A Visit to the House That Built Ruth

DSC_0212When most people think of Babe Ruth, they probably think of his years as a New York Yankee.  People who know baseball history may think of the time Babe Ruth spent as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, who suffered an 86 year World Series “Curse of the Bambino” after he was traded to the Yankees at the end of the 1919 season.  But if you really, really know baseball history, when you think of Babe Ruth, you should think of the Charm City of Baltimore, Maryland.  That’s because George Herman “Babe” Ruth was born in Baltimore, learned to play baseball in Baltimore, and it’s where he played his first professional games.  And Baltimore is also where you can see the only museum dedicated to the life of baseball’s greatest: The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum.

Located at 216 Emory Street, Babe Ruth’s birthplace is located a short walk from Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The museum is great for baseball-loving adults and kids, and should be on everyone’s list of “things to do in Baltimore.” You get to see the very room where Babe Ruth lived when he was really just a “Babe.”

This year, the museum is celebrating two important anniversaries.  First, it is the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s rookie season as a Baltimore Oriole, a minor league team in the old International League.  Second, it is the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum.  To celebrate the anniversaries, the museum is planning to do some very interesting things, like a tour of some of the important places in Babe Ruth’s life.  For example, you will be able to see the very field at St. Mary’s Industrial School (now known as The Cardinal Gibbons School) where Babe Ruth learned the game of baseball.   You will be able to see St. Paul’s Church in Ellicot City, where Babe married Helen Woodfard.  The museum is also also hoping to have a special night with the Babe’s surviving daughter, 97 year old Julia Ruth Stevens. The museum is also hoping to produce a short film to mark the occasion.  If you want to learn more about these events, follow @BabeRuthMuseum on Twitter, or just keep following @MattsBats or MattsBats.com, and I will let you know about what’s coming up when I hear about them.

DSC_0220 I got a personal tour of the Babe Ruth house from the museum’s director, Mike Gibbons.  After that, I also visited the Sports Legend Museum, a museum that the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation created to commemorate Maryland sports.  The first thing I saw on my visit to the museum is the room where Babe Ruth was born and the exhibit called “Babe Batted Here,” which houses some artifacts from his early life, like a his jersey from St. Mary’s and his bat.  They also have on display Babe Ruth’s “wrong handed catcher’s mitt,” which Mike Gibbons told me is his favorite artifact in the museum’s collection.  Babe Ruth was a lefty, so he caught with his right hand and he threw with his left hand.  (Nowadays you would never have a left-handed catcher in the major leagues.  Why?  Because most players bat righty and they would be in the batter’s box in the way of the catcher’s throw and there would be lots of stolen bases!  But do you know another superstar baseball player who grew up as a left-handed catcher?  Keep reading to find out.) Babe only had a right-handed catcher’s mitt.  He had to do a move like Jim Abbott to quickly throw off the glove and switch hands with the ball.  (Jim Abbott was a one-handed major league pitcher who won an Olympic gold medal and pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1993.  If you’ve never seen him pitch, check out this video)  Gibbons explained, “He carried that glove with him in 1914 for Spring Training with the Orioles.  He took it all the way through the season and on to Boston, with the Providence Greys.  Babe Ruth gave that glove to a guy who worked at a restaurant in Providence, a guy he befriended.  That guy kept the glove and eventually moved to Baltimore and brought the glove to us years and years later.”

There is also a display about the 500 home run club. Babe Ruth was the first player to hit 500 home runs in his career.  (He hit 714 home runs in his career).  Today, there are 25 members of the 500 home run club, including Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, and Eddie Murrary.  The museum has autographed balls and jerseys and other things from the members of the 500 club.  The all-time home run leader is Barry Bonds, with 762 career homers.  The museum director, Mike Gibbons, told me that he once got into an argument with Barry Bonds because Bonds said that Babe Ruth wasn’t any good.  Can you imagine that?

The museum has some other very valuable items.  One of them is Babe Ruth’s rookie card as a Baltimore Oriole in 1914.  This card has been declared the most valuable of all sports collectables, even more than the T206 Honus Wagner card.  There are only 11 known cards in existence now, and a pristine condition card would be worth $3.2 million, versus a Honus Wagner card right out of the box, which would be worth about $2.8 million.  The “good condition” card that the museum owns is worth about $750,000.

Ruth1914

The museum also used to have on display a Yankees away jersey that said New York on the front and it had “Ruth” stitched into the back necking.  A man bought it at auction for $460,000 and loaned it to the museum for three years.  His widow took it away when he died and sold it at auction for $500,000.  Then just a year later, a collector paid $4 million for it.  The man who bought it is the actor Charlie Sheen. He was the main character in Major League.

I also learned a lot about Babe as a person.  He was known as a very nice man who gave autographs to anyone who asked, and he would go out of his way to visit sick kids in the hospital 1 hour before a game. There was a whole exhibit about his heroic appearance in a tough time in the nation, which includes his baseball contributions and his well-known kindness.

I asked Mike Gibbons what made Babe Ruth a legend. He answered, “I think that he had an extraordinary skill set.  Probably the best of any athlete who has ever lived.  His hand-eye coordination was second to none.”  When you look at pictures of Babe Ruth from the 1920s, he doesn’t look like a lot of the athletes you see today who are often slim and have big muscles.  Gibbons said, “I think if he was playing today, he would train as athletes today train.  He was a hard worker, a good baseball player, and really took it very seriously.  Babe Ruth, a lot of people think that he was this big fat guy, but he wasn’t until the very end of his career.  In his 30s, he started to put on weight  and his lifestyle got the best of him.  When he was hitting 60 home runs in 1927, he was not a big fat guy.  He took care of himself pretty well.”  Babe Ruth was special because he was both a great pitcher and a great hitter.  He was a four tool player, only lacking speed.

DSC_0222Gibbons probably knows more about the life and career of Babe Ruth than anyone else in the world.  There are two questions I asked him about Babe Ruth that I don’t think he or anyone else can really answer for sure.  But it was worth asking.  First, I asked if he thought Babe Ruth would be as amazing today facing off against pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. “Yes, absolutely.  Why not?  Its hard to compare, because that was a different time and they played differently.  You have to think he would because he’s just an extraordinary athlete, and its more than just muscle memory.  [He knew] something about the sport above and beyond the physical ability.”  I have to agree.  Babe Ruth hit some of his longest home runs off of Walter Johnson, so he should probably be able to hit off today’s hurlers.

We also discussed which player today most compares to Babe Ruth.  Gibbons thought probably Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers.  I pointed out that Cabrera is further along in his career and has not matched all of Babe Ruth’s greatness so far.  I suggested Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as five tool players who have only just gotten started.  Everyone has been talking about how Bryce Harper ran into an outfield wall last season chasing a fly ball and injured himself.  Well, Babe Ruth also once ran into a concrete outfield wall, knocked himself out, but stayed in the game and played the second game of the double-header.  And Bryce Harper is the other left-hander who played catcher before he became a major league outfielder!  Because we were in Baltimore, of course Manny Machado’s name got thrown in the discussion.

I also asked Gibbon if he thought Babe really called his home run shot in the 1932 World Series. With a 2-2 count, Babe stepped out of the box, pointed, and then stepped back into the box.  He chased a pitch low and away that he crushed into centerfield of Wrigley Field.  It is still the longest home run ever hit at Wrigley.  We talked for a while about whether Babe called the shot, or whether he was gesturing at pitcher Charlie Root or yelling back to the players in the Cubs dugout.  Gibbons thinks that Babe Ruth was obviously gesturing and pointing.  Maybe instead of pointing in the direction of the outfield, Ruth was telling Root that he shouldn’t get so excited because there were only 2 strikes in the count.  He thinks that Babe Ruth probably did not call the home run.  Root said in an interview Babe did not call the shot, but Lou Gehrig, the next batter, said he did. Gibbons sent me over to the Sports Legends Museum to watch a short movie about the famous called shot, that also has someone’s home movie from the stands where you can definitely see Babe Ruth pointing at something.  It is interesting to ask baseball fans what they think about whether Babe Ruth called his shot or not because there is no definite answer and people have a lot of theories. I agree with Gibbons that “it’s easier to believe, and a lot more fun.”

DSC_0231Even though the museum is kind of small, housed in the Ruth family’s townhouse and 3 other townhouses they bought and joined together, they have a lot of information about Babe Ruth and some of the amazing things he did.  It is good to visit for 30 minutes or an hour.  It is a great place to see before or after an Orioles game, because it is just a few blocks from Camden Yards.  For Nationals fans, the museum is just 45 minutes from Nationals Park. (By the way, do you know where Babe Ruth hit the last home run of his career?  At Griffith Stadium, home of the Washington Senators on September 29, 1934).  For baseball fans anywhere in the world, it is an amazing opportunity to see “The House that Built Ruth.”

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