New museum showcases Tampa’s rich baseball history
Part of a wall in the Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez House features 89 signed baseballs.
Each player featured is from Hillsborough County, in which the city of Tampa is located.
Lou Piniella, Wade Boggs, Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff and Tino Martinez are among those who have autographed baseballs in the display, which is listed chronologically based on the year of a player’s debut in MLB.
The first baseball is that of Al Lopez, who was the first Tampa player to reach the majors, which he did in 1928 with the Brooklyn Robins of the National League.
“It’s one of the highest per capita in the country,” said Chantal Hevia, president and CEO of the Ybor City Museum Society, of the number of players in the county who have reached the majors. “The pace at which we bring players into the majors is accelerating. It started in 1928 with Al Lopez.
The museum, which opened on September 25, is located in Ybor City, a National Historic District just northeast of downtown Tampa. It is housed in the house Lopez was born in 1908 and where he lived for about 50 years. The house, built in 1905 and moved one mile in 2013 to accommodate the widening of Interstate-4, was donated to the Museum Society by the City of Tampa.
Many of the museum’s memorabilia come from Lopez’s long baseball career, which as a player and manager spanned more than four decades. As a teenager in the 1920s, he played for the Tampa Smokers of the Florida State League.
Al Lopez Field, which was built in 1955 and was the spring training home of the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, was located at the current location of Raymond James Stadium. After leading the Cleveland Indians for six years, Lopez, who died in 2005, led the White Sox from 1957 to 1965 and part of 1968 and 1969. As a result, he led the spring training games at a stadium. who carries his name.
“When you walk into the museum you learn about Al Lopez and who he was,” said Hevia, who proudly points out that in 1977 Lopez was the second player of Hispanic origin to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, four years after Roberto. Clemente. “We have a lot of artifacts dedicated to him.”
Between the museum building and the exhibits in its 1,200 square feet, visitors will receive a comprehensive education about a sport played in Tampa since the 1870s.
“That’s why we’re here, to let people understand how deeply rooted baseball is in Tampa and throughout Tampa Bay,” Hevia said. “There is a very rich content with the exhibits.”
The history of gambling in the city begins with a team formed in 1878. Nine years later, in 1887, some of the Cubans who came to Tampa to work in the cigar industry formed a team known as the Niagara Baseball Club. .
“It was the momentum that really sparked the passion for baseball in this area,” said Hevia of the Cuban team. “They taught the game to those they worked and lived with and it became a universal language. At that time in Tampa, a lot of people spoke Italian, Spanish and German. There were a lot of different languages spoken. Yet they could all play baseball. It was a hot Sunday ticket. This is what people used to do for recreation.
Over a century of spring training and minor league baseball is featured with, most recently, the Tampa Bay Rays. Speaking of the Rays, Kevin Cash is one of four current or former managers (Lopez, Piniella, Tony LaRussa) who were born and raised in Tampa. Carlos Tosca, who led the Blue Jays for three seasons in the early 2000s, was born in Cuba before moving to Tampa in his youth.
It’s not just the men who played the national pastime at the Tampa baseball fields, but also the women. Although Senaida “Shu Shu” Wirth played in Indiana for the South Bend Blue Sox of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s, she was originally from Tampa and learned to play in her hometown. The 1992 film “A League of Their Own” starring Tom Hanks was a fictional story by the AAGPBL.
This is one of the many nuggets of information that await visitors to the museum. From the die-hard baseball fan to the casual visitor looking for an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, the museum is something that will cater for all levels of interest when it comes to a sport that has been around since long part of the tissue of Tampa.
“We hope the community will be proud of it,” said Hevia, who noted that Piniella donated the first items for the museum, including a commemorative bat signed by members of the 1977 World Series winning Yankees. “This is a community effort that was built on public and private grants, but also built by people giving a few dollars to those who have made large donations to the museum. So there are a lot of people who have contributed with donations and a lot of people who have contributed in-kind services that have allowed us to get there.
At some point next year, perhaps around the start of the 2022 season, more exhibits will be added and more stories of Tampa’s rich baseball history will be told.
“I think people didn’t expect that we could put so much history in such a small space and that it would be done so professionally,” Hevia said.
If only Al Lopez could see his house now.