The large black wool banner with the words "New York Giants" in orange lettering was packed away folded inside a closet of Robert Steckner's den for decades.
The banner is believed to have been made by a merchants association to celebrate the New York Giants baseball team's return to Phoenix for spring training in 1955 after beating the Cleveland Indians in the World Series the previous fall. It was given to Steckner, a native New Yorker and life-long Giants fan, by former Phoenix Mayor Frank Murphy.
After Robert Steckner died in 1997, his daughter, Susie Steckner, a freelance writer in the Valley who now is sifting through photograph collections to complete a book project about the Cactus League, placed the banner on a shelf inside her garage where it stayed for many years. Two years ago, she and her siblings donated the keepsake to the Mesa Historical Museum exhibit "Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience," dedicated to the history of spring training in Arizona.
"When the museum started the Play Ball exhibit, I knew the museum would be a great home for the banner," Steckner said. "It's a perfect fit.
"I guess you could say that this book is a labor of love because my dad was a longtime New Yorker, a lifelong Giants fan (New York and San Francisco) and also a history buff."
The banner now is among several hundred artifacts and stories featured in the ongoing Play Ball exhibit that represents all 15 teams that make Arizona their spring training home, some of which have done so for more than half a century. The exhibit also features some of the teams that trained in Arizona for a short time - the New York Yankees in 1951, the Seattle Pilots in 1969, the Baltimore Orioles in Scottsdale in the 1950s and the Boston Red Sox in Scottsdale and Phoenix in the 1950s and '60s.
The exhibit is housed at three venues - the Arizona Historical Society in Tempe, the Arizona Museum for Youth in Mesa and a kiosk inside Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where it's poised to greet travelers arriving for the Major League All-Star Game at Chase Field in July. The Mesa Historical Museum plans to have a permanent home for the Play Ball exhibit in the future and its own museum within the next three to five years in Mesa as more corporate sponsors and Major League teams partner with the project.
The book's working title, "Cactus League," which will be another perfect fit to accompany the exhibit, is on track to be published in early 2012 in time for the beginning of spring training as Arizona is celebrating the state's centennial.
The book will be published by South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing, which works with historical societies and museums and has published numerous image-filled softbound books about local and regional history. "Cactus League" will cost $21.99, contain 200 photographs and be 127 pages. The book will be available at Barnes & Noble, major retailers and the Mesa Historical Museum. For every book sold, $1 will benefit the Mesa Historical Museum.
"With the centennial approaching, people are looking at unique slices of Arizona history, and this is one of them," Steckner said. "The images really set the scene for this part of Arizona history."
Steckner recently completed three chapters for the book, the early days of professional baseball in Arizona, the beginnings of the Cactus League and the social fabric of baseball in Arizona - players and fans visiting landmark restaurants such as the Pink Pony Steakhouse and Saloon in Scottsdale, and more recently, Don and Charlie's restaurant in Scottsdale.
Other chapters will include Ted and Alice Sliger's Buckhorn Baths in east Mesa whose supposed healing powers helped to lure teams to Arizona in the late 1940s; the spring training boom; and the stars of the Cactus League - rancher Dwight Patterson, Gov. Rose Mofford and notable baseball personalities such as Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray.
In her search for photographs, Steckner recently visited the Francisco Grande Resort in Case Grande, built by Giants owner Horace Stoneham, a two-story facility with an observation tower where the team trained in the 1960s and played golf nearby.
While there, Steckner was able to borrow a number of photos off the walls that featured practice fields where baseball greats Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Gaylord Perry once trained. They depict players sleeping in bunks and waiting for meals in the cafeteria line.
"They're great shots that capture baseball when it wasn't about big salaries but during a time about playing baseball," Steckner said.
She also has been discovering gems in the Mesa Historical Museum's collection it recently acquired from Ted and Alice Sliger's son, Ted Sliger Jr., chronicling the family's years of hosting Major League players at its mineral baths - Willie Mays getting a massage, "Dizzy Dean" with Ted Sliger in front of the Buckhorn and Mays eating inside the Buckhorn's diner with Sliger and a cook sitting at the table.
Steckner also has been going through the museum's collection of photos from the East Valley Tribune and other newspaper archives. And she has received help from Charles Kapner, a history buff from Washington state who has items relating to the Seattle Pilots; Dave Geary of Phoenix, who helped out with some rare Pilots items; and Cubs public announcer Tim Sheridan.
"Everyone has been excited about this project and willing to help," Steckner said.
Lisa Anderson, director of the Mesa Historical Museum, said she is glad someone of Steckner's caliber is working on a book about the Cactus League, which has not been done before. "We think she'll do it justice," Anderson said. "Spring training is part of how we live in Arizona and a big part of Arizona history. With Arcadia books, you can tell the history, and the pictures will effectively demonstrate it."
Steckner said, "Even though there's a lot of baseball books, the 200 photos related to spring training in Arizona will be good ones for people to look at. It's really a great escape."
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