Expanding local sports history

Museum: The transformation of Camden Station by the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum breaks ground today, with the opening scheduled for May 2005.

February 12, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Twenty-one years after he conceived the idea of a sports museum for Baltimore, Mike Gibbons will watch that dream take a giant leap forward today when ground is broken to transform historic Camden Station into an expansion of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.

The proposed $16 million project will celebrate Babe Ruth, but it also will showcase Johnny Unitas and stories about the Orioles, Colts and Ravens, along with local baseball and the Negro leagues.

While preserving the historic 1856 building, the site will portray the tradition of Maryland sports through the Maryland Terrapins, Naval Academy, the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame and other sports avenues.

"We think we have the capacity to draw huge numbers of local and out-of-town tourists," said Gibbons, who is executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. "We think our story is one that will appeal to the nation's sports fans. Shame on us if we don't make this work."

Scheduled to open in May 2005, the museum will occupy 22,000 square feet on the basement and first floors of the historic Camden Station building on Howard Street, featuring exhibits, classroom space, a research library, a store and a multi-purpose theater.

"Effectively, what we're building is a regional sports museum," Gibbons said. "Typically you'll find a college or professional football or baseball team will all have their own museums. When you're doing all sports, we may not be the first, but we're certainly going to be one of the few attempting to do this."

Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, opening in Pittsburgh in November, is among the handful of such ventures.

Contained within the expanded Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, it will cover everything from high school to collegiate to professional sports - within walking distance of the football and baseball stadiums and the site where the Penguins play hockey, said spokeswoman Meg Colafella.

"Pittsburgh has always felt this was the missing link in our attraction lineup," she said. "It's a crazy sports town. We've really felt like this was a story that needed to be told to the visitors and the people who live here."

For the next two months - through April 10 - Maryland sports fans logging onto www.baberuthmuseum.com will be able to vote on five possible names and taglines for Baltimore's new museum or suggest their own. Among the names being considered are: Sports Legends at Camden Station, Camden Station Sports Center, Museum of Sports at Camden Station, Maryland Museum of Sports at Camden Station and The Sports Experience at Camden Station.

Perched at the entrance to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, it's projected to capture 290,000 visitors a year.

Tourism officials are excited about the potential for a new sports-related attraction to draw more fans than ever and to get them to stay here longer.

"The profile of people coming to Baltimore shows they see Baltimore as a sports city," said Leslie R. Doggett, president and chief executive of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "You always want to develop something that the customer wants. This is a great asset for us. It fits perfectly in with where we see the destination going."

Gibbons arrived at the Babe Ruth Museum in 1982, at the age of 36, through the course of his job as a documentary producer, when the attraction was in dire straits. He became its executive director.

"It dawned on me almost immediately in 1983 that we needed to expand," he said. "There are chances here to make this more of a nationally recognized attraction."

He secured the rights to develop the train station in 1995. But, from about 1998 to 2002, the project stalled during a search to find a restaurant for the building. A decision was made to lease the extra floors as office space instead.

The Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns Camden Station, is financing its $8.5 million reconstruction. Already more than half of the additional $8 million needed has been raised, Gibbons said. Orioles owner Peter Angelos was the first major contributor to the project with $1 million in 1996.

Plans call for the preservation of the 20-foot ceilings in the main lobby. Visitors will buy a ticket at an old-style ticket window and board a replica train that will actually rumble along as realistic scenery goes by the windows, representing travel through Baltimore railroad and sports history.

Nearby, passengers that are actually mannequins will tell stories about what it was like to ride the trains and travel with the Orioles. Visitors will get off at various stops themed to different sports.

The Babe Ruth stop will explore the myths and legends that surround him. Another stop will feature nine innings of Orioles history, touching on the careers of Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken and others.

The existing Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, which occupies about 7,000 square feet at 216 Emory St., which is two blocks northwest of Oriole Park, will remain open. That site averages 42,000 visitors annually, and will contain more in-depth exhibits on the life and career of Babe Ruth. A ticket, which will cover both attractions, will cost $10 for adults and $6 for children.

"We'll have the opportunity to increase [fan visits] to a half-day or full-day experience, which should fuel additional hotel stays," Gibbons said. "It should be really good for Baltimore's and for Maryland's economy. I think it will really solidify all that is going on with the redevelopment on the west side."

Name that museum

To offer opinions on five proposed names or propose another name for the Camden Station sports museum, fans can log on to baberuthmuseum.com. The Babe Ruth Museum and Birthplace will announce the name in the spring.

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