Museum will introduce Mr. Lincoln to Mr. Ruth

February 04, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Mr. Abraham Lincoln, in life and in death, arrived on several occasions at Baltimore's old Camden Railroad Station. Once, he was on his way to Washington, moving stealthily due to Civil War security, to become president. Once, he was headed to Gettysburg, to deliver his famous address. Finally, his funeral cortege paused here.

Three months ago, on a sunny Saturday morning, Mike Gibbons stood in what is now the rubble of the old Camden Station interior, just beyond left-center-field at Oriole Park, and delivered the above history minilecture about Lincoln.

It moved the flesh a little; you looked through the ghostly geometry of decayed rooms, of random beams of dusty light, and felt as if you were standing in a tiny piece of history. Lincoln was here! Then you remembered Bill Stern. He was a sportscaster a couple of generations back who was occasionally given to lunatic flights of overstatement in the service of hyping his reports.

It was an earnest Stern who once reported what he swore had been the mortally wounded Lincoln's final, deathbed words: "Don't let baseball die."

How Stern arrived at such a heavenly scoop has never quite been determined. That Lincoln might have had other things in his head, after taking Booth's bullet in the brain, didn't seem to have occurred to Stern.

But, how do you like this, 131 years after breathing his last, Mr. Lincoln, it turns out, actually becomes part of the continuing, and sometimes inexplicable, life of the national pastime.

Sometime in the spring of 1997, inside the old railroad station structure Lincoln knew, a remarkable transformation will take hold: an extension of the existing Babe Ruth Museum, just a few blocks from the Babe's Emory Street birthplace and baseball center; plus a museum devoted mainly to baseball but to other sports as well, in what might be the most impressive attraction of its kind this side of Cooperstown, N.Y.

As Tuesday marks the 101st anniversary of Ruth's birth here, it's nice to bask in such possibilities now. Tomorrow night, at Ruth's Chris Steak House, on Market Place, there's a $200-a-plate dinner, with proceeds going to the Ruth Museum efforts. And at noon Tuesday, on Emory Street, there's a birthday bash for the Babe, open to the public, with remarks by Ruth biographer Robert Creamer.

For Mike Gibbons, who heads the Babe Ruth Museum and has coordinated the efforts to build the addition at the old Camden Yards station, it's beyond anything he's dreamed in his 13 years at the helm. And he's dreamed pretty big dreams.

"We were up in Cooperstown when Brooks Robinson went into the Hall of Fame," he was remembering the other day, "and back then we just had this little piece of property where the Babe had been born.

"I was staying in a hotel room at Cooperstown with my father, and with John Foster, who was the old chairman of the board of the museum. And the three of us are snoring away, and I suddenly bolted upright in bed. I said, 'Guys, we've just started on this Babe Ruth stuff. He deserves more. Much more. Think expansion.'

"Foster just about fell out of bed. He said, 'My goodness, we just raised $250,000. What are you thinking about?' "

Well, he wasn't thinking $10 million, but that's what the current project will cost. Nearly half is coming from the Maryland Stadium Authority. About $1 million will come from state bonds, another $1 million in a gift from the Babe Ruth baseball league and the rest from private donations, mainly corporate.

The museum will cover 28,000 square feet -- roughly four times the size of the Babe's birthplace -- enough room to honor Ruth and baseball and other sports, plus finally offer an appropriate home to the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame. And about one-third of the old railroad space will be used for a restaurant.

"This," says Gibbons, "is not just about sports. We think it's part of the rejuvenation of the city. In Cooperstown, they have the baseball Hall of Fame, the James Fenimore Cooper home and the New York State Farmers Museum. And the city shuttles everybody from one to the other.

"We'll do the same. Not just between the old railroad office and the Babe's birthplace, but over to the B&O Museum on Pratt Street. We think this is going to give West Baltimore a terrifically attractive quality."

Imagine what the Babe might have though of such a thing. In fact, never mind the Babe. Imagine what Mr. Lincoln might have thought, whether he ever wanted to save baseball or not.

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