Ruth Museum's exhibit is a big hit on the road

June 06, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

So far as can be ascertained, there are no traveling exhibits out on the road disseminating a message about the wonders of Thomas Edison, who gave us the light bulb, or the Wright Brothers, who lifted us off the ground, or even to George Washington, the esteemed father of our country.

Yet Babe Ruth, with ball and bat, has impacted all of sport and even transcended the game he played as no other American athlete -- to such a degree that he influenced the language. Anything "Ruthian" is regarded as colossal. A compliment in itself.

Another special distinction has now evolved, more than 50 years after his death, that offers an unprecedented sidelight.

The Babe, his record, the film documentation of a long-debated World Series "called shot" home run and some of the equipment he used, including a bat he swung during his reign of building baseball immortality, is the subject of a second annual tour to cities around the country, as directed by the Babe Ruth Museum and the sponsoring organization, in this instance Ryland Homes.

If visitors can't make the trip to the Ruth Museum and his birthplace in old Baltimore, designated a national historical landmark, then a portable Ruth display is being transported to a ballpark near where they live. be it Trenton, N.J.; Jackson, Miss.; Myrtle Beach , S.C.; Peoria, Ill.; Louisville, Ky.; Bluefield , W.Va.; or other diverse points about the landscape.

"This helps further the mission and legacy of Ruth," says Mike Gibbons, director of the museum. "The idea originated with Art Silber, who lives in Edgewater, Md., and owns the Potomac Cannons, a franchise in Prince William, Va., a member of the Carolina League.

"Peter Kirk, who also is on our board of directors, and owns three minor-league teams in Maryland, was instrumental in encouraging us to do it and T. Rowe Price paid for the exhibit that was built by the Adler Display, Co., last year."

It has been a tremendous promotion, appealing to families and talked about enthusiastically in and out of baseball. More than 280,000 fans visited the booth last year. This time around, the total may exceed 300,000.

Lloyd Warner, a retired Naval officer and railroad executive, coordinates the scheduling and other vital logistics.

"A lot of Baltimore citizens don't know what we're doing," he explains. "What this means is we are continuing to tell the story of how important Ruth was to Baltimore, where he was discovered by the Orioles, and how be became, even to this day, the king of baseball."

Kevin Williams, who had worked for Alex Brown, the investment firm, took the show on the road for the museum last year, driving the truck and helping assemble the display upon arriving on location. This year, Casey Weyand, a student at The Maryland Institute, College of Art, is in charge of the vehicle that carries the memorabilia and is responsible for setting up the exhibit and answering questions for what is a cost-free experience for the fans, paid for by the host teams at each venue.

The success of the venture is a tribute to Ruth and what he achieved on his way to becoming an American hero -- from a modest beginning at St. Mary's Industrial School to touching the hearts of a country that recognized exceptional talent and the magic of his personality.

Frequently, when the Babe's show is playing on a weekend, regardless of how far from Baltimore it might be, a volunteer at the Ruth Museum, one Joe Short, a general agent for State Farm Insurance Co., and a former minor-league player, flies at his own expense to the scene of the exposition and assists Weyand in handling the crowd and its questions.

"It's something I enjoy," Short remarks. "When we were in Schaumburg, Ill., at the new park in the Northern League, I took a huge cutout of the Babe to Wrigley Field on the day Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were playing, the Cards against the Cubs, for the fans to see."

On July 1, for three days, the Babe and Weyand will be at the "Field of Dreams," appearing at ceremonies marking the Shoeless Joe Jackson Tournament in Dyersville, Iowa. Coming up are trips to the Little League World Series and Babe Ruth World Series, the event named after him.

Last year, there were, in all, visits to 23 cities. This time around, the number will surpass that total. Imagine what the Babe would say about all this attention. He'd laugh, offer to buy everybody a hot dog and maybe, for the adults, a bottle of his favorite beer, Baltimore's National Premium.

It's a smart marketing concept, taking Ruth, in a spiritual way at least, out to meet his public. It would be difficult to imagine any other baseball player, or professional athlete, regardless of the sport, creating such momentous interest, 64 years after he played his last game.

But hasten to remember that his funeral in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral drew, inside and out of the giant edifice, a larger assemblage than the final rites for a president, one John F. Kennedy. Even he couldn't top the Babe.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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