So You Want to Build a Sports Statue

Brooks Robinson Statue
Photo by Maroon PR
My home town of Baltimore, Maryland once held the moniker of “MonumentalCity” because of the hundreds of statues and monuments that adorned our downtown plazas. And while we don’t generate the same kind of burgeoning numbers of artsy tributes today as we did, say, after the American Civil War or World Wars One or Two, you can still go to one or two unveilings a year, regardless of America’s current martial meanderings.

Three of our city’s most recent statues celebrate local sports heroes, their presence on our monumental landscape indicative of how far sports heritage has come in the modern era. Prior to the unveiling of the Babe Ruth statue at Camden Yards in 1995, there had never been a statue dedicated to a local sports icon in the downtown area. In 2002, a statue of Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas was unveiled outside the main portal to M&T Bank Stadium, home of our Baltimore Ravens. And just last month, Mister Baltimore Oriole, Brooks Robinson, was on hand for the unveiling of his nine-foot bronze likeness just west of OriolePark at Camden Yards.

Aside from the obvious notion that each of the above-referenced monuments pay tribute to famous Baltimore sports figures, they have one other thing in common: they were all produced by our sports museum!  And after three projects of ‘monumental’ proportion, I can tell you one thing conclusively: the devil is in the detail.

Why? Because even though a statue, at the time of its unveiling, seems like a relatively straight-forward, simplistic, artistic gesture(a bronze figure mounted atop a concrete and granite pedestal, adorned with a couple of plaques for donor recognition and narrative text), it isn’t! Because what you see at an unveiling does not accurately represent the full breadth and scope of complexity of such an undertaking.

Statue projects typically take years and years. Why? Well, once the creative or inspirational spark of an idea translates into enough individual or group motivation to get a project going, coordinators must start to move forward across multiple layers of endeavor, ensuring that all components of the project mesh together seamlessly, and on time. They must select the just-right artist, negotiate a contract, establish a production schedule, garner political approval and civic permission and corporate support, secure a construction company, locate the installation site, garner grass roots enthusiasm from the community, tickle and then grab the attention of local (and perhaps national) media, maneuver through a myriad of unveiling ceremony details, draft and enact long-term maintenance and security contracts, create post-unveiling souvenir and merchandising opportunities, and, in the end, pray that they don’t make any irreversible mistakes or missteps.

When we did our first statue project, Babe Ruth, everything went along relatively well all the way through the unveiling, with the governor and Babe’s daughter pulling the drape from the nine foot depiction of a young Ruth in his Baltimore Orioles uniform. But about a week after the grandstand had been dismantled and the dust had started to settle on the slugger’s bronze likeness, all hell broke loose. The artist had depicted Ruth carrying his right-handed fielding mitt, which would have been fine, except Ruth was a lefty!
Our committee of ‘experts’ surveyed and scrutinized until the cows came home, but not enough to prevent the mistake. News of the error went viral and spread across national news desks faster than one of the Babe’s home runs flying out of Yankee Stadium. Just like that, Baltimore’s first sports statue was notorious. And our statue committee was dumbstruck. What could we do?
The answer, of course, was nothing, except live and learn. Which I think we did, because the Unitas and Robinson statues that followed have no errors that we are aware of, no wrong-handed mitt or uniform malfunctions.

So if you want to build a statue, know that it is complicated, painstaking, unforgiving work, and if you make a mistake, it will be there for generations to contemplate.

The Ruth statue error, by the way, turned out to be not all that bad, because that notorious right-handed mitt has made the Camden Yards monument a ‘must see’ for out- –of-town tourists and locals alike, sixteen years after the discovery…and counting.

Mike Gibbons is the executive director for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.