City threw big housewarming for new team, remodeled stadium

APRIL 15, 1954

April 04, 1991|By Mark Hyman

Public schools closed for the day, presumably because there weren't enough transistor radios to go around. City workers got the day off, too. Most downtown businesses were shuttered by noon.

Nothing about life in Baltimore seemed routine. Men with pot bellies were baseball fans. But so were old, blue-haired ladies. For one day, weather wasn't the topic of conversation over the morning toast and java. Bob Turley's fastball was.

Baltimore didn't know the modern-day Orioles yet. But on the morning of April 15, 1954, that hardly mattered. The city had a new major-league team about to play its first home game. Memorial Stadium, refurbished with an upper deck, was about to be unveiled. The day's festivities were to begin with a street-clogging parade featuring 20th-century luminaries Connie Mack, Home Run Baker and Richard Nixon.

A modern Opening Day with one of those historical bonuses is difficult to imagine. Three is too much.

To Zanvyl Krieger, a Baltimore philanthropist who was an owner of the '54 Orioles, the first Opening Day was "one of the outstanding events in the history of Baltimore."

Jim Bready, a former Evening Sun editorial writer and a baseball historian, calls it "the biggest purely Baltimore event in 50 years" -- since the Great Fire of 1904.

It was difficult to overstate the importance of the occasion, although Baltimore's newspapers tried. On April 15, the banner headlines -- In The Evening Sun, "Thousands Greet Orioles for Major League Opener" and in The News-Post, "Thousands at Parade Welcoming Orioles" -- appeared in type size found on the top line of eye charts.

A front-page article in The News-Post began, "A lifetime dream came true for a thrilled Baltimore today as your Orioles came home as 'big leaguers.' . . . "

On Monday, the Orioles and Chicago White Sox meet in another historic Orioles Opening Day -- the 38th and last the Orioles will play at the stadium before they shift next season to the new ballpark in Camden Yards. The game will evoke tears and stir peculiar Memorial Stadium memories of Brooks, Boog and lines outside the ladies' rest room. Mostly, it will be a farewell to all the things that have made Memorial Stadium a treasure and a curse at the same time.

Opening Day 1954 was just the opposite -- the start of a season-long hello.

In a roundabout way, that is where the idea for Baltimore's welcoming parade came from, according to Carle Jackson. Jackson should know. He conceived the idea for a parade with his friend, Clarence Miles, the Orioles' first president and a Baltimore lawyer who was instrumental in bringing the lowly St. Louis Browns to town as the Orioles. Miles was searching for a way to get his players in front of the public before they trotted out onto the field on Opening Day. Miles and Jackson put their heads together. The next Jackson knew, he'd been persuaded by his friend to serve as grand marshal, a job he said neither thrilled nor frightened him.

"Clarence said, 'We'll do it if you'll be the marshal,' " Jackson, now 84, and the son of a Baltimore mayor, Howard Jackson, said recently. "I said that was all right. You can't get hurt in a parade."

Miles hoped for a modest parade with floats and marching bands interspersed with Orioles players, Jackson said. What developed was a procession viewed by 350,000 people lining the route from the staging area near Johns Hopkins University, south on Charles and Howard streets, east on Baltimore Street and then to City Hall.

The Orioles made their grand entrance into Baltimore by train, arriving from Detroit where they had opened the season. They arrived looking unmistakably like ballplayers, having changed into their home white uniforms during the trip. It was the most curious sight of the first Opening Day -- two dozen ballplayers filing through Camden Station with sport coats and neckties slung over their backs. Police kept a small crowd of well-wishers at a distance, perhaps to prevent the theft of tie clasps.

From the station, charter buses whisked the new Orioles to the top of the parade route, where the party really began.

"People were just everywhere, stacked up along Charles Street and hanging out windows," said Richard Armstrong, the Orioles' public relations director in 1954, who is now retired in Princeton, N.J. "It was the introduction of the fans to the new Orioles, who hadn't been seen."

The final count was 22 bands and 32 floats, including one display that featured a 14-foot, bat-wielding statue of Babe Ruth. Among the living guests were Nixon, baseball commissioner Ford C. Frick, American League president Will Harridge and two extremely old and precious gentlemen -- Mack, then 91, president of the Philadelphia Athletics, and Washington Senators president Clark Griffith, 84. The two waved to the crowd, but mostly leaned wearily on one another in the back seat of a convertible.

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