Babe's daughter, Unitas had huddle to remember

Link: A week ago, the families of the Colts and Yankees legends celebrated their tie to the Ruth Museum.

1933 - 2002

John Unitas

September 13, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

They met a week ago today at the Camden Club, and it was not your standard business luncheon.

Julia Ruth Stevens, 85, the daughter of baseball legend Babe Ruth, was making her annual visit to Baltimore. The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum had recently come into possession of a treasure trove of memorabilia from a man who had reversed the path her father had followed to legend status, so it came to pass that she broke bread with John Unitas.

"They chatted for about an hour and a half, and it was a conversation only the two of them could have," said Mike Gibbons, the museum's director. "They understand celebrity, all the things you and I can't."

Ruth, who, as a New York Yankee, established home run records that dwarfed his peers, was born at 216 Emory St., a few blocks from Camden Yards. Unitas, the nonpareil passer, made his fame here, and Baltimore is where his personal collection of game balls, photographs, trophies and trinkets will stay. He handed it over to the Babe Ruth Museum in March, and before it was ever decided exactly what to do with all of those pieces, Unitas is gone.

"He had debated the perfect place for his collection," Gibbons said. "The possibilities were the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the University of Louisville and here. This is where he achieved all his football glory. His family wanted to keep the collection together and display it for fans, so we agreed that, come hell or high water, in this museum we would create a permanent facility for John's collection."

Until plans to renovate Camden Station and relocate some of the museum's collections get beyond the planning stage, Baltimore's sports attic will remain crowded. The museum's biggest fund-raiser is Oct. 22, and it will require some adjustments.

"We are reuniting the Baltimore Colts," Gibbons said. "It's supposed to be the largest gathering of Colts ever. Of course, Unitas was going to be the centerpiece. Now, I expect that the evening will somehow become a tribute."

Unitas had already figured prominently in that week. On Oct. 20, at halftime of the Ravens' game against Jacksonville, a statue of Unitas to be erected on the north side of Ravens Stadium will now be unveiled posthumously. The museum will go ahead with plans to unveil a temporary exhibit dedicated to him on Oct. 24.

Outside the curator's office, out of view of visitors, sat assorted awards, a 1950s helmet and the ball that Eddie Hinton turned into Unitas' final touchdown pass for the Colts in 1972. Behind it was a pair of black high-top cleats that will be incorporated into the tribute to Unitas the Ravens plan for their home opener Sunday.

Unitas is already prominent in the Colts display that takes up a quarter of the second floor, where a game ball from the 1958 NFL championship game is hung behind glass, along with a piece of the goal post that one Baltimorean brought home from Yankee Stadium.

"Our father was at that game," said Dania Thompson, who was visiting the museum with her sister, Donna Thomaszewicz. "How he got tickets I don't know. His season tickets were so high in the upper deck, when he took me I thought I was going to fall out of Memorial Stadium. When we were kids, we took kazoos and played the Colt fight song at games."

The sisters were still trying to make sense of the death of a man who seemed as vibrant as a 69-year-old who had taken a beating before the birth of modern sports medicine could be.

Gibbons remembered an eerie turn in the talk between Unitas and Ruth's daughter.

"Julia started talking about her father and his death, how he was laid out at Yankee Stadium and eulogized," Gibbons said. "Unitas said, `There ain't going to be no eulogy for me.' Sandy, his wife, said, `Oh yes, there will, and you won't be able to stop it, because you won't be able to do anything about it.' "

After the luncheon, Unitas walked back to the museum with John Ziemann, its community outreach coordinator and president of the Marching Ravens band. Four decades earlier, Unitas had befriended Ziemann when he was a student at Patterson High playing percussion in the Baltimore Colts' Band. As the two made their way to Emory Street, they encountered a homeless man.

"He approached John, and I thought he was going to ask him for money," Ziemann said. "He said, `You're John Unitas,' and John said, `Yes, I am.' Then the gentleman took his right hand and cleaned it on his coat. He said, `Would you shake my hand?' John said, `Sir, it would be my honor to shake your hand.' John shook his hand, patted him on the back and said, `Come on, you've got to take care of yourself.' The man said, `OK, Mr. Unitas, I'll do that.'

"As we walked away, John looked back and gave what he used to call his crooked Lithuanian grin. I told him, `You made that man's day.' He said, `If I'm put on earth and can make people happy ...' Then he winked."

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