'Unharnessed energy' of Ruth grips sculptor

January 12, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At her first baseball game, Susan Luery was taken into the Orioles press box, where she saw a muscular fellow named Reggie Jackson, the retired slugger dubbed Mr. October for his legendary World Series heroics.

"Hey, Mr. October," several sports writers called to him.

"Mr. October?" said Susan Luery. "What is he, a model for calendars?"

That's how much baseball she knew before she was selected to create a monument out of that mythical man, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, the Baltimore street urchin who became the most fabulous baseball player in history.

Luery sculpted the bronze statue of the Babe set to be unveiled outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards. She spent two years working on the project, reading books on Ruth, studying hundreds of photographs, trying to get a feel for the man that transcended mere physical characteristics.

So now, she was asked yesterday, has she become a more enthusiastic baseball fan?

"Well," she replied, "I went to one game with my sister. She dragged me there. We had beer and hot dogs, and my sister explained that they weren't points, they were . . . whatever they are."

"Runs?"

"Yeah, runs."

Ceremonies are set for Feb. 6, the 100th anniversary of the Babe's birth, at the Babe Ruth Museum at 216 Emory St., which has been undergoing various renovations. In April -- hopefully, when they're playing baseball -- the statue itself will be unveiled on Russell Street outside the ballpark. In fact, events are slated throughout the year, with sponsors hoping that corporate backing, currently dampened by the dispiriting baseball strike, will improve.

The statue of the Babe is 9 feet high and rests on a 6-foot platform. In addition, a hundred 28-inch replicas will be sold at about $10,000 apiece to private collectors.

The other day, Luery had one of the replicas with her, at lunch in Little Italy. It's the Babe at 19, in an old Oriole uniform, with a bat in his hand and his gaze fixing out toward some distant horizon. It's a stirring and lovely work.

"Being a romantic sculptor, I saw his birthplace behind him, and his destiny in front of him," says Luery, who grew up in Baltimore and went to Northwestern High and the Maryland Institute of Art before studying sculpture in Italy. "I saw a cockiness, but also an innocence. But I had no idea about Ruth's character when I started.

"What I found was a spirit that embodied the American dream. He re-energized the whole spirit of America through baseball. And I'm not sure he knew he was doing it. But he had such joie de vivre, the drinking, the eating, the smoking, the staying out all night. I saw this unbridled spirit emerge."

She found a model at a class she was taking in conversational Italian. A guy named Mike Carter, an opera student who works as a bricklayer, was in the group. In Carter, she saw Ruth's physical dimensions, plus some of his face.

"I took one look," Luery said, "and thought, 'This is him.' He saw me looking and thought, 'This girl is checking me out.' We spent eight months in my studio, on Park Avenue, with Mike posing and singing opera in this wonderful, thunderous voice."

The two of them laughed a lot, which probably pleased the Babe, but they found something else happening, too, something unanticipated. They felt Ruth's spirit inhabit the place.

"We were both moved by this idea of working on a piece of history where you felt a sense of chaos and fun. We thought it had to do with Ruth kind of touching us. It was there the minute we arrived every day, a kind of unharnessed energy unlike anything I've ever worked on. It was a sense of him being in the room, which was inspiring and never left."

Luery's done other public works, including "The Passage," the statue of a mother reading to her child outside the Towson court house. When it was finished, "they wanted to inscribe my name and date of birth, with a blank after that for date of death. But I worried I'd walk past, waiting for them to fill in the other end. So I wouldn't tell them."

And she continues not to discuss her age. But it doesn't matter. What she's created has the feel of timelessness, of a boy with a bat and a fix in his eye somewhere off in the future, and a greatness no one could have imagined.

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