Waverly's storied baseball days coming to an end

Jacques Kelly

April 09, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

This is the last season the Orioles will be playing in Waverly, ending a run of 108 years during which an Oriole team has been playing its games in some corner of this neighborhood of baseball ghosts and stories.

If ever there is game where history looms, it's baseball. My first brush with the Orioles came at age 3 or 4. My family lived in the 2800 block of Guilford Ave., diagonally across from one of the several Oriole parks during the golden age of baseball. The ballpark at 29th Street and Greenmount Avenue was the home of the International League Orioles, a league the team dominated in the 1920s. Baltimoreans of a certain age still get a little misty-eyed about this old playing ground. They regard Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1954, as a johnny-come-lately.

At the time Memorial Stadium came into being, my friends and I would spend hours at play on that vacant lot where Oriole Park once stood.

Oriole Park, with its rickety wooden grandstands, burned to the ground in the early morning hours of July 4, 1944. In the 1950s, this pile of dirt and decay looked like a forgotten no-man's land, but the neighborhood children loved it. It was our vacant lot, full of old bricks and clay and broken pieces of concrete block. It is now the site of the Barclay Elementary School and several nondescript brick industrial buildings. There's no plaque, no marker, no recognition that a ballpark once stood here.

About 1956, I once asked my grandfather about a pile of rubble and a falling-down wall on 30th Street, just off Greenmount Avenue. He told me to be more reverential about what had been a center field fence painted with ads for soft drinks and hot dogs and men's tailors.

The first Oriole Park stood at what is now 25th Street and Greenmount Avenue. It made its debut 108 years ago -- April 19, 1883. And, although 4,000 spectators mobbed the York Road horse cars to get to the afternoon game, the playing field was less than perfect. "The ground is now hard and the grass has begun to sprout," The Sun reported. The paper's reporter referred to the team as the Baltimores. The opponent was the Boston Red Stockings. Admission was 25 cents. We lost 7-2.

Some of the old Orioles themselves stuck close to the old neighborhood. Hugh Jennings lived at 529 E. 23rd St., an address we don't consider Waverly today, but did so in 1899. The great outfielder Joseph J. Kelley lived at 530 E. 22nd St. and later moved to 2826 N. Calvert St. When he died there in 1943, his obituary made a point of saying he expired "a few squares from the scene of his many conquests in the lush days of Baltimore baseball."

Another spectacular Oriole, Wilbert Robinson, who went on to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers, lived at 2740 St. Paul St. His pal, John McGraw, the famous manager of the New York Giants, lived next door, at 2738 St. Paul. I wonder how many present day Oriole fans, stuck in St. Paul Street traffic after a game, know the three-story rowhouses they are passing were once home to these two Hall of Famers?

And if anyone doubts the McGraw legend, go to New Cathedral Cemetery, off Old Frederick Road in Irvington. The McGraw resting place, a marble Greek temple, tells each visitor this is the grave of a baseball deity.

Babe Ruth's very few weeks as an Oriole were played at the Oriole Park at Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street.

For years, the site remained a vacant lot, except for a gasoline station that stood on the corner. My mother always claimed the lot was jinxed -- no one would build anything there. Even the gas station closed. Then a Chicken George's opened. It closed, too.

Finally, a McDonald's moved in and apparently broke the curse. It was right around the time they broke the ground for the new Camden Yards ballpark.

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