Ruth exhibit is fitting badge to Sheriff's love for boys of summer

February 08, 1994|By Bill Tanton

There's a love story playing at the Babe Ruth Museum.

If you go there you might see baseballs and bats and photos and Al Kaline's old Gordon's Stores jersey No. 13. They're all there.

What I see is love -- a kind of love we don't see much of in sports any more.

I see a mural featuring the familiar face of Sterling "Sheriff" Fowble, who was a fixture on the amateur scene here for nearly a half-century.

He was called Sheriff because in Westminster, where he was born 79 years ago, his father was the sheriff of Carroll County.

Young Sheriff Fowble was an outstanding athlete at Western Maryland College, starring in soccer, basketball and baseball.

In 1936, his senior year, he was chosen on the All-Maryland college baseball team. The outfield consisted of Charley Keller and Bill Nicholson -- who became major-league stars -- and Fowble.

"All left-handed hitters," Sheriff would add with a little twinkle in his eye.

But the reason "Sheriff and His Boys: a Baltimore Baseball Legend" is on exhibit through the coming baseball season is Fowble's contribution to amateur ball.

For 46 years he coached kids in the 14-16 age class. His teams had 46 straight winning seasons.

For three of those years -- 1956 through 1958 -- they were undefeated. They won 84 games in a row. In baseball, a game in which even the best teams lose some, 84 straight wins is almost unbelievable.

Fowble coached a dozen boys who went on to the big leagues and one, Kaline, who's in the Hall of Fame.

All those things are documented in the exhibit at 216 Emory St. You have to look a little deeper to find the love.

At the very least you have to look at Virginia, the pretty blonde woman to whom he was married for 51 years.

Miss Virginia, as the boys called her, is there in the exhibit. There are photos of her doing what she did for Sheriff's teams for all those years. She kept the scorebook. She did the statistics. One can only imagine the zillion little details she must have handled.

The Fowbles had no children of their own but, through baseball, they had more than 600 boys. If you've ever been the parent of a teen-aged boy you can begin to appreciate what the Fowbles put into helping all those kids through adolescence.

Many of the boys turned out to be better adults because of baseball and the guidance they received from Sheriff and Miss Virginia. She makes that clear as you tour the exhibit with her.

"Here," she says, "is the picture of Sheriff's first team in 1946. High's A.C. That nice-looking boy at the end of the back row is Bill Pfeifer. He had a lot of hair then. Bill just retired as principal at Overlea High."

She goes on -- this boy or that boy from 20 or 30 or 40 years ago went on to accomplish such-and-such a good thing as a grownup.

The dozen big-leaguers -- the Swobodas, the Boswells, the Nordbrooks, etc. -- are the marquee names. The hundreds who grew up and became fine men are the real legacy of the Fowbles. Miss Virginia is so proud of that, but proudest, most of all, of her late husband, a man she loved very much.

"Sheriff knew all the umpires, all the bartenders and all the band leaders," she says proudly.

The umpires, everybody can understand. The bartenders, I can understand. I knew Sheriff. I know he liked a good time. But the band leaders?

"Oh, Sheriff and I loved to dance," Virginia says. "I'll never forget the first time he asked me out.

"I was a little 18-year-old freshman at Western Maryland College and he was a senior and a star athlete. He asked me to a fraternity dance and I almost fell off my chair from excitement.

"The first dance the band played was 'East of the Sun' and that became our song. From then on, everywhere we went Sheriff would ask the band leader to play 'East of the Sun.' "

Only now am I learning that Sheriff Fowble was a romantic, and maybe that's part of what it takes to inspire as many kids as he did.

"Sheriff loved baseball," Virginia says. "He knew the game and he was a great teacher."

Virginia knows something about teaching. She worked in the Baltimore City public school system until she retired in 1980.

She and Sheriff lived in East Baltimore, a couple blocks from Patterson Park diamond No. 1, which is now officially Fowble Field.

In 1991, Sheriff was named Amateur Coach of the Year for Maryland by the U.S. Baseball Federation.

In November of that year Fowble was honored at the annual banquet of the Carroll County Oldtimers at the volunteer firemen's hall in Taneytown. Sheriff invited me to go along and I'm so glad he did. It was one of the nicest affairs I've ever attended.

There was a lot of love in the hall that night. When Sheriff got up to speak he received a standing ovation.

He stood there wearing a happy smile and surveyed the crowd. His first words -- uttered with such sincerity -- were, "It's nice to be back in Carroll County."

A month later Sheriff Fowble died, but he died a happy man and a much loved man. The exhibit at the Babe Ruth Museum does a good job of explaining why.

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