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Mudville: April 22, 2024 12:45 am PDT

Saving Babe’s Place

Babe Ruth saved baseball.

Now baseball, and its fans, need to save the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore.

This is more of a shrine, a baseball Holy Place than a museum. If you have never been, go, soon, especially now, the 100th anniversary of Babe becoming a Yankee.

You will not only find amazing pieces like Babe Ruth’s rosary or his hymnal from when he was 12 years old (we will tell you later how those treasures found a home) and of course plenty of baseball memorabilia. The museum is run by people who truly love what they do and love to tell the story of Babe Ruth, which, remains baseball’s greatest story ever told.

In an age where history is being trampled upon and thrown to the wolves, the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum has hit hard times because of Covid. A recent report published by the American Alliance of Museums surveyed directors of 760 museums and one-third of the museums were not confident of their museum’s survival over the next 16 months without additional financial relief.

Michael Gibbons is director emeritus and historian of the Ruth museum and truly a Ruth scholar.

He has given much of his life to the museum and to Babe’s legacy.

No one understands Babe’s place and his place in history better than Gibbons.

“We think that the mission of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum is essential to the core foundation of American sports,’’ Gibbons told BallNine. “In my way of thinking Babe Ruth remains the ultimate icon, representing the significance of American sports not only on the American culture, but on the world’s culture.

“For us, our primary source of income is through the gate,’’ Gibbons said. “On a good day now, we are drawing 20 to 40 people.’’

That is not going to cut it.

The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore, MD.

Yankee fans didn’t go to Baltimore this year like they did for so many years. No fans in major league parks. Baltimore has been in serious trouble for years due to political and safety reasons. Crowds that once poured into the city for the Orioles, the Inner Harbor and iconic spots like Little Italy are not there anymore.

As a result, wonderful museums, like the B&O Railroad Museum, are hurting as much as the restaurants. And that is a shame. Staffs have been cut. Pay has been slashed. Those who are still working at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum are working on partial wages to try to get through the difficult days.

“We are doing our best to continue our mission,’’ Gibbons promised. “We need to keep the legacy of Babe Ruth alive and do our best to get back to some sense of normalcy. I would hope that baseball fans would want to get involved in a noble cause.’’

“These events draw hundreds of people and thousands of dollars for us,” Gibbons said, “and it’s all gone.”

I’ve known Gibbons for decades and he is a tremendous advocate for the Babe and for baseball and other sports – and for the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. He gets it. His word is true. The museum has stepped up a membership drive on its website www.baberuthmuseum.org

“That’s a way to support us,’’ Gibbons said reaching out to baseball fans everywhere. “You make a small donation and you become an advocate and supporter so this museum can continue.’’

Before Covid when the Yankees would come to town the museum would draw between 500 and a 1,000 people a day. I was one of those fans.

The day I spent at Babe’s museum was one of my most enjoyable museum days ever. It is a place of incredible information and archives, and it is not just about the Babe. It is about Baltimore and Maryland sports.

Babe is the engine that drove baseball to success after the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Ruth showed up in pinstripes, started hitting home runs while showing off the perfect oversized personality to promote the game and baseball and the world changed.

Author Jane Leavy holds The Babe's bat alongside the cover from her book The Big Fella.

If you read Jane Leavy’s The Big Fella (Babe Ruth and the World He Created) and I read every captivating page – in a way you have already visited the museum.

In her acknowledgements on page 487 Leavy gives thanks, noting, “Mike Gibbons, director emeritus at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, shared invaluable tape-recorded interviews of sources no longer alive, including Ruth’s sister Mamie Ruth Moberly. And he made me brave when, during our first conversation, he answered my question about which Babe book he considered definitive, by saying, “It hasn’t been written yet.’’

The research materials at Babe’s museum are gold.

Leavy also thanked the museum in another comment regarding executive director Shawn Herne and former curator Greg Schwalenberg, “who let me swing the Babe’s bat,’’ Leavy wrote. Leavy knew that to truly understand Babe Ruth and what the Sultan of Swat meant to baseball, to Baltimore, to New York to the Bronx to the House that Ruth Built, to the country and the world, she had to make a pilgrimage to the museum and compile as much information as she could to tell his story.

“Jane spent a lot of time with us in our archives, going through the audio files,’’ Gibbons said. “That is an important part of our mission as well. We can’t just turn our back on that or we might just as well turn our back on American sports and that is not an answer.’’

You want to see Lefty Grove’s glove from when he won his 300th game. It’s at the museum. Lefty was a Maryland native who began his pro career pitching in Baltimore for its minor league team. It is here you learn why Grove could have won even more games than the 300 he won because he was kept in the minors to drive up the price for attaining him.

Grove won 111 games in the minors.

That is just one little fascinating tidbit in a museum full of such information and artifacts.

Babe became a Yankee when the Red Sox sold him to the Yankees, who announced the late December deal on January, 5, 1920. That was the biggest blunder in the history of baseball and the Curse of the Bambino was born. The Yankees reaped the benefits of having the best player to ever play the game. In six seasons with the Red Sox, Ruth led them to three World Series victories. With the Yankees, Ruth won seven pennants and four World Series. The Red Sox did not win another World Series until 2004.

Not only was Babe a tremendous pitcher, but in the spring of 1919, the Red Sox made him a full-time outfielder and that brought tape measure shots to a game that was used to only pop shots. As Levy said in her book on April 5th in Tampa, Ruth hit a ball against the New York Giants that soared out of the ballpark and across a race track before coming to rest 587 feet from home plate.

“We have an artifact, which a man donated, an official document from December of 1919 to January 1920 and it shows in writing the sale of George H. Ruth from Boston to New York,’’ Gibbons told me. “Aside from the bill of sale, and there are two copies of the bill of sale, it is the only official written acknowledgment of the transaction. It’s a really nice piece.’’

A different House That Ruth Built...

In every way, Babe was the stuff of legends as he finished with 714 home runs, one of the most famous numbers in baseball history, including the 60 he bashed in 1927 for the Yankees.

Hopefully, someday soon, the museum can again host the annual Babe Ruth Birthday party or the Opening Day street party. “These events draw hundreds of people and thousands of dollars for us,’’ Gibbons said, “and it’s all gone.‘’

In October they will present a new exhibit featuring Brooks Robinson’s 1966 World Series ring and 1970 World Series Most Valuable Player trophy. They are also doing Zoom interviews with athletes and coaches from different sports.

“Virtual interviews are terrific ways to reach out to your audience,’’ Gibbons said. “The bottom line is I think we feel we have a good chance to fiscally survive this coming year, meaning through next September. We are not giving up down here. I will work as a volunteer if necessary to keep the museum functioning. We have a historic collection, not just of Babe Ruth but of state sports, Michael Phelps, Cal Ripken, Johnny Unitas and we can’t turn our back on that, 20,000 artifacts.’’

Perhaps in the future MLB, the Orioles or Yankees can financially help the museum in the form of challenge grants or in some other financial manner. Larry Lucchino in his Oriole days as President/CEO, before he moved onto the Padres and Red Sox, with the help of his lieutenant Charles Steinberg, worked with the museum but that was a long time ago.

“I wrote the dedication speech for Oriole Park at Camden Yards when they dedicated the ballpark and James Earl Jones read it,’’ Gibbons recalled.

The museum is a short walk from the ballpark, just follow the 60 baseballs that are painted on the sidewalk.

There are treasures. New and old. One of the newest is the Presidential Medal of Freedom that was presented by President Trump to Tom Stevens, Babe’s grandson on behalf of the family in 2018.

Some 70 years after his death, Ruth still receives honors.

The museum is a time machine for the man who not only led the majors in home runs in 12 seasons, but in 1916 produced a 1.75 ERA as a southpaw and finished with a 23-12 record for the Red Sox with nine shutouts to lead baseball. With the Red Sox he pitched 29.2 consecutive innings of World Series scoreless baseball, a record he held for 43 years. Overall Ruth was 94-46 with a 2.28 ERA in 10 seasons of pitching to go along with those 714 home runs and the record 60-home run season of ‘27.

“A fan donated a scorecard from the 60-home run game and you see it,’’ Gibbons explained, “You see the eighth inning, he filled in all the bases and we have that on display. A local guy has a Babe home run ball from 1927. Babe hit two home runs in a doubleheader from September 13, 1927 and he’s got a ball, one of the two home run balls of that day, and I don’t know how many of those (60) exist. I know the Hall of Fame has the 60th home run. The guy is really close to donating it and it is just a treasure. Ruth signed it and the fan who caught it wrote the date, doubleheader, home run. I’m going to put it with the scorecard. That just gives me such delight.’’

A 16 year-old Babe Ruth (back row, center) with his St. Mary's teammates.

New history about Ruth is discovered every year.

There also is an exhibit highlighting Negro League teams from Baltimore. “Roy Campanella played here and Joe Black,’’ Gibbons said. Both played for the Baltimore Elite Giants.

Ruth was a huge advocate for the Negro Leagues and barnstormed with those players. “Ruth loved to play with the Black players and thought they were every bit the equal of major leaguers and he had that part right,’’ Gibbons said. “A lot of people think that Kenesaw Mountain Landis really worked against Babe managing a team because he was afraid that if Ruth got to manage, he would try to break down the color barrier and bring black ballplayers to his squad.’’

Pop Lloyd

The Great Pop Lloyd

MLB celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues this year. Once in a radio interview Ruth was asked who is the greatest player of all time, and he picked legendary Negro League shortstop, “John Henry Lloyd.’’ Pop Lloyd was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.

Regarding the Babe Ruth hymnal, in the early 1960’s, Babe’s former school, St. Mary’s Industrial School was being converted into Cardinal Gibbons High School in southwest Baltimore. Engineers checked on the buildings. While looking through one building and taking up a floorboard to make sure the joists were solid, they found a hymnal.

“On the inside cover, it said ‘George H. Ruth world’s worse singer, world’s best pitcher’ (sic)’’, Gibbons explained. “The engineer who found that knew someone who was involved with the Babe Ruth birthplace building and brought that to her and said when you open the shrine to Babe Ruth here this might be something you want to feature.’’

When the Birthplace opened it was on display. Light faded the writing unfortunately, but images were taken of the page. “It’s the earliest surviving autograph,’’ said Gibbons, who came to the museum in the 80s. “We had an FBI handwriting specialist put together a 200-page binder on Babe Ruth’s signature and came to the conclusion that the George H. Ruth as it was written in the hymnal was written by Babe Ruth. It’s a great piece.’’

As for the rosary, Gibbons takes us to 2007 and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the year Ripken and Tony Gwynn were inducted, and I was there in Cooperstown. Gibbons was there along with Julia Ruth Stevens, Babe’s adopted daughter. Julia passed away in 2019 at the age of 102. She was a tireless ambassador for the Babe through all the decades.

“The brothers at St. Mary’s gave Babe a good dose of discipline and religion, he was Catholic,’’ Gibbons explained.

Gibbons was downstairs at the bar of the Otesaga Hotel, the Hawkeye Bar & Grill with Julia and many Hall of Famers. He picks up the story:

“She said, ‘Michael, I want you to hold out your hand and close your eyes’ , I did and she put the rosary in my hand and said, ‘Thank you for all that you’ve done.’ So I gave that rosary to the museum. It belongs there. She told me that he carried that with him through his life and to the extent in his New York hospital, he had draped the rosary around one of the bed posts and when he died it was there.’’

Amazing story, amazing museum.

All this is just part of the history you will find at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, a sacred place that could use a little help from its baseball friends.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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