The Tampa Baseball Museum provides a glimpse into the past

YBOR CITY, Fla. – “It’s endless. It’s a bottomless pit of history.”

The description by Chantal Hevia, President and CEO of the Ybor City Museum Society, of the Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez House is 100% accurate.

“There’s a tremendous amount of history,” Hevia said. “I could spend the rest of my life learning and not learning enough.”

The museum is located in the childhood home of the late Al Lopez. Born in 1908, Lopez was Tampa’s first-ever Major League Baseball player, coach, and Hall of Famer. Now his home is used to tell the story of baseball in Tampa and beyond.

“Everyone was so excited that we were getting Al’s house and we were going to turn it into a museum,” Hevia added. “We got around 1,500 artifacts based on a call we made.”

The museum opened in September and recently received a number of items detailing the history of the Black Leagues of the early and mid 1900s. One of the most prized possessions is a hat signed by the Monarchs of Kansas City. It features the autograph of Sarasota native and baseball legend Buck O’Neil. O’Neil was a coach and scout with the Chicago Cubs, but he never got a chance to play in the major leagues. He will be posthumously inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on July 24.

The stigma surrounding black baseball players was that they weren’t good enough to compete against white players in the big leagues. Author and historian Wes Singletary said that was simply not true.

“You look at the National League, for 20 years the American League couldn’t beat them in the All-Star Game because the American League was slow to desegregate,” said Tampa native Singletary. “[Hank] Aaron, [Willie] Mays, and [Ernie] Banks and National League guys were wearing people out. The idea that black baseball and these leagues were no match for Major League Baseball is just plain wrong.”

Singletary added that you don’t have to be one of the big names to have a positive impact on the history of Negro leagues or baseball in general.

“Some guys just made it up [to the Negro Leagues] for a song. Like Bernardo Fernandez. He invented it for a little while, but World War II interrupted his career. He came back and played a bit until 1948, but that was about it.”

Tampa’s black league and major league history is incomplete without telling the story of Cuban and Afro-Cuban influence on the baseball landscape. At the end of the 19th century, large numbers of Cuban immigrants came to Tampa to work in the cigar industry. They brought a love for baseball with them.

“They had a passion for it. It was playing in Cuba. And they taught the game to all the other immigrant groups that were here,” Hevia said. “Sometimes they couldn’t speak each other’s language, but baseball was a universal language.”

“Some of the greatest baseball players in the Negro League – Martin Dihigo – are Cuban,” Singletary added. “But at the same time, white Cubans are getting into the big leagues, black Cubans are stuck playing in the black leagues. Baseball is separate no matter where they have their players. When you came to ‘The Show,’ you had to be white, or at least be able to get over it.”

In December 2020, Major League Baseball announced that it would initiate a process that would eventually recognize Negro League stats alongside their own. Singletary says it’s a good start, but there are still too many Negro League players who haven’t been selected to take their rightful place at Cooperstown.

“They say they’re recognized, but let me ask you something. How many Negro Leaguers have they put in the Hall of Fame this year? They’ve got another 20 that are in the Hall of Fame, easy. I mean, easy!” exclaimed the bachelor. “I can give you a list off the top of my head right now of guys that are in the Hall of Fame. Negro League players that were great. That could play on any white team that still isn’t not there. Alright, we’ll recognize the stats, but now see other ball players coming in.”

There are 340 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 37 of them have spent most or all of their careers in the seven recognized black leagues.

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