Ruth stuff is real crowd pleaser

Babe Ruth can still draw the fans - just ask Charlie Vascellaro

May 03, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

A FEW YEARS ago, someone wrote a book - a true story, too - about driving across the country with Albert Einstein's brain sloshing around in formaldehyde in a Tupperware container in the trunk of the car.

Charlie Vascellaro can't top that one. But throughout this baseball season, he is driving to various U.S. cities in a battered Ryder van that contains, among other things, Babe Ruth's bat and glove and the last ball he signed before his death.

And if you think being the caretaker of a cultural legend's personal possessions is a piece of cake, you're probably also the type who'd drop the Tupperware with Einstein's brain, watch it splat all over the sidewalk, and say: "Oh, well. Easy come, easy go."

Vascellaro is a bit more responsible than that with the Ruth stuff.

"The artifacts are on your mind every minute of the day," he admits. "First thing I do when I get to the hotel is say: `OK, let's get this stuff under lock and key.' "

What Vascellaro is carting around to various minor and major league ballparks is a small travel display from the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum on Emory Street.

But, of course, it's also much more than that. It's also a slice of history, a link to a grand era and the larger-than-life figure who dominated the National Pastime back then, an exhibit that allows fans who can't get to the museum to experience the man Sports Illustrated named "Baseball Player of the Century."

There's the Louisville Slugger bat the Bambino used in 1927, the year he belted 60 home runs. There's the Babe's old catcher's mitt from his days at St. Mary's Industrial School here in Baltimore.

There's a grainy home movie from the 1932 World Series, Yankees vs. Cubs, when the Babe hit his legendary "called shot" home run. There's the baseball believed to be the last he ever signed, as he lay dying of throat cancer in a New York hospital.

And there are other prized items: the last contract the New York Yankees offered him, for the grand sum of $1, when he was in the twilight of his career and the team was clearly trying to get rid of him; a pair of pants from his Yankees pinstriped uniform; a ball he signed with Lou Gehrig and Bob Shawkey.

Me, I'd need round-the-clock sedation if I were responsible for all this stuff.

But Vascellaro, 36, an engaging man in his first season as a Babe Ruth exhibitor, seems to have exactly the right temperament for the job.

When I caught up with him the other day, he'd just returned from his first road trip to Memphis - eight other trips are planned through August - where he set up the display outside Autozone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds, Triple A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was a big hit. For three days, before and after every Redbird game, fans flocked to the Babe Ruth exhibit.

The Babe's bat, Vascellaro reports, was the biggest draw. It's a huge, rutted slab of brown lumber weighing 44 ounces and measuring 36 inches, so heavy it's like swinging a pickax.

"We do let them hold it, and people go nuts at the idea of holding Babe Ruth's bat," Vascellaro says, smiling at the memory of everyone from college kids to blue-haired old ladies taking cuts with the heavy lumber.

The Babe's childhood glove, kept in a Plexiglas display case, was the second-biggest attraction. "Everyone is fascinated by how the glove doesn't look like a glove," Vascellaro said.

Oh, he's got that right. Young Babe's mitt looks more like a flattened crab cake, a thin, lumpy piece of tan leather just 8 inches wide.

I didn't get to see the home movie clip of the Babe's "called-shot" homer. But Vascellaro says "the video confirms that he did point" before the famous round-tripper in the '32 World Series at Chicago's Wrigley Field.

The Cubs, according to baseball lore, had been heckling Ruth, after he bad-mouthed them for not voting teammate Mark Koenig, recently traded from the Yankees, a full share of World Series money.(According to Robert Creamer's book "Babe," Ruth had instigated the back-and-forth by yelling to the Cub's dugout: "Hey, Mark, who are those cheapskates you're with?")

Responding to the heckling, the Babe is seen in the home movie pointing with a quick motion of his right hand to the outfield stands, where he planned to deposit the next pitch. Sure enough, pitcher Charlie Root's next offering went soaring deep into the sky and seconds later the Babe was trotting around the base paths.

All of this memorabilia is now in Charlie Vascellaro's care. And if you love baseball the way he does - he's the former PR director for Maryland Baseball, which included the Bowie Baysox, Frederick Keys and Delmarva Shorebirds - and touring different parts of the country, you can understand why Vascellaro feels he may have the best summer job around.

On this first road trip to Memphis, he managed to squeeze in a visit to Graceland, the legendary home of Elvis Presley, and the Lorraine Motel - now the National Civil Rights Museum - where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was cut down by an assassin's bullet.

He also sampled an ungodly dish known as pork nachos: lumps of stringy pulled pork, smothered in cheese sauce and topped with jalapeno peppers, on a bed of nacho chips.

"It looks weird," said the old guy in Memphis who touted the concoction, "but it tastes good." Vascellaro agreed.

But mainly, this summer is about Babe Ruth for Charlie Vascellaro. His next road trip will be later this month, when he spends three days talking up the Babe in Des Moines, Iowa, before home games of the Iowa Cubs.

"Babe Ruth still draws," Vascellaro says, shaking his head in wonder. "It's like he's still barn-storming in the 21st century."

And who better than Vascellaro to flack for him?

A guy who won't drop the Tupperware, so to speak.

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