Sunday is baseball's opening day. This year, the preseason chatter has been aimed at D.C. and Northern Virginia, as they try to out-grovel each other in pursuit of the Montreal Expos. But it's Maryland -- birthplace of some of the game's greatest players -- that may boast the area's richest trove of baseball lore. In particular, the state's long love affair with baseball is on display at museums in the Chesapeake communities of Baltimore, Aberdeen and Salisbury, each of which is close enough to a working stadium to make for a nifty double play.
The Babe in Baltimore
George Herman "Babe" Ruth, baseball's greatest player, was born in 1895 in a downtown working-class Baltimore rowhouse. Today, that home is the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, and it's not much farther from Camden Yards than a long clout by the late Sultan of Swat. For anyone with even a passing interest in baseball, it's hard to do better than visiting the home of The Babe and then enjoying a game at Camden Yards.
"There's something about Babe Ruth that still appeals to people," says Greg Schwalenberg, curator at the Babe Ruth Museum. "The way he looks, the way he dominated the game -- kids still know who he is today."
My favorite artifact in the museum is a hymnal, in which Ruth, then a skinny teenager at St. Mary's Industrial School, scrawled: "George H. Ruth. World's worse [sic] singer. World's best pitcher."
In fact, Ruth was a great pitcher for the Boston Red Sox before being sold to the Yankees and becoming a full-time hitter. The museum's film newsreels reflect some of the majesty of his swing, as well as the extent of his celebrity in the 1920s and '30s. A huge photo shows a tired-but-dignified Ruth, using his bat as a cane, in his last appearance at Yankee Stadium in June 1948.
The museum's rotating exhibits pay respect to such Maryland Hall of Famers as Jimmie Foxx, Robert "Lefty" Grove, Al Kaline and sure-to-be-inductee Cal Ripken Jr. Baltimore's Negro League teams and the 19th-century Baltimore Orioles, the greatest team of its era, also get their due. In a section devoted to the modern O's, I gazed at their 1970 World Series trophy and wondered when they will regain their past glory.
The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum (216 Emory St., 410-727-1539, www.baberuthmuseum.com) is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the baseball season, until 4 p.m. in the off-season, and 7 p.m. when the Orioles play a home game. Tickets: $6 for adults, $3 for children. Camden Yards is two blocks from the museum; just follow the 60 baseballs painted on the sidewalk. If you're looking for a last-minute deal on tickets, check out the no-scalping zone near a statue of The Babe at the north end of the stadium. To really get your fill, start your day with a 75-minute guided tour of Camden Yards ($5 for adults, $4 for kids, 410-547-6234, www.the orioles.com). Tours begin each morning during the season unless the O's are playing a day game. You'll get to step onto the field and visit the luxury suites you can't afford. Ask your guide to point out the spot in center field where Babe Ruth's father's tavern was located.
The Ripkens of Aberdeen
Cal Ripken Jr. was born in Havre de Grace and raised in Aberdeen, about 30 miles northeast of Baltimore, and the town is making the most of its connection with the future Hall of Famer. The Ripken Museum is in downtown Aberdeen, and the minor league Aberdeen IronBirds, owned by Cal Jr., play just two miles away.
When you walk up to the Ripken Museum, you'll see a statue of Cal Jr. in front and the number 2131 hung on a building next door. Ripken fans will remember when those numbers were posted on the side of a Camden Yards warehouse in 1995 as the signal of Ripken's breaking Lou Gehrig's record for playing in consecutive games.
Inside the museum, the expected uniforms, bats, balls and trophies of Ripken's record-setting career are well represented. But the small museum tells not only his story but also that of the entire Ripken family's 70-year love affair with baseball. You see the devotion to the game in a photo of two Ripken brothers on the Aberdeen Canners in the late 1930s, with their little brother Cal Sr. (later to become the Orioles' coach and manager) as the batboy. You see it in photos of Cal Jr. and his brother Billy as Little Leaguers, with long, bushy hair of the 1970s sticking out from under their caps. You see it in clothes-hanger covers that Cal Jr.'s mother crocheted for him (in the black and orange of the Orioles) when he first went to the minor leagues. And you see it in photos of Cal Sr., Cal Jr. and Bill, together as a coach and two players on the Orioles in the late 1980s -- a father-and-sons dream realized.
Aberdeen is about 70 miles northeast of Washington on I-95. The Ripken Museum is downtown, at 3 W. Bel Air Ave., about five minutes from Exit 85. It's open Thursday through Monday in the spring, and daily beginning on Memorial Day. Hours vary but are approximately 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets: $3 for adults, $1 for children Info: 410-273-2525, www.ripkenmuseum .com.
Ripken Stadium (410-481-7328, www.ironbirdsbaseball.com) is only a couple of miles from the museum, perched above I-95, just off Exit 85. Opened in June 2002, the stadium seats about 6,000, so you're always close to the action. Opening night is June 17.
The Shorebirds of Salisbury
This summer when you're out at the beach, spend an evening in Salisbury, about 30 miles inland from Ocean City. You can see the minor league Delmarva Shorebirds and visit the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame Museum. The museum is housed in Perdue Stadium, where the Shorebirds play, and it opens two hours before every game. Former players such as Teddy Evans, Leroy Muir, Wayne Mitchell and Tommy Young spent more than two decades accumulating and cataloguing material for the museum from veterans of the semi-pro and amateur leagues of the Eastern Shore. They often circulate among the memorabilia, eager to talk about a bygone era of farm boys in flannel uniforms, playing Sunday doubleheaders for local bragging rights.
It was a different world. A few stars in the Eastern Shore League turned down minor league contracts because they didn't want to quit secure local jobs. "Baseball didn't pay much in those days," explains Young.
Eastern Shore baseball wasn't integrated before the 1950s, of course, but numerous African American teams formed, and they are well-represented in the museum. Especially notable are the programs and news accounts of occasional black-vs.-white all-star games.
For a fortunate few, local stardom did lead to the major leagues. I enjoyed hearing tales about Jimmie Foxx, the greatest player to come from the Eastern Shore. According to legend, Frank "Home Run" Baker was managing the Easton team in 1924 when he saw the 15-year-old farm boy from Sudlersville hoist a bale of hay in each hand and throw them into a wagon. Baker promptly put Foxx on his team, and two years later Foxx was terrorizing American League pitchers.
"Even his hair has muscles," pitcher Lefty Gomez said about the man who succeeded Babe Ruth as the game's top home run hitter of the 1930s.
Incidentally, Baker, who was born in Trappe, Md., led the American League in home runs four times before Ruth arrived on the scene. Thus, the Maryland trio of Baker-Ruth-Foxx dominated baseball's home run title for nearly 30 years, and all three are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Salisbury is about 115 miles east of Washington on Route 50, the beach road. The Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame Museum, within Purdue Stadium, is just off Route 50 on Hobbs Road. The museum is free and opens two hours before every home game.
The Delmarva Shorebirds (410-219-3112, www.theshorebirds.com), a farm team for the Orioles, begin their home season April 10 against the Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators. Tickets begin at $6 for adults, $4 for kids.
The Eastern Shore is fairly bursting with baseball history. For example, Sudlersville, about 80 miles north of Salisbury, features a Jimmie Foxx statue and memorabilia in its train station museum at Main and Linden streets. And Snow Hill (20 miles south) honors Negro League star William Julius "Judy" Johnson with a small display in the Julia Purnell Museum at 208 W. Market St.