To paraphrase Casey at the Bat poet Ernest Lawrence Thayer, the outlook wasn’t brilliant for baseball fans this year — that is, until the millionaires (ballplayers) and billionaires (team owners) finally hammered out a new collective bargaining agreement. The deal saved the 2022 season, and with it, the 75th year of spring training in Arizona.
So, somewhere in this desert land, on diamonds from Goodyear to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community along the edge of Scottsdale, the boys of summer are finally back for another spring of Cactus League baseball in the Valley of the Sun.
In Mesa, you can catch not only the Chicago Cubs at Sloan Park and the Oakland Athletics at Hohokam Stadium, but also a newly revamped Mesa Historical Museum exhibit that celebrates Arizona’s spring training traditions. Filled with memorabilia and artifacts, Play Ball: The Arizona Spring Training Experience and Cactus League Hall of Fame honors baseball greats, as well as the locals who helped turn spring training into one of the state’s biggest attractions.
With Mesa’s longtime ties to the Cubs (the team arrived in 1952 and have played at four Mesa ballparks, including both Hohokams) and the Athletics, fans of these clubs will find plenty of items to rekindle memories of the all-time greats. There’s a signed bat and jersey from none other than “Mr. Cub” himself, Ernie Banks, as well as a bat autographed by A’s legend Reggie Jackson, not to mention a jersey signed by Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rollie Fingers — he of the trademark handlebar mustache.
And whether you believe that Hank Aaron is the true all-time home run leader or that Barry Bonds merits the honor (despite putting up his numbers during baseball’s steroid era), you can compare the bats of these sluggers. There’s also a bat signed by some guy named Willie Mays, who put together a pretty memorable run with the Giants, a charter Cactus League club that originally was based at Mesa’s Buckhorn Baths before training in Casa Grande, Phoenix and now Scottsdale.
Like its famous counterpart in Cooperstown, New York, the Cactus League Hall of Fame honors inductees with impressive plaques that detail their accomplishments. The big names are there — Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, Cubs pitcher Ferguson Jenkins and slugger Ken Griffey Jr., best known for his time with the Seattle Mariners — but the Cactus League shrine also celebrates such local notables as Derrick Moore, a vendor whose “Lemonade, lemonade like grandma made” call has been as much a part of the Arizona spring training soundtrack as the sharp crack of a bat on a hot desert afternoon.
In addition to spring training itself, the exhibit commemorates other aspects of Arizona baseball history. There’s a World Series ring that belongs to longtime Arizona Diamondbacks organist Bobby Freeman and a display that tells the story of baseball at Japanese internment camps in Arizona during World War II. Cactus League Hall of Famer and Cubs clubhouse manager Yosh Kawano, who spent 65 years with the team, was among the 18,000 people imprisoned at the Poston War Relocation Center near the Colorado River.
The museum is in Mesa’s old Lehi School building, which was constructed in 1913 and later expanded as part of a Works Progress Administration project. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building is notable for its Mission Revival architecture, which includes a bell-tower-inspired feature along the parapet. And it’s easy to make it a doubleheader: The museum is a five-minute drive from Hohokam Stadium and just 10 minutes from Sloan Park.
As Ernie Banks used to say, “Let’s play two!”