1954 not only brought city a team, but an identity as well

John Steadman

April 08, 1991|By John Steadman

Never has there been a more meaningful moment for Baltimore, historically, psychologically and emotionally. It was, at last, freed of the shackles that unfortunately bound it to the minor leagues for 51 distressing, frustrating years. No longer would it be referred to as that "whistle stop" of rowhouses with white marble stoops located between Philadelphia and Washington.

A tradition-rich name, the Baltimore Orioles, second only to the Cincinnati Reds in baseball legend and lore, was back where it belonged . . . listed in the major-league standings. The 1954 opening of the Orioles and Chicago White Sox in Memorial Stadium signified the emergence of Baltimore as a city that was on the move, not merely the transfer of a franchise that had once labored in ignominy as the woeful St. Louis Browns.

Now the same two teams, the White Sox and Orioles, are cast in the identical setting, for what will be the final season of play, 1991, at Memorial Stadium. It's a time for looking back and reflecting on what Opening Day 1954 meant . . . then and now.

The weather was cold and penetrating on that un-springlike April 15 afternoon when Baltimore was so ecstatic over returning to the big leagues it threw itself a parade. It made such an impression on a then young sportswriter that to this day, 37 years later, he can point to the sidewalk on Charles Street where he watched the Orioles cruise by in open cars.

They were tossing plastic baseballs to the crowd and the spectators, in turn, were throwing them orchids. Going by were players with such established names as Eddie Waitkus, Vern "Junior" Stephens, Sam Mele and Cal Abrams. And then others, inherited from the Browns: Billy Hunter, Bobby Young, Clint Courtney, Don Larsen and Bob Turley.

It meant that symbols of Baltimore's minor-league past -- even such immortals as Babe Ruth, who has meant more to the game than any single individual, and Lefty Grove, both Marylanders by birth -- would be thought of as icons of an earlier worship. Now attentions would be turned to the present, the contemporary performers.

But where had so many boyhood heroes gone? There was George Puccinelli, Bucky Crouse, Les Powers, whom we once accompanied on an after-game walk from Oriole Park to Hooper's Restaurant; Joe Becker, Eddie Mayo, Bob Lemon, Al Brightman, Nick Etten, Al Flair, Gene Corbett, Howie Moss, Johnny Wittig, Sherm Lollar, Gordon Mueller, Bob Repass and so many others.

Now, with the Orioles in the American League, the team's accomplishments, individually and collectively, wouldn't be minimized by association with the International League. And Baltimore would grow with the Orioles. Regardless of how many attributes a city had, if it didn't have major-league baseball, as was said in show business, it was East Bridgeport.

The Orioles' advance to the majors created a pride that Baltimore had never experienced on such a grand scale. That initial game in Baltimore matched two hard-throwing righthanded pitchers, Bob Turley of the Orioles and Virgil "Fire" Trucks of the White Sox.

The outfield fences were so far away -- 450 feet to centerfield and 447 feet to left-center and right-center -- that it was as if the teams were playing on an open prairie. That's why the line-drive home runs by Stephens and Courtney to leftfield and right-center, respectively, were shots that were truly legitimate. They went screaming out of the place.

Turley could throw harder than any pitcher in baseball, as witness the fact he was called "Bullet Bob" and led the majors in strikeouts that season of 1954. Against the White Sox he recorded nine strikeouts; Waitkus got three hits and the final out occurred after Turley had walked Nelson Fox and Chico Carrasquel and then got Bob Boyd to bounce back to the box.

It was all over. Baltimore had won, 3-1, before 46,354. The Orioles ended the season with the identical record of the 1953 Browns: 100 defeats, 54 wins. Manager Jimmy Dykes, who lost lots of games but not his humor, related the time he had serious chest pains in the dugout.

"I thought I was dying," he related, "but I looked up to heaven and made my peace. I said, 'Thanks, God, for everything, especially letting me leave right now with a four-run lead.' "

Much has happened in Memorial Stadium since that 1954 season but the feeling of being there when the American League came back to Baltimore precedes all else in any moving montage drawn from the fund of yesteryear's memories.

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