A new exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center honors a local newspaper cartoonist.
That man is Lamar Sparkman, whose caricatures of local and national sports figures adorned the pages of the Tampa Bay Daily Times and The Tampa Tribune from 1947 to 1987. He was also a historian and a fanatic of sports, a pioneer and even an inspiration.
The list goes on and on, much like the vast collection of sports memorabilia on display at the Tampa Bay History Center’s “Sports in Tampa Bay: Through the Eyes of Lamar Sparkman,” which runs through September 12.
Trophies, jerseys and other memorabilia from Tampa Bay’s professional, collegiate and amateur sport teams, including the Vince Lombardi Trophy and a replica of the Stanley Cup, line the walls of the Wayne Thomas Gallery of the upper floor at the Tampa Bay History Center across the street from the St. Pete Times Forum. There are also regular football cartoons that became so well renowned they prompted personal requests from national sports figures to have their own portraits sketched by the local artist. Through the eyes of many athletes, to be the subject of a “Sparkman” was equivalent to wearing one of the many jerseys that now serve as centerpieces of the sports showcase. It was a privilege. Of those now found in the sports museum are many of the portraits which were kept by the athletes as cherished keepsakes.
“In those days, that meant that you had made it as an athlete,” said Travis Puterbaugh, the collections manager at the exhibit. “It was quite the competitive thing among local sports figures. To have a “Sparkman” made of you indicated that you had achieved some kind of status.”
His contributions would be compelling enough if Sparkman was responsible for helping only local athletes gain national attention. But, in fact, the entire Tampa Bay area, as well as its residents, has Sparkman to thank for helping put the city on the map next to the already-popular sporting towns of New York, Boston and Chicago.
“Lamar Sparkman and Tom McEwen were really the most instrumental figures in helping professional sports evolve here in Tampa,” Puterbaugh added. “They were both responsible for the Tampa Tribune having a nationally, very well-respected sports section. They provided a one-two punch which created a lot of memorable pieces in the people’s eyes, and they sort of latched on to it.”
The original sketch for what became the iconic logo of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, “Bucco Bruce,” can be traced back to Sparkman, as can “The Adventures of Alli-Gator,” a tribute to Sparkman’s alma mater, the University of Florida and “Song of the Seminole,” a piece honoring Florida State University in Florida’s capital. Sparkman’s love for the game of football is even more evident through works like the “Buc Bomber,” a World War I-style fighter plane that navigated through dangerous surroundings in the franchise's early years.
Sparkman passed away in 2010, but not before he saw first-hand the impact his work had on what became a fanatical sporting culture that swept through the Bay Area in a period of six years between 1998 and 2004.
Following both the birth of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Buccaneers, Sparkman witnessed Tampa Bay’s first professional baseball franchise, then known as the Devil Rays, come to fruition. He was also fortunate enough to see the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl championship in 2002 as well as the Lightning’s first Stanley Cup, which followed two years after, prior to his death at age 88.
Many items, including the same championship hardware from each of the area’s three major pro sports franchises, are on display inside the exhibit, which features a wall paying homage to each team. Centering the three walls is a free-standing case which features miscellaneous memorabilia, mostly various individual accolades, from both former and current athletes who left a significant mark in Tampa Bay. Highlighting the coveted items in the case is the game-used football from Jon Gruden’s 100th career coaching victory, a ticket to the Lightning’s inaugural game versus the Chicago Blackhawks, the very first-ever Lightning playoff ticket, a hockey puck signed by Phil and Tony Esposito, Lou Piniella’s Manager of the Year Award, Tino Martinez’s 2000 World Series championship ring and a photo of Brad Richards scoring a goal during the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens.
It is ironic the way that Sparkman ever became intertwined with the exhibit that now honors him, since both of them nearly never happened.
Sparkman was initially called to serve in World War II, where it was at that time that the artist found his secret penchant for drawing. Back then, considering the circumstances of the time, Sparkman was limited to not renderings of sports figures, but instead ally and American Forces propaganda showing strong opposition to Hitler and the axis powers. But assisted by some fortunate timing, the war ended, and Sparkman was able to return to his native Tampa Bay to combine his two passions: drawing and sports.
The earliest pieces on display date back to 1947, long before the establishment of professional sports franchises in Tampa Bay. Those, however, were mostly limited to high school athletes, most notably Broughton “Brute” Williams and Rick Casares, whose football memorabilia greets sports fans as they enter the exhibit. From there, the bulk of his work stemmed from college athletics, most notably the University of Florida football team, up until the mid-1970s with the emergence of the Rowdies soccer club. Now, just over 30 years later, the Buccaneers, Lightning, Rays, USF Bulls and even an item from the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits have joined early Tampa Bay sports history to complete the exhibit into what it is today, a vast and varied collection of historical sports pieces out on loan from Sparkman’s family among other outlets.
Amazingly, Sparkman’s work, which consists of more than 40 years of original sketch artwork, would still be stored away in boxes in his children’s home had it not been for his family’s desire to share his passion with all of Tampa Bay.
Puterbaugh stated that Sparkman’s family initially approached the University of Tampa’s art department about housing many of the pieces, but after hearing wind of the proposal, officials from the Tampa Bay History Center matched that interest and was fortunate enough to accumulate the bulk of his work.
“It wasn’t until we went down to look at his work, and it didn’t take long, to realize exactly what we had,” Puterbaugh said. “To be honest, none of this was supposed to happen as quickly as it did. The idea for a sports exhibit wasn’t something we wanted to do until a few years down the road, but as it turned out with what we found, this summer was as good a time as any and it ended up making a fantastic exhibit.”