You can see largest artifact of the Tampa Baseball Museum from a mile away. It’s the “casita” that houses the museum. This small bungalow built in 1905 was the childhood home of Al Lopez -- Tampa’s first Major League Baseball player, manager and Hall of Fame inductee.
Eight years ago (2013), the Lopez home was relocated from its original location with help from the Florida Department of Transportation. In a 14-hour operation that started overnight, the casita was slowly rolled 1.5 miles to 2003 N. 19 Street.
The interior walls, badly damaged by fire and termites, were removed to create an open floor plan. Walking in on opening day last September, the baseball legend’s son, Al Lopez Jr., was heard to say “This is where my bedroom used to be!” In that spot were three stadium seats saved from the ballpark named after his Dad in 1954. The seats were rescued from Al Lopez Field before it was torn down 30 years later.
Since the museum opened in September, domestic visitors have come from as far away as California. Six members of the Sacramento Metro Fire Department were among the first groups to tour. The museum draws baseball and history fans of all ages -- from retirees to schoolchildren.
“We had a group of 70 first graders come not too long ago and they were just in awe of the balls and the game worn bats, and items of clothing,” says Chantal Hevia, President and CEO of the Ybor City Museum Society. “We have a lot of things that people can connect with when they come here, no matter if you’re 6 or 60!”
The most photographed area of the museum is the collection of 89 autographed baseballs representing every Hillsborough County native to make it onto a Major League Baseball team.
“It was donated by the late Coach Frank Permuy who collected them during his many years as a baseball coach in Tampa,” Hevia says.
Strategically displayed near Permuy’s beloved collection of baseballs is the signed jersey worn by one of his many notable alumni, Tampa Bay Rays Manager Kevin Cash.
Also deliberate is the coupling of two very famous gloves inside the museum. The old MacGregor glove belonged to Lopez during his famous run as a catcher for the Cleveland Indians. The other glove belongs to Lou Piniella, who followed in Lopez’ footsteps, as a major league player turned manager. It’s Lou’s all-time favorite glove -- the one he used for 10 years as an outfielder with the New York Yankees.
Between the items donated from Tampa natives, family “gifts” from local baseball icons and artifacts on loan from the Tampa Bay Rays, there is something here for everyone. The backstories of how the artifacts got here are as memorable as the artifacts themselves.
Take the dirty cleats sitting in the center of the museum -- New York Mets’ Pete
Alonso gave them to Hevia two years before the museum was even finished. He arrived with the shoes in hand right after being named the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2019. Alonso’s cleats were still dripping New York clay from the soles.
“Alonso was so apologetic about all the dirt on them, but that is what makes them so special,” recalls Hevia with a smile. “We lovingly refer to them as Pete’s Cleats.”
The museum is a labor of love that’s not exclusive to baseball fanatics. Visit any day Thursday through Saturday and you’ll learn how baseball pre-dates Tampa’s world famous cigar history. A full three years before rollers in Ybor City and West Tampa produced enough cigars to make Tampa “the cigar capital of the world” the city had its first baseball team. Cuban immigrants organized it in 1887, nostalgic for the game back home.
As the cigar factories grew around them, Cuba’s pastime quickly became Tampa’s pastime – adopted by the neighborhoods teeming with Spaniards, Italians, Germans, Rumanian Jews and Chinese immigrants.
“That’s the story we’re telling here. How a game became the universal language and helped build Tampa’s identity,” says Hevia. The old program books in the display cases, the baseball timeline on the wall, the photos of Tampa’s first Negro Baseball league and its first female All-Star player “Shu Shu” Wirth tell stories inspiring multi-generations of visitors.
For more information on exhibits, museum hours and ticket prices, visit Tampa Baseball Museum. To learn more about what's inside the museum, watch the Rays All Access 2022 Show video on YouTube.
This story is underwritten by the Tampa Bay Rays in a new media partnership with 83 Degrees Media.