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Sports history hits home at museum


The Westside Preakness Parade, replete with marching bands and cheerleaders, renewed a venerable tradition yesterday as it streamed along Eutaw Street. But the procession ended at the doorstep of Baltimore's latest sports-culture attraction.

The true main event for crowds gathered downtown was the grand opening of Sports Legends at Camden Yards, a museum in the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station that showcases Maryland sports and social history.

Fifteen years in the making, the attraction is an extension of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum on Emory Street, near the neighborhood where Ruth spent his youth in an orphanage. Yesterday's opening ceremony brought Ruth's daughter back to Baltimore.

Julia Ruth Stevens, an effervescent 87-year-old who divides her time between New Hampshire and Arizona, said the invitation to ride in the parade before an event honoring her father was too much to resist.

"It's just fabulous; I can't get over this museum," Stevens said yesterday as people milled about looking at the array of multimedia exhibits.

Ruth's meager upbringing in St. Mary's Industrial School was a marked contrast to his experiences later in life, Stevens said, particularly his glory years with the New York Yankees.

"Daddy was amazed and thrilled at everything outside the grounds of St. Mary's, even elevators," she said. "He loved New York."

Inside the museum, hometown heroes are amply honored, from Jack Dunn, the Orioles owner who discovered Ruth; to Johnny Unitas, the legendary Colts quarterback who donated his memorabilia to the museum five days before he died; to Michael Phelps, the swimmer who won six gold medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Artifacts include a display of Colts marching band uniforms and the nostalgic fight song, as well as a few seats from the demolished Memorial Stadium, from which visitors can view a National Football League video about the glory days of the Colts.

The dark day in 1984 when owner Robert Irsay absconded with the Colts to Indianapolis is duly represented, with recordings of talk radio that museum Executive Director Mike Gibbons recorded. He knew then they would have a place in posterity, he said.

A compelling exhibit on the Negro leagues and another on the "Oriole Way" of proper baseball are genuine articles of social history. And the museum makes sure to inform visitors that duckpin bowling was invented here, and that Title IX opened the door in Maryland and elsewhere for girls to compete in school sports.

Gibbons, who said he dreamed up the concept for such a museum years ago, showed off a prized piece in the collection: film footage of a famous home run by Ruth in Chicago's Wrigley Field in 1932. The black-and-white frames show the famed slugger as he apparently "called the shot," brashly pointing to where he planned to deposit a home run.

Gibbons said the $16 million Sports Legends museum had taken a dozen years to advance from approval to develop Camden Station to yesterday's opening. The stately structure, designed as a railroad station, stands near the warehouse familiar to many as an integral element of Oriole Park.

Starting with music of the 1890s, the atmosphere is meant to transport visitors in time. One room contains a train conductor, seats and a sense of movement, a graceful nod to the ghost of the old station.

"This is a journey we take you on, where we present the drama and theater of sport," Gibbons said.

Along with the positive responses from many sports fans, devotees of preservation said they were pleased to see that the museum retained echoes of the past. "We were happy that there is a gentlemen's waiting room," said Duane E. Tressler, dressed in Union Army clothes. "At least it's not being ignored."

"As a sports fan, I'll have to go back, but the history of that railroad station is bloody, starting with the first blood spilled in the Civil War," said Tressler, who belongs to the Friends of the President Street Station, a historic preservation group.

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