Mesa's Play Ball exhibit gets boost from fans - East Valley Tribune: News

Mesa's Play Ball exhibit gets boost from fans

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Posted: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 4:21 pm | Updated: 3:53 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Charlie Vascellaro was in a pinch. The baseball fanatic was face-to-face with Sammy Sosa at a Valley spring training game three years ago and wanted an autograph but was without the traditional items one would present to a sports legend. So he improvised.

Charlie Vascellaro was in a pinch.

The baseball fanatic was face-to-face with Sammy Sosa at a Valley spring training game three years ago and wanted an autograph but was without the traditional items one would present to a sports legend.

So he improvised.

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"I didn't have a baseball on me but I had a grapefruit," Vascellaro said.

Sosa signed the piece of fruit, which has been freeze-dried and is now a part of Cactus League history.

It's one of hundreds of items that goes on display Friday in Mesa for the second season of Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience.

The exhibit has doubled in size, as fans like Vascellaro saw the collection a year ago and were inspired to loan or give their prized memorabilia to the Mesa Historical Society's exhibit.

It includes autographed baseballs, uniforms, old program guides, photographs, stadium seats and even a freeze-dried cactus pad signed by Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder. The items tell the history of how baseball teams first barnstormed Arizona a century ago to play ragtag local teams, and how the Cactus League formed in 1947. Items include something from the 15 teams that now practice here and from other teams that played across Arizona.

Vascellaro is one of the largest contributors, loaning a box seat, the signed cactus and other items the former Valley resident collected over most of his life.

"Even though these are inanimate objects, these are alive with stories," he said.

The year-old collection has moved from a 1,000-square-foot space at the Mesa Historical Museum to a place twice that big at the Arizona Museum for Youth. Museum officials hope the more visible downtown facility will draw more people to what is the only exhibit devoted to spring training.

Other new items this year include posters, signed photos and correspondence from former Gov. Rose Mofford, who led efforts two decades ago to keep Arizona's teams from leaving for Florida.

"Because of her love of sports, she really got behind what we do," said Lisa Anderson, director of the Mesa Historical Museum.

The collection's oldest items date to when the Chicago White Sox came here in 1905. Teams have donated some items, but most come from fans who collected items at games as children or former workers at the stadiums.

One Chicago Cubs cap came from a postal worker who delivered mail to Ernie Banks on a hot day, said Robert Brinton, Cactus League president. Banks' wife told him to give the postal worker his hat, which he did.

That man eventually donated the cap, which Brinton said is the way the collection will eventually grow into a more substantial exhibit.

"That's really what's going to make this work," he said.

Last year, the exhibit opened and displayed nearly every spring training item the museum had. Hundreds of pieces came in, and while the floor space has doubled, only 75 percent of the collection is on display.

The exhibit will eventually be worth of a stand-alone facility of 10,000 feet or more, Brinton said. While the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., is famously full of history, almost none of it includes spring training items. Vascellaro said spring training is full of history that statistics don't always record, and it's also where fans can have a more intimate experience with the game and the players.

"Spring training is an important part of the season, if slightly overlooked and trivialized," he said.

The history is made more relevant this year with new technology. Visitors can use their cell phones to dial a number on some displays to hear more information on the items. Three Nintendo Wii video game systems let children play baseball. Five televisions show vintage footage. Visitors can even watch former Cubs announcer Harry Caray at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, belting out his famous rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

The exhibit will run through Nov. 7. Museum officials say its popularity after just one year shows it deserves a permanent home, and they're figuring out how to fund a facility. It could go downtown or at the proposed Cubs spring training complex in east Mesa.

Brinton said he expects that the collection will balloon as fans visit, which will make it even more of an attraction in the future.

"It's pretty obvious that we have hit upon something that people want," he said.

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