Museum to host Cactus League exhibit

Museum to host Cactus League exhibit

MESA -- The hundreds of thousands of fans who will be attending exhibition games in this area the next four weeks probably have little inkling of the long, rich history of springtime baseball in Arizona -- particularly fans of recent arrivals, such as the Dodgers and the Reds.

Filling in that educational void, entertainingly and fascinatingly, is a new museum exhibit showcasing Arizona's century-plus as a preseason Shangri-La for ballplayers, a tradition dating back to long before the term "Cactus League" was coined.

"Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience" opens Friday at the Arizona Museum for Youth in downtown Mesa. The growing exhibit will run through Nov. 7, treating both baseball-steeped natives and casual visitors to a dazzling array of artifacts chronicling Arizona's role as a spring incubator for a hundred baseball summers.

We all somehow missed this centennial: The first recorded appearance by a Major League team in this neighborhood was on March 30, 1909, when the barnstorming Chicago White Stockings upended the Yuma locals, 9-1.

Flash forward to today, when Arizona has pulled even with Florida as Spring Training central, 15 teams going through PFP in both places.

In-between, teams have come and gone, colorful players and double-talking managers have sweated off winter's pounds, and all along folks have collected the memorabilia now on loving display.

"We have many more items than we have room for," said Lisa Anderson, executive director of the Mesa Historical Museum, where the inaugural "Play Ball" exhibit was displayed last year, before being relocated in the Museum for Youth, another temporary home.

"Our goal is to eventually have a permanent facility to house a Cactus League museum," Anderson said. "We have about 250 items on display here out of a total of nearly 400. And as they become aware of this project, people keep contacting us to ask about stuff they have to donate.

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"And we're always interested in more. There is so much history stored away in attics and chests."

Much of it has made it to the walled-off centerpiece of the Museum for Youth. Amid interactive regular displays inviting the inquisitive fingers of kids are the mementos, and timeline, of the game played by adults with the eternal kid within.

Adjacent to posters that chronicle the history of the Cactus League are such treasures as the Buckhorn Bath and Mineral Springs massage table atop which Sylvia Chavez rubbed down Ty Cobb, the bulky hardware used by William Navarro to film Cubs workouts for the eager nighttime viewers of Chicago's WGN, antique balls and bats, and fruits from Cantaloupes (the Phoenix Cantaloupe Queens, a women's softball team) to grapefruit (signed by Sammy Sosa, in 2007).

Programs, photographs and game-used equipment bring to life memories of bygone teams which left footprints in the desert: the Houston Colt 45s, the Seattle Pilots, the Red Sox and the Orioles.

And a truly amazing artist's rendering peers into the future, depicting the ballpark that will be at the heart of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community complex into which the Diamondbacks and Rockies will move next year.

The photo of John F. Kennedy with Jim (Mudcat) Grant ... a rare Coca-Cola ad featuring Ted Williams (never released; Teddy Ballgame already had conflicting pop sponsorships with Moxie and a root bear that bore his own name) ... revealing correspondence from Commissioners Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent to Arizona Governor Rose Mofford at a time the Cactus League was in danger of coming apart at the baseball seams.

The proactive governor mobilized a Special Task Force on Cactus League Baseball, which eventually began the process that revived and thrived Spring Training here, for which she is revered as the savior of the Cactus League.

What: Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience

Where: Arizona Museum for Youth
35 North Robson
Mesa, AZ 85201
(480) 644-2467

When: Feb. 26 - Nov. 7

For a virtual preview: Dial (480) 281-9924 for excerpts of the recorded guided tour.

Thus, in launching the "Play Ball" exhibit with a special VIP reception Thursday night, Mesa mayor Scott Smith proclaimed it "Rose Mofford Day."

And the vivacious ex-governor, after being serenaded by the Backspin Barbershop Quartet's "My Wild Irish Rose," also received the honor of being the first to tour the exhibit.

Mayor Smith beamed proudly as the procession of dignitaries oohed-and-ahhed their way along the displays -- and dialed into what is being hailed as the nation's first cellular museum tour, visitors accessing a recorded guided tour via a local phone number.

"This is not an end but a beginning," Smith said, alluding to the exhibit's displacement from the Mesa Historical Museum, "the first step on the way to a permanent home that will enable us to share this with as many people as possible.

"There is something wonderful happening in downtown Mesa."

Something wonderful has been happening on the diamonds of Mesa and other Arizona communities for a century. "Play Ball" is a celebration of, and testament to, that experience.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.