Springtime in the Springs: Tim Mead
(One of our special series about the Angels’ memorable spring trainings in Palm Springs, CA — before the Cactus League and in honor of the club’s 60th MLB season).
by Stu Matthews, angelsnation.com managing editor/columnist
It’s hard to imagine many folks with deeper ties to the Angels organization than Tim Mead, who wore Angels’ colors through three different owners, nine GMs and nine field managers.
Mead became President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, NY in the summer of 2019 after nearly 40 years in the Angels front office — where he started in 1980 as a humble, hard-working publicity intern.
He was Vice President of Communications for the Angels for 22 years.
Do you think Tim Mead remembers the halcyon days when the club had their annual spring trainings in the California desert mecca of Palm Springs?
“You bet,” Mead said with typical passion for all things Angels — only with a touch of sadness about times that exist now only in memory. “There were no days like those days in Palm Springs, before or since.
“Palm Springs was unbelievable, something I’ll always treasure. But those days are never to be seen again.”
But, wow — what memories! The Angels’ spring training site was little more than a glorified high-school field in the star-studded oasis of Palm Springs, but your favorite Angels superstars and prospects were there getting their work in.
And it was all only about an hour and 45 minutes’ drive away from my boyhood home in Orange, CA, through the Sonoran Desert to all of the glamor — depending on how fast one drove.
“We were so close to home,” said Mead, who went to his first spring in Palm Springs in 1981 as an administrative assistant to then-PR chief Tom Seeberg. “In a way, for two weeks, it was a big of ‘spring break’ — everybody just had fun.
“Of course, there was a lot of work to get done, getting ready for the MLB season. But in that environment, you could still relax and get to know people, players, staff, so much better than nowadays.”
As a rookie to the PR business, Mead was a bit star-struck in those early experiences. “It was such a happening place in Palm Springs,” he said. “It was overwhelming at first. The players were still big, still superheroes to someone like me. Of course, you had the wonderful golf, the magnificent pools. Our families were much closer to us. … And of course, it was fun for the visiting teams, as well.”
The spring training concept in Palm Springs, of course, was the brainchild of the Angels’ founder and first owner — the legendary Cowboy, Gene Autry.
Autry not only brought the Angels into the American League as an expansion team in December 1960. But with his extensive entertainment business contacts — Autry starred in 93 films as a movie star and made 640 records as a singing star — he added glitz and glamor by installing his Angels in Palm Springs where players and fans could rub elbows with the celebrities.
“Mr Autry treated everybody the same,” Mead said. “As an employee, you understood that you were working with Mr Autry to create something special. It was … in Palm Springs, for two weeks, we were the only show in town.”
The Angels trained in Palm Springs for 32 years, from their inception until 1993, when they finally outgrew the minimal baseball facilities at the single-stadium venue and the Autrys moved the spring training home to its current complex at Tempe Diablo Stadium, with its multiple training fields.
But until the move to Arizona, Mr Autry always made springtimes special, Mead said.
“Our course, we all looked up to Mr Autry — he was our owner,” Mead said. “But it was through getting to know him and his wife, Jackie, that we came to understand Gene Autry’s importance in American history. He wasn’t just an actor — an important, influential human being.”
And of course, Autry doted on his beloved Angels. The owner, who passed away at age 91 in 1998, wanted to be part of games, be seen and sign autographs and take photos with fans. Mead said that Autry treasured his “special spot” at Palm Springs Stadium — his “cocktail chair” in the shaded runway of the dugout behind home plate, where he would listen on a transistor radio and keep score.
Autry had his house behind the “Melody Ranch,” otherwise known as Gene Autry Hotel at 4200 E. Palm Canyon Drive (now the 5-star Parker Palm Springs resort). Mead recalls that every spring training, the Autrys hosted what was called the “Autry Family BBQ” for players, wives, staff, and of course, his Hollywood friends.
Long-time Autry sidekick Pat Buttram (perhaps best-known to some as Mr Haney in the TV series “Green Acres”) was always around too. “Pat Buttram would always open up the proceedings for the dinner as an emcee — all of them dressed to the nines.”
And the barbecue?
“Best barbecue you’ve ever tasted,” Mead said wistfully.
Before the Angels moved spring training facilities to Arizona out of necessity, Mead had risen from hotshot young publicity hound to the Angels’ Director of Public Relations.
He was about to enjoy his 12th and 13th spring trainings in Palm Springs, and by then Mead really knew how to mix hard work with pleasure out in the desert.
He recalls the small municipal basketball courts set within Sunrise Park — just a stone’s throw from the stadium where the players would later play afternoon games against whichever opposition was lucky enough to meet the Angels in the Springs.
To get his pre-game workout, Mead would rise early and meet then-Angels general manager Dan O’Brien Sr. for one-on-one basketball battles in the morning cool — trading elbows and barbs with the Angel GM.
“There was just a looseness in camp in those days that can’t be re-created,” Mead said. “You could take time to breathe. As PR people we worked very hard — so did the players — but every now and then you’d catch your moments of complete peace.
“In that setting, you had a chance to meet people and really get to know them. These turned into friendships and relationships that have lasted a lifetime.”
The old stadium — not so much. Mead remembers that even during its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, the facilities were sparing. As PR director, he didn’t have much of a press facility to service.
“If the press box had 11 seats in it, I’d be surprised,” Mead chuckles. “And as far as radio, there was just a broadcast ‘box’ — that’s all it was, a box at the top of the stands behind home plate.” Mead would deliver team notes and press releases to whatever reporters were present.
But just like those spartan press accommodations, the entire complex had gotten too small for the muscular Angels organization.
With only the stadium field to practice on before games (if players wanted to get extra batting practice, they could do so at nearby College of the Desert), it was only a matter of time before the logistics or travel and facilities led to the Autrys’ decision to move to spring home to Tempe.
The Arizona facility takes care of all the Angels’ spring training needs in one massive complex. That part was good. But for Mead, the move to Arizona came to him as “bittersweet.”
His Angels’ family would travel with him to Arizona, but that meant more distance for Mead from his wife Carole and his son Brandon — who at the time of the move, was only six years old.
“It was bittersweet, it was sad in a lof of ways,” Mead said. “We’d been used to being a drive to Palm Springs. And now, I was a young father and I was much farther away from home.”
So sure — the spring training experience in Arizona is still just as special for newer generations of Angels fans. But Mead will tell you Palm Springs was simply irreplaceable.