Arizona baseball history began long before Arizona’s Diamondback’s inaugural season. In fact, baseball was played in the Gila River War Relocation Center by Japanese-American internment prisoners as a way to pass the time and express their love for the game, America’s pastime, during their detention.
On Saturday, February 26, the Mesa Historical Museum will unveil its new exhibit, PLAY BALL: The Arizona Spring Training Experience and Cactus League Hall of Fame. “One of the greatest baseball exhibits in Arizona history and spotlights some of the Cactus League’s greatest players and stories.” As exciting as this exhibition is, there is so much more to it. The exhibit will also feature the history of Japanese internment camp baseball players.
The opening reception will begin at 9:00 a.m. on February 26.
To learn more about the new PLAY BALL exhibit, I spoke with Susan Ricci, Executive Director of the Mesa Historical Museum.
Q: How did you become general manager?
A: I moved to Arizona a little over 2 years ago, previously lived in Rapid City, South Dakota and built a museum from scratch in Rapid City which is in Crazy Horse Memorial. I had that museum background and had also been a nonprofit development worker for 20 years, so when the Mesa Museum was looking for a director, it was a good fit, and I love baseball. I grew up in New Jersey going to Mets and Yankees games. When I became manager, I wanted to bring baseball back to the Mesa Historical Museum.
Q: What can you tell me about the new exhibition?
A: Before that we were the PLAY BALL: Arizona Spring training experience, but this year we partnered with the Cactus League, you probably know there is a Cactus League HOF which started in 2014 , similar to the National Baseball Hall of Fame where players were chosen and inducted, but with the Cactus League HOF, it’s not just the players. The voting committees have inducted people who have made strong contributions to the Cactus League like Governor Rose Mofford who helped stop teams from leaving the Cactus League and heading to Florida. Also Mayor Ron Travers of Peoria who was another person who was instrumental in creating economic incentives to keep teams here. A few Topps photographers who have dedicated their lives to all of the baseball card photos we have, so it’s not just the players, it’s also for those who have contributed in unique ways to the spirit of the Cactus League and of course your own Bobby Freeman was inducted HOF because of course if you went to a game who doesn’t know him? He contributes greatly to the whole atmosphere with the Diamondbacks and the Cactus League. One of the coolest items in our museum, as a history museum we have an 1898 organ and I showed it to Bobby and he sat down and played a note. None of us had ever heard a note from this organ until Bobby sat down and of course he knew how to operate it. It’s likely he hadn’t played a note for over 100 years until he sat down and played.
Q: The exhibition opens to the public on February 26, what kind of audience do you expect?
A: At 9:00 a.m. we are having the opening reception and our Mayor of Mesa, John Giles will be there, our District Councilor will be there, the Cactus League Executive Director and people from different baseball organizations as well as members of the museum. and baseball fans.
Q: What makes this exhibition so unique?
A: The exhibit features an amazing story about Japanese baseball’s internment, as well as an exhibit about the four players who broke the racial barrier when they came to the Cactus League and joined their teams. We also have a story about former Cub clubhouse manager Yosh Kawano and his incredible journey as a boy hiding on a boat to Catalina Island to try and get the Cubs to notice him so that he could become a bat boy and then move on to spend 65 years with the team as a clubhouse attendant. So we have a lot of human interest stories. We didn’t just want to do statistics, we wanted to showcase all of these great individuals and their unique stories. We have stories that show that baseball is more than just a sport, when you read the stories about the internment camps you realize that baseball was something that helped bind people together during a very dark time of their life. Baseball is something that almost heals people, it’s something that’s part of the fabric of this country and especially this state here in Arizona.
Q: What’s your favorite Cactus League story?
A: This is actually one of our featured stories. One of our partners in this exhibit tells the story of being 12 years old and living two doors down from this supposedly famous baseball player he had never heard of. This player had two sons, twins, so the storyteller became friends with these boys and they were playing together and hanging around the player’s house drinking lemonade and the whole time the player/their father was actually Ernie Banks. We have the story of his phenomenal encounter, sitting on the floor and listening to Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo smoke a cigarette and talk baseball the night before a game.
Q: Who is your favorite Cactus League HOF inductee?
A: I love Ernie Banks, because he had such an amazing temper that everyone loved him and of course he coined the famous phrase “Let’s play together!” But also, I really like Larry Doby who was an African American player who rose through the ranks and who was the 2nd black player to join the majors after Jackie Robinson and who really lived in the shadow of Jackie Robinsons. He suffered the same discrimination as Robinson, but you never hear from him because he was not the 1st. Larry Doby was an amazing player in the black leagues but by the time that barrier was broken and he was brought up he was in his thirties and his body was plagued with injuries and his career was over at the age of 35 years. not make this full career. My favorite stories are those of Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin and Larry Doby. These four who had the courage to break through this barrier. You know these guys had to stay in hotels separate from their teammates, had to eat at different restaurants from their teammates, a lot of them had to stay in the homes of other African Americans who lived in the towns where the games were to be play. Imagine what that looked like? You’re playing at the top of your game and you’re not even allowed to eat at the same place as your teammates. I have to say this is my favorite exhibit because they were gaming superstars and yet they had to deal with such diversity.
Q: Can you tell me about the history of the Japanese internment camp presented in the exhibition?
A: We present a story about how baseball started at the Gila River Internment Camp and who was responsible for organizing these baseball teams and came up with the idea to build the field. baseball in camp and it’s an amazing story. We are also fortunate to have a 1940s Japanese Internment Baseball Uniform on loan for this exhibit. We will also have a guest speaker, Charles Vascellaro, who will give a presentation on Japanese Baseball Internment on March 1 at 5:30 p.m. He is an expert who has been researching and writing on this topic for years.
Q: How much does it cost to come to the Mesa Historical Museum?
A: Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children, and children 5 and under are free. It is the largest baseball exhibit in Arizona and the only museum to feature the Cactus League Hall of Fame. We not only feature memorabilia but also the stories of individuals who helped shape the Cactus League and I think people are going to come out of this exhibit learning and knowing things about baseball that they never had. previously known. What happened behind the scenes? How did the Cactus League start and take hold in Arizona? Who are these people who helped bring baseball to Arizona? Whether you’re a big baseball fan or not, these stories have something for everyone.
Those wishing to attend can find additional information at mesahistoricalmuseum.com