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Wednesday, Dec 19, 2018
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Games Of Our Lives

TAMPA - In just a few days, major league baseball strikes up the bats for spring training. Thousands will find reasons to leave their offices for assignments in the field - or at least the bleachers. That's nothing new in the Tampa Bay area. Cigar factories shut down and more than 5,000 people showed up for the first spring training game in Tampa. On Feb. 26, 1913, the Chicago Cubs beat the Havana Athletics 4 to 2 at Plant Field, now part of the University of Tampa. In a Boston Red Sox exhibition game there six years later, Babe Ruth smacked the longest home run of his career, 587 feet. Later years saw Plant Field play host to other types of performances by such eclectic legends as "Buffalo Bill" Cody and football stars Red Grange and Jim Thorpe. Play is an integral part of the story of the Tampa Bay area, where Spanish explorers landed in 1528 for their first expedition in North America; where celebrated Seminole chiefs outwitted the Army; where immigrant cigarmakers created a culture unique to America; where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders embarked for Cuba and San Juan Hill.
"Year-Round Play" will be one of 10 permanent exhibits planned for the $52 million Tampa Bay History Center, a three-story edifice scheduled to open in December in the Channel District. As the new building takes shape, The Tampa Tribune begins an occasional series, History in the Making, that will explore some of the exhibits and the stories behind them. Spring training, the fairs and festivals, the world-class fishing and other outdoor attractions have drawn tourists and new residents to the Tampa Bay area for decades, says Rodney Kite-Powell, the center's curator of history. "It's the combination of things that we have that sets us apart," he says. Until now, many of the photographs, documents and other artifacts donated to and collected by the museum have been stored in boxes and drawers. There was no room in the museum's small storefront on South Franklin Street to display them. Since September, when 216 support pilings were driven into bedrock, the concrete columns and decks of the history center have taken form. By midspring, workers should start adding the stone, metal and glass finishing work to the building, paid for by $17 million from the county community investment tax and $32 million in private donations. Contractor Walbridge Aldinger has set up a webcam at www.tampabayhc.com so people can watch the building going up. As the center rises, Kite-Powell and vice president Elizabeth Dunham are deciding which items to display and writing the story of Tampa and surrounding communities. "It's a rich history," says C.J. Roberts, history center president, who managed development and construction of the celebrated National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. "We're telling a story that spans 12,000 years, starting with the original inhabitants of this area, the natives who built mounds right in downtown Tampa." History, famously not Americans' best subject, can pull in paying customers if it's delivered in the right way - as a story, Roberts says. "Most of us, when we learned about history in school, were presented with facts and dates and numbers, and the reality is that is a terrible way to present history. We may not all like history, but we can all respond to the power of a story." More than 30,000 artifacts will help tell the story. At the "Year-Round Play" exhibit, for example, visitors can check out early state fair postcards and a midway game; old and new uniforms from Tampa Bay area sports teams; and a baseball signed by Ruth. The Tampa project is similar in many ways to the D-Day museum effort, Roberts says, including a similar sized building and budget - "and the potential to tell great stories."

Reporter Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 259-7609 or [email protected]

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