Tacoma sports history needs saving. Tacoma Rainiers, others should step up as saviors

Tacoma’s Museum Row is a point of immense civic pride. It’s anchored by the Washington State History Museum, Tacoma Art Museum and Museum of Glass on Pacific Avenue. It has grown to welcome latecomers like the LeMay car museum.

For 24 years, the Shanaman Sports Museum brought a valuable but oft-overlooked facet to our sparkling museum scene — a trove of local treasures packed into a 1,500-square-foot corner of the Tacoma Dome.

Before it closed last week, the collection captured the joy of more than a century of athletic achievement and the grit of a working-class city at play. Local heroes and watershed events in major sports were featured prominently, including football and basketball jerseys galore. It also held artifacts of more obscure exploits, from motorcycle racing to heel-toe race walking, ski jumping to soap box derby.

Boxing, with its rich Golden Gloves tradition in Tacoma, was well represented.

But above all there was baseball, every bit a local pastime as an American one, from the Amocats to the Tacoma Tigers (and Tigerettes) to the Cheney Studs.

That the Shanaman museum now finds itself homeless doesn’t bode well for a city known for preserving the past. We hope the collection doesn’t suffer the same fate as the Royal Brougham Sports Museum in Seattle, which was split up and auctioned off when the Kingdome died in 2000.

Local historians, philanthropists and fans should spare no effort to find new public display space for these heirlooms. Cheney Stadium seems like a natural site as it develops into a hub for the local minor-league sports market; the home of the Tacoma Rainiers also now hosts the Sounders FC 2 soccer team.

City officials should help ensure the collection isn’t lost or neglected. The museum was displaced as a long-time Tacoma Dome tenant after a recent remodel of seats and other amenities at the city-owned facility.

As the landlord of Cheney Stadium, the city has a position of influence with Rainiers management. The team benefited from $30 million in public funding to renovate the ballpark in 2011; stepping up as a steward of Tacoma sports history would be a terrific way to repay the community’s generosity.

A statement the Rainiers sent us Monday gives cause for cautious optimism: “We have been supportive of this eventual relocation, but currently lack viable space,” it said. “We do believe, should we be successful in getting a soccer-specific stadium built, we’d be able to help provide the space within that stadium footprint.”

Shanaman board members are nothing if not ambitious; they want to raise funds for a 5,000-square-foot museum at Cheney.

For now, the Rainiers should make a good-faith effort to exhibit Shanaman’s baseball memorabilia. The fan experience would be enhanced by a chance to see a ball signed by Babe Ruth during his 1924 Tacoma barnstorming tour. Or a series of balls from no-hitters thrown in local baseball history, from Floyd “Lefty” Isekite in 1939 to Brett Tomko in 2001.

The museum’s vintage 1960 Cheney Studs jersey would be a natural fit, along with other items from the era of the late Ben Cheney. He helped secure a Pacific Coast League baseball franchise at his namesake stadium and sponsored teams for thousands of local kids.

The world of sports, once discounted by snobbish academics, is increasingly embraced as part of the broad historical narrative. In June, the Library of Congress opened a year-long exhibition called “Baseball Americana.”

Some pieces in the Shanaman Museum are no less a part of that narrative. Among them are hidden gems that showcase local athletes intersecting with international affairs — like the parade cap worn by Gertrude Wilhelmsen at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, where the Puyallup track-and-field star marched under the gaze of Adolf Hitler.

If South Sound sports heritage isn’t preserved and displayed, it will be a disservice not only to generations past, but also those to come.