New Museum Showcases Tampa’s Rich Baseball History
Part of a wall within the Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez House has a display of 89 signed baseballs.
Every player represented is from Hillsborough County, within 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 within the display, which is arranged chronologically based on the year of a player’s MLB debut.
The first baseball is that of Al Lopez, who was the first player from Tampa to reach the majors, which he did in 1928 with the National League’s Brooklyn Robins.
“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 from the county who made it to the majors. “The rate in which we are getting players into the majors is accelerating. It started in 1928 with Al Lopez.”
The museum, which held its grand opening September 25, is located in Ybor City, a National Historic Landmark District just northeast of downtown Tampa. It is housed within the home Lopez was born in 1908 and where he lived for about 50 years. The home, built in 1905 and moved one mile in 2013 to accommodate the widening of Interstate-4, was gifted to the museum society by the city of Tampa.
Many pieces of memorabilia within the museum are from Lopez’s lengthy baseball career, which as a player and manager spanned more than four decades. As a teen 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 where Raymond James Stadium now stands. After managing the Cleveland Indians for six years, Lopez, who passed away in 2005, managed the White Sox from 1957 to 1965 and parts of 1968 and 1969. Hence, he managed spring training games in a stadium named after him.
“When you enter the museum, you learn about Al Lopez and who he was,” said Hevia, who proudly points out that in 1977 Lopez was the second Hispanic-born player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, four years after Roberto Clemente. “We have a lot of artifacts devoted to him.”
Between the museum building and the exhibits within its 1,200 square feet, visitors will receive quite an education on a sport that has been played in Tampa since the 1870s.
“That’s why we are here, to let people understand how deeply ingrained baseball is in Tampa and throughout Tampa Bay,” said Hevia. “There is very rich content with the exhibits.”
The game’s history in the city begins with a team that was formed in 1878. Nine years later, in 1887, some of the Cubans that arrived in Tampa to work in the cigar industry formed a team known as the Niagara Baseball Club.
“That was the impetus that really started the passion for baseball in this area,” said Hevia, of the Cuban team. “They taught the game to those they worked with and lived with and it became a universal language. At that time in Tampa, many people were speaking Italian, Spanish and German. There were many different languages spoken. Yet, they could all play baseball. It was a hot ticket on Sunday. That’s what people did for recreation.”
More than a century of spring training and minor league baseball is showcased along with, more 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 managed the Blue Jays for three seasons in the early 2000s, was born in Cuba before moving to Tampa as a youth.
It is not just about the men who played the national pastime on Tampa’s ballfields, but about the women as well. Though Senaida “Shu Shu” Wirth played in Indiana for the South Bend Blue Sox of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the 1940s, she was a Tampa native who learned to play the game in her hometown. The 1992 film “A League of Their Own” starring Tom Hanks was a fictionalized account of the AAGPBL.
That is one of the many neat nuggets of information that await the museum’s visitors. From the diehard baseball fan to the casual visitor looking for a nice way to spend an afternoon, the museum is something that will cater to every level of interest when it comes to a sport that has long been a part of Tampa’s fabric.
“We hope the community will be proud of it,” said Hevia, who noted Piniella donated the first items for the museum, including a commemorative bat signed by members of the 1977 World Series-winning Yankees. “It is a community effort that has been built on public and private grants, but also built by people giving a few dollars all the way to those who have made major gifts to the museum. So there are a lot of people who have contributed through donations and a lot of people who have contributed in-kind services that allowed us to get to this point.”
At some point next year, perhaps close to 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 that people did not expect that we could put so much history in such a small space and that it would be as professionally done as it was,” said Hevia.
If only Al Lopez could see his home now.