FREE: Newport Sports Museum is Orange County’s Best Kept Secret

Across the street from Fashion Island at 100 Newport Center Dr. in Newport Beach, there stands a building that could be mistaken for a bank, a law firm or a real estate company. It’s actually a free sports museum. So why would Newport Beach, a city that doesn’t have a professional or collegiate athletics program have a museum dedicated to sports? Why not?!

Step inside a museum assembled by John W. Hamilton, who has amassed over 10,000 pieces of sports history. One of the largest memorabilia collections in the world, the Newport Sports Museum has housed some of the greatest gems in sports history since 1995. That’s why it’s one of Orange County’s best kept secrets and believe it or not, Newport’s own sports museum could give Canton, Ohio and Cooperstown, N.Y a run for their money.

Four Olympic torches, signed footballs from every Heisman Trophy winner, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal golf clubs, Shaquille O’Neal’s game-worn shoes (size 22) and Reggie Bush’s game-worn USC jersey are all on display. And we’re just getting started.

There’s a room dedicated to the California, Anaheim and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. There’s a room for the LA Dodgers and Kings, USC Trojans, Anaheim Ducks, Olympians, Cy Young winners, PGA Champions, Heisman winners — you name it.

Guest athletes come routinely to speak to audiences of 30 or more. Residents are given the opportunity to take a seat in an actual, preserved stadium chair from Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston, a leathery, navy-blue seat from the old Yankees Stadium, or a frayed, wooden seat from Forbes Field, among others.

But perhaps the most impressive jewel of the Newport Sports Museum is a baseball that sits in a glass case, aged considerably since its last use over 70 years ago. After retiring from Major League Baseball as the league’s all-time home run king, Babe Ruth’s home run hitting days weren’t necessarily over. The Newport Sports Museum features the final home run of Babe Ruth’s life, smashed after Ruth retired from the MLB in 1935. Its laces and covering are aged to perfection.

As the Sandlot kids would tell us, the ball was hit by “The sultan of swat! The king of crash! The colossus of clout! The colossus of clout! BABE RUTH!!! THE GREAT BAMBINO!” Yes, the autographed baseball that was Ruth’s final home run resides in Orange County. A legend of a man who is said to have cursed the Red Sox for a century, after being sold to the Yankees, lives on in Newport Beach. The same outfielder, who slugged 714 home runs and hit .342, did so after starting his career with 94 wins and a 2.28 earned run average as a starting pitcher. There will never be another like the Great Bambino. The last of hundreds of home run balls that were torched by Ruth in his illustrious and tragically short life is just down the street from UC Irvine. It truly is a sight to see.

Entrance to the museum is FREE. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, knowledgeable tour guides provide historical context to some of their finest treasures.

“There’s no cost,” Hamilton, the founder of the Newport Sports Museum, said. “I don’t ever want to have a kid come with his father or grandfather and be turned away.”

The Newport Sports Museum is Hamilton’s personal collection. His first piece was a 1953 All-American football, which was signed by each and every NCAA football All-American that season. And the rest is history … literally. Hamilton continued to collect memorabilia until he practically ran out of space.

“I’ve always had a passion for sports,” he said. “It doesn’t do any good to have it all [lying around] in my basement. I wanted to take all this stuff and turn it into a positive tool.”

The museum is a non-profit organization that supports the Legacy Leadership Program, which provides high-school athletes the opportunity to be mentored one-on-one by a Pro Football Hall of Famer each year during the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremonies.

Although the inspirational, guest speakers often target an audience of children, the museum is perfect for all ages. From impressing your grandfather with Ben Hogan’s golf ball and a signed picture of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams to impressing your girlfriend with Matt Leinart’s jersey, anyone who leaves indifferently likely entered without a pulse.

“Athletes can command attention that even rock stars and politicians can’t,” Hamilton said. “My goal has always been to bring in good athletes that could convey good messages [at the museum]. If we can change one life a month, we’ve done a great thing for this community.”

One of Hamilton’s favorite aspects of the museum is a mural painted of the final out of Nolan Ryan’s fourth of seven no-hitters on June 1, 1975 against the Baltimore Orioles.

“You have Nolan Ryan pitching to Bobby Grich with Brooks Robinson on deck,” Hamilton said. “One of the messages I tell kids when they come in here is that it takes courage to say no to drugs and to do the right things in life. Those three guys, Nolan Ryan, Grich and Brooks had great character. There were 39,000 people in the stands in Anaheim and 38,998 wanted Ryan to get the final out. Grich knew [Ryan] was going to throw a fastball, everyone in the stadium knew he would. But Ryan had enough courage and confidence to throw the changeup and he froze Grich for strike three. It takes that kind of courage to do the responsible things in life.”

Jerseys, helmets, programs, ticket stubs, shoes, golf clubs and more are on display. Curling, hockey, basketball, baseball, football and boxing are represented. If you call yourself a sports fan, it’s your duty to check out the Newport Sports Museum, a sports nerd’s dream.