Tampa's love of baseball began more than 100 years before the Tampa Bay Rays came to the area. It began before Ybor City was founded.
"Tampa itself had a baseball team they fielded in the early 1880s, when Tampa was a fishing village of about 1,000," said Elizabeth McCoy, curator of a new baseball exhibit at the Ybor City Museum State Park.
It grew from there and "sort of exploded" when the first flock of Cuban immigrants migrated to the Tampa area to work in Ybor City's cigar factories, McCoy said. It grew not just because of the Cubans' passion for baseball but also in conjunction with the population boom.
The growing, diverse Tampa community – which included Cubans, Italians, Spaniards and the Anglo population – used baseball to find common ground, McCoy said.
"The immigrant communities came together, using baseball as a common language to have fun with each other," McCoy said.
Through the years many great players and coaches have come from the area, including Hall of Famer Al Lopez, Tony LaRussa, Lou Piniella, Tino Martinez, Dwight Gooden, Wade Boggs and Gary Sheffield.
The exhibit at the Ybor museum – Béisbol: Tampa's Love of the Game – explores Tampa's longtime passion for the sport. Much of the focus is on Ybor City and West Tampa; that's where, in the beginning, everyone played.
The exhibit addresses everything from the area's early inter-social leagues to the West Tampa Little League to the Rays.
"It shows the progression of baseball through the years," said Chantal Hevia, president and CEO of the Ybor City Museum Society. "But our real focus is showing this is how we started and this is how we got here."
The exhibit includes 30 to 40 pieces of memorabilia in two large cases, McCoy said.
Among the items: a catcher's mitt worn and signed by Lopez and a 1988 Team USA baseball hat worn by Martinez.
There also is a digital copy of an 1885 letter from a Tampa baseball organization that just was getting off the ground, McCoy said.
Hevia said the exhibit is a great learning experience. She said she learned the role baseball played in Tampa's early days and how it ultimately helped lead to the successes of many great players.
"We want the exhibit to serve as an inspiration for the younger players," Hevia said. "Here are the everyday people who became heroes and stars and prominent people in the field of baseball."
The yearlong exhibit opens Thursday and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through September.