Another baseball season - and another spring training campaign - is just around the corner. And now, with dates, times and new venues in place throughout the Valley, so is an updated look at an ongoing Mesa Historical Museum exhibit dedicated to the history of Arizona's springtime obsession.
The museum's "Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience" exhibit, which started out in a 1,000-square-foot space at the organization's Lehi Museum in 2009, will be nearly quadrupled as the 2012 spring training season begins. The showcase houses numerous artifacts relating to the Grand Canyon's state's primitive efforts to lure its first two teams in 1947 for training in places that at the time were relatively desolate, like the Buckhorn Baths Motel in Mesa and the desert of Tucson; it also chronicles how spring training has become one of the state's biggest tourism draws, with half of the Major League Baseball teams now kicking off their seasons in the greater Phoenix area.
On Feb. 20, downtown Mesa will begin housing a semi-permanent, 3,000-square-foot portion of "Play Ball" inside a former art gallery building at 53 E. Main St., in the downtown shadow of the Mesa Arts Center. A portion of the exhibit will also be displayed at Goodyear Stadium, where the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians train when their preseason efforts open March 4, as well as in downtown Phoenix from Feb. 11 to Feb. 14 at the Arizona Capitol Museum as part of the state's centennial celebration.
The Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts will also host a portion from Feb. 25 to March 30 in conjunction with that city's festival of baseball.
While the other Valley displays are short-term to coincide with ballplayers and visitors trekking to the Arizona, Mesa Historical Museum officials and exhibit planners said they expect to have "Play Ball" at the downtown Mesa location for at least two years as plans are underway to pinpoint a site in Mesa for a permanent museum for the collection - now containing about 2,000 items including photographs, programs, film footage and artifacts from the pioneers of the Cactus League and long gone ballparks where teams once trained in Yuma, Casa Grande, Chandler, Scottsdale and Mesa.
Although "Play Ball" remains one of the most popular exhibits the Mesa Historical Museum has organized - it has had 200,000 visitors since 2009, mostly during spring training - organizers are eyeing other ways to increase its visitors outside of the spring training season as well as bring on board all 15 Major League teams that make Arizona their spring training home.
"It will be nice to be in one place for a couple of years and not to be moving around in Mesa," said Robert Johnson, a vice president of community affairs for Highground, a political consulting firm in Phoenix, helping to oversee the museum's planning stages. "Right now, we're looking at ways to increase the number of visitors who come see the exhibit and feature other activities and special events with it."
Most recently, Johnson said the planning of a "patch program" is underway that consists of a "scavenger hunt" featuring questions and items of spring training interest that groups, such as the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, can search for when they visit the exhibit. Those that complete the scavenger hunt will get a patch.
The program is loosely patterned after a similar activity for groups at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
As the season nears, a pictorial history book, titled "Cactus League" that Valley-based writer Susie Steckner researched last year by unearthing numerous vintage pictures of the early days of spring training in the state, will also go on sale on Feb. 27. The book, which is being published by Arcadia Publishing as part of its Images of America Series, will cost $21.95, and part of the proceeds from the book's sales will go toward the Mesa Historical Museum to help support "Play Ball."
The Mesa Historical Museum is always looking for items related to spring training in Arizona to add to its collection, or vintage photographs to copy for its archives.
If anyone has any items they are interested in donating or loaning to the museum, they can call (480) 835-6533.
Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or firstname.lastname@example.org