Spring Training on Catalina Island Changed the Course of History

Ronald Reagan, whose career began as a WHO broadcaster, was a key figure in the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

By Scott A. Rowan

Before the Chicago Cubs settled on the more geographically friendly city of Mesa, Arizona, for their spring training location beginning in 1952, the team called Catalina Island home during that season. Located approximately 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, California, Catalina Island may look familiar to movie fans, as more than 200 films have been shot there over the past century, including Pearl Harbor (2001), Th e Hunt for Red October (1990) and Jaws (1974).

But Catalina Island was not always so welcoming to film studios and tourists. Before movies took over the island, the Cubs were the most famous temporary residents there.

In 1919, Cubs owner William Wrigley spent $16 million to buy and renovate the tropical island to create his version of a baseball haven, though it was far from that in the minds of the players and coaches. Beautiful for vacations, Catalina Island was remote and rugged, hardly the place to play baseball. It was a great place to climb mountains. But run on level baseball fields? Not really. Players hiked mountains for conditioning, something they were neither accustomed to nor needed in their line of work. Gabby Hartnett once tried to joke his way out of mountain hikes by asking the coaching staff if the National League base paths were inclined.

Wrigley eventually built the baseball home of which he had dreamed on Catalina Island; however, the remote location would prove to be too difficult for the team to manage. Lack of competition within driving distance, the cost of travel, and unpredictable weather made scheduling a nightmare for the organization and their opponents. In 1952, the team moved spring training to the mainland. Today little remains of the Cubs’ former presence on Catalina Island, now a playground for the wealthy and fi lm companies. In 1975, William Wrigley’s son, Philip, donated 88 percent of the island to the Catalina Island Conservatory, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to ensure that the island is preserved for posterity.

What few people are aware of is that this tiny island—and, more specifically, the difficulty of accessing it—changed the course of history.

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, was not just one of the most popular U.S. presidents ever, but also helped end the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He negotiated an historic reduction in nuclear weapons, and his famous 1987 “tear down this wall” speech helped lead to the eventual dismantling of the Berlin Wall. What many people don’t know about him is that his career began in part because of remote Catalina Island.

An avid sports fan, Reagan was born in the small town of Tampico, Illinois, in the western part of the state. After graduating from college, he managed to get a job with WHO radio out of Davenport, Iowa, as its sports director. Eager to make his way to the West Coast to get a shot at Hollywood fame and fortune, Reagan negotiated a deal with the station to let him cover the Cubs for ten days during spring training.

A violent storm was blasting Southern California upon Reagan’s arrival at Los Angeles in 1937. Safety concerns prompted local authorities to forbid boats and planes from attempting to reach the island, where mudslides had cut off the Cubs’ hotel from town.

The future president made an executive decision and decided to stay at the Biltmore Hotel, the Cubs’ hotel on the mainland. While staying there, he called on a former WHO coworker, Joy Hodges, who was breaking into the movie business. Over dinner, Hodges promised to get Reagan a screen test while he was in California if he was serious about starting a career in show business. Th e next day, Reagan met with agent Bill Meiklejohn, who was instantly impressed. Meiklejohn got Reagan a meeting with Max Arnow, casting director for Warner Brothers. Arnow was equally impressed and asked Reagan to stay in town for a few more days. Nervously and politely, Reagan explained that he could not do so. While he desperately wanted to work for Warner Brothers, his obligations to the Cubs required him to get to Catalina Island and then back to Iowa. He gave Arnow his contact information and hoped for the best. “At the end of the day, when I finally arrived on Catalina, Cubs manager Charlie Grimm chewed me out for being absent without leave,” Reagan later wrote in his autobiography, An American Life. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that my mind was somewhere else; it was exploding with visions of a future of which he wouldn’t be a part.”1

Reagan’s future was anything but assured. After all, countless young acting hopefuls flocked to California, dreaming of the chance from which he had just walked away. He had just told one of the most powerful men in Hollywood that he would not stay the night in Los Angeles to wait for an answer. Th is was someone who was not accustomed to being told no. Reagan admitted in his autobiography that on the train ride home to Iowa, he called himself “a damn fool” for leaving.

Two days later, a telegram arrived from Hollywood with an acting contract for seven years at $200 per week. Reagan was eventually featured in more than 70 Hollywood films, and later used his acting experiencing to become one of the most popular politicians of the twentieth century. Dubbed “Th e Great Communicator” due to his oratory skills, which he had honed during his time broadcasting Cubs games on the radio and his acting days in Hollywood, Reagan became a household name around the world.

By working together to negotiate, sign, and enact the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which limited the production of nuclear weapons by the world’s two greatest powers at the time), Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan changed the world more than any leaders had since World War II. In 1989, the Berlin Wall did finally come down. In 1990, Gorbachev became the first elected president of the Soviet Union, which collapsed a year later, allowing open markets to fl ow into the former Soviet countries, freeing millions of people from communist regimes.

The world will forever remember the dismantling of the Soviet Union as one of the most important political events of the twentieth century. Gorbachev achieved the political influence to realize such a dramatic change through years of negotiations to end the Cold War with the United States—led at the time by Ronald Reagan, a former Cubs broadcaster whose own career was launched by foul weather off Catalina Island during spring training in 1937.