One of the city's most popular historical exhibits soon will have new digs in downtown Mesa.
Now in its fourth year, the Mesa Historical Museum's growing exhibit, "Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience," is on deck to be displayed inside a former art gallery at 53 E. Main St., beginning in mid-February. It will open just in time for the 2012 spring training season.
The building, east of the Mesa Arts Center and within walking distance from it, has been empty for quite some time. Play Ball, which is dedicated to the history of spring training in the Grand Canyon state, will take up about 1,000 square feet to start since a portion of the building will be used during the Republican Presidential Primary Debate.
After the debate, the exhibit will expand and take up 3,000 square feet. For the past two years, "Play Ball" has been on display at Mesa's Arizona Museum for Youth.
Empty walls of the former art gallery soon will be covered with fresh paint and the heroes of the Cactus League. Many of those players are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame, including its newest member, former Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo. Santo, whose selection to the Hall of Fame was announced Monday, first came to Mesa as a rookie in 1958 at age 18.
The floors of Play Ball's forthcoming location soon will be covered with cases of a chronological story about how spring training rose from two teams in 1947 to 15 teams (half of all Major League's teams) today.
"I'm really excited," said Lisa Anderson, executive director of the Mesa Historical Museum. "This will increase our exposure and draw on our customer base. This should be one of our best locations and our attendance should go up. We'll also get to join in on all the marketing with the city for the other nearby downtown venues. It'll be fun."
The ultimate goal is to get a permanent home and museum in place for the Play Ball exhibit's collection, which now contains about 2,000 items, including artifacts, relics from long gone ballparks, and photographs. Since 2009, the exhibit has been seen by an estimated 200,000 visitors, mostly during spring training, Anderson said. Such a museum was the dream of the late Robert Brinton, former president of the Cactus League and the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau, who unexpectedly died in October.
Since 1952, Mesa has been home to two Major League teams at one time or another: The Chicago Cubs and the Oakland A's.
Brinton's father was among a group of Mesa businessmen who pushed to bring the Cubs to Mesa. As a kid, Robert Brinton sold programs at Mesa's Rendezvous Park where the Cubs played. He was an integral part of the Proposition 420 campaign last year that voters approved to allow Mesa to spend up to $99 million for a new spring training facility for the Cubs at Riverview Park.
Mesa is also where the New York Giants (San Francisco Giants since 1958) lodged at the Buckhorn Baths owned by Ted and Alice Sliger beginning in the late 1940s when they were lured to Arizona with the help of Mesa rancher Dwight Patterson. The supposed healing powers of the springs inside the Buckhorn helped persuade then-Giants owner Horace Stoneham to bring the Giants to Arizona for spring training in 1947, the same year the Cleveland Indians began training in Tucson.
Many of the never-seen-before items in the forthcoming portions of the exhibit will include memorabilia from the Buckhorn Baths that the Sligers kept through the years.
Since beginning in a 1,000-square-foot space in the Mesa Historical Museum's Lehi Museum, various Valley venues have been seeking a piece of the exhibit. A portion was seen last summer when it was housed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport during the All-Star Game festivities. A smaller part of the exhibit will move in February to Goodyear Stadium, 1933 Ballpark Way, where the Indians and Cincinnati Reds train.
While Play Ball is expected to be in the downtown Mesa for the next two years, part of it also will remain in place at the Arizona State Historical Society's Museum at 1300 N. College Ave., Tempe.
The revisions of Play Ball are scheduled to coincide with the release of a forthcoming Arcadia Series history book, "Cactus League," which was researched and written by Susie Steckner, a Valley-based writer. The book will contain a number of vintage photographs, many of which have not been placed in the exhibit, yet.
Robert Johnson, vice president of community affairs for Highground, a political consulting group in Phoenix and one of the exhibit planners, said the key to Play Ball's success - and eventually obtaining a permanent location to showcase the exhibit - is having all 15 Major League teams that train in Arizona providing items related to spring training history.
Anyone with items related to spring training may contact Mesa Historical Museum representatives so they can be loaned or copied for the exhibit in the future. The Mesa Historical Museum can be reached at: (480) 835-7358.
"The biggest hurdle has been overcome, which has been getting the Valley behind the project," said Johnson, who has been a part of the exhibit's planning since it began. "There's been a lot of interest, but the only way this works is if all the cities that host teams for spring training get behind it. We're definitely on our way."
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