The Tampa Bay area is home to five professional sports teams, two university athletic programs and dozens of sports celebrities. This has not always been the case. Sixty years ago, the area's sports landscape was largely undeveloped.
The evolution of the Tampa Bay area from the minor leagues to the major leagues was chronicled by artist Lamar Sparkman, and that history will be on display with the exhibit "Tampa Bay Sports: Through the Eyes of Lamar Sparkman" from Saturday to Sept. 12 at the Tampa Bay History Center.
It is essentially two exhibits in one. The first half is focused on the life and work of Sparkman, an artist for the Tampa Daily Times and The Tampa Tribune from 1947 to 1987. The second half pays homage to the last 24 years of area sports, featuring the "big three" of Tampa Bay sports — the Bucs, Lightning and Rays — plus the Outback Bowl and the last three Super Bowls hosted in Tampa.
Lamar Sparkman enjoyed drawing at an early age, and his penchant for doodling would get him in trouble. A Tampa native, he attended Gorrie Elementary, Wilson Junior High and Plant High School before going on to the University of Florida, where he majored in art. World War II interrupted his schooling but not his relationship with childhood sweetheart Gloria Johnston. Sparkman and Johnston were married before he shipped out to Italy in 1943.
On Aug. 21, 1947, the first of hundreds of Sparkman's cartoons was published in the Tampa Daily Times. It featured former Plant High and University of Florida standout Broughton "Brute" Williams, who had been drafted by the Chicago Bears and was scheduled to appear the following day in an annual football game that pitted a team of college all-stars against the reigning pro football champion.
That cartoon launched a 15-year-long series of pieces that ran first in the Tampa Times and then in The Tampa Tribune. Having your "Sparkman" appear in the newspaper meant that you had finally arrived in the world of sports. Particularly during this era in Tampa sports — decades before the Bucs and Rowdies — prep and collegiate sports (in the form of the University of Tampa) were vitally important to the area.
Former Jefferson High football player Gil Rodriguez fondly remembers his "Sparkman," even going so far as to say that it spurred him to put more effort into his game. "His work served as an incentive for us to train and perform harder, knowing that our work would be noticed, appreciated and reported for all to see."
Sparkman expanded the subject matter of his artwork to include the many professional athletes that were beginning to come through Tampa. Major League Baseball's spring training provided exceptionally fertile ground, with Sparkman capturing many of baseball's greatest stars: Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson and "The Boss" himself: George Steinbrenner.
When Tampa finally reached the national stage with the addition of an NFL franchise, Sparkman helped craft the image of the new team and created an icon in the process. Tampa Bay's team would be called the Buccaneers, and Sparkman was encouraged to submit a logo to the team's new owner, Hugh Culverhouse.
Sparkman created a swashbuckling pirate — part Errol Flynn, part Jean Lafitte, part D'Artagnan (one of the Three Musketeers) — and the new mascot earned a not-so-endearing moniker: Bucco Bruce. While Sparkman was not fond of the nickname, he was proud of his creation.
A secondary character appeared within the pages of The Tampa Tribune for several Buccaneers seasons — the Buc Bomber. Based on a World War I biplane, the bomber appeared to be as reliable as the Bucs team it represented. The Buc Bomber took readers on the up and down ride that went along with being a Buccaneer fan in the late '70s and early '80s.
Sparkman's last sports cartoon appeared in the Tribune on Aug. 21, 1987 — exactly 40 years after his first piece was printed in the Tampa Daily Times. His retirement was filled with painting and sculpting, fishing and hunting, plus time with his family. He survived to see what, to him, was unthinkable: the Florida Gators winning a National Championship.
Declining health began to hamper his art. He lost an eye to cancer in the late 1980s; he then suffered two strokes — the first in 2001, the second in 2005. Though they virtually robbed him of his ability to paint, the strokes did not hinder his creativity.
Gloria, his wife of 62 years, passed away in 2005. Sparkman followed her in 2010.
Sparkman's grandson, Carter Toole, summarizes Sparkman's life better than anyone. "After faith and family, Lamar's two greatest loves were art and sports. Creating and competing. He would often say how fortunate he was to find a way to combine the two. And we're all the more fortunate for the end result."
Tampa Bay Sports: Through the Eyes of Lamar Sparkman opens Saturday at the Tampa Bay History Center. The exhibit will be on display through Sept. 12 in the center's Wayne Thomas Gallery.
In conjunction with the new exhibition, the center is partnering with USF's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) to offer a four-week series on Sports in Tampa Bay. The two-hour courses will be held on four consecutive Wednesdays, beginning June 15. Each course begins at 10 a.m. at the Tampa Bay History Center.
The topic of the first class is a retrospective on the life of Lamar Sparkman, led by one of his grandsons, Carter Toole. Other classes will feature panel discussions on all of the area's major sports teams, past and present, and will include local sports luminaries Tino Martinez, Phil Esposito, Jack Harris, Dick Crippen, John Reaves, Jim McVay, Rick Nafe, Mike Connell, Winston DuBose, Farrukh Quarishi, Peter Anderson and many more. Contact the Tampa Bay History Center, (813) 228-0097, ext. 0, for more information on both the exhibition and the TBHC/OLLI classes.