Ushering In One Last Year Of Memories

April 09, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Some of the regulars in Section 41, right behind home plate, were a bit confused yesterday. Oh sure, after all these years, they could find their seats by themselves. It's just that their usher, Gerry Siegel, wasn't there to seat them as he's always been since, well, time imMemorial.

This Opening Day briefly took the 70-year-old Mr. Siegel away from his beloved Section 41, where he's ushered in ticket holders since 1954. He and five fellow employees who have worked in Memorial Stadium ever since that first year were honored in an on-field ceremony before this last season opener on 33rd Street.

"I feel a little sad," he said of the team's move next year to the new stadium under construction at Camden Yards downtown. "I hope the memories come with us."

They're the living keepers of those memories, these members of the Class of '54. Players, managers and even owners have come and gone in the past 37 seasons at Memorial Stadium, but these ushers and supervisors have remained. And theirs is a unique perspective -- not just of the game itself but of the fans and the workings of this small yet rich world that Brigadoon-like comes to life every April only to disappear every October.

"Remember the chicken salad?" is all John Sansone, 69, supervisor of the ushers, has to say to operations consultant Charlie Jasper -- and they'll both roll their eyes in memory of the last game of that first season.

A bus group of 125 people from Pennsylvania had feasted on some bad chicken salad on the way, and spent the game getting sick and keeping the ambulances rolling. It wasn't the worst day on the job, however -- that would have had to have been May 2, 1964, when one girl was killed and 46 others injured in an escalator mishap that occurred, horribly enough, on "Safety Patrol" day.

But most of the memories are more pleasant ones -- of corraling Morganna during one of her on-field kissing sprees, of the streaker who jumped on the field to run the bases and slide home and, of course, of all the World Series and the All-Star game and the endless parade of baseball's greats from Mickey Mantle to Ted Williams to our own Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer.

And then there was the baby that was nearly born in the stands, Mr. Sansone recalled. An ambulance, however, managed to get the very pregnant woman back home to York, Pa., in time for the birth.

Opening Days, of course, are among the most memorable because of their special craziness, what with the fans letting the pent-up energy of the winter loose on this spring day, bouncing off walls and each other in what is often unfamiliar territory to them.

"Opening Day is like Easter Sunday at church," said Mr. Jasper, 72. "Half the people have never been there before."

Mr. Jasper actually didn't work that first Opening Day in 1954. "I had tickets that day, so I started work the second game," said Mr. Jasper, who started out as the O's clubhouse guard, then moved to Gate E1 as a ticket taker and worked his way up to ticket taker supervisor.

He keeps planning to retire, "but this gets under your skin." In fact, when he goes to a game as a civilian, he said, "it feels funny."

Frenzied as Opening Day is, these ushers wouldn't miss the chance to hail the new season for any but the most pressing of reasons.

"Once I had an auto accident, otherwise I haven't missed any," said Borgia Cohen, 73, an usher in the press box.

But other than that, Mr. Cohen has been a press-box regular, watching over perhaps that most unruly group of stadium regulars.

"The older ones were more interested in baseball, I think," Mr. Cohen observed of the journalists. "It's more of a job for the young people now."

Yet he must be a bit fond of the press -- his older son, who once interviewed Brooks Robinson for his student newspaper at City College, is editor of the Chronicle in St. Helens, Ore.

All of these employees have had regular "day" jobs in the past -- Mr. Jasper, for example, was a traveling auditor for an insurance company and scheduled his trips out of town to coincide with the Birds' road trips.

But among the Class of '54, only Ernie Salamone, 76, can claim another baseball job -- he was signed as a shortstop in 1933 by one of the O's minor league teams. Now a press box attendant on the west side of the stadium, he didn't make it to the majors until he began ushering at Memorial Stadium.

He played five years in the minors -- making the now seemingly ludicrous salary of $75 a month -- and worked at Bethlehem Steel's accounting department for 37 years. He decided to work at the stadium in 1954 "to pick up some extra money," the father of five said.

"And I love baseball," Mr. Salamone added.

Indeed, that's why they've all stayed so long -- so long that none can pick just one game or just one player or even just one season to call his favorite.

"I've always been an O's fan," said Hilary Bertling, 70, more commonly known as "Red" (although his hair has lost that color and he perhaps should be called "Whitey" now). "I was part of the 'knot-hole gang' at the old stadium . . . at 29th and Greenmount. They would see our eyes behind those holes, and let us come in.

"So," he concluded, "I'm going to keep doing this as long as my legs hold out."

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