Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thank You, Baltimore Colts

This December 6 our museum hosts its annual gala at Martin’s West in Baltimore. And as we pause from the busy pulse of the workplace to spend Thanksgiving with our families and friends, I want to shoot out a special offering of thanks to the seven Baltimore Colts we will pay tribute to at the gala.

Weeb Ewbank, Jim Parker, John Mackey, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan are being inducted into our Hall of Legends that evening, because of what they meant to the Colts and to the NFL, but, more importantly, what they mean to Baltimore.

These seven men came along at a time when Baltimore was fighting to reinvent itself. Following the heady manufacturing days of WWII, the city had gone into rapid decline in terms of industry and image. By the late fifties we were best known as the rest-stop between Washington and Philadelphia.

But then along came the Baltimore Colts, who, under head coach Weeb Ewbank, rapidly rose from a shaky expansion franchise foundation in 1953 to kings of the pro football world in 1958. In their first-ever title game, against the Giants at Yankee Stadium in New York, the Colts triumphed in dramatic, sudden-death fashion, in what became known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”

That game, featuring two heart-stopping drives, one in regulation, one in over time, and orchestrated by Johnny Unitas, father of the two-minute drill, put the NFL, and Baltimore, on the map.

Off the field, these seven represented the changing face of a city in transition. Moore, Parker and Mackey, black athletes who overcame the shackles of racism by soaring to superstardom on the gridiron, eased Baltimore’s path to integration. Artie, following his “gladiator” days with the Colts, became “Fatso,” late night TV star and popular radio personality. Gino gave us “The Giant” hamburger, and Raymond made us proud by moving into the head-coaching ranks and taking New England to a Super Bowl.

And then there was Weeb. After leaving the Colts following the 1962 season, he coached the New York Jets to victory in the NFL’s other most important game, a 16-7 vanquishing of our Colts in Super Bowl III. That victory put the AFL on par with the NFL, and set pro football on a path to success it still enjoys today.

So, thanks to our Baltimore Colts honorees. I hope to see you at our very special tribute on December 6. Happy Thanksgiving.

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Next Ice Age

As the Chief Curator of the Sports Legends Museum and the Babe Ruth Birthplace I am often asked what makes athletes like Babe Ruth, Michael Phelps, or Cal Ripken different from everyone else.  What makes a good athlete into a great athlete?  My standard answer has been “skills and talent.”  Any young athlete can be taught the right skills to compete.  But, skills can only build on what gifts the young person naturally possesses.  Just like becoming an artist is more than learning how to hold a paint brush, sports is more than learning proper techniques.  You either have it or you don’t.  This has been my standard answer.   

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of watching an open rehearsal by the Gardens Ice House’s resident skating company, The Next Ice Age.  The NIA is a non-profit company dedicated to “the preservation and growth of artistic ensemble skating through performance and education.”  They call themselves “a dance company on ice.”  But the NIA is certainly much more than that.

Watching the skaters perform was a treat.  Their poise, professionalism and artistry were nothing short of amazing.  Their level of performance certainly exceeded my expectations.  To the spectators there that evening, there was no doubt that they were athletes AND artists.

But the biggest surprise for me came after the performance.  As the guests retreated to a small room upstairs for light refreshments the young skaters made their way around to introduce themselves, express their appreciation for our support and to tell us a little more about the performance we just saw.  They talked about their work ethics, their practice schedules, and their appreciation for the love and support they receive from their families.  Again, their poise and maturity were remarkable.  Clearly their coaches and choreographers were good teachers both on and off the ice.

It was during these conversations that I realized my opinion of what the difference between a good athlete and a great athlete was had a significant flaw.  I forgot about passion…the willingness to practice day in and day out for hours at a time to become better at a craft…the willingness to sacrifice sleep, friends, and other opportunities in order to become the best.  Yes, it takes talent…you either have it or you don’t.  Yes, it takes skill…learning the fundamentals and practicing them everyday is important.  But it also takes a belief that hard work pays off.  These young skaters from the Next Ice Age were amazing…not just for their incredible performance…but for the ability to inspire the rest of us.  Who knows, one of them might just be the next “great one.”

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

So You Want to Build a Sports Statue

Brooks Robinson Statue
Photo by Maroon PR
My home town of Baltimore, Maryland once held the moniker of “Monumental City” because of the hundreds of statues and monuments that adorned our downtown plazas. And while we don’t generate the same kind of burgeoning numbers of artsy tributes today as we did, say, after the American Civil War or World Wars One or Two, you can still go to one or two unveilings a year, regardless of America’s current martial meanderings.

Three of our city’s most recent statues celebrate local sports heroes, their presence on our monumental landscape indicative of how far sports heritage has come in the modern era. Prior to the unveiling of the Babe Ruth statue at Camden Yards in 1995, there had never been a statue dedicated to a local sports icon in the downtown area. In 2002, a statue of Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas was unveiled outside the main portal to M&T Bank Stadium, home of our Baltimore Ravens. And just last month, Mister Baltimore Oriole, Brooks Robinson, was on hand for the unveiling of his nine-foot bronze likeness just west of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Aside from the obvious notion that each of the above-referenced monuments pay tribute to famous Baltimore sports figures, they have one other thing in common: they were all produced by our sports museum!  And after three projects of ‘monumental’ proportion, I can tell you one thing conclusively: the devil is in the detail.

Why? Because even though a statue, at the time of its unveiling, seems like a relatively straight-forward, simplistic, artistic gesture(a bronze figure mounted atop a concrete and granite pedestal, adorned with a couple of plaques for donor recognition and narrative text), it isn’t! Because what you see at an unveiling does not accurately represent the full breadth and scope of complexity of such an undertaking.

Statue projects typically take years and years. Why? Well, once the creative or inspirational spark of an idea translates into enough individual or group motivation to get a project going, coordinators must start to move forward across multiple layers of endeavor, ensuring that all components of the project mesh together seamlessly, and on time. They must select the just-right artist, negotiate a contract, establish a production schedule, garner political approval and civic permission and corporate support, secure a construction company, locate the installation site, garner grass roots enthusiasm from the community, tickle and then grab the attention of local (and perhaps national) media, maneuver through a myriad of unveiling ceremony details, draft and enact long-term maintenance and security contracts, create post-unveiling souvenir and merchandising opportunities, and, in the end, pray that they don’t make any irreversible mistakes or missteps.

When we did our first statue project, Babe Ruth, everything went along relatively well all the way through the unveiling, with the governor and Babe’s daughter pulling the drape from the nine foot depiction of a young Ruth in his Baltimore Orioles uniform. But about a week after the grandstand had been dismantled and the dust had started to settle on the slugger’s bronze likeness, all hell broke loose. The artist had depicted Ruth carrying his right-handed fielding mitt, which would have been fine, except Ruth was a lefty!

Our committee of ‘experts’ surveyed and scrutinized until the cows came home, but not enough to prevent the mistake. News of the error went viral and spread across national news desks faster than one of the Babe’s home runs flying out of Yankee Stadium. Just like that, Baltimore’s first sports statue was notorious. And our statue committee was dumbstruck. What could we do?
The answer, of course, was nothing, except live and learn. Which I think we did, because the Unitas and Robinson statues that followed have no errors that we are aware of, no wrong-handed mitt or uniform malfunctions.

So if you want to build a statue, know that it is complicated, painstaking, unforgiving work, and if you make a mistake, it will be there for generations to contemplate.

The Ruth statue error, by the way, turned out to be not all that bad, because that notorious right-handed mitt has made the Camden Yards monument a ‘must see’ for out- –of-town tourists and locals alike, sixteen years after the discovery…and counting.

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