Growing up in St. Louis, I couldn’t help but fall in love with baseball. The storied tradition of the Cardinals pulled me in, and it was an easy step from there to get wrapped up in baseball’s century-long tradition, its obsession with statistics and its fabled rivalries. (Ours, of course, was with the Cubs.)
When I moved to Arizona, I found that people supported the Diamondbacks well enough. For many, however, their love of baseball is rooted in the Cactus League, Arizona’s spring training session that draws 15 major league teams to the state each year.
The Cactus League traces its roots to 1946, when baseball wild man Bill Veeck brought his Cleveland Indians to Tucson. Some stories say he wanted to come here because he had signed the American League’s first black player, Larry Doby, and Veeck thought the racial climate in Arizona would be better than Florida’s. Others say he favored Arizona because he had a home here and didn’t want to spend his springs in Florida. Regardless, he talked the New York Giants into setting up camp in Phoenix and laid the foundation for the Cactus League.
Today, the league is big business. Driving around town, you can feel the swelling of the population during spring training. Traffic is a little slower, lines are a little longer. It’s estimated that last year, the Cactus League had an impact of $348 million on the state economy.
If you’re coming this year, I encourage you to take in Play Ball – The Cactus League Experience, an exhibit celebrating the history of the Cactus League. You’ll learn about some of the major players who spent time in the Cactus League (Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Reggie Jackson, to name a few). You’ll see how media guides have evolved from friendly little pamphlets to major productions. You’ll get a look at some of the early fields. And you’ll gain an appreciation for how today’s newer stadiums have become little jewels in their own right.
Pieces of the exhibit are on display throughout the valley, but the largest portion by far has taken up residence at the Arizona Historical Society Museum at Papago Park, 1300 N. College Ave. in Tempe. The cost is reasonable – adults, $5; ages 60+, $4; ages 12-18, $4; and ages 11 and younger, free. The museum is closed on Mondays. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. (The video above talks about the Arizona Museum for Youth, but rest assured that the lion’s share of the exhibit is at the Arizona Historical Society Museum.)