A big start, a bigger finish

Dan Rodricks

August 19, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

As the end approaches for Memorial Stadium, I find myself searching for 1954. I keep trying to get a fix on the year the stadium opened and the Orioles came to Baltimore.

It takes little effort, of course, if you grew up here and are old enough to remember 1954, the white uniforms of the players on parade, Gunther Beer and Big Tommy. But if you were not in Baltimore then, it's a lot more difficult. All you can do is imagine.

Relative to the history of the universe, 37 years is not a long time; it's a fraction of a second. To a lot of people, I'm sure, Memorial Stadium opened just the day before yesterday.

Still, the human race packed so much into this particular span of time (1954-1991) that sorting it out is like cutting through a thicket to find an old, familiar path, the shortcut you used in childhood. You know it's there somewhere but perhaps you've forgotten where the path began, where it turned, where it ended. Now wild roses have overwhelmed it; you can no longer see it.

There is a lot of clutter between 1954 and today -- Harbor Tunnel; Beltway; Harundale; space race; Khrushchev; McKeldin; sudden-death championship; JFK and the JFX; Cuba missiles; Cambridge riots; LBJ and Tawes; Vietnam; the World Series; Agnew and Nixon; RFK and King; Baltimore riots; Columbia opening; Super Bowl; another World Series; moon walk; another Super Bowl; a World Series again, and again; Wallace shot; Watergate; Agnew, Alton, Anderson, Mandel in court; a subway; Hughes; Orioles Magic and EBW; Carter and the hostages; Reagan; Harborplace; another World Series; Irsay; Old Court; space shuttle; Schaefer; Schmoke; Bush; Berlin Wall; empty stores on Howard Street; Gulf War; Gorbachev.

If I go to my earliest memory, I end up at the age of 6 watching John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech on television. That's the best I can do, and my best leaves me six years short of 1954.

There's an obvious explanation for this. Nineteen-fifty-four was the year in which I was born. That this event did not occur in Baltimore compounds my disadvantage.

So I go to the books and magazines and old newspapers. I look at old photographs.

Lately, I find myself fascinated with photographs from the late 1940s and early 1950s -- family photographs in particular. This probably has something to do with a search that, I'm told, a lot of men undertake in the years following the death of a parent. I am probably searching for my father -- "Finding the father" is how poet Robert Bly might put it -- trying to knit together images of him as a young man in an attempt to construct a portrait of the man he was the year I was born.

But I don't stop there. I try to place him in the America of 1954.

And then, I go even further. I try to place him in the Baltimore of that time. I see his car, his lunch box, his work shirt and steel-toed shoes. I see him in Sunday duds, in the smart suit and tie he purchased a few years earlier, during the time of robust consumerism after World War II. I see his wife and kids, and the new appliances in their home. I see, in some corner of a black-and-white photograph, a television set with a round screen.

I see thousands of other men just like this, putting the Boom in Baby Boom, spreading into the suburbs, leaving the old neighborhoods of the city. Moving out and moving up.

That's exactly what was happening in Baltimore 1954. The city's population was already in decline. Baltimore was becoming poorer. It was losing manufacturing and commerce.

In "Maryland & America: 1940--1980," George H. Callcott wrote: "The rise of the American suburbs involved the greatest population movement in history . . . After World War II, movement reached explosive proportions. In the five years from 1946 to 1951, Maryland's suburban population doubled; in the ten years from 1951 to 1961, the suburban population doubled again; and in the twenty years from 1961 to 1981, it doubled once more."

When I hear the parents of the Baby Boom speak with melancholy of the "old neighborhood," I know they speak of a bygone Baltimore -- a bygone America, really -- that only existed until shortly after World War II. Nineteen-fifty-four marked the beginning of something big here, but the end of something even bigger. Baltimore could declare itself a major league city, but the city would never be the same. It was as if Memorial Stadium went up like a fort against the change everyone knew was under way. I guess we're building the new stadium in downtown Baltimore for the same reason.

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