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A visit to the Babe Ruth Museum

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A lot of the history of baseball’s most famous player is in a handsome old brick building in Baltimore.

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BALTIMORE — Next year, Babe Ruth will have been deceased 70 years. It’s more than 80 since he played a major-league game and 90 years since he was in his prime.

So those who have a living memory of him being a larger-than-life figure are passing from the scene. The impact Ruth had on American life and culture, even beyond baseball, cannot be overstated. Think of someone like LeBron James or Michael Jordan and their effect on the NBA. Then multiply that by a factor of about 100 and make that affect every area of society and you’ll get an idea of what Ruth meant to that generation of Americans.

A good book that talks about Ruth in the context of other events of the summer of 1927 is Bill Bryson’s “One Summer,” which I highly recommend. (All of Bryson’s books are great reads.)

All of this is why I think a visit to the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in downtown Baltimore is a must for anyone who comes to this city.

The attractive red brick building is easy walking distance from Camden Yards, yet it was surprisingly uncrowded when I visited Saturday afternoon. If you must drive, you can park on the street at a metered space less than a block away (with a meter that actually takes coins!) for an hour for about $2. Most of the other visitors were wearing Cubs garb, a testament to the drawing power of Ruth.

Ruth, as the name of the edifice notes, was born in this building, as many babies were in 1895. His father owned a bar nearby. Some of the exhibits note that the bar’s location is now in short center field at Camden Yards, which somehow seems appropriate. Another note states that Ruth helped his father tend bar at that location until his dad was killed in 1918 trying to break up a bar fight.

It was a different era.

There’s memorabilia from Ruth’s career as well as timelines of his childhood, schooling and baseball learning at St. Mary’s Academy, his time playing for the then-independent minor-league Baltimore Orioles and Red Sox before the famous deal that had him sold to the Yankees following the 1919 season. (The story that the sale was to finance a production of “No, No, Nanette” is mostly myth. This SABR article details the real story.)

There’s quite a bit about Ruth’s so-called “Called Shot” during the 1932 World Series (consensus: it probably wasn’t), including a video narrated by Jon Miller which does include the grainy home video showing Ruth holding up his right arm, though it’s not clear exactly what he was doing with that signal. As you can see from the photos at the top of this post, there are quite a few Cub-related exhibits there related to the ‘32 World Series, as well as autographed baseballs from several members of the 500 Home Run Club, including Ernie Banks (the HR totals as shown in the photo are updated through the end of the 2015 season).

The Orioles’ 1983 World Series trophy is also on display in this museum, which I thought was odd, so close to the O’s home stadium. It’s a reminder of how fleeting baseball success can be. When the Orioles won the World Series in 1983, it was their sixth WS appearance in the previous 18 seasons and third win. At the time they had been looked at as one of the premier franchises in baseball for two and a half decades. In the 33 years since then, the Orioles have made the postseason just five times and have not returned to the Fall Classic.

The buildings in the neighborhood where this unassuming museum is located all appear to date back from well before Ruth’s birth year of 1895. There are a few rooms in the museum appointed to look like they might have in that era. The museum and the neighborhood, so close to bustling downtown Baltimore, take you back to a quieter and simpler time in American history. If you’re ever in the area it’s well worth your time.