A Short Stop Off I-95
By Lisa Braun-Kenigsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 26, 2002
TINY Aberdeen, Md., with a population of just 13,500, does not at first appear to be a baseball mecca. But there, on the corner of West Bel Air Avenue and Route 40, stands a life-size bronze statue of Cal Ripken Jr. poised to catch a ball. Behind him is the Ripken Museum, repostiory of all things Ripken.
Aberdeen is the birthplace of Cal Ripken Jr. and the home town of the Ripkens, baseball's unofficial "first family." Five years ago civic boosters decided to create an attraction to draw visitors to their town, which lies 30 miles north of Baltimore adjacent to busy I-95. The Ripken family agreed to help and lent their extensive collection of baseball memorabilia to this nonprofit museum, which is managed by a roster of 25 local volunteers. As museum guide Mike Danish pointed out, "You can't fight City Hall, but you can throw them out," leaving space for this modern, albeit small, collection in the former Aberdeen town hall.
"The entire concept of having a museum honoring your family is overwhelming," Cal Ripken Jr. explained with his characteristic modesty. "My mom and dad worked hard on it when it first began. It's a very nice place and brings back a lot of great memories," he added. Starting with the late Cal Sr.'s beginnings in baseball (his formidable career included 37 years with the Orioles organization), the museum is a touching tribute to the Ripkens. Cal Sr. knew his wife, Violet, in high school, where he was so "impressed with Vi's softball skills" that he married her in 1957. Vi Ripken still lives in Aberdeen, about a mile from the museum.
My two daughters, ages 10 and 13, were taken with the display titled "Building Character: Growing Up the Ripken Way." Lovingly displayed are Cal Jr.'s and brother Billy's carefully preserved Little League uniforms. (Try to find Cal Jr. in the team photos from his Little League and Aberdeen High School years.) The girls especially relished learning that Cal's sister, Eleanor, or Elly, actually had a higher batting average than "Calvin" in high school. And there, alongside her brother's trophies, is Elly's fast-pitch softball trophy from 1977.
"The Ripkens Play Together" focuses on Cal Jr. and Billy, who became the only brothers in the major leagues ever to be managed by their father. The Ripkens played together until first Cal Sr. and then Billy were released by the Orioles, leaving Cal Jr. to remain with the team long enough to fulfill his destiny in baseball history.
The final display case features "The Streak," when Cal broke Lou Gehrig's record for most consecutive games played. The black T-shirt he wore under his baseball jersey on Sept. 6, 1995, is imprinted "2,130 + Hugs and Kisses for Daddy" from his children, Rachel and Ryan.
It's all here: the batting gloves, hats, pants, everything from that unforgettable day, along with the specially made baseballs sewn with Oriole orange stitching, instead of the usual red.
In a corner, batting gear and towels surround a wax figure of Cal Sr. in his Orioles uniform, sitting on a bench holding a sheet of paper with the batting order lineup and a pen. Nearby a reproduction of three Orioles lockers contains the uniforms of Cal Jr. (legendary No. 8, of course), Billy (No. 3), and Cal Sr. (No. 7) hanging as if in wait for them to suit up.
For today's electronically savvy children, the best feature of the Ripken Museum is the computerized trivia game, covering Ripken and Orioles history. A right answer is a hit, a wrong one is an out and four hits take a player to the next level of difficulty -- from single A minors all the way to the major leagues.
Just down the road from the Ripken Museum -- and visible from I-95 -- is the brand-new 6,000-seat Ripken Stadium, which opened June 18. The fledgling Aberdeen IronBirds, a Class A Orioles affiliate team, will play 38 home games this inaugural season. Aberdeen will also be the home of the Ripken Baseball Academy, run by Billy Ripken. A $5 million mini-Camden Yards, named Cal Sr.'s Yard, is scheduled to open in August 2003. It will be the site of the 2003 Cal Ripken World Series for youth baseball.
Also planned are youth-size versions of five other famous past and present big league ballparks: Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Memorial Stadium and Ebbets Field, along with on-site housing for up to 400 players and coaches each week who will come to participate in camps, clinics and tournaments. This last phase is planned for the spring of 2004.
Families can think of the Ripken Museum as a kind of seventh inning stretch -- minus the peanuts and Cracker Jacks -- while on those tedious family road trips up and down the dreaded I-95 corridor. Just a few minutes from the highway, the museum offers a look at the rewards of dedication and hard work. While Aberdeen may be just a small town, Cal Ripken seems determined to make it a place where every baseball-crazed kid in America can dream big. After all, he did, and just look how far it took him.
THE RIPKEN MUSEUM -- 3 W. Bel Air Ave., Aberdeen. 410/273-2525. www.ripkenmuseum.com. From I-95, take Exit 85; turn right at Route 132 East (Bel Air Avenue). Continue approximately 1.6 miles. Turn left at Howard Street; museum will be to the immediate right. Open every day from June 1 through Labor Day from 11 to 3, Sundays from noon to 3. From Labor Day through May 31, open Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays from 11 to 3, Sundays from noon to 3:30. (Closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.) Since the museum is staffed by volunteers, it is always best to call to confirm that it is open. $3, seniors $2, students 6-18 $1; under 6 free. Wheelchair accessible.
RIPKEN STADIUM -- 923 Gilbert Rd., Aberdeen. 410/297-9292. www.ironbirdsbaseball.com.