Ocean City resident made stadium letter-perfect

May 14, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

There are 317 stainless steel letters on the great stone face of Memorial Stadium.

Chuck Yealdhall made every one of them by hand.

"It wasn't a matter of 'Can you do it?' " said Mr. Yealdhall, who did the work for the Belsinger Sign Co. "It was: 'Here, do it!' "

The big letters, along with four numbers that say "1954," make up the dedication to America's dead in the world wars that is bolted, letter by letter, to the front of the stadium.

And when the sun sparkles across the polished steel script, it is the most beautiful part of a building in which little apparent thought was given to beauty.

"When you get far away from it and look up at it, maybe the ordinary person doesn't appreciate it," said Mr. Yealdhall, shielding his eyes to stare up at an achievement once believed to be the largest display of stainless steel in the world.

"It was very impressive doing them, when you're right next to them and they're so big," he said. "Then you can see the work in them."

It would be hard to miss the work in 10-foot high, three-dimensional letters of steel like the ones that crown the ballpark with the legend: "MEMORIAL STADIUM."

Few things appeared more odd to Baltimoreans of 1954 than the exotically modern letters on the front of their new sports stadium. "They were ahead of their time," said Mr. Yealdhall. "The architect must have dreamed them up. If you had a book of every [typeface], I don't believe you'd find it." And you wouldn't, according to the designer, a Polish architect named Francis J. Tarlowski.

"It is not an imitation of anything, and it has no precedent," Mr. Tarlowski told a reporter in 1954. "It took a little courage to do certain things. . . . I was personally very pleased."

"Somebody said it looked like Russian hieroglyphics," said Donald Belsinger, one of five Belsinger brothers who inherited the company from its founder, Harry Belsinger Sr.

The sans-serif, monotype letters are indeed very strange -- the M's are actually N's with an extra stroke slashing down through each of them; the E's are tall and thin with the center bar nearly touching the bottom; and long S's tilt so far to the right that they look like tildes, the wavy Spanish accent marks.

"This kind of M I've never seen before except here. If you tell me it's a letter, I know it's an M, but if you just put that shape on the wall and said, 'What is it?' I wouldn't know. We're definitely looking at somebody who took the opportunity to express their personal artistic bent in letter form," said Stephen Heaver Jr., an instructor in the Maryland Institute of Art Department of Design and an expert on type faces.

"I don't have a lot of sympathy for this kind of thing; it's not made for easy reading," said Mr. Heaver. "But I suspect he was sincerely trying to interpret the mood of the building, and perhaps because people stop to study [the oddity] they take the time to stand long enough to read the dedication."

Said Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, president of the Baltimore Art Deco Society: "So what if they stray too far from standards? That's how different typefaces evolve. I think it's nifty that this memorial was so important that they designed a whole system of lettering just for this building."

When Mr. Yealdhall began slicing the first letter out of big sheets of 20-gauge stainless steel in a sign shop on North Payson Street in 1953, he was still a young man: a World War II veteran several years out of the Army Air Forces, living in a Brooklyn Park apartment with his English war bride and their young son.

He is 68 years old now, white-haired and retired in Ocean City.

As the last major league season at Memorial Stadium rolls toward its goodbye summer, Mr. Yealdhall ponders the job he did 38 years ago for the Belsinger company.

He wonders what will become of his work once the old brick ball yard is abandoned.

"I'm very proud of it," he said of the gleaming inscription: ". . . a memorial to all who so valiantly fought and served in the World Wars . . . with eternal gratitude to those who made the supreme sacrifice. . . . Time will not dim the glory of their deeds. . . ."

Beneath that poetry have streamed tens of millions of fans to cheer and boo and marvel at some of the 20th century's greatest athletes: Ted Williams, Johnny Unitas, Pele, Brooks Robinson, Jim Brown, Jackie Robinson and Warren Spahn.

The massive dedication was shepherded from design to reality by Mr. Yealdhall between late 1953 and April 15, 1954, when he worked for the Belsinger company. Major league baseball had just returned to Baltimore after being gone for a half-century.

He remembers it as six months of careful, deliberate work -- though once, in the middle of the job, somebody caught one of the Belsinger kids using one of the giant A's for a sliding board.

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