Baseball Fans Hope To Save Babe Ruth's School
Unidentified Man #1: Let's go.
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Unidentified Man #4: Good answer.
Unidentified Man #1: Hey, let's go. Win on three, win on three. One, two, three, win.
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Unidentified Man #5: It is fitting today that on Babe Ruth Field we are playing our last regular season home game forever.
SCOTT SIMON, host:
On a Saturday morning earlier this month, the crusaders of the Cardinal Gibbons School in southwest Baltimore took the field for their last home game of the season.
(Soundbite of bat hitting ball)
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SIMON: They play on hallowed baseball ground. The school's field is where a tall Xaverian priest named Brother Mathias taught an unruly and gifted kid named George Herman Ruth how to hit a baseball harder and further than anyone had ever seen.
Mr. MIKE GIBBONS (Executive Director, Babe Ruth Museum): If you look off to your right, you see a brick tower that kind of looms over the baseball field. And legend has it that Ruth stood at home plate one day and hit a ball over that tower and out into the street across the way. So it would be a shot - for a kid to hit a ball that far, would have to be about 600 feet. So he was good all the way back then.
SIMON: Back then was from 1902 to 1913, when the school was the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. Mike Gibbons, the executive director of the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore, says St. Mary's wasn't quite the Hall of Fame.
Mr. GIBBONS: Babe was an incorrigible - that was the word that they used back then so Ruth, by the time he turned seven years old, the parents threw their hands up in the air and said we've got to do something about this. And the father brought him here to St. Mary's, a reform school, an industrial school, but a place where he could get a little bit of education, a good dose of religion, and a lot of discipline.
SIMON: And the Babe said if it wasn't for baseball I'd be in either the penitentiary or the cemetery. He might as well have said if it wasn't for St. Mary's. While some priests taught him how to be a tailor, Brother Mathias taught him about pitching as well as stitching, and word spread.
Jack Dunn, who owned the Baltimore Orioles, came out to watch and offer the reform school kid a contract to play ball. But because he was still a teenager, Jack Dunn had to become George Herman Ruth's legal guardian. The Orioles called him Jack's Little Babe. The name stuck and is part of history. St. Mary's closed in 1950 and reopened in the 1960s as Cardinal Gibbons.
To this day, when visiting Major League teams play the Orioles, some players and fans will wander over to Cardinal Gibbons Babe Ruth Field, which is kept neat and green. They can look up at the brick tower and marvel how any man could hit a ball over it. But those visits may be ending. The archdiocese of Baltimore is at least $30 million in debt. Archbishop Edwin O'Brien has decided to close Cardinal Gibbons and 12 other of its 64 schools. The school and its grounds will go up for sale and many Gibbons graduates are despondent and outraged.
Even if Babe Ruth Field is saved, a school that's been vital to generations of Baltimoreans will disappear. We met Wayne McDowell - class of '67 and a former Crusaders third baseman - in this school auditorium. He's part of a nonprofit group that would like to raise $6 million and more to buy Gibbons and run it as a private Catholic school.
He told us that in his day, 1,100 students, all boys, might be jammed into the auditorium. Today there are just under 300 students.
Mr. WAYNE MCDOWELL (Former Cardinal Gibbons Student): We can manage the school on 200 children - we, we worked it all out and we...
Mr. MCDOWELL: Financially. And we know how just how to work it. (Unintelligible) the opportunity to run it ourselves. Just didn't - wasn't meant to be this time with them.
SIMON: You sound reconciled to that.
Mr. MCDOWELL: Well, I'm not. I think that the archdiocese should revisit their decision. If it was said to us anywhere in the last year, hey, this is what's going on - if you don't make this work, we're going to have to do this, we certainly could've made it work. Not to get a phone call March 3rd and say, guess what? We're closing your school at the end of the year. Get ready to consolidate everything, get it out of there. How Christian an attitude is that? This is a faith based organization. And we would expect more of the archdiocese.
SIMON: How would you dig the archdiocese out of debt if not doing this?
Mr. MCDOWELL: Well, if I were $30 million in debt and someone offered me between six and $10 million dollars towards that debt, I would certainly look at that and say, well, we could use that and put it to good use and we'd have a great Christian, Catholic school here at the corner of Wilkens and Caton, where it's been for 48 years.
SIMON: You're running out of time, practically?
Mr. MCDOWELL: We're out of time. We're out of time.
SIMON: Sean Caine, the spokesperson to the archdiocese of Baltimore, has a different assessment of that timing. He says Cardinal Gibbons has been losing money for years, along with many other Catholic schools, and that the archdiocese put millions of dollars into it over the last five years to try to save it. He says Archbishop O'Brien delegated an auxiliary bishop to meet with the school, students, parents and supporters in August of 2009 to explain the urgency of the financial crisis and give the community five months to help devise a plan for survival. By the time the school's closing was announced eight months later, they hadn't.
Mr. SEAN CAINE (Spokesperson, Archdiocese of Baltimore): Coming to the table after the announcement with a plan and no money in hand wasn't enough to turn around and reverse that decision. It was a very painful and difficult decision to make and certainly one that wasn't made lightly. But recognizing that these are decades-old problems, in spite of best efforts and even investment - and I included the diocese in that because they've given more money to Cardinal Gibbons than any other high school in the diocese over the last five years.
So nobody wanted to see the school succeed more than the diocese. In terms of what happens next, they'll certainly be given every opportunity, as will anybody else who has a plan and an offer to make for the property when the time comes to review that.
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SIMON: Last week, boys in their red short-sleeved school shirts ate one of the last lunches at Cardinal Gibbons. For decades the school has been a kind of educational lifeboat for many families, a place that is certifiably safer and scholastically stronger than many Baltimore public schools, yet not nearly as expensive as private schools and, for that matter, many parochial schools.
Close to 40 percent of the student population is made up of minorities. Last year, 100 percent of the graduating class was accepted to college.
Tom Grace graduated from Gibbons in 1973. He's now Dr. Tom Grace, a plastic surgeon.
Dr. TOM GRACE (Plastic Surgeon): My dad was a small business owner. We had eight children, and this is where I could go. This is middle-class Baltimore. This is hardworking Baltimore. People in this area can't go other places, and this place gave us a chance. This was a school that gave too numerous(ph) of us to count a chance.
SIMON: Not just academically. Don Delciello taught 43 years at Cardinal Gibbons before retiring. He says that the school's spiritual base gave students other lessons for life.
Mr. DON DELCIELLO (Retired Teacher): The environment gives you the opportunity to practice what you believe in, you know, your faith, your part in society in general. Even though the kids - not all of the kids are Catholic here, yet they're very much involved with their own churches. I dont think I can remember in all my 43 years here parents ever objecting to us praying together, going to Mass, even though you knew you're not Catholic and you're not part of - thats not part of your belief or your faith. It's a faith community.
Unidentified Man #6: Now batting for the Crusaders, designated hitter Number 4, Garrett Sikes.
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SIMON: It could be the final game played on Babe Ruth Field took place on a blustery Saturday morning three weeks ago - Cardinal Gibbons against Calvert Hall. Suzie Grace was in the stands watching her son Ben pitch, and Cardinal Gibbons School pass away in front of her eyes.
Ms. SUZIE GRACE: I just can't believe that this could be the last game here ever. I have two older sons who graduated from here. I have a sophomore right now. And my husband went here, his brothers went here, my nephews went here. I mean Babe Ruth played right here. I just can't imagine that somebody one day could just buy this place, level it and it would be gone.
The fact that Archbishop O'Brien never came to talk to any of us too really bugs me. He should have come out here and talked to us and said, look, guys, this is the way it is, Im really sorry, we need to do this, move on. And he never did that. I have a problem with that and Im long - Im a cradle Catholic and Im a good little Catholic girl. I do...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GRACE: You know what I mean? But this just - it's just unacceptable.
SIMON: The archdiocese points out they had to announce that 13 schools were closing that same day. The archbishop couldnt be at all of them. They say they're heartened that already 178 of Gibbons 297 students have registered for other schools in the archdiocese for next year, and that Catholic schools will have to consolidate to survive in new economic and demographic times.
And on that Saturday, Cardinal Gibbons lost to Calvert Hall, eight to four.
Tomorrow, what looks to be like the last senior class in the distinguished history of Baltimore's Cardinal Gibbons School will graduate. The future of the buildings and ball field thats seen so much history is uncertain. As Babe Ruth once told reporters: Yesterday's homeruns dont win today's games.
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