- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Yes, at long last, Washington has baseball. Up the road a piece, though, the white-hot Orioles are tearing up the pea patch, and Camden Yards itself is on the cusp of a new chapter in the annals of sport. That would be Sports Legends at Camden Yards, Maryland’s tribute to its sporting history. It opens Saturday at historic Camden Station — and the people putting it together couldn’t be more tickled.

“It’s a great feeling. It’s fun to be able to share this stuff,” says Greg Schwalenberg, curator of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum a few city blocks from the station. He is in charge of collecting and cataloging artifacts and photographs for Sports Legends at Camden Yards.

The new showplace is a 22,000-square-foot space that celebrates all the state’s sports — from the Orioles, Colts, Ravens and Blast to the Negro League Black Sox and Elite Giants to collegiate sports and even lacrosse, jousting and duckpin bowling.

It’s no accident that the Babe Ruth museum is so intimately involved in its planning. Sports Legends has its genesis in the thousands of sports artifacts the Babe Ruth shrine has jammed into its basement archive since it became the Orioles’ official museum in 1983 and, two years later, the official archive for memorabilia of the departed Baltimore Colts football team.

“We’ve been collecting these artifacts and memorabilia for so long because we knew this was going to happen,” Mr. Schwalenberg says.

• • •

Indeed, it has been in the works since the early ‘90s. The Bambino’s tiny row house at 216 Emory St. opened as a museum in 1974 but began seriously to split its seams in 1992, when Oriole Park opened at Camden Yards and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor became a destination — and 60,000 visitors a year began to troop through the Ruth home’s five or six rooms.

A year later, officials of the Babe Ruth home submitted a proposal for a baseball museum at the B&O;’s old Camden Station, a part of the Oriole Park “footprint.” Since then, donations of artifacts have poured in and the concept has expanded dramatically.

“It only took 12 years for us to move in, but the delay was actually a blessing because it enabled us to expand our theme into a state sports museum,” says Michael Gibbons, executive director of both museums.

Make no mistake, though: Sports Legends is not the Babe Ruth home.

“A lot of people are confused; they believe we’re moving the birthplace,” Mr. Gibbons says. “What we’re doing is establishing a second museum under the auspices of the Babe Ruth Birthplace.”

• • •

The Sports Legends museum occupies the first two floors of Camden Station, built in 1855 and abandoned by the B&O; in 1971. The second and third floors remain vacant and are owned and operated by the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Once the tallest and busiest building in the city, the station served as the first major passenger terminal for the country’s first commercial railroad. Its facade has been restored to replicate it as it was in 1867. The renovation cost $16 million, about 65 percent of it provided by state funds.

Museum visitors buy admission tickets at an old-time train-station ticket counter, and the first hallway leading to the exhibits resembles a train car.

On the first floor, “Babe Ruth: American Icon” explores Ruth’s cultural legacy. It features displays on his early professional career as a minor leaguer in Baltimore and his major-league debut in Boston — including a section on the infamous 86-year “Curse of the Bambino,” the retribution legendarily exacted on the Boston Red Sox for trading Ruth to New York in 1920 (and finally exorcised by the Red Sox’s World Series win last year).

The Ruth exhibit also includes displays on the Babe’s appearances and portrayals in movies.

Here, too, is one of Mr. Schwalenberg’s favorite mementos: a silk kimono given to Babe Ruth by the Imperial Hotel of Japan, which he wore during a major-league tour of the country in 1934. Ruth’s wife, Claire, donated the kimono as part of the Babe Ruth museum’s original collection.

“We’ve had this piece right from the beginning, but it’s never been on display,” Mr. Schwalenberg says.

“Nine Innings of Orioles Baseball,” also on the first floor, is a journey through the team’s history, beginning with its inception in 1954 as the transplanted St. Louis Browns. A high point is the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when the Orioles made it to four World Series, including three straight from 1969 to 1971.

Cal Ripken Jr. is well-represented: Four plastic banners emblazoned with the numbers 2, 1, 3 and 1 hang on a wall; they are the streamers unrolled down the Camden Yards Warehouse wall that September night in 1995 when Iron Man Ripken carved his name into baseball’s record book for most consecutive games played — 2,131. The history concludes with a contemporary display case and the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame.

Some baseball historians know that the original Orioles played in Baltimore during the 1890s as a National League franchise — one that in 1903 (as an American League team) moved to New York, where they later became the New York Yankees.

Here in the display is a reminder of those days: the uniform of the Orioles’ 1890s mascot, the 4-year-old Harry Howe, one of the lucky youngsters the team would take on for good luck.

It’s another of Mr. Schwalenberg’s favorites, and it’s been in storage for more than 12 years.

• • •

Then come and go the Baltimore Colts. They left town in an infamous midnight exodus in 1984 and, though the Baltimore Ravens replaced them in 1996, the city’s love affair with its first fabled franchise never died. The romance is rekindled in first-floor exhibits focusing on the Colts and particularly one favorite — Johnny Unitas, “Johnny U,” who died in 2002.

“Johnny U said he would not bring us his stuff if it was just going to sit in the archive, and I promised him it would be displayed in its own gallery at Camden Station. He donated the collection five days before he died,” Mr. Gibbons says.

A major link between Baltimore’s two football franchises exists in the form of its marching band, which stayed alive during the 12-year lull between teams. The band has remained in operation for 58 years.

“I’m very proud of that,” says John Zeimen, president of the Ravens/Colts marching band and deputy director of internal affairs at the Babe Ruth and Sports Legends museums.

An exhibit on the marching band connects the Colts and Ravens exhibits on the first floor. Not only is it the largest and most expensive case in the museum, it was among the most popular exhibit ideas presented to focus groups in informal surveys, according to exhibit designer Peter Sollogub of Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole Inc., which also worked on the National Basketball Hall of Fame and the Dallas Cowboys Museum.

“We’ve done cheerleaders before, but never a band,” Mr. Sollogub says. “People just lit up at the idea of displaying the band in march and having footsteps light up on the floor that they could follow.

“It’s the only window on the museum that we’ve left open to the public from the outside, that can be viewed without actually entering the museum — with speakers outside playing the band’s music.”

• • •

After the original Orioles left Baltimore in 1903, major-league baseball would not return for half a century. However, in those years, the Baltimore Black Sox and Elite Giants were mainstays of the professional Negro Leagues from 1916 through 1950.

The era of segregated baseball and segregated society in Baltimore is explained in the Negro Leagues exhibit, located on the building’s lower level, which uses a replica bus — one modeled after that purchased by the Elite Giants in 1947 — to portray the life of Negro League ballplayers, who spent more hours traveling on buses than they did playing on ball fields. The bus windows are display cases containing photographs, artifacts and copies of newspaper stories.

On the opposite wall is a re-creation of a hotel room like the one Jackie Robinson and Baltimore-Washington sports writer Sam Lacy would have stayed in when they were roommates in 1947, the year Robinson became Major League Baseball’s first black player.

Baltimore’s Negro Leagues teams included such players as pitcher Joe Black, infielder Jim Gilliam, pitcher Leon Day — a Baltimore native who was later inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame — and catcher Roy Campanella, who was among the pioneering group of black players signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

Sports Legends Project Manager Dean Krimmel developed the exhibit.

“I think it’s exciting to introduce a lot of people to a story that they may have heard a little about, but have not come face to face with,” Mr. Krimmel says.

Artifacts from the Negro Leagues are hard to come by, and the displays contain a sparse amount of actual artifacts; the primary source for the museum’s collection is a private collector.

“This is the opening exhibition. The mission of this place got bigger with the opening of this place,” Mr. Krimmel says, referring to his desire to see this exhibit grow.

“We’ll try and address whatever criticisms we receive about what’s not included as they come along. But what we have is a major venue where we can expand and pull people from all walks of sports life into this place,” he says.

Figuratively or symbolically, the basement placement may seem like a slight, but this level of the museum has been restored beautifully and even charmingly.

• • •

No account of Maryland sports history would be complete without mentioning the state’s rich horse-racing tradition, including more than 130 years of the running of the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico racetrack.

Included in this exhibit, also on the lower level, is a pair of binoculars that track announcer Dick Woolley peered through as he called the results of some of the track’s most memorable races.

Mr. Woolley recalls particularly the races between Affirmed and Alydar in 1978, which he calls “the most thrilling series of races in the entire history of the Triple Crown.”

“That Preakness was the most dramatic, thrilling and heart-pounding moment of my 44 years of race calling,” he says.

The tension came not simply from the race itself, he says, but because he was working with Jim McKay and Howard Cosell for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

“I was shaking with adrenaline for about 10 seconds after the race was over.”

Recognized with its own exhibit space on the museum’s lower level is the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame, which until now had no physical edifice. It celebrates such sports as duckpin bowling, which was created in Baltimore, and athletes such as Toots Barger, who in 1961 became the second woman and the first female bowler to be inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame.

The basement level also includes exhibits on Maryland’s minor-league and amateur teams as well as stadiums and fans, many of them interactive. Fans can feel what it’s like to stand in the crease of a lacrosse goal or in the middle of a football huddle or to march with the band.

Sports Legends at Camden Yards also contains the John F. Steadman Research Library, named for the famed Baltimore Sun sportswriter and available to the public only by appointment.

• • •

It’s a whole lot of history to keep under one roof and spread across 22,000 square feet.

“The big concern is: How do we keep from confusing the fan?” Mr. Gibbons says.

“We think we have come up with a good solution by reminding the visitors that our theme is local sports on a national stage and the theater of sports through the ages, giving those themes a link.”

One thing in the museum’s favor is the breadth of its collection.

“This museum could not be successful despite its location if it did not contain the real deal,” says Mr. Gibbons, ticking off the cache: Johnny U’s shoes, Babe Ruth’s trophies and Norman Rockwell’s painting of Brooks Robinson, the only one of Rockwell’s paintings to feature an actual major leaguer.

“We started off in 1982 with 100 pieces, good stuff but not a lot: artifacts, photos, paintings. Over the years, the collection has grown to 10,000 items plus loaned materials,” Mr. Gibbons says.

“Visitors don’t care if it’s loaned. We’re interpreting history.”

WHAT: Grand opening of Sports Legends at Camden Station

WHERE: 301 Camden St., Baltimore

WHEN: May 14. Ribbon-cutting ceremony 11:45 a.m.; doors open at noon.

TICKETS: Adults $10, seniors $8, Children 3 to 12 $6.50

INFORMATION: 410/727-1539, or see www.sportslegendsatcamden yards.com and www.baberuthmu seum.com

OTHER EVENTS: The Westside Preakness Parade, paying tribute this year to sports legends in conjunction with the museum opening, steps off at 11 a.m. May 14 from Eutaw Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It will wind up at Camden Station in time for the museum opening.

Station in league of its own

Baltimore’s historic Camden Station, the first major passenger terminal for the country’s first commercial railroad and a jewel of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad system, was once the tallest and busiest building in the city.

Today, 149 years after its opening in 1856, it has again become unique as the site of Maryland’s only statewide sports museum.

The stately Italianate structure, with its soaring towers and regal cornices, was completed in 1867. For many years, it helped define the Baltimore skyline — and it is indelibly linked to the city’s history.

The first drops of Civil War blood were shed there, on Pratt Street in front of Camden Station’s northern portal. As Union troops marched from the President Street station to Camden Station on April 19, 1861, Confederate sympathizers attacked them in what amounted to the first battle of the war.

Two and a half years later, Abraham Lincoln passed through the building on his way to deliver his address at Gettysburg.

Toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a series of additions were made to the station. The building was stabilized between the world wars, but in 1952, the remains of its central tower were taken down, and in 1971, the B&O Railroad moved its operations from the station.

That ended its use — the longest by any big-city train terminal in the country.

Eventually the Maryland Stadium Authority obtained the building and gave it a $2.2 million exterior face-lift, coinciding with the opening of Oriole Park in 1992. The MARC train ticket office was the last business to occupy Camden Station; it shut down operations in 1988.

The building has sat dormant for 15 years, its facade masking its decrepit truth. While passers-by on their way to the retro-designed Oriole Park at Camden Yards would marvel at the station’s soaring exterior splendor, inside, the building had fallen into a state of disrepair.

Nolan Rogers, a tour director and director of special projects for the Maryland Stadium Authority, was the attorney for the authority at the time it acquired the station.

“When we took it over in 1989 or 1990, it was in deplorable condition. The roof had holes in it. The station had hardly any resemblance to what its original look was. There was no tower on it; we had to put the new tower on it.

“But the way it looks today is the way it looked in 1867. It’s one of the most historic buildings we have here in the state and America. That station played a vital part in the history of our nation.”

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