Memorabilia craze cuts donations to Babe Ruth Museum


Mike Gibbons is painfully aware of the growing interest in -- and value of -- baseball memorabilia.

He's the executive director of the Babe Ruth Museum, which relies on donations for its permanent collection and often cannot compete with the prices dealers and collectors offer for the artifacts of the national pastime.

"Babe Ruth jerseys go for $10,000. . . . We can't compete," Gibbons says. "The museum has a policy that items must be donated . . . and we have no endowment."

Sometimes people act as patrons, bidding at auction on items the museum desires and then donating them.

That's a far cry from 1973, when the museum opened with donations from Ruth's widow, Clare, and daughters Dorothy and Julia: items from his New York apartment, uniforms, a kimono from a 1938 tour of Japan.

The museum expanded its focus in the early 1980s to include the Baltimore Orioles and baseball in Maryland.

"We made an appeal to the local public . . . to donate things in their attic," says Gibbons. That brought in many items.

Another boost came from "The Home Team," a history of Maryland baseball by James H. Bready, now retired from The Evening Sun. Gibbons read it and got in touch with Bready. Together, they contacted people who had helped Bready and came up with such donations as the oldest baseball known to have been used in Maryland and many items that once belonged to Hall of Fame first baseman and Sudlersville native Jimmie Foxx.

"Through the publicity generated by the new display, people called me [about items they wanted to donate]," says Gibbons. One such donation was a scrapbook from Wilbert Robinson presented by his great-grandson, Stan Wilson.

"We still appeal to the good-naturedness of fans," Gibbons says.

Sometimes material is lent for exhibit. Nationally known collector Barry Halper and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., have sent things on loan.

The museum has just received on loan, from Baltimore County collectors Bill and Maxx Kulick, the bat with which Roger Maris hit his 60th home run, Sept. 26, 1961, off the Orioles' Jack Fisher. It will go on display Wednesday, Ruth's birthday.

Items on loan occasionally have been pulled from exhibit by their owners when they have gotten offers to sell that they couldn't resist. One such exhibit contained Moe Berg's souvenirs and notebooks from a pre-World War II Japanese tour. Berg, an erudite but mediocre catcher, had been on assignment as a spy for the U.S. government. The lender had purchased the material from the Berg family. After he pulled it from exhibit in Baltimore, hesold it to a Chicago dealer, who sold it piecemeal to collectors.

"It hurts me when items that really help tell the story of baseball end up in private collections," says Gibbons. "It hurts the public.

"I'm not a collector. My rule of thumb [for acquiring items for the museum] is, if I'm in a museum, is this something I'd like to see?"

Many artifacts of the International League Orioles were destroyed in the 1944 fire at Oriole Park. But the museum received the personal collection of legendary Orioles executive and manager Jack Dunn Jr. when his son, Jack Dunn III, died.

The museum works with the current club and requests such items as jerseys, caps (it has Ben McDonald's), spikes (the ones Cal Ripkenwore for his near-perfect fielding season) and lineup cards. "The Orioles understand, I think, what we're doing," says Gibbons. "We're preserving the history of the team."

The collecting boom also has been a help to the museum, generating more income than ever. Gift-shop sales in 1990 were up 47 percent from 1989 and, for the first time, equaled admissions revenues. Requests for gift-shop items (pins, key chains, books, mugs, posters) and price lists come from out of town, too.

The museum, at 216 Emory St., is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except major holidays (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer). If you have something you would like to donate or would like more information about the museum, call 727-1539.

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