Academic journal article Nine

Barnstorming with the Bambino

Academic journal article Nine

Barnstorming with the Bambino

Article excerpt

"Just like those guys in the commercials."

That's what everyone was saying to me last summer as I made my way to various ballparks across the country. I could see the similarity. I thought about it myself every time I saw the commercials on television. By now just about every baseball fan out there has seen the ads with the two guys in the white Volkswagen bus, keeping track of how much money they've been spending on their great American ballpark road trip. I also took a great American ballpark road trip last summer transporting the Babe Ruth Museum's traveling exhibit from the Bambino's Baltimore birthplace to Minor League ballparks around the country. I was the driver, setup man, and exhibit guide (or "docent," as we say in the museum business). And while I definitely had something in common with the guys in the commercials, there are also a number of differences:

* The fellows in the commercial are probably just actors; I actually did spend the summer driving across the country, ballpark to ballpark.

* They were supposedly visiting all of the Major League ballparks; my expedition was through the bushes (the minors).

* They seemed to be on some sort of vacation; I was working.

* They drove a vw bus; I drove a Ryder van.

* They were supposedly traveling with each other; I was basically on my own, though not completely--I did have the Babe with me. Not a Babe--"The Babe." A fife-size cut-out photograph of Babe was my constant companion. And in a very spiritual way, I also felt Babe's aura or presence.

The traveling exhibit that I took around the country was a condensed version of what is on display every day at the museum. Octagonal in shape, framed by partitioned display walls, it was set up in a ten- by twenty-foot space, usually on the ballpark's concourse. The various panels contained photographs and text telling of Babe Ruth's remarkable life story. Display cases within the panel walls contained historical artifacts, such as a bat Babe used during 1927 when he became the first player to hit 60 home runs in a season, a boyhood glove from his days at St. Mary's, a pair of his Yankees pinstriped uniform pants, and a couple of autographed baseballs as well as a videotape of his legendary "called shot" home run in the 1932 World Series.

I carted around the exhibit in a fifteen-foot Ryder box van, set it up at a ballpark usually for four days, tore it down, loaded it back on to the truck, and headed off for the next town.

Babe Ruth can still draw fans, just like during his heydays in the "Roaring 20s," when an appearance by the Bambino in any Major League city would increase ballpark attendance by more than twice the regular gate, or in Minor League towns where the Yankees would schedule exhibition games in front of thousands of fans who would otherwise never get to see him play. If you bring him ... they will come.

They used to call it "barnstorming," a term used to describe a series of exhibition games played by Major League teams or assembled groups of all-stars in cities or towns that usually did not have a Major League team of their own. In the 1920s and 1930s it was not uncommon for Ruth's Yankees or a group of players including Ruth to play exhibition games on their way back home after spring training or after the Major League season was over. Many of the cities we visited on last year's tour had historical records of Ruth's having visited during such barnstorming tours.

HIT THE ROAD

We hit the road for the first time last season on April 19. The tour began in Memphis, Tennessee, at Autozone Ballpark, home of the Memphis Redbirds. The Redbirds are the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals and were the defending Pacific Coast League champions, capturing the 2000 pennant in the team's first year at a brand-new ballpark. Autozone Ballpark is about as good as it gets in the Minor Leagues. Located in the heart of downtown Memphis across the street from the famous Peabody Hotel, the three-level stadium was designed by the same HOK architectural firm that created Camden Yards and has a seating capacity of 16,000. …

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