Duckpin bowling and Oriole baseball are as Baltimore as it gets, coursing through the life of the city the way the Falls rushes into the harbor after a hard summer rain.
But how many people know that it was a couple of Baltimore Orioles who invented duckpin bowling on Howard Street? Michael Gibbons does, and if the chief of the Babe Ruth Birthplace museum has his way, everyone who finds his or her way to Camden Yards will know it.
Gibbons is a guiding force behind a $10 million baseball spectacular planned for 1998 at Camden Station, the now-empty former rail station from the Civil War era standing within spitting distance of Oriole Park. While groundbreaking is expected this winter, the opening is a year behind schedule.
To be known as the Babe Ruth Baseball Center at Camden Station, the museum will house the history of baseball in Baltimore, from the fabled O's to the Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues to a display of all the important ballparks built here.
And in the midst of all this -- along with the story of the Babe Ruth sandlot leagues and the first permanent home for the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame -- Gibbons wants to throw in a couple of duckpin bowling lanes.
"In the 1890s, Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw owned a place called the Diamond on Howard Street where duckpin bowling was invented," says Gibbons, who is spending a lot of his time nailing down corporate commitments to fund many of the exhibits.
Wilbert Robinson was an Oriole catcher at the turn of the century, playing for and managing the team in various leagues for more than 25 years. John J. McGraw, best known for managing the New York Giants, played 926 games as an Oriole before going on to manage. In 1898, the pair opened the Diamond at 519 N. Howard St. and made it the quintessential sports bar of its day, known for beer and cigars, bawdy talk and ten pins flying in alleys at the back of the joint.
"When the pins got nicked and beat up pretty good [Robinson] took them to a woodworker who put them on a lathe and smoothed them out," says Gibbons. "They resembled solid pins again, but they were smaller. Someone found a ball that made sense for the pins and that was how duckpins got started."
Legend has it that McGraw named the new style of bowling -- now famed from Dundalk to Irvington -- because the smaller pins reminded him of flying ducks once the ball smashed into them.
It is Gibbons' idea that a lane or two of hand-set duckpins be
included in a Camden Station restaurant modeled after the 1890s flavor of the Diamond. Nothing has been completed on the restaurant section of the complex, and plans are subject to the approval of the Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns the building.
Orioles' chief Peter Angelos has donated $1 million to preserve the history of the ballclub he has owned since 1993. Smaller sums have been given or pledged by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which is sponsoring the Negro Leagues exhibit, and First National Bank, which will help with the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame. NationsBank has agreed to pitch in for the display on local ballparks, and the Maryland Baseball Partnership, which owns minor league teams in the state, is keen on seeing the history of the minor leagues represented.
About $7 million in capital costs for the 28,000-square-foot attraction is already covered, said Gibbons, with the Maryland Stadium Authority contributing $4.6 million. That leaves about $2 million more to be raised for the rest of the exhibits, including a film on the history of baseball in Baltimore.
That money is being sought by Sheryl Slade, a professional fund-raiser from New York who is the agent for filmmaker Ken Burns, who made a lengthy documentary on baseball and sits on the new museum's board.
"Sheryl hasn't hit that home run for us yet with a company like Nike," says Gibbons.
XTC And until Slade does, he'll be looking for that all-powerful and generous CEO with a passion for bowling shoes and duckpins.
Pub Date: 12/05/96