Museum exhibit seeks Mesa base, may get public funds

June 22, 2013

A collection of 4,000 baseball artifacts, many of them unique and all of them woven into the story of the Valley itself, may soon have a home in Mesa.

The cache of artifacts, photos and documents gathered since 2008 by the Mesa Historical Museum is so large that for several years it has been divvied up among venues across the region, appearing in Scottsdale, Goodyear, the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe and several locations in Mesa.

Now, however, the exhibit’s barnstorming days may be coming to an end.

Robert Johnson, a Cactus League historian and member of the Mesa Historical Society board, said it has become too complex and time-consuming to mount several displays a year.

So, for now, the Play Ball! exhibit will be consolidated in the historical museum’s satellite location at 51 E. Main St. in downtown Mesa. The exhibit, currently closed for renovations, will reopen later this summer.

Play Ball! will remain there until the collection can be moved to a stand-alone museum the quality of Cooperstown, N.Y., dedicated to the centurylonghistory of spring-training baseball in Arizona.

The Cactus League museum would be one of only a few across the country devoted to America’s pastime. The most famous is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.

The best place, Johnson said, would be the Chicago Cubs’ new spring-training complex in northwest Mesa, and the pitch is coming directly at the Mesa City Council.

The council must decide by July 8 whether to call a general-obligation bond election for November. The Cactus League museum is among the projects that could make the cut, but it would be a stand-alone ballot question separate from the public-safety and street projects that also would go before the voters.

The idea has been percolating ever since the historical museum began assembling Play Ball! five years ago.

Robert Brinton, who at the time was president of the Cactus League and led the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the museum’s significance could elevate it to the status of “Cooperstown West.”

Brinton died in October 2011 after spearheading a successful campaign in which Mesa voters approved the Cubs complex that is now taking shape on the former Riverview Golf Course. The Cubs play their first games there next spring.

Putting the museum there, Johnson said, makes sense because it’s at the confluence of two freeways and relatively close to Scottsdale, which hosts the San Francisco Giants.

Along with the Cleveland Indians, the Cubs and Giants were the Cactus League’s “legacy” teams, Johnson said.

“We want it in Mesa,” Johnson said. “We want it by the ballpark. That’s where it needs to be. If we can’t get it in Mesa, we’re going to put it somewhere. But Mesa is the first choice. Always has been.”

Johnson, who also was involved in the 2010 election that kept the Cubs in Mesa, believes the council will endorse the idea and that Mesa voters will follow suit.

“We’ll get it passed if it gets on the ballot,” he said. “I think the support will be there from the people we need to get it done.”

A preliminary price given to the City Council last week was $15 million. Johnson suggested that could be a cap on public spending, with private sources paying costs beyond that.

Mesa would build and own the museum, which is penciled in at about 22,000 square feet. The historical museum or a spinoff organization would operate it and return all profits to the city until the bonds were paid off.

There would, indeed, be profits, Johnson said.

He sees the museum as a natural draw for the million or so out-of-towners who visit the Valley every year for Cactus League games, for Scouting troops and other youth groups, and for area residents in general.

“The audience for this thing is enormous,” he said.

Gaylord Perry, a Hall of Fame pitcher who trained in Arizona for 17 seasons, agreed.

“As a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, I know firsthand how baseball history can attract and electrify baseball fans and impact the local economy,” Perry wrote in a letter of support that will be forwarded to the Mesa council this week.

“This museum, when open, will quickly become one of Arizona’s top visitor destinations,” Perry wrote.

Mark Coronado, president of the Cactus League, also submitted a letter backing the project and hinted that if it doesn’t land in Mesa, it could go somewhere else.

“Many communities have inquired about the possibility of hosting this project themselves,” Coronado wrote. “Mesa should not miss this opportunity to become home to a venue that will become an Arizona, if not national, treasure.”

Mesa Councilman Chris Glover said he’s not sure how the council will vote, but he said he and at least two others are solidly in favor. Four council votes are needed to put the museum on the November ballot.

Glover said the museum has potential as a national and even international destination and would be a cornerstone of the “Wrigleyville” entertainment and lodging complex that Mesa wants to develop next to the Cubs stadium.

“It will be something that Mesa can really be proud of, considering our long history with spring training,” Glover said.

Much of the baseball collection that would be housed in the museum came from the Buckhorn Baths, a closed motor lodge in east Mesa that some historians regard as the birthplace of the Cactus League.

Big-league players went there for years to enjoy therapeutic hot mineral baths and massages. Over those decades, they deposited a huge cache of memorabilia.

Since 2008, the motel has yielded literally dozens of boxes of autographed baseballs, as well as photos and other Cactus League artifacts. Much of that has been acquired by or is on loan to the Mesa Historical Museum.

The Buckhorn itself, meanwhile, is the focus of a historic-preservation effort.

Last fall, Mesa voters authorized the city to use general-obligation bond money to acquire the property for future restoration. The purchase is still being negotiated.

Other items in the Play Ball! collection came from private parties, including Brinton himself. “The collection is still growing on its own,” Johnson said.

Research by the Mesa Historical Society traces big-league baseball in Arizona to the turn of the 20th century, when teams traveled by train even to out-of-the way places like Globe and Bisbee.

Johnson believes the Mesa museum could host traveling exhibits from the mother of all baseball meccas. For the Cactus League, he said, it would be Cooperstown.

And, perhaps not coincidentally, he channeled the most famous line from “Field of Dreams” in talking about the museum’s potential to draw fans from around the country.

“I am certain that if we do this project right, they will all come,” he said.