Play Ball

Items in the exhibit "Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience"

Tim Hacker

A project dedicated to the history of spring training in Arizona is rounding second base and heading for third.

The Mesa Historical Museum’s ongoing exhibit “Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience,” is nearing its third year of showcasing the stories of how baseball teams were lured to the Grand Canyon State for spring training, built a fan base and became one of the largest draws for tourism.

The Mesa Historical Museum opened the exhibit in 2009 in a 1,000-square-foot room of the former Lehi School in Mesa, which houses the museum’s collection relating to city history and the long-running “Wallace and Ladmo” show. During 2010 in its second year, the exhibit doubled and it was added to the Arizona Museum for Youth in downtown Mesa for more exposure.

During its third year, project leaders are hoping to better showcase the Mesa Historical Museum’s credibility of organizing a first-class collection with hopes of garnering big-name sponsorship from statewide or national companies or organizations.

With a third phase of the exhibit set to open in February, Play Ball will be displayed in three locations: The Arizona Historical Society’s complex at Papago Park in Tempe, the Arizona Museum for Youth in Mesa and the retail area of Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The Arizona Historical Society is set to launch the exhibit on Feb. 19, and the Arizona Museum for Youth will open the exhibit the following week.

The ultimate goal within the next three years is for the spring training collection to have its own state-of-the-art museum, and expand its collection of baseball artifacts and images to better solidify a base of sponsorship. Leaders of the Play Ball project are hoping in the future that the Chicago Cubs will partner with the Mesa Historical Museum so it can permanently be housed at a $99 million spring training facility at Riverview Park that was approved by voters in the November general election.

“We definitely plan to continue our phenomenal growth of this project,” said Robert Johnson, project leader for the Play Ball museum project and a political consultant with Highground Public Affairs Consultants in Phoenix. “Whenever more people find out about it, the collection grows, but now, we are seeking higher visibility.”

For the last two years, 15 Major League teams have made Arizona their spring training home, and all are featured in the exhibit. Planners also hope to have some kind of display at the 2011 MLB All-Star Game at Chase Field to create more awareness of the project on a national level. Receiving some kind of sponsorship from the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. or with the Hall of Fame also is on the Mesa Historical Museum’s wish list.

With Arizona preparing to celebrate the state’s centennial in 2012, spring training’s roots go back more than half a century with the New York Giants (now San Francisco) and Cleveland Indians coming to Arizona to train in the late 1940s, and the Chicago Cubs coming to Mesa in 1952.

“Baseball is one of the great things that gives Arizona its identity,” said Lisa Anderson, executive director of the Mesa Historical Museum. “We want to continue documenting one of the most iconic things in Arizona’s history through artifacts, photographs and oral histories from the players who have trained here. We’d like get more items from the Giants’, Indians’ and Cubs’ early years here, but we also hope to get more spring training artifacts from teams that used to train here such as the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Houston Colt 45s (now the Astros) when they trained at Geronimo Park in Apache Junction.”

So far, Play Ball has collected more than 700 items for its collection and has raised more than $1 million through admission costs, in-kind donations and two $5,000 contributions from the Scottsdale office of Hunt Construction.

Hunt Construction has given the museum $10,000 so items relating to spring training history in Arizona can be purchased whenever they surface at auctions or on eBay. Part of the funds from Hunt Construction’s donations helped purchase numerous items relating to spring training history at the auction of memorabilia from the Pink Pony Steakhouse and Saloon at the Antique Centre in Scottsdale last summer.

Johnson, along with Robert Brinton, president of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau and past president of the Cactus League, also have donated numerous items of their own for the collection from an era long before the state’s building boom. Brinton’s father was one of the Mesa businessmen who helped lure the Cubs to Mesa in 1952.

As a youngster, Brinton later sold programs at Rendezvous Park where the Cubs trained in the 1950s and 1960s.

Johnson, who has a love of baseball, used to work as a radio engineer in the broadcasting booth for WWWE (1100-AM) Cleveland with former Cleveland Indians pitcher Herb Score during spring training seasons at Tucson’s Hi Corbett Field during the 1980s.

“We have a lot of personal interest in establishing this as a museum and making it a success,” Johnson said. “Although the museum would be a great tourist draw as part of spring training, it also would be great to have year-round for families who live here and have attended spring training games for many years.”

Among those items recently added to the Play Ball collection are rare spring training programs — one from 1951 — the only year the New York Yankees trained in Arizona when Mickey Mantle was a rookie and Joe Dimaggio played his last year. Another program is from 1969 when the Seattle Pilots played their only year as a team and trained in Tempe Diablo Stadium before becoming the Milwaukee Brewers. In fact, many of the pictures on 1969 and 1970 Topps baseball cards of Pilots players were taken in Arizona during spring training and show the Tempe buttes in the background. Many of those cards are scattered throughout the exhibit involving the Pilots.

Both the 1951 Yankees and 1969 Pilots programs were purchased on eBay. The Yankees program actually was bought from an individual in Elfrida in Cochise County. Johnson said.

Residents with spring training memorabilia or photographs — past or present — are encouraged to retrieve it from their closets or garages to donate or loan it to the collection. “We are trying to develop the Yuma story more as well as Casa Grande as it relates to spring training,” Johnson said. “We’d also like to get more pictures of Rendezvous Park as it relates to the Cubs and the Oakland A’s when they trained in Mesa. We have a lot of history sitting right in front of us, and the key is to continue uncovering it and organizing it to turn the Play Ball museum concept into a reality.”

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