Project leader: 'Play Ball' exhibit needs its own museum - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

Project leader: 'Play Ball' exhibit needs its own museum

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Posted: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 2:54 pm | Updated: 3:34 pm, Thu Mar 31, 2011.

The Mesa Historical Museum's collection of baseball artifacts and photographs relating to the history of spring training of Arizona continues to expand as part of an ongoing exhibit. But its project leader said the collection needs to keep moving forward so it can have its own museum.

The exhibit, "Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience," is nearing its third year and is in its third phase of researching and identifying artifacts, vintage photographs and personal stories for its archives relating to spring training in the state. Arizona has a spring training history reaching back more than 80 years with the Detroit Tigers becoming the first Major League team to train in Arizona at Riverview Park in Phoenix in 1929.

And although it would be critical for the museum to have photographs of the Tigers' only year in Arizona, such images have remained elusive.

"We want to do something that's one of a kind," said Robert Johnson, project leader for the Cactus League history museum. "We need to build more credibility and gain respect. The ultimate plan is to have a ‘stand alone' museum within three to five years and have it all in Mesa. It's going to take some time, but we'll get there. It's a serious project and our collection already has reached museum proportions."

Like Florida, Arizona now is home to half (15) of the teams in the Major League, and like Arizona, Florida does not have a museum dedicated to the history of spring training in the Grapefruit League. Having such a museum would establish a tourist draw both during spring training and throughout the year, Johnson said.

A portion of the Play Ball exhibit now is housed at the Arizona Museum for Youth, 35 N. Robson in Mesa. The second phase of the Play Ball exhibit at the museum ends on Nov. 7, but will re-open there in early February and last through the summer of 2011.

It also soon will be part of a traveling and rotating exhibit at the forthcoming Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies spring training facility on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian reservation between Mesa and Scottsdale, Johnson said. The Diamondbacks and Rockies complex, a $190 million project, is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2011 spring training season.

A third venue for part of the exhibit will be housed at the Arizona Historical Society's central museum division in Tempe, said Lisa Anderson, director for the Mesa Historical Museum. In fact, the Arizona Historical Society approached the Mesa Historical Museum to partner with the Play Ball exhibit due to it gaining in popularity, Anderson said. The Arizona Historical Society's Tempe location also has a theater area, and working with about 20 Play Ball exhibit volunteers, the Mesa Historical Museum hopes to complete some kind of video production showcasing the history of spring training in Arizona, Anderson said.

When the 2011 portion of the exhibit re-opens at the museum for youth, it will feature more "hands-on" and interactive exhibits marketed toward families and the younger generation such as a "building your own ballpark" program, Anderson said.

"Since the second phase of the exhibit began, we've collected 200 more items that we don't have on display," Anderson said. We see all of this as an expansion opportunity to make the collection more visible so people will get to see more of it in a bigger space."

Although a specific location for a museum dedicated to the history of the Cactus League in Mesa has not been pinpointed, Johnson hinted that a possible new Wrigleyville West spring training complex for the Chicago Cubs in Mesa would be perfect for it as a heavy tourist draw and would generate more revenue. But a lot of things have to fall into place before construction on such a museum would move forward.

"Anything we do with this, we'd like it to happen with the Cubs," Anderson said.

The issue of a new spring training facility for the Cubs is pending as voters in the city will decide during the Nov. 2 general election whether to pass Proposition 420. Approval of Prop. 420 would authorize Mesa to spend more than $1.5 million for a sports facility. The $84 million stadium and practice facilities would ensure the Cubs stay in Mesa.

Cubs officials, who were at the Tribune office last week to discuss their campaign for Prop. 420's passage, said they are considering some kind of baseball museum as part of a new spring training complex, but have not committed at this time to the idea of housing the Play Ball exhibit as part of a partnership with the city of Mesa.

Mesa has been the home of the Chicago Cubs for most of its spring training years in Arizona, beginning in 1952 when the likes of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo played at Rendezvous Park in downtown Mesa. Generations of East Valley families have attended games there along with thousands of tourists every year.

Mesa also once was the spring training home of the Oakland A's.

Bob Brinton, president of the Cactus League and the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau. has said, "The museum being in Mesa makes sense. There's a lot of spring training history here."

Anderson's sentiments echoed Brinton's: "We know how quickly history can slip away, and we would hope people who have spring training artifacts or stories to contribute to the project will do so."

For more information about the exhibit, "Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience," visit www.mesahistoricalmuseum.org.

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