Women’s Sports Museum hopes to prove value at Kick-Off Gala

A program signed by All-American Girls Professional Baseball League alumni and a tennis racket signed by Chris Evert are auctioned at the Women’s Sports Museum Kick-Off Gala on Saturday in Sarasota.
A program signed by All-American Girls Professional Baseball League alumni and a tennis racket signed by Chris Evert are auctioned at the Women’s Sports Museum Kick-Off Gala on Saturday in Sarasota.

The ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota was filled close to capacity when Mike Beaumier stepped to a podium in front of the room to open the Women’s Sports Museum Kick-Off Gala on Saturday.

Beaumier, the president and current chair of the Women’s Sports Museum, silenced a buzzing crowd and began.

“Tonight,” Beaumier said, “we plan on introducing you to our vision — actually the vision of Sue Zipay, our founder. The crowd broke into applause.

Beaumier invited Zipay, an Englewood resident and former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player, to stand before urging another chunk of the room to join her. More than 20 fellow alumni joined Zipay as cheers showered the exclusive sorority.

“It’s sad because each year we lose players,” said Helen LaCamera, who played one year for the Fort Wayne Daisies and now lives in Daytona Beach, “but it’s good to see the ones that are here.”

A shrinking list of alumni is now an inevitability for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which celebrated its 73rd reunion in Sarasota this week. There are already small ways to remember the league — the 1992 film, “A League of Their Own,” was a hit, and there’s an exhibit in the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum — but this reunion coincided with the start of the most ambitious effort yet.

From the windows of the Hyatt Regency overlooking Sarasota Bay, visitors can also see the vacant G.WIZ museum. Sarasota doesn’t have official plans for the site yet, and a local group hopes it can become the site of the Women’s Sports Museum (WSM). Saturday’s gala was a collision of ideas.

“It’s a great time to open it up for women, that’s the main thing,” said Maybelle Blair, who played one season for the Peoria Redwings. “Our memory will be there forever, we hope.”

The fundraising gala marks the end of Year 1 for the museum’s five-year plan. Zipay was hoping for about 200 attendees and although she didn’t have an official number Saturday she expects the group reached its goal. A silent auction, including autographed AAGPBL memorabilia and a tennis racket signed by Chris Evert, raised additional money, as did an impromptu English auction led by former MLB All-Star Bill Lee to sell baseballs signed by AAGPBL alumni.

With hundreds of patrons showing interest in the museum, the gala provided a showcase to the county and city about the museum’s merits.

Earlier during the week, Sarasota city commissioner Susan Chapman was critical of the WSM’s plan in an article published by the Sarasota Observer.

“Is there a need for a women’s sports museum?” she told the Observer. “What connection does a women’s sports museum have to the city of Sarasota — some lady in Englewood who wants to give her collection?”

Chapman wasn’t in attendance Saturday, but commissioner at-large Suzanne Atwell was. While Atwell, a self-described “aficionado” of “A League of Their Own,” couldn’t discuss the specific location, she is receptive to the general idea of a museum in Sarasota, especially given her background as a basketball, tennis and field hockey player.

“Sarasota is just probably one of the most exciting places in the country right now,” Atwell said. “When I heard about this I was very, very excited to see what is going to happen here.”

The reunion will conclude Sunday with a 3 p.m. autograph session at the Hyatt, a final chance for the AAGPBL and Women’s Sport Museum to indirectly demonstrate a level of interest in the area. Past sessions have sometimes had hour-long lines.

“It’s like Hollywood,” said Toni Palermo, who played for two years in the league and now is vice president of the players association. “The cameras. Click, click, click, click, click.”

The effect of this week on the museum’s plans will not be evident until Zipay and Co. have had time to decompress. The Women’s Sport Museum has a fundraising baseball game planned for next year, and officials want to have office and storage space worked out during the next few months.

An official location will still take time. Zipay hopes Saturday left a good impression.

“I think it’s been a success,” Zipay said, standing in the middle of a crowded cocktail reception. “I mean, just look.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2

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