Friday, May 27, 2011

Saluting Two Old Birds, Harry and Earl

One afternoon several years ago I received a telephone call from a woman who wanted to talk baseball with me.  I could tell from her voice that she was elderly, in her late seventies or early eighties.  She asked me if the museum had anything on exhibit from the International League Orioles.  I indicated we did.  “The 1944 team?” she asked.  “Yes” I replied.  She wondered if I knew about Harry Imhoff and did I know his connection to the 1944 Baltimore Orioles?   I did not.

Baltimore-born Harry Imhoff isn’t the first name to come to mind when talking about the ’44 Orioles.  The pennant-winning team was led by notable veteran and fan favorite Tommy Thomas. Other standouts included Howie “the Howitzer” Moss, who led the International League with 27 homers in 1944, catcher Sherm Lollar, left-fielder Stan Benjamin, third baseman Frank Skaff and pitcher Charles “Red” Embrees. Imhoff, newly signed by the Orioles in the spring of 1944, was to be an important part of the team’s future.  The Washington Post wrote, “Harry Imhoff, just out of high school, is another promising receiver with a whale of an arm.”

But Harry appeared in only one game for the ’44 Birds, and went 0-2 at the plate.  And although his story sounds like that of “Moonlight” Graham, the real-life baseball player popularized in the movie Field of Dreams , Imhoff chose to suspend his playing career in order to serve his country.  Harry, like so many young people of his generation, put his future on hold and joined the Marine Corps.  But, Harry’s baseball dreams would never come to be. In April of 1945 he was killed exiting a landing craft during the Okinawa Campaign.  He was just 18 years old.

This was the story I heard from the gentle voice on my telephone.  The woman wanted me to know about Harry.  She wanted me to know about Earl Springer, too. Earl was an Orioles pitcher from 1940-41, and was killed in Nennig, Germany on January 25, 1945 while serving with the American Eighth Armored Division.  Unlike Harry, Earl enjoyed a couple of years of professional ball, going 6-11 with a 4.39 ERA between Baltimore and Hagerstown.  She wanted me to know because she felt Orioles’ fans should know the sacrifices these men made. 

She wanted me to know because she was Harry’s childhood sweetheart.

Over 340 major leaguers served in the Armed Forces during World War II and as many as 3,000 minor leaguers joined or were drafted.  Nearly 20 former Orioles served, including Harry and Earl.  This weekend people will watch parades, enjoy cookouts, and probably take in a game of baseball.  I’ll do the same.  But I’m going to make time to salute our veterans, especially Harry and Earl.

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

Friday, May 20, 2011

“Killer” Harmon Killebrew, 1936-2011

Hall of Fame baseball great Harmon Killebrew passed away this week. His quiet, off-field demeanor was in direct contradiction to a menacing, aggressive plate presence that earned him the nickname “Killer.” Killebrew spent 22 seasons in the American League, all but the final year slugging and slashing away at the opposition under the auspices of the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins. And during that time he did more than a little damage to my home town Baltimore Orioles.

In a 1991 interview, the “Killer” noted how much he loved to play at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. He said it was one of his favorite parks to hit in, despite “those darned white houses behind center field, which made seeing the ball difficult for day games, and some of the worst lighting in the league at night.” But hit he did against the orange and black, including the longest home run in the history of Memorial Stadium, a 471 foot blast over the hedge in left center off righty Milt Pappas on May 24, 1964!

But despite his prowess as one of the game’s all-time sluggers (573 homers), and a locker full of VIP credentials and awards, Harmon Killebrew will most likely be better remembered by those who knew him as a regular kind of guy, and as a real gentleman. He came to the Babe Ruth Birthplace twice, once in the early eighties and again to help commemorate the 100th birthday of Ruth in 1995. On both occasions he seemed more intent on doing what he could to make our jobs as hosts easier than to be acknowledged for his superstar status.

One of the last times I saw “Killer” was at a Babe Ruth symposium at Hofstra University in the spring of 1995. The University had pulled out all the stops to put on a first rate event, and that included inviting in a full roster of Hall-of-Famers, including Killebrew, to talk about Ruth’s impact on the game.

The museum was represented by several staff and board members, and one morning, as we prepared to drive from the hotel to the symposium, Harmon knocked on the driver’s window and said, “Mind if I grab a ride?” Over the next few minutes we talked a little weather, a little politics, and maybe a little Babe Ruth. Just normal, everyday conversation, but with Harmon “Killer” Killebrew, Hall of Fame class of 1984…and one of the true gentlemen of the game.

See you out there,
Mike Gibbons

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

Friday, May 13, 2011

Our Native Game

As the MIAA High School lacrosse playoffs are about to begin and Baltimore is once again hosting the NCAA Lacrosse Championships at M&T Bank Stadium I thought it appropriate to dig up an old piece I wrote about the origins of the game. 
When I first moved to Maryland in 1996 I was surprised to discover the popularity of lacrosse in the Old Line State. I was even more shocked to learn that lacrosse was the state’s official team sport. For me, lacrosse was an Indian game. Growing up on an Indian reservation along the St. Lawrence River in northern New York and southern Quebec, lacrosse was everywhere. It was the game given to us by the Creator and played by my ancestors. It was played by friends and relatives on teams called the Akwesasne Thunder and the Warriors. It was our game and I’d never seen it played by anyone who didn’t look like me.

The exact origins of North America’s oldest game are not known. Each Indian tribe has a different story told in the oral tradition about how the game came into being. My people, the Mohawks of the Iroquois Confederacy, believed that lacrosse was given to us by the Creator through the prophet Handsome Lake. We called it Tewaarathon. It was believed the game was played for the Creator’s enjoyment. It was a means of giving thanks and showing respect.

The traditional game we played varied significantly from what lacrosse fans see today.  Field and team sizes were negotiated prior to competition by tribal elders. The rules required that both teams were equal in number.  One or two hundred playing players were not unusual. Field dimensions were also negotiated in advance. Some games involved players running for miles.  No player could touch the ball. Competition continued until three goals were scored by a single team.  Games could last for days.

The men playing the game were the tribe’s best. Players trained for weeks in preparation of a single game, building strength, controlling their diet, and imposing strict discipline to mind and body.  In the heat of battle, competition was fierce and bloody, bones were broken, lives were occasionally lost. All believed that the Creator was watching. No one wanted to be weak.  No one wanted to be disrespectful. The game was spiritual as much as it was athletic. 

This was the game the French missionaries witnessed when they first made contact with the Iroquois and Algonquin tribes in present day Canada. The earliest report came from Jean De Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary who lived among the Hurons in the region around Montreal. Other missionaries expressed outrage over the spiritual significance of the game and frustration for their failure to stop it. 

But, despite the church’s opposition to the game, other non-Native people took notice. In 1834 a lacrosse exhibition was staged at Ville St. Pierre near Montreal by two seven-man teams made up of Mohawks from the Akwesasne and Kahnaw├íke communities. The spectators enjoyed the game. For the next several years teams of non-native players challenged Mohawk teams in competition. 

Then, in 1856, the evolution of lacrosse into its modern form began with the creation of the Montreal Lacrosse Club. This organization, along with others that soon followed, helped define the modern game with field dimensions, rules of play and equipment design. This game, unlike the Indian version, was based on passing and had no spiritual significance.  And, like baseball to the south, it was a club sport. By 1867, the year Canada was born, as many as eighty lacrosse clubs existed.

Exhibition games in the United States, Great Britain and Australia led to the formation of lacrosse clubs around the world. In 1877, Manhattan College and New York University staged the first intercollegiate game, which spurred other schools to add the sport to their athletic programs. The following year, it is believed, a track team from Baltimore witnessed a Fourth of July competition in Boston and brought it back to the Maryland.

But the spirit of goodwill generated by these exhibitions did not last. The first lacrosse rules book from 1867 stated “No Indian must play in a match for a white club, unless previously agreed upon.” In 1880, the National Lacrosse Association of Canada called for games to be played by amateurs and banned competition with anyone it considered “professional”. Since Indians charged spectators to cover their travel expenses, the latter were excluded from competition. One hundred years would pass before an Indian team participated in international competition. Racial segregation prevented most Indians from playing the game they introduced until 1990 when the Iroquois National Team played in the Lacrosse World Cup held in Australia. The team lost but at least they were able to compete.   

By the mid-twentieth century Indian lacrosse was evolving, too. Indian teams moved from the open outdoor fields to the indoor hockey arenas throughout Canada. It was the beginning of box lacrosse. Equipment was also changing. The lacrosse stick factories at Akwesasne (New York) produced the sticks used throughout the sport. Thomas Vennum, Jr, author of American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War, estimates that, at its height of production, Akwesasne produced 97% of the world’s wooden lacrosse sticks. 

Indian lacrosse began as the Creator’s game. But as Christianity spread and the role of traditional beliefs diminished, lacrosse’s spiritual significance deteriorated. Today, with increased college enrollments, American Indian lacrosse players have begun to make their way on to college lacrosse teams. It is a different game from the one played by our ancestors. The rules have changed, the equipment has changed and the significance has changed, but at least it is still our game.

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

Friday, May 6, 2011

Babe Ruth Was More Than a Yankee!

One of the great challenges our institution faces is luring Baltimoreans to the Babe Ruth Birthplace. Ask them why they haven’t visited 216 Emory Street, “just a long fly ball from Camden Yards,” and they respond simply: Babe Ruth was a Yankee! And, indeed, for most baseball fans, local, national and international, Ruth was and remains the iconic pinstripe.

But that should not stop home town visitors from flocking to his Birthplace. Here’s why.

George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth was born in southwest Baltimore, on the verge dividing Pigtown and Camden Yards, in 1895. He was raised on hardscrabble streets by hardworking parents who were so busy running their family saloon that they were forced to send their son to St. Mary’s Industrial School for a heavy dose of discipline, religion…and baseball.

Babe Ruth’s rags to riches story was emblematic of the turn-of-the-century Baltimore environment from which he sprouted. He was a tough kid from a tough town, but also from a community that cared enough to raise him right and let his extraordinary skills develop.

And keep this in mind. Babe Ruth, the Yankee, was discovered by Jack Dunn, owner and manager of the International League Baltimore Orioles, in 1913. Dunn signed Ruth to his first pro contract in 1914, and agreed to serve as the boy’s legal guardian to boot. That led to the ‘phenom from Pigtown’ being referred to as “Jack Dunn’s Baby” in spring training that year, which, a couple of months later, had shortened to “Babe.”

Please, Baltimore, be proud that the greatest ballplayer of all time and baseball’s greatest star is one of your own, and an Oriole to boot! Without his Baltimore beginnings, there would have been no New York end! Celebrate Babe Ruth, our most famous native son.

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