Starting this Father's Day weekend, fans of all Bay area sports franchises will have the opportunity to see some amazing artifacts and historical memorabilia at the Tampa Bay History Center's new exhibit, "Sports in Tampa Bay: Through the Eyes of Lamar Sparkman."
Sparkman, who was a sports cartoonist for the Tampa Times and Tampa Tribune for four decades, is best known as the creator of the original Tampa Bay Buccaneers logo, the famous swashbuckler fans came to know as "Bucco Bruce." Unlike many NFL logos, Bucco Bruce was hand-sketched, a feature Sparkman's grandson, Carter Toole, says is special for fans of the franchise.
"This logo is a true work of art," Toole said. "It started as just a sketch. It's been really neat recently to see the Bucs embrace the old logo and old color scheme because there is real history and significance behind it."
When Tampa Bay was awarded an NFL franchise in 1975, Sparkman submitted his drawing to team owner Hugh Culverhouse, and it was selected as the team logo. Culverhouse wanted a unique identity for his new franchise and put strict guidelines on the logo's features.
"Culverhouse did not want the Buccaneer to be a snaggletooth pirate, he wanted it to be more of a swashbuckling Errol Flynn-type of character," Toole said. "That's what my grandfather meant for it to be. He was very proud of the character and thrilled to be a part of the process."
Sparkman felt that the plum feather in Bruce's hat added class, while the dagger in his mouth gave him some much-needed aggression. His facial expression, part sneer and part wink, was accompanied by the team's unique "Florida orange" jerseys donned by the Buccaneers for more than two decades. In 1997, the franchise adopted its current red-and-pewter color scheme and a new logo featuring a wind-swept flag on a cutlass bearing a skull and crossed swords.
The team's original look has been brought back to life for one game in each of the past two seasons, including one of more memorable Buccaneer contests in recent years. In the Bucs' initial "Throwback Game" in 2009, young quarterback Josh Freeman led Tampa Bay to a 38-28 win over Green Bay in his first NFL start. The victory, which was also the first for first-year Head Coach Raheem Morris, featured the induction of Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon into the team's Ring of Honor as its inaugural member.
Although Sparkman passed away in 2010, he did see the Buccaneers defeat the Packers wearing their original uniforms and the logo of his design. It was an emotional experience.
"I talked to him and he was in tears," Toole said. "He was so impressed with everything the Bucs did, not only the uniforms but transforming the stadium as well, it was really a nod to the past and an honor."
Sparkman's drawings featured professional and amateur athletics alike, and included works like "Ali-Gator" (Sparkman was a University of Florida alum). In 1979, he began drawing a cartoon entitled "The Buc Bomber," showcasing the four-year period from 1979 to 1982 when the Bucs made the playoffs three times, including a trip to the 1979 NFC Championship Game. Many of these works can now be found on display at the History Center.
"With this exhibit there is a real effort to showcase my grandfather's two loves, creating and competing," said Toole. "He loved the passion and ferocity of sports, especially football. He was a huge football fan and a huge Bucs fan. I think that comes through in this exhibit."
Sparkman's cartoons helped chronicle the progression of sports in the Bay area from minor league and high school sports to Major League Baseball spring training and eventually major league sports franchises. After his retirement from the Tribune, Sparkman continued to paint and sketch; three of his paintings are even hanging in the clubhouse at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.
The exhibit, on display through September 12, commemorates not only Sparkman's work but the history of all sports in the Tampa Bay area. Each of the major teams has their own displays, including the Buccaneers, who have loaned the Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl XXXVII to be shown throughout the summer.
"This exhibit shows a little bit about how the Buccaneers came to be," Toole said. "Through this exhibit you can see cartoons and newspaper clippings dating back beyond 1975 to how the franchise was formed and all the way through until my grandfather's retirement in 1987, and beyond to Super Bowls and the current teams."
Other memorabilia is presented as well, from the Rowdies to the Rays, MVP trophies, Super Bowls, Stanley Cup championships and World Series appearances. The exhibit chronicles nearly 70 years of sports in Tampa Bay.
When asked what his grandfather would think about an entire museum exhibit devoted to his work, Toole chuckled.
"He would be stunned that everyone was making such a big fuss about him," he said. "He liked to stay in the background and do his artwork. But our family is thrilled that people are making such a big fuss about it because he was a true pioneer in Tampa Bay sports and he brought a lot of joy to people who picked up the paper every morning."