Tuesday, February 3, 2004

BALTIMORE — If Yankee Stadium, baseball’s grand arena and center stage, is “the house that Ruth built,” then a little row house at 216 Emory St. here, on the corner of two narrow cobblestone alleyways in a pocket of Baltimore formerly known as “Pigtown,” is the house that built Ruth.

That’s Babe Ruth, of course: Babe Ruth, the New York Yankee, perhaps the greatest Yankee of them all, whose larger-than-life exploits helped put the roar in the Roaring ‘20s.

In New York in 1923, they built the largest ballpark ever to accommodate the crowds that came to see him play. In Baltimore, they made a shrine of the Emory Street house where he was born — and three blocks away, in front of Camden Yards where the Yankees’ American League rival Orioles play, they put up a bronze statue of the Babe with a plaque that reads “Babe Ruth, Baltimorean.”

Tomorrow, Baltimore and the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum will celebrate the 109th anniversary of the Babe’s birth with the 10th annual Babe’s Birthday Bash, at Bambino’s Pub in a warehouse building by Camden Yards.

“A lot of people don’t know Babe is from Baltimore,” says Michael Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. “But he was born here and is a product of his Baltimore roots. His blue-collar, working-class background is apparent throughout his life and is his credential. His casual, cocky, flip but not arrogant manner personifies Baltimore.”

• • •

The Babe was born George Herman Ruth Jr. on Feb. 6, 1895, in the home of his mother’s parents on Emory Street, now known as the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.

Originally called “The Babe Ruth Shrine,” the museum officially opened in 1974 a few years after a citizens group saved the building from being demolished as part of an urban renewal project in Pigtown — a neighborhood so-called because, according to legend, Baltimore’s pig farmers ran their hogs through its streets on the way to the slaughterhouse.

Early visitors to the shrine were able to see Ruth’s clothing, a grooming kit, and baseball bats donated to the museum by Babe’s wife, Claire, and sister, Mamie. The walls were decorated with photographs of Ruth and family members, many of which are still on display in the museum.

These days, the museum contains ever-changing displays and exhibits using Ruth artifacts donated or on loan from baseball memorabilia collectors, plus newspaper clippings, photographs and vintage video clips that chronicle Ruth’s remarkable life.

The three-story row house was originally a four-family dwelling. The walls that once separated each unit were removed to create the current museum setting.

On the first floor, a living room has been decorated with period furniture to replicate what the space might have looked like when Ruth’s maternal family lived here. A partition at the room also contains a timeline with a synopsis of life in Baltimore at the time of the Babe’s birth. There is also a display case holding artifacts unearthed from the site of a saloon owned by Ruth’s father that is now where Oriole Park at Camden Yards stands.

While standing in front of the living room, visitors can also view a documentary about Ruth from the television program “Biography,” narrated by Mike Wallace. Adjacent to the front room is the museum’s gift shop and main lobby, containing exhibits and display cases, with items such as one of the Babe’s Yankee uniforms as well as photographs of his grave site in New York’s Westchester County and items left there by adoring fans. Another case commemorates the career of the Babe’s teammate Lou Gehrig, a display established last June 19 to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.

On the second floor, the bedroom that Babe was born in is recreated with antique furniture. Another display explains events in Baltimore at the time of Babe’s birth and provides details of both sides of his family history. Another second floor room is devoted to the time Babe spent in Baltimore and contains a set of 1914 Baltimore Orioles baseball cards from his first year as a pro.

In 1983, the museum also became a repository for the history of the Baltimore Orioles, which prompted a renovation to the facility that increased annual attendance from approximately 2,000 visitors in 1982 to 13,400 in 1983.

When Oriole Park at Camden Yards came to the neighborhood in 1992, museum attendance reached an all-time annual high of 60,500. In the past couple of years, the museum has continued to expand, and annual attendance has hovered around 35,000.

“Over the years, the museum has evolved into being about something more than Babe Ruth, adding sports themes to our menu that cover the history of the Orioles, the Baltimore Colts, the University of Maryland, and the Naval Academy,” says Mr. Gibbons, the museum director. “Our mission is to preserve and interpret Maryland sports history.”

Baltimore Colts football legend Johnny Unitas donated many mementos of his football career a few months before his death in September 2002. A full room upstairs was converted into the Johnny Unitas exhibit, which will remain on display through March 15.

• • •

Baltimore at the turn of the 20th century was a tough town with a large population of longshoremen who worked on the docks at the city’s inner harbor.

Hardly the gleaming tourist sight it is today, Baltimore’s waterfront was a dark, damp and dirty place where hard men labored for long hours by day and drank by night in saloons like the one owned by the Babe’s family on Frederick Avenue.

Babe’s father, George Sr., and his mother, Kate, lived in an apartment above the Ruth family grocery store and bar. That was a few blocks east of the house of Kate’s parents on Emory Street, where she would go when it was time to give birth to young George, the couple’s first child.

Babe lived on Emory Street only briefly — until his mother, a frail woman who was often in ill health, could muster the strength to return to the Frederick Avenue apartment she kept with her husband.

It was a hardscrabble existence for the Ruths: Babe’s father worked around the clock running the saloon while his mother suffered through a series of infirmities and pregnancies that left her unable to supervise young George’s childhood. Kate gave birth to seven children, but only two survived past infancy. In constantly poor health, Kate died when Babe was 17 and just a few years shy before he realized his big-league dreams.

In his early years, Babe practically raised himself. He was a rambunctious youth who ran wild on the city’s mean streets, hanging around with hooligans and street toughs. At the family bar, he developed a taste for tobacco, beer and whiskey early on, finishing off what customers left in their glasses and ashtrays at the bar. By his own admission, he was a bad kid.

“Looking back on my boyhood,” Babe recalled in his 1948 autobiography, “The Babe Ruth Story,” written with Bob Considine, “I honestly don’t remember being aware of the difference between right and wrong.”

• • •

When his parents realized he was out of control, they enrolled him when he was 7 at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, something between an orphanage and reform school, at 3225 Wilkens Ave., barely a mile from the family home. Despite the proximity, Babe saw little of his parents over the next 12 years and was still enrolled in the school at the time of his mother’s death.

St. Mary’s was a way station for boys where strict brothers of the Catholic Congregation of St. Francis Xavier groomed and prepared them for manhood. It was just what the Babe needed. At St. Mary’s, Babe received training to be a tailor. Yet he had the good fortune to come under the disciplined guidance of Brother Gilbert and Brother Mathias, who coached the school’s baseball teams. They saw something in Babe that even he was not aware of.

About 800 boys were enrolled at St. Mary’s, enough to field 43 teams. Brother Mathias, a mountain of a man himself, impressed young George with his ability to wallop a baseball, and soon Babe became drawn to the great green game. Baseball provided Ruth with focus and peace for the first time in his life and gave him a sorely needed channel for his excess energy.

He learned the game quickly, excelling as both a pitcher and a hitter, and it wasn’t long before he developed a reputation that extended beyond the walls of St. Mary’s. Indeed, baseball would be his ticket out of St. Mary’s and into a new world.

• • •

Ruth was discovered by Jack Dunn, owner of the Baltimore Orioles professional baseball team, who had come to St. Mary’s to see him play at the urging of Brother Gilbert. In 1914, Ruth signed his first professional contract to play for the Orioles, at the time a minor-league team, for $600 a month. To Ruth, it seemed like all the money in the world. Still considered a minor at 19, Ruth was legally adopted by Dunn so he could travel with the team. His teammates began referring to him as “Jack’s Babe.”

The Orioles played in the International League, which was almost considered a third major league and steppingstone for many future major-leaguers. One thing that set the league apart was capital — or lack thereof.

Eventually, Ruth simply played himself out of the league. Excelling as a pitcher who could also hit, his talent caught the attention of major-league scouts, and after his first year with the club, his contract was sold to the major-league Boston Red Sox, with whom he remained for the next six years.

In Boston, he developed into the premier left-handed pitcher in the American League, winning 23 games in 1916 and 24 in 1917. However, he was so impressive as a hitter that in the following season that besides pitching in 20 games, he also played 59 in the outfield and 13 at first base, hitting for a .300 average with a league-leading 11 home runs.

During his time in Boston, the Red Sox reached the World Series in 1916 and 1918, and Ruth set a major-league record that would stand for 43 years by pitching 29⅔ innings over the course of two Series without surrendering a run.

Just before the 1918 Series, Ruth’s father died after his skull was cracked on a sidewalk curb during a barroom brawl with his brother-in-law in front of yet another bar he owned at the corner of Eutaw and Lombard streets, the current location of The Goddess show club. Despite the club’s non-sports theme, a famous photograph of Ruth tending bar with his father during the off-season still adorns a wall in the club.

On Jan. 3, 1920, the Red Sox sold Ruth to the New York Yankees. The Red Sox have not won a World Series since. It’s because of “the Curse of the Bambino,” they say, Ruth’s apocryphal revenge on Boston for the trade.

There may never have been such a perfect pairing as Babe Ruth and New York. In Yankee pinstripes, the Babe became the greatest player and personality the game has ever known. By day, he knocked more home runs than anyone believed possible, earning a fortune that enabled him to have a king’s reign of the city by night.

Indeed, he was crowned the “Sultan of Swat,” setting the single-season record with 54 home runs in his first year with the Yankees (1920) and eclipsing the career mark of 136 the very next year. Every home run he hit thereafter set a new record until he reached the 714 plateau that stood until Hank Aaron surpassed it 39 years later.

• • •

Baltimore never held his fame as a New York Yankee against the Babe. On the sidewalk in front of the Babe Ruth statue outside Oriole Park is the first in a line of 60 stenciled Babe Ruth Museum logo baseballs, one for each home run the Babe hit in his record year of 1927. They make a trail that can be followed from Oriole Park to the museum.

And every year since the centennial of Ruth’s birth in 1995, the museum has held its annual celebration on or near Babe’s birthday at Bambino’s Pub, in the warehouse building located a foul ball’s distance from the spot in the middle of the outfield at Camden Yards where one of the saloons owned by Ruth’s father once stood.

With an estimated annual crowd of 500 to 600, the event brings together the baseball faithful before the start of each new major-league baseball season. This year’s bash also coincides with the Oriole “Fanfest” weekend at the neighboring Baltimore Convention Center. That, says Mr. Gibbons, means that a significant part of the Orioles current team will be in town and most likely will be on hand to remember the Babe in style.

“We celebrate with beer and hot dogs because that’s what the Babe loved,” Mr. Gibbons says.

Raise a glass to honor Babe

WHAT: Babe’s Birthday Bash

WHERE: Bambino’s Pub, Warehouse Building at Camden Yards, 333 Camden St., Baltimore

WHEN: 5:30-9 p.m. tomorrow

TICKETS: $30 per person, $25 for Babe Ruth Museum members

INFORMATION: Call the Babe Ruth Museum, 410/727-1539, or see the Web site at www.baberuthmuseum.com

WHAT: The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, the house where Babe Ruth was born on Feb. 6, 1895

WHERE: 216 Emory St., Baltimore, three blocks from Oriole Park at Camden Yards

WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily April-October and until 7 p.m. on all Orioles home game days; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. November-March

TICKETS: Admission, $6 adults, $4 seniors, $3 children 5-16. Free to children under 5 and museum members

INFORMATION: 410/727-1539 or www.baberuthmuseum.com

New hall for heroes

The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum is about to expand into the Camden Station building on the corner of Camden and Eutaw streets in front of Oriole Park. A 27,000 square-foot facility, to be completed by May 2005, will feature a major display on Ruth, while the original birthplace will revert to a shrine exclusively devoted to the Babe.

Camden Station will primarily function as a display facility for all of the museum’s themes, says Michael Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.

Among the elements of the expanded museum will be the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame, honoring native sons and daughters who have excelled in sports. In addition, a comprehensive exhibit on Baltimore’s Negro League baseball heritage will identify the teams, players and journalists who were on the cutting edge of baseball and social history.

It will serve, Mr. Gibbons says, “to explain [history] to people who don’t know that baseball was segregated, and Baltimore’s part in the integration process.”

All of this grows from the story of a Baltimore street ruffian who went from a little red-brick row house on Emory Street to become a national figure. But that may be natural: Babe Ruth’s story is a quintessentially American experience.

A walking tour of Babe Ruth’s Baltimore

1. The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum: 216 Emory St. The house where Babe Ruth was born on Feb. 6, 1895, and the site of the Babe Ruth Museum for more than 30 years.

2. St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church: Corner of Poppleton and Hollins streets. The church where Babe Ruth was baptized on March 1, 1895.

3. Babe Ruth bronze statue: Eutaw Street entrance to Oriole Park

4. Camden Station building: 333 W. Camden St. Future site of the Babe Ruth Museum and Baltimore Sports Museum and Hall of Fame

5. Bambino’s Pub: 333 W. Camden St. Located just behind the site (in what is now short right-center field in Oriole Park) where Babe’s father owned and operated his Conway Street bar from 1906 to 1912.

6. The Goddess (bar): 38 S. Eutaw St. (corner of Eutaw and Lombard streets). Site of bar owned by George Herman Ruth Sr., where he was killed by his brother-in-law on Aug. 25, 1918.

7. St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys: 3225 Wilkens Ave. (now Cardinal Gibbons High School). The school where Babe Ruth was raised by the Xaverian brothers from age 7 to 19. The school has baseball fields reminiscent of the one Babe played on, as well as a mosaic-tile mural of the Babe in the school’s auditorium/cafeteria.

8. Loudon Park Cemetery: 3620 Wilkens Ave. Burial site of Babe Ruth’s father George Herman Ruth Sr. and other members of the Ruth family.

9. Mount St. Joseph’s College: 4403 Frederick Ave. Xaverian private school, a baseball rival of St. Mary’s, where Ruth played in a game attended by Baltimore Oriole owner Jack Dunn.

10. Home of Babe Ruth’s aunt, Lena Fell: 712 Portland St. This is where Babe’s sick mother lived and was taken care of by her sister until the time of her death on Aug. 11, 1912.

11. Holy Redeemer Cemetery: 4430 Bel Air Road. Unmarked burial site of Babe Ruth’s mother, section G, lot 126.

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