Sports fans, get a few keepsakes at museums' yard sale


It's late afternoon at one of Baltimore's most beloved museums, and in the shafts of light streaming through the windows, three curators stand in a contemplative circle, scrutinizing the life-size, full-color treasure on the wall.

Its colors are brilliant, its condition excellent. None has seen a more sensitive portrayal. So Michael Gibbons, director of Sports Legends at Camden Yards, and his two colleagues set a price on Johnny Unitas, Quarterback of the Century: $200.

"He's gonna look great over somebody's bar," says the museum's curator, Shawn Herne.

The die-cut image of Unitas, 6 feet tall and mounted on foam core, will be among the pricier items on the block when the Babe Ruth and Sports Legends museums hold their first-ever "yard sale" today. For four hours, sports fans and those who love them can snap up keepsakes big and small that the museums have displayed.

Starting at noon, fans of local sports teams and players -- the Colts (from their 1940s silver-and-green days through the latter-day blue-and-white era), the Orioles (International League, Federal League and National and American leagues versions), baseball deity George Herman Ruth and more -- will have a chance to rummage through more Baltimore athletic history than a squadron of sports historians could keep up with.

"We just don't have room for this stuff anymore," Gibbons says during a sneak preview of the items cramming the third-floor rooms at its Camden Station location. "We didn't want to just throw it away. We think fans will appreciate the stuff."

The sale will include hundreds of items -- from an old glass corner case to life-size cutouts of Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Hammonds and Brady Anderson. None qualifies as "memorabilia," Gibbons says. All posters and pictures are copies of original photographs, and none are museum pieces. "These are graphics and murals that were used for displays and are no longer in use," he says. "We are not selling, and we would never sell, anything that would be part of our collection."

Nonetheless, in a city where many see sports nostalgia the way connoisseurs size up art, fans will get a shot at sports items they're unlikely to run across anyplace else.

How much would you lay out, say, for a 4-foot-by-6-foot image of old Oriole Park jammed with fans, a hometown runner trotting past a visiting first baseman named Ruth? How's $20 sound?

"That seems fair," says Herne with a laugh, slapping a tag for that amount on the back of the piece. "We want 'em to buy two."

Sports Legends will be fielding offers for an 8-foot-tall poster of "country boy" John Denver atop the O's dugout just weeks before his 1997 death in a plane crash ($35); for foam-mounted replicas of the plaques for each Oriole who is enshrined at Cooperstown ($10 per item, $200 for the 25-piece set); and for framed replicas of old Negro Leagues posters (asking price: $125).

"We're putting a price on everything, but -- heck, we'll be listening to offers," Gibbons says.

Smaller pictures, piled on a row of tables, are a tableau of Charm City sports history.

Black-and-whites of old Oriole Park showcase the 29th-and- Greenmount shrine on Opening Day 1914 -- and during the fire that ruined it 30 years later. You'll see many angles of Memorial Stadium under construction, the succession of scoreboards and outfield walls that made appearances over the years, and its fans flooding the neighborhood after Colt and Oriole triumphs.

Want to see Jim Palmer pitching, preening, or pigging out on flapjacks ("Pancakes for Breakfast, the Dodgers for Lunch: World Series, 1966")?

How about a bench full of mud-smeared Colts, their breath rising in the air during a chilly home game? A cloud of dust swirls above Elrod Hendricks as he tags a Reds base runner with an empty mitt in 1970 (the missed call is part of World Series lore). Each image goes for $20 or less.

Most of the bigger works anchored exhibits at one time, either at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, which was founded in 1974, or at Sports Legends at Camden Yards, which opened in the historic former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad terminal in May, partly to handle overflow from the original site.

"There are lots of ways to enjoy this stuff," says curator Herne, who got the idea for the sale from an event the Walters Art Museum held a few years ago. "I just hope people realize how big some of these things are. I can hear it now. The most popular sentence ... will be, `Man, my wife's gonna kill me.'"

As the sun sets outside, Gibbons, Herne and Edward Meerholz, the museum's financial officer, balance a vast, three-part, Ruth-themed mural against a wall.

It's no Wyeth, they agree, but somebody is bound to love the thing. Gibbons jots down: $1,000 for individual panels, $1,750 for the lot.

"One man's floor is another man's ceiling," he says.

Especially where art and sports nostalgia come together. Who can put a price tag on the moments they preserve?

"These things may not be authentic in the strict sense," Gibbons says as he moves on to yet another next poster, "but that doesn't mean they don't have value."

If you go

The Babe Ruth Museum/Sports Legends Warehouse Clearance Sale takes place on the third floor of 301 W. Camden St. from noon to 4 p.m. today. (Museum members can enter at 11 a.m.) Admission is free to the sale, but not the museum. Information: sportslegendsatcamden

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