As if anyone needed more reasons to save Baltimore's Memorial Stadium from the wrecking ball, the Babe Ruth Museum has come up with 60 million of them.
That's the number of people who passed through the turnstiles there during its nearly 50-year stint as the heart and soul of Baltimore's sports scene.
Besides watching memorable events such as the 1959 NFL Championship Game and the 1966 World Series, spectators were witness to the stadium's transformation from a neighborhood ballpark to "the world's largest outdoor insane asylum" and a "house of magic."
The number of visitors is disclosed in "Memorial Stadium Memories," an exhibit that just opened at the Babe Ruth Museum, 216 Emory St. Through historic photographs and memorabilia - from John Unitas' shoulder pads to Earl Weaver's tomato plant food - it traces the 33rd Street landmark's evolution as a major sports venue and helps visitors relive its greatest moments.
A companion exhibit, "Memorial Images," includes 22 black and white photos by 28-year-old Baltimore photographer James Rosenthal, who works for the Historic American Buildings Survey in Washington and spent five weekends last spring documenting the stadium for the buildings survey's collection in the Library of Congress. His large-format photos reveal it to be a building of distinctive architectural merit and gravitas.
The two exhibits are opening at a time when the stadium's fate is unclear. Maryland's Board of Public Works this month voted 2 to 1 to allocate funds to raze it to make way for senior citizens housing and a YMCA branch. But preservationists have appealed the city's issuance of a demolition permit, and work is on hold while the Abell Foundation and a Missouri-based architecture firm, HOK Sports Facilities Group, study ways to preserve at least part of it along with the new housing.
The Babe Ruth Museum has assisted the Maryland Stadium Authority in preparing for demolition, in part by selling off seats and other items. Michael Gibbons, executive director of the museum, said the board members didn't intend to take a position on demolition when they began making plans for the exhibit months ago and that the museum has still taken no official stand on its fate.
Gibbons explained that the board members expected demolition to be under way by now and wanted to mount an exhibit as a way to celebrate its memory.
"What we're trying to do is represent the happy times at Memorial Stadium," he said. "It can't be Baltimore's sports palace anymore. But it lives on in our hearts and memories and souls. We're trying to present that point of view."
The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the stadium exhibits will be on display for the rest of the year.
For the museum to celebrate the stadium while it's still standing is somewhat like a newspaper printing an obituary before the subject has died. Though it wasn't the museum's goal, it's not likely to make life any easier for those who are working to tear it down.
The exhibits make the point that the stadium was a local landmark that touched millions of lives and a building of national significance, both as a War Memorial and a setting for major league baseball and football, cultural phenomena of the 20th century.
Sports fans will be intrigued by the artifacts on display, including the ball Frank Robinson hit to win Game 4 of the 1966 World Series and the Colts' championship banner that flew at Memorial Stadium. An illustrated timeline traces highlights associated with the stadium's different tenants - the Orioles, Colts, Stallions, Ravens and the (major league soccer) Bays - and compares them to world events. One wall contains a large photo of the Memorial Wall that faces 33rd Street.
The Historic American Buildings Survey is a division of the National Park Service. It frequently documents historic buildings before they are demolished and keeps the photographs and drawings for posterity.
Before last spring, no one planned to document Memorial Stadium for HABS because it has no official landmark designation. Leaders of the Maryland Historic Trust, a state agency, declined to recommend that it be listed on the National Register of Historic Places on the grounds that it is less than 50 years old and has been altered over time - a decision with which some local preservationists strongly disagree.
Rosenthal, a graduate of Goucher College's historic preservation program, said he volunteered to document the building photographically because no one else was going to.
"If this building were to come down, it would be tragedy not to have a comprehensive documentation of it," he said. "I wanted future generations to know about it."
Rosenthal volunteered his time and equipment to photograph the building, and HABS provided supplies and agreed to add the stadium photos to its collection. Rosenthal took more than 80 photos, in color and black and white. The building still has not been documented in scale drawings.