Legends museum needs rally of support

June 02, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Not unlike many other cities, people here are concerned about perception, so I'm often asked, "What did people tell you about Baltimore before you moved here?"

I typically offer some variation of the same theme: "Everyone told me that no one loves their sports like Baltimore, especially some of the old teams."

I know this firsthand now, and there's little doubt this city appreciates its sports history. What I'm beginning to wonder, though, is whether the people here are willing to support it.

One of the first stops I made when I moved to town was the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, an impressive 22,000-foot historical tour of the Colts, the Orioles, duckpin bowling and everything you'd want to know about the Babe's swing, Johnny U's crewcut or Cal's 2,131st game.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the museum marked its one-year anniversary. I sincerely hope there are many more anniversaries down the road.

"We did not hit the numbers that we wanted in our first year," said Mike Gibbons, director of Sports Legends and the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. "I think that we knew almost immediately that it was going to be slower than we thought."

The museum hopes for 100,000 visitors a year. Exact figures weren't immediately available, but Gibbons said the museum has about half the traffic that administrators had expected in its first year.

It doesn't really add up. Living rooms from Dundalk to Reisterstown are decorated like mini-museums, shrines to the city's sporting heroes. So why won't fans come downtown to revisit some childhood memories, to travel back to Memorial Stadium, to remember those championships and to hear the voice of Chuck Thompson one more time?

The problems sink through several layers, all wrinkles that Gibbons is confident the museum has ironed out for Year 2. Some obstacles are inherent: The museum gets twice the foot traffic when the Orioles are at home. Others should have less effect as time passes, like the hotel construction in front of the museum and the unfortunate fact that officials were a bit behind the ball in coordinating with tour buses.

But I know one thing that should definitely change: city support.

Last week, the city and county each pledged $200,000 to a pair of local art museums, the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The money allows both to waive their admission fees and is expected to substantially increase visitation figures.

Funding and management isn't the same for a sports museum and an art museum, but that doesn't mean that government support shouldn't be similar. The Sports Legends costs $10 for adults and relies on that fee as a major source of funding.

"The city is in pretty good shape right now, and we did have a surplus," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "So when you have money, you certainly get a lot more requests than when you don't have money. We knew this was going to be of interest. ... We've told other organizations that have expressed interest in this idea to come see us."

The city announced this week "Free Fall Baltimore," a program to distribute $750,000 worth of grants to nonprofit organizations and cultural institutions. But the grants are capped at $30,000 each, which means the best-case scenario would give the Sports Legends a fraction of what was delivered to the art museums.

I'm never going to argue against funding for the arts, but last I checked, Matisse didn't do much work in Charm City. Honoring and showcasing work, feats and achievements that actually took place in Maryland - the '83 Orioles, the Ravens' Super Bowl season, the Terps' national-championship years, for example - are all worthy civic investments.

Sports Legends officials learned a lot in their first year of operation, and they have big plans for the future: more groups, more special programs, more exhibits. Former Colt Raymond Berry is expected later this year. And there might be a reunion of the 1966 Orioles soon, too.

"Instead of sprinting out of the gate, we started as a fast walk," Gibbons said. "But we're moving now, and we're excited about what's ahead."

A major mark of a major city is how it honors its past, its culture and its people. As the southwest corner of downtown continues to develop over the next couple of years, the Sports Legends Museum, I'm certain, will be able to attract tourists.

But locals should also take time to appreciate the museum as a community resource. And the city should do its part to cultivate this resource into the community gem that it should be.

The past need not be relegated to barstools, message boards or bedtime stories to your children and grandchildren. This city's proud sporting history is a living and breathing entity, brought to life by some dedicated people. It deserves more support.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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