The "Play Ball"

The "Play Ball" exhibit at Mesa Historical Museum offers treasured relics of the early days of Cactus League history in the region.

Baseball is back in Arizona and so is one of Mesa’s most popular historical exhibits. 

After a long hiatus in Mesa, the “Play Ball: The Arizona Spring Training Experience,” is set to open Saturday, March 6, at 10 a.m. as a permanent exhibit at the Mesa Historical Museum. 

The exhibit takes museum-goers through decades of Spring Training history and the birth of the Cactus League – showcasing old uniforms, signed memorabilia, vintage video footage and other relics of the past that have survived decades mostly in private collections. 

“There’s a strong presence of baseball here in Mesa because of spring training and we felt it was the right thing to do, to bring it back to the museum and back to Mesa,” said Susan Ricci, museum executive director.

Launched in 2009, the Play Ball exhibit has been displayed at various venues with parts of the Play Ball collection previously displayed at locations such as the Scottsdale Civic Center Library in 2017. 

Now, the museum, located at 2345 N Horne in Mesa, is the only current museum with the collection, some of which the Cactus League has sponsored. 

The exhibit is curated to “wow” people and teach the rich history of baseball in Mesa, said Anita Peters, board of directors chair at the Mesa Historical Museum. 

“I think that it’s really important that they know about [the history of spring training], and it’s a fun part of Mesa’s history,” Peters said.

Once a storage room at the museum built within the historic Lehi Schoolhouse, which has a history dating back to the 1880s, the renovated space is set to be one of the museum’s largest exhibits showcasing hundreds of pieces from years past. 

In Arizona, nearly 1.8 million baseball fans from around the country pour into 10 stadiums to watch their favorite teams practice one of America’s most renowned past-times. 

The games bring in nearly $644 million annually and support an estimated 6,400 jobs in the Valley, according to Gov. Doug Ducey in a 2019 press release.

Arizona spring training started when two teams – the Cleveland Indians and New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants since 1958) –  began traveling to the desert to prepare for the general season and formed what is now called the Cactus League. 

Today, 15 Major League Baseball teams practice springtime baseball under nearly perfect weather conditions.

Mesa houses two of those teams, the Chicago Cubs and the Oakland A’s, which now play at Sloan Park and the Hohokam Stadium near the Arizona 202 freeway.

The opening of the exhibit is “just the beginning” of an evolving exhibit that will change on an annual basis, Peters said. 

This year, the exhibit weaves in storyboards that depict the early days of Arizona spring training at Rendezvous Park – a recreational site that housed some of the state’s first spring training games in Mesa – and a documentary highlighting pivotal points of Arizona’s baseball tradition, Ricci said. 

On the floor, a mini dugout includes outpost memorabilia from the Cubs and the A’s.

As the collection grows, the exhibit will feature the storyboards depicting the role of Jim Crow-era segregation and the Hohokam Nation had in bringing spring training to the Valley, Peters said. 

“There’s a lot of different things that we can talk about that are little parts of how this came to be so huge in Arizona, not just in Mesa, but in Arizona, for the whole Cactus League,” Peters said.

The exhibit will include Cactus League sponsored plaques of spring training Hall of Famers, which includes players and others who have played an integral part in the Arizona spring training experience. 

“Part of my passion was that I really wanted to start showing these plaques and basically having a Hall of Fame [location] and that’s going to be part of our exhibit,” Peters said. 

This year’s Cactus League Hall of Fame induction ceremony has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which usually takes place in February. 

Anyone interested in donating or loaning items related to spring training may contact the Mesa Historical Museum for future exhibits. The Mesa Historical Museum can be reached at: 480-835-2286.

“I hope that it is an exhibit that adults and children really walk away from and really love,” Peters said.

The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Social distancing and masks are required. Information: mesahistoricalmuseum.com.

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