Rose Mofford leads first class of heroes
February 24, 2014
It was the bottom of the ninth for the Cactus League. Two out, nobody on, the crowd asleep.
Struggling with aging facilities and enticed by glowing offers from Florida, by early 1988, several pro baseball teams were on the verge of leaving Arizona. With only eight in the Cactus League stable, the loss or one or two would have set off an eastbound stampede.
The situation was so dire that baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti said in the spring of 1988, “If something isn’t done, and something isn’t done fast, they’ll be writing the Cactus League’s obituary within a year.”
It wasn’t just about the Cactus League, either.
Back then, Arizona was lobbying for a big-league baseball franchise of its own. How would it look if the state couldn’t even hang on to spring training?
Arizona’s new governor, Rose Mofford, barely knew her way to the top office that spring after the impeachment of her predecessor, Evan Mecham. And the Cactus League crisis, headlined by the Chicago Cubs’ threats to leave Mesa, gave her little time to warm up.
But Mofford took the mound — literally.
She courted Cactus League owners, appointed a special commission to help the league survive and signed off on new sources of baseball funding. The former star softball player from Globe even tossed the first pitch at several Cactus League games.
A year later, the crisis had passed. It took more work in following years, but Arizona kept its teams and, over the past quarter-century, added seven more, fueling a tourism juggernaut that generates more than $230 million in visitor spending and reams of priceless publicity every spring.
Mofford’s efforts to save professional baseball in Arizona propelled her into the first class of inductees into the Cactus League Hall of Fame, whose roll will be called during a lunch today at Cubs Park in Mesa.
The setting is ironic: It was the Cubs’ overtures to Florida that lit a fire under Arizona a generation ago, and it was the team’s 2009 dalliance with Florida that goaded Mesa into building the new stadium, which hosts its first game on Thursday.
Mofford, 91, is the only living member of the first class of inductees, which includes legendary owners, civic leaders who laid the league’s foundations and a couple whose famed east Mesa spa soothed the aching muscles of Willie Mays and other stars.
The Hall of Fame is a project of the Mesa Historical Museum, which since 2008 has been working to build a stand-alone museum devoted to the more than century-long history of big-league baseball in Arizona. Major- league teams played exhibition games in Arizona as early as 1909.
Much of the museum’s growing collection of rare baseball artifacts is on display in downtown Mesa at 51 E. Main St., but museum officials think there’s a market for what would be the biggest baseball shrine outside Cooperstown, N.Y.
Robert Johnson, a member of the Historical Museum’s board and project director for the baseball museum, said he chose the first Cactus League Hall of Fame inductees along with Historical Museum Director Lisa Anderson and museum staff.
It is no accident that non-players fill the first class, Johnson said.
“Spring training is a creation of the community,” he said. “The Cactus League was created by people who felt like there was a business and a recreational opportunity to have baseball teams practice and work out here. And so, it’s not a mistake that we have all civic leaders, normal people, businesspeople.”
Johnson expects that pattern to continue with future inductees, who will be chosen by fans voting on the website of what is now called the Arizona Spring Training Experience.
Family members and representatives of the first inductees will be on hand today to accept the awards. Among them will be Geoffrey Gonsher, who was an aide to Mofford during the 1988 Cactus League crisis.
Gonsher said the former governor won’t be able to attend.
The Cactus League situation 26 springtimes ago was “very, very serious,” Gonsher said. A crop of new owners who cared little for the sentimentalities of Cactus League history wanted new or upgraded facilities, and Mofford pulled together several financing mechanisms to help Arizona build them.
“She saw it as a major economic-development piece for the entire state,” Gonsher said.
Further, he said, Mofford knew Arizona had been wounded during the bitter proceedings that drove Mecham, who was plagued with accusations of financial impropriety and racial insensitivity, from office in early 1988. Saving the Cactus League would help salve those scars.
“She saw it as a way of bringing people together. Fans, families, kids, hot-dog vendors, businesspeople, teams and the players themselves,” Gonsher said. “She saw it as part of the healing process for the state of Arizona, and in fact it certainly contributed to that.”
Mofford also understood that losing the Cactus League would bar Arizona from ever having its own big-league team, Gonsher said. That dream came true when the Arizona Diamondbacks opened play in 1998.
Years after she left office, Mofford was still pitching for the league.
In 2010, she appeared at the state Capitol to support the new spring-training stadium for the Cubs.
“I don’t come to the Capitol very often,” Mofford told a House committee. “It has to be a special occasion.”
Citing a love of sports that goes back to the 1920s, Mofford joked, “Babe Ruth taught me how to hit a curve ball. Ty Cobb showed me how to slide into second base. And I used to go steady with Abner Doubleday.”
She recalled her previous fight to save the Cactus League and said the state could not afford to lose any of its teams.
“Do not let any sport leave Arizona,” she said.
Reflecting on how her love of sports had shaped her life, Mofford, who at 17 played first base for the Arizona Cantaloupe Queens in an exhibition game at New York’s Madison Square Garden, told The Republic in a previous interview, “I think that my greatest accomplishment in my years as governor was to bring sports into Arizona.”
Among the other inductees is Mesa rancher Dwight Patterson, who in 1951 helped found the Mesa HoHoKams with the express purpose of bringing the Cubs to his city. He also led Mofford’s Cactus League commission and in 1999, at the age of 87 and only a few days before his death, threw out the opening pitch in the Diamondbacks’ first-ever playoff game.
Patterson’s daughter, Ann Patterson Cleghorn, will accept the Hall of Fame plaque for her dad.
It will cap a lifetime of her own baseball memories — riding a train to New York from Chicago with the Cubs in the early 1950s, meeting Joe DiMaggio in her parents’ living room, friendships with the likes of Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola — and for Cleghorn, the setting of today’s lunch couldn’t be more fitting.
“When I saw the ballpark for the first time, I had tears in my eyes,” she said. “I just immediately thought of Dad. I just think it’s the most wonderful thing that has happened in Mesa.”
For Johnson, the initial Hall of Fame ceremony will be one more step toward the dream of an Arizona baseball museum.
Although previous hopes of building the museum next to Cubs Park appear to have dimmed, Johnson said, two Cactus League sites are in the running and he hopesto develop one this year.
“I think this Hall of Fame will send another signal to the community that this project is here to stay, that we are growing smartly and we have a plan for making this a reality,” Johnson said.
Republic reporter Karina Bland contributed to this article.