Friday, October 28, 2011

Risks of the Game

On Monday, following the memorial services for Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who died last Sunday in the Indycar finale in Las Vegas, drivers and Indycar officials met to discuss how to make the sport safer.  They want to find better ways to protect the drivers.  But can it be done?

Wheldon died from blunt force trama to the head when his car went airborne in a 15-car melee that resulted in the former Indycar champion crashing headfirst into the retaining fence.  Doctors rushed to save Wheldon’s life, but his injuries were too severe.

Auto racing is dangerous, but motorsporting events aren’t the only high-risk sports. Ridge Barden, a 16-year-old lineman from John C. Birdlebough High School in New York, died after sustaining a hit in a varsity football game.  Barden was able to sit up on his own but complained of a bad headache.  He died in the ambulance en route to the hospital.  22-year-old Derek Sheely, starting fullback at Frostburg State University died in August at the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore after he collapsed at football practice.  His father believed his death was due to a head injury.

In each case the argument is made for safer helmets.  But some doctors believe it isn’t the equipment that needs to change but rather our approach to sports.  Dr. Michael Williams of Lifebridge Health’s Sandra and Malcolm Berman Brain & Spine Institute believes that in many sports the evolution of helmets has reached its pinnacle.  Brain injuries are often caused by two factors, a trauma to the head and the impact of the brain hitting the inside of the skull.  A helmet can significantly reduce the damage caused by the former but it can do nothing to alleviate the latter.  Much like taking an egg and shaking it, there is no physical damage to the outside shell, but the yolk inside is clearly scrambled.

It seems that with the improvements to sports equipment has come a false sense of security.  Hockey, lacrosse and football injuries have not decreased because our players, amateur and professional, believe they can hit their opponent that much harder.  A result of trying to make our sports safer is that we’ve actually made them more dangerous.  Just ask Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins who continues to deal with post-concussion symptoms from head injuries sustained in January. 

Recent attempts by the NFL and other leagues to enforce tougher penalties for illegal hits is just the beginning of a change that needs to happen.  We need to remember that sports are dangerous and to pass that message on to the kids playing them.  Safety doesn’t just mean safer equipment, it also means safer practices.

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

Friday, October 21, 2011

Monumental City Welcomes Number Five

            When I was growing up in Baltimore back in the 1950s, the city carried the moniker of ‘Monumental’ because it had more statues and monuments per capita than maybe any other US municipality. From the Washington Monument in Mt. Vernon to Battle Monument on Calvert Street, Baltimore’s marble and granite commemorations of glories past were notable and numerous.
            In recent times our monumental tradition has continued, expanded from its usual salutes to local politicians and military heroes by bronze tributes to iconic figures from Baltimore’s burgeoning world of sports.
            To wit: in 1995 a statue of George Herman Ruth was unveiled at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It seemed fitting that Ruth, as the city’s most famous native son and the most celebrated name in international sports to this day, would be the first athlete so honored in Baltimore.
            Seven years later the Johnny Unitas statue became an important part of the M&T Bank Stadium landscape, a place where thousands of fans would come to mingle before Ravens’ games, forever mindful of what their high-topped quarterback meant to Baltimore, and to the NFL.
            But if Ruth and Unitas were so honored, wasn’t there someone equally deserving of a public gesture of permanent tribute? The answer, as any good Baltimore sportsperson can attest, is yes, of course, because if you honor the Babe and Johnny U, you have to do the same for baseball’s ‘human vacuum cleaner,’ Brooks Robinson.
            This Saturday, October 22, Baltimore’s third sports statue will be unveiled in the
Russell Street
plaza just north or Oriole Park, this one commemorating the greatest third baseman in Major League Baseball history. Brooks Robinson finally takes his iconic, rightful place with Ruth and Unitas.
            Ruth is important here because his rags-to-riches, unparalleled greatness uniquely demonstrates the hard-scrabble mettle of the blue-collar Baltimore from which he sprouted. Ruth illustrates Baltimoreans’ innately toughness, and their capacity for achieving the highest heights of any profession.
            Unitas and Brooks, while not native sons, did more through their breathtaking, hall-of-fame careers to change the dreadful profile of post WW2 Baltimore than any other athletes or citizens, before or since.
            As both men started their pro careers here in the middle 1950s, Baltimore was regarded as not much more than a rest stop between Philadelphia and Washington. But, quickly, Unitas and Robinson turned their respective Colts and Orioles into championship franchises that became the toast of the nation. In lightening fashion, the city they represented was re-branded as ‘Titletown, USA.’
            Make no mistake, the unveiling of the Brooks Robinson statue this Saturday is an important, long overdue moment in the history of our Monumental City, an occasion when we provide Brooks his rightful place of prominence among Baltimore’s “Mount Rushmore” of sports statues.

            There will never be another Brooks Robinson, and we finally get to thank him for all he has done, and for all he has meant, to his adopted hometown community along the shores of the Patapsco. I hope to see you all on Saturday for the unveiling of the Brooks Robinson statue.

Go to or for details.

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

Friday, October 14, 2011

Last Game at Memorial Stadium

Last Pitch at Memorial Stadium, October 6, 1991
Twenty years ago last week an era in Baltimore’s sports history ended.  It was October 6, 1991.  The debate about the need for a new ballpark was over.   The hearings were concluded.  The votes had been cast.  Now all that was left was for the players to take the field.  It would be the last time the Orioles would call Memorial Stadium home.

It is hard to believe it has been twenty years since the Orioles played at 33rd Street. The game that day against the Detroit Tigers was not particularly exciting.  The Orioles weren’t fighting for a playoff spot.  In fact, after going 67-95 they were the second worst team in the American League.  But for everyone there that game was still special. 

The pre-game ceremonies honored Elrod Hendricks for spending more time in an Orioles uniform that anyone else in club history.  The first pitch honors were shared between Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas (no one foresaw the Browns moving to town) as everyone expected this to be the last professional baseball or football game to be played at the stadium.

Starting pitcher Bob Milacki had a horrible game, giving up eight hits and five runs in the first 2 2/3 innings.  The bullpen settled down but by the ninth inning when Mike Flanagan came on to get the last out the Orioles trailed 1-7.  But it did not matter.  The crowd was electric.  “To me, it was like the seventh game of the World Series,” Flanagan said.

Immediately following the game the real show began.  Clad in white tuxedoes, the grounds crew dug up home plate and transferred it by limousine to Camden Yards.  Then with the sounds of “Field of Dreams” music echoing throughout the concrete bowl that was Baltimore’s House of Magic, players from every generation, starting with Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and Jim Palmer began to take their positions.  When all was complete, a giant ring of Orioles, 119 from all four decades circled the field.  The ceremonies closed with Auld Lang Syne and the words “Goodbye Old Friend” on the Diamond Vision.  Long-time stadium PA announcer Rex Barney offered his famous “THANK YOU” from his hospital bed one last time.

It is hard to believe that magical moment in Orioles history occurred 20 years ago.  Rex Barney, Elrod Hendricks, Johnny Oates, Mike Flanagan and many more are gone, but time will not diminish the glory of their deeds…or that day.

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

Friday, October 7, 2011

Between the Lines: A Path to Peace

This month I’m on my way to Oakville, Ontario, to attend the annual conference of the International Sports Heritage Association (ISHA), a fraternity of 130 sports museums and halls of fame from all over the globe. One topic I plan on addressing with my colleagues stems from an article in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated that focused on the burgeoning notion that sports might be on the verge of playing an important role in securing and maintaining world peace for generations to come!

At first, the idea might seem sophomoric, almost silly. But the more you think about it, the more the concept resonates. With few exceptions –the 1972 Olympic basketball game between the USSR and USA being one- sporting events on the international stage have been hugely harmonious, demonstrating that athletes from all sorts of political/economic/ethnic backgrounds can compete, even-keeled, as good, fair-handed sportspersons all.

The SI article examined youth-sports initiatives in a number of developing and challenged countries, noting how athletic programs, stressing hard work and team work, were helping kids to achieve a more positive perspective of themselves, and of their communities. As these initiatives mount and take hold, the end result might be that a kid from some dust-choked field in Afghanistan winds up playing against some kid from a hardscrabble street in Brooklyn in a round of World Cup soccer.

That would certainly be a more positive interaction than Afghans and Americans currently experience.

Good sportsmanship is something all cultures accept and embrace. Athletic competition is governed by rules and regulations that are universally understood. Along with music, mathematics…and love, sports might be one of the few things the whole world can truly and enthusiastically embrace.

So that’s what I plan on discussing at the International Sports Heritage gathering, how sports might be a path to peace, and how ISHA might collaborate to promote an idea whose game-clock is just beginning to tick, tick, tick.

Thanks, Sports Illustrated! Full Article

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