In an unlabeled Ziploc bag, sitting atop a cardboard box in a basement three blocks east of Pigtown, is the basketball net that Gary Williams cut down after his Maryland Terrapins men’s team won their first and only national championship in 2002.

If not for the basement’s encyclopedic overseer, there would be little distinguishing the net from a swath of twine, preserved in the same style as a sandwich in a lunchbox.

“That’s a good piece to have,” Michael Gibbons said.

Since 1982, Gibbons has worked on the collection and curation of thousands of pieces of Maryland sports history, many of which now sit on the bottom floor of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, where Gibbons serves as the director emeritus and historian.

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A winding descent from the building’s main floor leads to a fluorescent-lit, temperature-controlled room filled with white storage boxes. It’s the closest a Baltimore sports fan can get to the warehouse in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Sports memorabilia and historical artifacts sit in the basement of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum on June 21, 2023. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

Among the vast collection is quarterback Johnny Unitas’ first pro football contract with the Baltimore Colts, signed in 1956. It paid the future Hall of Famer a mere $7,000.

There’s box after box of game-used baseballs. There are dozens of old Colts, Orioles, Maryland and Ravens jerseys, hung on a rack as if in a thrift store.

There’s the hat worn by Jonathan Ogden moments after he became the first-ever draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 1996. The purple-brimmed cap lacks a team logo, because the Ravens hadn’t yet picked one.

For 10 years, these items were housed on the first floor of a red brick building adjacent to the warehouse at Camden Yards. The not-for-profit Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, which opened in 2005 in what was once Camden Station, was the “de facto state sports museum,” according to Gibbons.

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But the museum closed in October 2015, declining to renew its lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, located on the second floor, shuttered its doors in 2018, leaving the building empty, as it remains today.

“Unfortunately, the rent structure was prohibitive for us to be in there,” Gibbons said.

Sports memorabilia and historical artifacts sit in the basement of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum on June 21, 2023. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

All 20,000 of Sports Legends’ artifacts were boxed and brought two blocks west, stored behind lock and key at 216 Emory St., away from the view of the public.

“I think a lot of people think that we went away,” Gibbons said. “The organization is still intact, it’s just minus a building.”

The Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation still operates the museum above, which first opened in 1974 as a national shrine to “The Bambino.” Exhibits depict the three-story house as it likely looked when Ruth grew up there in the late 1890s and early 1900s, and display hundreds of relics related to his life and career.

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In addition to functioning as the official museum of the Orioles, the landmark also became the official archives of the Baltimore Colts in 1985, a year after the franchise departed for Indianapolis. This was the work of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who was eager to preserve any piece of Colts history he could.

Unitas, who spent 17 seasons as the face of the Colts, contributed many of his personal belongings before his death in 2002, including his 1967 NFL Most Valuable Player award.

A handful of items — including Joe Flacco’s ring from Super Bowl XLVII — are on display in the museum.

It remains the goal of Gibbons and his colleagues to secure a building and give the collection a new home. Until then, these pieces of Maryland sports history will rest on these white shelves, except when brought out for special events.

In the meantime, Gibbons is just hoping fans don’t forget about the treasure trove buried beneath one of Baltimore’s most historic buildings.

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“It’s like, they are here, they’ve got stuff, they have value,” he said.

paul.mancano@thebaltimorebanner.com

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