Friday, April 29, 2011

My First Love

I remember my first grand prix.  My family loaded up our 1974 Chevrolet Impala and drove the hour and a half to Montreal.  It was June 1984, and I was about to experience the Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.  I was 13 years old.

That first race changed me.  Like most teenage boys I loved cars.  The sounds, the smells and the speeds of these machines were enough to make a young man’s heart pound out of his chest.  It was a three day adrenaline rush unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  It wasn’t like my first kiss…it was better!  I instantly loved racing and everything that went with it. 

The trip to Montreal became an annual pilgrimage for my family.  I remember the car rides to and from the track.  I remember passing through the obscure border crossing at Trout River, New York; there were a few houses nearby, a building with a couple Canadian border agents and another with the American agents, nothing else.  I remember my mother telling the same story of how her grandmother and grandfather left Quebec to start a new life in northern New York State as we passed through their old hometown.  My brother and I would interrupt her midway through the story we’d heard countless times with embellished tales of my great-grandparents’ harrowing journey out of St. Martine, Quebec to a new life thirty miles away in Malone, New York.  We even took to calling the little town “our homeland” and “the old country.”  Mom did not appreciate our humor.

I remember the subway ride from the parking lot in the outskirts of Montreal to the racetrack on the island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River.  If we were late and the cars were already on the track we’d run to the subway, dragging lawn chairs, sunscreen, rain gear and coolers.  It was torture knowing the cars were out and we weren’t there to see them.  I remember my mother complaining that her “short legs” (she was 5’ but my brother and I teased her claiming she was 4’12”) couldn’t keep up with my father’s near sprint speed.  I remember the Metro ride in jammed packed subway cars with passengers decked out in their favorite team gear.  It was all so exciting!

And, of course, I remember the races.  I’ve seen many grand prix since that first one in Montreal.  But looking back I remember the moments with my family.  As an adult, I have a better appreciation of what it took to get a family of four there with a single income.  It was too expensive to stay in a hotel, too expensive to buy lunch at the track, andtoo expensive to keep hydrated with beer, water and soda.  We managed, though.   Mom packed lunches and snacks.  We lugged coolers of beer (lots of beer) and soda.  And we drove back and forth, all three days.  Dad allowed us one souvenir.  I still have most of them.

Most importantly, I remember good times with my family.  We created memories that will last a lifetime.  And this year we’ll do it again.  It won’t be Montreal, though.  It will be Baltimore. We won’t be dragging coolers of beer and sandwiches and we won’t be jammed packed in subway cars.  But Mom and Dad will make the 10 hour drive to Baltimore and we’ll enjoy another grand prix just as that thirteen year old boy did all those years ago.  We might even find a way to work a story about St. Martine into the weekend.

Shawn Herne is the Chief Curator for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.

Friday, April 22, 2011

William Donald Schaefer

In 1981 I was working on a documentary on the life and times of George Herman Ruth for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation. When the production premiered in early 1982 at the Babe Ruth ‘House,’ I met for the first time William Donald Schaefer, Mayor of Baltimore. The event was small in terms of attendees and media attention, and I wondered why the Mayor would take time from his busy schedule to be there.

I came to learn the answer to my query over the course of the next twenty-five years, as I watched him show up for any event, big, small or unscheduled, if it might push forward or benefit some component of his domain, be it city, state, county or neighborhood. William Donald Schaefer devoted, indeed donated his full life’s energy and passion to working for the community, to Baltimore, and to Maryland.

He was not really a sports fan, but that didn’t stop him from fighting tirelessly to protect and promote our Orioles and Colts, or from developing Camden Yards, or from luring the NFL to Charm city, or from proclaiming the Babe Ruth Museum the Official Archives and Museum of the Baltimore Colts, or from advocating and providing state support for the development and creation of Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.

He did all those things, not as a diehard fan, but as a passionate supporter of any and every thing he deemed good for our city, our state and our citizens. There will never be another like him in my lifetime, and perhaps ever.

Thank you, Mr. Schaefer, for being there for all of us.

Mike Gibbons is the executive director for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.

Friday, April 15, 2011

How Many Ever Wanted to Work at a Museum?

I teach part-time at one of the local universities, adjunct professor is what they call me, and, as a way of introducing myself at the beginning of each semester, I ask the class: “How many of you grew up wanting to work at a museum?” In the twenty-six years I’ve been doing this, only one student – one out of maybe 1,000 kids - ever raised their hand.

But even though the overwhelming majority of us never contemplate the museum field during our formative years, those of us who actually embed in the industry find the work fascinating, invigorating and something we can joyously do over the course of our entire professional careers.

And here’s why.

Most everybody we know enjoys storytelling. That’s what human beings do. We tell stories, listen to stories, read books, watch movies, peruse the internet and grab every newspaper, magazine, flier and brochure we can in search of the next story. Museum workers take huge delight in their day-to-day because, bottom line, they get to tell stories…for a living!

That certainly is true in the dynamic world of sports heritage where I’ve been hanging my hat for the past three decades. I get to take an artifact, let’s say a Babe Ruth bat, and then ‘interpret’ some component of his baseball career, maybe his home run prowess, using the bat as my point of reference.

A while back I was giving a Sports Legends Museum tour to former Green Bay Packer quarterback great Bart Starr. We paused in front of a case featuring the Baltimore Colts legendary QB, Johnny Unitas. I showed Bart Unitas’ first pro contract from 1956, which stipulated a $7,000 annual salary. Bart said, “That was my first year, too.” I asked him how much he made that year, and he replied, “$6,500; John beat me again!” And so that artifact, that 1956 Unitas contract, sparked a wonderful, off the wall story that drove straight to the competitive nature of both Starr and Unitas!

Museum work, where every day holds the promise of the next good story. Be sure to tell the kids.

See you out there!

Mike Gibbons is the executive director for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.

Friday, April 8, 2011

There is Something about Buck.

     What a difference a year makes. This time last year, the Orioles were 1-5. The hope and enthusiasm that came with Opening Day quickly faded into misery and despair. The Orioles were once again bringing up the rear in the American League East. Despite new acquisitions and a relatively impressive roster, thirteen years of losing was not going to change.

     Fast forward to Tuesday, August 3, 2010. The team limped along with a 32-73 record. Dave Trembley was long gone as Orioles’ Manager and Interim Manager Juan Samuel was being sent back to coaching third base. The small crowds that still turned out to Camden Yards were either the last of the diehard fans or the out-of-towners that called the ballpark “Fenway South” or “the House that Jeter Built.” But something was different this warm August night…there was a new face in the dugout…and a new sense that maybe…just maybe…things were going to change. The boss had finally arrived.

     Baltimore loves Buck. In the short nine months since his arrival, the face of the Orioles’ organization has changed. It’s not the faces we’ve come to love that we see. It’s not the new faces coming up from the minors. It is not even those of Derek Lee or Vladimir Guerrero, the Orioles’ biggest off-season acquisitions.  It is the 54-year-old, no-nonsense Floridian that has a reputation for building playoff contending teams that has captured our attention.

     Yes, we love Buck. We love the billboards along I-395; we love his TV ads explaining how he handles a young pitcher; we love the way he leans on the dugout fence watching the game with those piercing eyes; and we especially love the way he reminds us of Earl Weaver. Yes, we love that. We even love the gigantic banner hanging from the side of the Warehouse asking us, “Are You Ready?”  We’re buying Buck t-shirts and even wearing foam antlers to the games. But why?

     The answer is simple. Baltimore loves the guy that delivers what he promises, doesn’t make excuses, and goes out and does his job. We love the guy with confidence.  That’s why we loved Johnny Unitas, Earl Weaver and Davey Johnson. Why we’re so fond of John Harbaugh and why we’re crazy for Ray Lewis.  Baltimore loves a hard worker with a little swagger.

     But this fascination with Buck is even a little more. In his book, The Colts’ Baltimore, Michael Olesker reminds us of a time when Baltimore was in the shadow of the major cities along the East Coast. “A municipal inferiority complex” he called it…”New York nightlife meant Rogers and Hammerstein on Broadway, and Baltimore’s meant strippers on the Block.”  There was New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington…and this little blue-collar Baltimore. We were, “just a town on the way to another town.” The Colts’ triumph over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship game changed that. It was the story of David over Goliath. It was the story of hardworking men that got the job done. Unitas and the Colts gave us a reason to be proud and they gave us a little swagger…at least for a time.

     The past fourteen years have not been easy for Orioles’ fans. In that time New York, Boston and Philadelphia have all won Championships…seven in fact. Buck hasn’t given us a Championship. He hasn’t even given us a winning season. But Buck has given Baltimore a reason to hold our heads up. He is one of us…just as much as if he’d grown up on the streets of Highlandtown, Glen Burnie, or south Baltimore. He’s proof that the right manager can make a difference…that the Orioles can compete in the A.L. East. He’s given us a reason to be proud and a reason to return to the Yard. Let’s hope this love affair continues!

Shawn Herne is the Chief Curator for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Joy of Opening Day

     In April 1954, four days removed from my seventh birthday, my father gave me maybe the best present I ever got, a ticket to the Baltimore Orioles’ very first home opener. That April 15 made enough of an impression on me, what with the green grass, huge crowd, and victorious final score, that I begged and pleaded for him to take me out to the old ball game each and every home opener until I went away to college. In fact, I’ve been to every Orioles’ home opener, except for the four years from 1970-73 when I was in the Navy.

     Now, 57 years later, as we anticipate with great excitement the start of another Orioles’ season, opening day remains one of the special days of the year; kind of like Christmas in springtime, and certainly the best sporting event by far.

     The reasons why baseball’s inaugural reigns supreme are too numerous and complex for this accounting, but here are three…

First - the start of the baseball season coincides with the close of winter. After months of crunching and sliding our way over brown, frozen tundra, we get to embrace the perfectly manicured, freshly cut green grass of Oriole Park.

Second - there’s the eager anticipation of the very special pre-game festivities: player introductions, the national anthem, and the umpire shouting, “Play Ball.”

Third - it’s a new beginning for our Birds and their fans. Everything is equal and even, at least for that one day; the advent of a championship season floating wonderfully in the dreams and hopes of those assembled.

     So for me, and certainly for many others, the day is made even more special because it is shared with friends and family…with my wife and my son, whose presence in that lower-reserve seat next to mine reminds me of that long ago April, 57 years past, when my father introduced me to the greatest tradition any fan could ever embrace.

Mike Gibbons is the executive director for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.