Friday, July 29, 2011

Brooks Robinson, Mister Oriole

This week a fair amount of attention has been focused on the Brooks Robinson statue, which is scheduled to be unveiled on October 22nd in the plaza between Russell Street and Washington Boulevard, just northwest of Oriole Park.

The project is the brainchild of local businessman Henry Rosenberg, who for more than three decades employed Brooks at Crown Central Petroleum. Henry, as well as anyone, knows how important number five has been to our community, both on and off the playing field. For as ‘other-worldly’ as Brooks’ ability was around the hot-corner, where he thrilled and dazzled us for two decades, he proved equally adept in his role as model citizen.

Since their inaugural American League season in 1954, the Orioles have sported any number of superlative athletes, but none understood nor grasped their role as an integral part of the soul of the community better than Brooks.

And because of that, he is universally regarded as Mister Oriole, and why he and Johnny Unitas remain the face of Baltimore sports. Back in the fifties, when Baltimore was generally perceived as nothing more than a rest stop between Washington and Philadelphia, it was Johnny U’s Baltimore Colts and then Brooksie’s Birds of Baltimore,  Hon, who gave us something to be proud of: world champion football and baseball teams.

Their mild-mannered but prolific athletic swagger landed them not only in their respective sports’ halls of fame, but in the hearts of 20th Century Baltimoreans, forever.

And so on October 22nd the Brooks Robinson statue will be unveiled, depicting the greatest third baseman in the history of the game, as he peers southward towards Camden Yards, built in part on the tradition of excellence he helped to foster.

For information on how you can get involved with the Brooks Robinson statue project, go to

See you out there.

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

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wanting Something Good

We are in a drought.  I’m not referring to the 100+ degrees outside…I’m referring to the shortage of news worthy of a smile.  We have a looming debt crisis in Washington and total gridlock from our elected officials.  We have rising unemployment and falling home prices.  Money is tight.  Even our weather forecast is full of misery.  We need something good, something positive.

Normally, we’d turn to sports to give us that shot in the arm.  But Maryland is sorely lacking ANY good sporting news.  The Orioles continue to struggle, the NFL is still without an agreement, the NBA has a lockout… and it goes on and on.  Marylanders are desperate for something good…so much so that Baltimore boasted the highest viewership for the Women’s World Cup.  I’m not saying the World Cup wasn’t exciting, but the lack of anything else positive suddenly made many of us instant fans.  We wanted…we needed something to cheer about.

It is a difficult time for Maryland sports fans.  But we can still make the most of it.  I just spent three days talking to Red Sox fans about Babe Ruth.  The nostalgia and history helped put a smile back on my face.  It could work for you, too.  If you are desperate for sports, now seems like a good time to visit the Babe Ruth Birthplace, the Sports Legends Museum or the Lacrosse Museum and Hall of Fame.  Come relive the exploits of the Bambino, Johnny Unitas, and Brooks Robinson.  Come relive the glory of the ’58 Game, the ’83 World Series or Michael’s Olympic gold!  Times are tough, but we’re all in this together.

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

Friday, July 15, 2011

What Goes Around

About a year ago, when shortstop Derek Jeter passed Babe Ruth on the Yankees all-time hits list, the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum forwarded a request through the Yanks’ public relations office asking that Jeter consider donating something from that historic at bat that would forever link he and the Babe together.

Within a week’s time, an overnight parcel arrived at the Birthplace, and in it was Derek’s response to our appeal: his batting gloves from the at-bat…donated! This, from a guy we had never met, but who understood, I think, just how important sports heritage is, especially in the game of baseball, whose heavy tendency to compare present to past sets it apart from any other sport. That is why our museum can easily interpret the connection between Ruth and Jeter through those batting gloves.

With that said, it seemed appropriate that when Jeter smacked his historic 3,000th hit for a home run at Yankee Stadium last Saturday, the young fan who caught it opted to return the ball to the man who hit it. The 23-year-old and the star shortstop had something in common…the corny notion that the ball has more value as a heritage memento than as a collectible worth X amount of dollars.

The kid could have sold the ball for half a million, paid off his college bills, and had a nice nest egg. But his altruistic sense and his love for the game told him to do the right thing, and he did…no questions asked. The ball needed to be returned to the man to whom it meant the most, the man who, one year earlier, gave away his valued batting gloves to a sports museum in Baltimore, no questions asked.

What goes around…comes around.

See you out there.

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

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Long Goodbye

Nancy Reagan referred to it as “the long goodbye,” the slow deterioration of President Reagan’s mind to Alzheimer’s disease.  Sylvia Mackey knows it, too.  For ten years she has shared her husband’s battle with frontotemporal dementia.  That battle came to an end on Wednesday.

John Mackey was one of the finest tight ends to ever play in the NFL, missing only one game in a career that spanned from 1963 to 1972.  In the nine years he played for the Baltimore Colts Mackey was one of quarterback Johnny Unitas’ primary targets.  His five Pro-Bowl selections and spectacular touchdown catch in Super Bowl V helped earn him a place in 1992 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  His work as head of the Players’ Union won him the respect and admiration of his teammates.

But Mackey will be remembered for more than just his accomplishments on the field.  His battle with frontotemporal dementia, the deterioration of the front lobes of the brain, caused changes in his memory and personality.  Wife Sylvia worked everyday to help her husband.  She showed him old game footage, relived old memories and took him to sporting events to see his former teammates and his fans.  She wanted him to remember as much as he could. 

But the road was a difficult one.  The NFL Retirement Board refused to pay disability to Mackey and Sylvia was forced to go back to work to pay for health care.  This hardship lead to Mackey’s former Baltimore Colts teammates to create Fourth and Goal, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to advocacy and support of retired NFL players.  Their efforts lead to the creation of the “88 Plan”, named after Mackey’s #88, by the NFL and the NFL Players Association to provide funds for nursing home care and adult day care.

Fans over the past few years saw a different John Mackey from the one that wore #88.  The signs of dementia were clearly visible.  My last recollection of him was at Babe’s Birthday Bash several years ago.  He seemed angry and confused.  We knew it would be his last visit to the museum.  We also knew that Sylvia’s life was about to get much harder.

John and Sylvia’s story is a reminder that there is a price for our love of sports.  Some players are only one play away from a career-ending injury.  Others are just one play away from something that will change their lives forever.  For Sylvia, the Mackey family and the Colts Alumni it has been “a very long goodbye.”

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

Thursday, July 7, 2011

John Mackey

The Baltimore Colts were the premiere team in the National Football League from 1957 through 1971, winning more games than any other franchise during that era. But they were great not just because they won the most games. It was because of their style, their personality. They were as tough as tough could be, but with a flair for the dramatic.

John Mackey personified that style. Sitting in Memorial Stadium, we fans knew that he would knock over any defender foolish enough to stand in his way, but that he also had hands as true as Raymond Berry.

Mackey had it all. He could catch, run, break tackles and block. He was a team leader, both on and off the gridiron. He was, and remains, the greatest tight end in NFL history.

John Mackey, Baltimore Colt.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Interleague Play

Last Friday night I had tickets to the Orioles-Reds game at Camden Yards. As I walked to the park a few minutes before game time with my buddy, Ed, you couldn’t help but notice a different kind of buzz spurring through that lovely summer evening. Part of it could be attributed to the huge crowd filing into the ball park. Baltimore hasn’t enjoyed too many 40-plus-thousand home dates lately, and tonight would be a sellout. Yes, there were out-of-town fans, but this was mostly an orange and black event.

The other thing was that our Birds were playing the Cincinnati Reds, a National League standard with franchise roots burrowing back to 1869, when the Redstockings became America’s first professional team. The Orioles took their name in 1882, so tonight fans would be treated to two of baseball’s founding franchises, going head to head in the regular season for only the second time. The two teams had squared off once previously, with the Reds taking two of three in Cincinnati. They had never been to Baltimore during the regular season, so tonight’s series’ opener was special because of its rarity…which contributed to the buzz, for sure.

The other ingredient, for old-timers like me at least, is that these two teams had met in Baltimore one other time…the 1970 World Series. Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Lee May, versus Earl Weaver’s powerhouse Orioles, Boog Powell, Frank and Brooks, and that fabled pitching rotation of McNally, Palmer and Cuellar. The Orioles took four out of five to snatch the crown from the favored Reds, and that was the series when Brooks Robinson established himself once and for all as the human vacuum cleaner. Hoover! God but did he have a series.

So walking into the ballpark that night was such the treat. The buzz, the big crowd, the storied franchises in a rare square-off, and special memories of Earl and his men, especially number five, Brooks Robinson.

All of which makes inter-league play something baseball ought to keep around, though I’d love to see them play National League rules in the American League parks, and vice-versa. How about you?

See you out there. 

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