Museum tells the story of Tampa’s rich baseball history (PHOTOS)

Tampa has a rich baseball history and, thanks to the effort of several individuals within the community, the Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez House in Ybor City will tell the story of that history.

In fact, if the walls of the museum itself could talk they would likely reveal many of the game’s anecdotes. After all, the structure was the home of Lopez, the first major league player, manager and hall of famer from Tampa, for more than 50 years.

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,” says Chantal Hevia, president and CEO of the Ybor City Museum Society. “There is very rich content with the exhibits.”

Hevia and several others involved with the museum have been preparing for a September 25 grand opening that is expected to include mayor Jane Castor and Tampa native, and former baseball player and manager, Lou Piniella.

To accommodate the widening of I-4, the Lopez home was moved one mile in 2013 from E. 12th Avenue, in Ybor City, to the current location on N. 19th Street. The home, gifted to the museum by the city of Tampa, was built in 1905.

Lopez’s career 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. Following 20 seasons as a major league player, Lopez managed for 19 years.

Al Lopez Field, which was built in 1955, was the spring training home of the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds during the more than three decades it stood along Dale Mabry, where Raymond James Stadium is located.

After managing the Cleveland Indians for six years, Lopez was the manager of the White Sox for 13 years. 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,” Hevia says, and noted that a representation of Al Lopez Field with stadium seats signed by Lopez will catch the eyes of visitors. “We have a lot of artifacts devoted to him.”

The museum will educate visitors on the game’s early days in Tampa, including Cuban cigar workers who formed a team in the late 1880s. More than a century of spring training and minor league baseball is showcased along with, more recently, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Babe Ruth also has a place in the museum. In 1919 he was with the Boston Red Sox, who held spring training at Plant Field, on the grounds of the University of Tampa. In a game against the New York Giants, Ruth launched a home run that was measured, albeit ultimately with some debate, at 587 feet.

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 some time during 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,” Hevia says. “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.”

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