Gifts to museum link generations of baseball and family histories

February 03, 1992|By David Michael Ettlin

In most families, the pile of old booklets found in a dresser drawer probably would have landed in the trash.

But Helen Hall, sorting through the drawer a few months ago, thought someone might be interested in the little collection tucked away by her late husband for more than 60 years -- mostly Baltimore Orioles programs and scorecards from the 1890s.

Mrs. Hall found she was quite right when she delivered the stash last week to curator Greg Schwalenberg at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Orioles Museum on Emory Street. "I thought he was going to have a stroke, he was so excited," she said.

"This is the finest cache of material from 19th century Baltimore baseball that I have ever seen or heard of," said James H. Bready, a museum board member and baseball historian. The programs and completed scorecards document not only the game play but Orioles history from the National League championships of the 1890s to the city's 1903 minor league descent.

The collection is among several recent gifts to the Babe Ruth museum that will be on special display Thursday -- the 97th birthday of the larger-than-life slugger.

Other items are a baseball Ruth signed on his last visit to Baltimore -- five weeks before his death in 1948 -- and a shotgun damaged in a 1930s hunting mishap in which he escaped injury.

The biggest gift will be presented at a Memorial Stadium news conference today -- $250,000 from the Orioles toward the museum's expansion into a neighboring building on Portland Street.

When the museum opened in 1974 in four adjacent rowhouses, including Ruth's restored birthplace at 216 Emory St., it largely focused on Ruth's life and career. It closed for renovation in 1983, then reopened as a combined Babe Ruth and Baltimore Orioles museum. The museum foundation is trying to raise $3.3 million for a dramatic remodeling of the Portland Street building, which was donated by the city.

The expansion will allow greater display of the public's donations of memorabilia that have outgrown available space. Many items represent a generational link between baseball and family histories.

Such an example is the Ruth-autographed baseball that will be on exhibit Thursday. The baseball is on permanent loan from Sig Seidenman. His father, the late Milton Seidenman, was in a delegation for an interfaith charity baseball game that greeted the critically ill star during a downpour at the airport July 14, 1948.

The ball is still in its original box -- one of two the elder Mr. Seidenman bought on the way to the airport with his son -- and Ruth's large blue signature is slightly smeared from the raindrops.

"I recall being shocked at his emaciated condition as I stood next to him while he signed the baseballs," the son wrote of the meeting. "We shook hands and his fingers in mine felt like four thin sticks."

"My memory of that day is vivid: of the rain, and the legendary figure I had met, and of the other legendary figure, my Dad, who was thoughtful enough to make it special for me." Mr. Seidenman said it is difficult to separate baseball and family nostalgia.

"My son is now a partner in my season tickets," he said. "It started out when my mother and father bought them in 1954."

The double-barreled shotgun, donated by Roger Cramer of Kill Devil Hills, N.C., belonged to his late grandfather, outfielder Roger "Doc" Cramer, who batted .296 through 20 major league seasons between 1929 and 1948.

Mr. Cramer, 40, said his grandfather often told the story of the duck-hunting mishap in New Jersey around 1934. The shotgun apparently was stuck into mud and jammed when Ruth fired the weapon. The right barrel blew apart, and the compression ripped a hole through the left side of the wooden stock. "If he was right-handed, it would have blown his face off," Mr. Cramer said. "He shot left-handed, and it all went away from him."

Family history also figures in the story of the old programs and scorecards. They belonged to Joseph Popplein, the great-uncle of Mrs. Hall's husband. An avid baseball fan, Mr. Popplein dutifully kept track of each game with notations on his scorecard.

Asked how the items avoided the fate of countless thousands of other scorecards over the years, Mrs. Hall noted that Mr. Popplein and his brother, Nicholas, shared a house -- and a butler -- at 1605 Eutaw Place. "They were old bachelors who never had a woman to run their lives," she said.

The collection, she said, had been in the drawer for "the last 60-odd years," since her marriage to J. M. Dryden Hall, a Baltimore Gas and Electric right-of-way specialist.

While Mr. Hall had died eight years ago, Mrs. Hall pulled the collection from his drawer only a few months ago.

"I thought, 'This is ridiculous. They're not doing anybody any good,' " she said.

Mr. Bready estimated that the items could be worth several hundred dollars each in the hot baseball-collectibles market.

But monetary value clearly is not why the scorecards and programs had been saved for so many years. It was because her husband -- and their children and grandchildren -- are "baseball nuts," Mrs. Hall said.

"I kept a few, and I'm going to make sure the grandchildren each get one of them," she said. "I thought they could have a little souvenir, and the rest of them can be shared down at the museum."

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