The history of baseball in Arizona started long before The Arizona’s Diamondback’s inaugural season. In fact, baseball was being played in the Gila River War Relocation Center by Japanese-American internment prisoners as a way to pass the time, and to express their love for the game, America’s pastime, during their detainment.
On Saturday February 26th, The Mesa Historical Museum will unveil it’s new exhibit, PLAY BALL: The Arizona Spring Training Experience and Cactus League Hall of Fame. “One of the largest baseball exhibits in Arizona history and highlights some of the greatest players and stories from the Cactus League.” Exciting as this exhibit is, there is much more to it. The exhibit will also feature the story of the Japanese Internment Camp baseball players.
The opening reception will begin at 9:00 a.m. on February 26th.
To learn more about the new PLAY BALL exhibit I spoke with Susan Ricci, the executive director of The Mesa Historical Museum.
Q: How did you become the executive director?
A: I moved to Arizona a little more than 2 years ago, I had previously lived in Rapid City, South Dakota and I had built a museum from scratch in Rapid City which is housed at Crazy Horse Memorial. I had that museum background and had also been a non-profit development officer 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 The Mets games and The Yankees games. When I became the director I made a point to bring baseball back to the Mesa Historical Museum.
Q: What can you tell me about the new exhibit?
A: Before this we were the PLAY BALL: The Arizona Spring training experience but this year we’ve partnered with the Cactus League, you probably know there is a Cactus League HOF that started in 2014, similar to the National Baseball Hall of Fame where players were chosen and inducted, but with the Cactus League HOF it isn’t just players. The committees that vote have inducted individuals who have made a strong contribution to the Cactus League like Governor Rose Mofford who helped to keep teams from leaving the Cactus League and going to Florida. Also Mayor Ron Travers from Peoria who was another person that was instrumental in creating economic incentives to keep the teams here. A couple Topps photographers who dedicated their life to all the baseball card photos we have, so it’s not just players its also for those who have uniquely contributed to the spirit of the Cactus League and of course your own Bobby Freeman was inducted HOF because of course, if you’ve gone to a game who doesn’t know him? He contributes greatly to the entire atmosphere with the Diamondbacks and the Cactus League. One of the coolest items in our museum, as a history museum, we have a 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 get it to work. It’s likely it had not played a note in over 100 years until he sat down and played.
Q: The exhibit opens to the public on February 26th, what type of crowd are you expecting there?
A: At 9:00 a.m. we are having the opening reception and our mayor of Mesa, John Giles will be there, our district councilman will be there, the executive director of the Cactus League and people from different baseball organizations, along with museum members and baseball fans.
Q: What makes this exhibit so unique?
A: The exhibit features an amazing story about Japanese Internment Baseball, and also features an exhibit on the four players that broke the racial barrier when they came to the Cactus League and joined with their teams. We also have a story on former Cub’s clubhouse manager, Yosh Kawano and his amazing journey as a boy stowing away on a boat to Catalina Island to try and get the Cubs to notice him so he could become a bat-boy and then go on to spend 65 years with the team as a club house attendant. So we have a lot of human interest stories. We didn’t just want to do statistics, we wanted to feature of all 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 in their lives. Baseball is something that is almost healing for people, it’s something that is apart of the fabric of this Country and especially this State here in Arizona.
Q: What is your favorite Cactus League story?
A: It's actually one of our featured stories. One of our partners in this exhibit tells the story about being 12 years old and he lived two doors down from this supposedly famous baseball player that he’d never heard of. This player had two sons, twins, so the story teller became friends with these boys and they would play together and hangout in the player’s home drinking lemonade and the whole time the player/their Dad was actually Ernie Banks. We have the story of his phenomenal encounter of sitting on the floor and listening to Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ron Santo having a cigarette and talking baseball the day before a game.
Q: Who is your favorite Cactus League HOF inductee
A: I love Ernie Banks, because he had such an amazing disposition everyone loved him and of course he coined the famous phrase, “Let’s play two!” But also, I really like Larry Doby who was an African American player that came up through the ranks and was the 2nd black player to join the majors after Jackie Robinson and really lived in Jackie Robinsons shadow. He went through the same discrimination that Robinson did but you never hear about him because he wasn’t the 1st. Larry Doby was an amazing player in the negro leagues, but by the time that barrier was broke and he was brought up he was in his 30s and his body was plagued with injuries and his career was over by the age of 35. So he did not get that full career. My favorite stories are those of the Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Larry Doby. Those four who were brave to break that barrier. You know these guys had to stay at sperate hotels 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 American people who lived in the towns and cities that the games were being played in. Imagine what that was like? You’re playing at the top of you game and you’re not even allowed eat at the same place as your teammates. I would have to say that this is my favorite exhibit because these were superstars in the game and yet they had to face such diversity.
Q: Can you tell me about the Japanese internment camp story the exhibit features?
A: We feature a story about how baseball began at the Gila River internment camp and about the individual who was responsible for organizing these baseball teams and who came up with the idea to build the baseball diamond in the camp and it’s an amazing story. We also are fortunate that we have on loan for this exhibit a Japanese internment baseball uniform from the 1940s. We will also have a guest speaker, Charles Vascellaro, who will give a presentation on Japanese internment baseball on March 1st at 5:30 p.m. He is an expert who has been researching and writing about this topic for years.
Q: How much does it cost to come to the Mesa Historical Museum?
A: Admission is $7 for for adults, $4 for kids, and children 5 and under are free. This is the largest baseball exhibit in Arizona and the only museum to feature the Cactus League Hall of Fame. We feature not only memorabilia, but also the stories of individuals that helped shape the Cactus League and I think that people are going to come away from this exhibit learning and knowing things about baseball that they never knew before. What happened behind the scenes? How did the Cactus League begin and take hold in Arizona? Who are these individuals that helped bring baseball to Arizona? Whether you are a big baseball fan or not, these stories have something for everyone.
Those who would like to attend can find additional information at mesahistoricalmuseum.com