YBOR CITY, Fla. — "It’s endless. It’s a bottomless pit of history."
Ybor City Museum Society President & CEO Chantal Hevia's description of the Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez house is 100% accurate.
"There’s an enormous amount of history," said Hevia said. "I could spend the rest of my life learning and not learn enough."
The museum is located in the actual childhood home of the late Al Lopez. Born in 1908, Lopez was the first-ever Major League Baseball player, manager and Hall of Famer from Tampa. Now, his house is being used to tell the story of baseball in Tampa and beyond.
"Everybody was so excited that we were getting Al’s house, and that we were going to make it into a museum," Hevia added. "We got about 1,500 artifacts based on a call that we put out."
The museum opened this September, and it recently received a number of items detailing the history of the Negro Leagues of the early and mid-1900s. One of the prized possessions is a hat signed by the Kansas City Monarchs. It includes 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 the chance to play in the Major Leagues. He will be inducted posthumously 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 with white players in the big leagues. Author and historian Wes Singletary said that's 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 late to desegregate," Singletary, a Tampa-native, said. "[Hank] Aaron, [Willie] Mays, and [Ernie] Banks and them dudes from the National League were just wearing people out. The idea that black baseball and that those leagues were not up to par with Major League Baseball is just wrong."
Singletary added that you didn't have to be one of the big names to make a positive impact on the history of the Negro Leagues or baseball in general.
"Some guys just made it up [to the Negro Leagues] for one song. Like Bernardo Fernandez. He made it up for a little while, but then World War II interrupted his career. He went back and played a little through ’48, but that was about it."
The history of the Negro Leagues and Major Leagues in Tampa is incomplete without telling the story of the Cuban and Afro-Cuban influence on the baseball landscape. In the late 19th century, large numbers of Cuban immigrants to Tampa to work in the cigar industry. They brought a love for baseball with them.
"They had a passion for it. That had been playing it 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 Negro League ballplayers- Martin Dihigo- they’re Cubans," Singletary added. "But at the same time the white Cubans are going into the Major Leagues, the black Cubans are stuck playing in the Negro Leagues. Baseball segregated no matter where they got their players. When you came to 'The Show' you had to be white, or at least be able to get over as one."
In December of 2020, Major League Baseball announced it would start a process that ultimately recognizes Negro League stats alongside their own. Singletary says that's a good start, but there are still too many Negro League players that haven't been selected to take their rightful place in Cooperstown.
"They say they’re recognized, but let me ask you something. How many Negro Leaguers did they put in the Hall of Fame this year? They got another 20 out there that belong in the Hall of Fame, easy. I mean, easy!" Singletary exclaimed. "I can give you a list off the top of my frickin’ head right now of guys that belong in the Hall of Fame. Negro League players that were great. That could play on any white team that still aren’t there. Alright, we’re going to acknowledge the statistics, but now let’s see some more of the ballplayers going in."
There are 340 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 37 of them spent most or all of their career in the seven recognized Negro Leagues.