. Children giggle as they fill plastic bottles with fresh spring water from a fountain. Young couples push strollers along the ornate marble floors of the Fordyce, which now doubles as the welcome center for the U.S. Park Service. Built in 1915, the Fordyce was the first bathhouse to go out of business.
There is so much to do in Hot Springs, from the miles of hiking trails on three adjacent mountains to the roller coaster rides at the amusement parks and the Dino Lites display at the Mid America Science Museum. The Walton Family, the pride of Northwest Arkansas, collaborated with Garland County officials, Hot Springs National Park, the city and the Chamber of Commerce to open the first 7-mile stretch of a planned 44-mile Hot Springs Northwoods Trail. Designed by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, Northwoods Trail can be reached within minutes of downtown. The Water Works Trailhead, based at a lake that used to provide the town’s drinking water, cuts up, down and sideways across Sugarloaf Mountain’s ridge.
Yet the Grand Promenade and the eight bathhouses remain the big draw. The Quapaw Bathhouse, opened in 1922, closed for 24 years before reopening as a family spa in 2008. The Superior Bathhouse is now a popular brewery – and the only one in the world to use thermal spring water to make beer. The oldest, the Buckstaff, looks like a resort from the Billy Wilder classic Some Like it Hot, with its blue awnings and welcoming porch. It remains the longest continually operating bathhouse since it opened in 1912.
The eight original bathhouses all feature striking architecture, much of it Spanish Renaissance. Across Central, the thriving business district features everything from 4D amusement rides, jewelry stores and ice cream parlors to Duckboat tour operators and the headquarters of Mountain Valley Spring Water, where visitors can learn the company’s history and sample water that comes straight from Ouachita Mountain.
And as the sun sets with a nip in the air, lit by Christmas lights everywhere, the magic that first lured The Bambino and a Who’s Who of infamous “businessmen” can be felt by the young and old.
The visitors, and some of the attractions, have changed over time. But the allure of what sets Hot Springs apart from all other destinations remains firmly intact.