The brief life of a stadium

Dan Rodricks

August 28, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Almost all memorabilia and souvenirs associated with this final season of baseball at Memorial Stadium -- from umbrellas to infield dirt -- bear the dates 1954-1991, marking, of course, the span of the life of the modern Orioles in Baltimore and the stadium in which they played. The Orioles will stay on. It's the stadium that's finished.

Each time I see these hyphenated years, and each time I visit the stadium and look it over, I decide that the span between 1954 and 1991 is not a long one. Visitors to Baltimore this summer find it altogether remarkable that a city could abandon such a grand stadium after only 38 seasons of use, with many improvements made along the way. Nineteen fifty-four to 1991 is, in the context of human history and the coming and going of comets, a blip in time. Cars and refrigerators have been used longer than Memorial Stadium.

But when I look back to find 1954 on the map of American history, piecing it together from old magazines and reference books, it seems like a very long time ago. Jo-Jo Vitale, a kid from Dundalk who scored big on national television in the 1950s when he sang "That's Amore" on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, put it this way: "It's almost like I've lived two lives since then."

I keep trying to get a fix on 1954.

The year Memorial Stadium opened, nine years after World War II, the annual birthrate in the United States reached 4 million. The suburbs were growing fast. Cities were losing large chunks of middle-class population. Neighborhoods changed forever. Consumerism flourished. By 1954, 40 percent of all retail food sales took place in chain supermarkets, and frozen food exceeded $1 billion in sales for the first time. General Motors produced its 50 millionth automobile and electric power reached the 50 millionth customer in the United States. In a testimonial in Life magazine, Mrs. Orette Emrick of Beaver Falls, Pa., exclaimed: "I needed a 48-hour day until I got my new Crosley Range and the rest of my matching Crosley Electric Kitchen!"

Nineteen fifty-four was the year Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe, the year Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, the year Elvis Presley turned 19 and recorded his first two songs. The Army-McCarthy hearings, which most of us know only from newsreel, were carried on live daytime television. "I Love Lucy" was the most popular prime-time show in the country.

Nineteen fifty-four was the year of Brown v. Board of Education, the year of the first atomic submarine, the first H-bomb test and the first nuclear power plant. It was the first year of publication for Sports Illustrated, the first season for "The Tonight Show," the year of the first frozen TV dinners, the year the mambo and the cha-cha arrived from Cuba. Nineteen fifty-four was the year of the first mass inoculation against polio. Dr. Jonas Salk made the cover of magazines.

Nineteen fifty-four was the last year Ellis Island was used as a port of entry for immigrants. It was a year of ascent for a communist named Khrushchev. It was the year of the French defeat at Dienbienphu in a place called Vietnam.

In 1954, Willie Ways made his famous running catch in the World Series. It was the year Frank Sinatra won an Oscar for his supporting role in "From Here To Eternity." It was the year IBM announced development of an "electronic brain," the year Johns-Manville opened the world's largest asbestos mill, the year Boeing launched its 707 jetliner, the year Westinghouse put color television sets on the market, the year Matisse died.

In 1954, for a limited time only, you could buy two bottles of Woodbury Shampoo for 59 cents. Men coveted Munsingwear T-shirts with "new non-sag neckband" and Ronson lighters with ebony enamel. Soilax was the cleaner of which housewives dreamed. General Electric boasted two new products -- the "soft white" light bulb and a portable mixer weighing less than three pounds, providing "maximum performance at minimum weight." The 1954 Mercury featured a V-161 engine, optional power steering, power brakes, Merc-O-Matic Drive and electric windows. Metropolitan Opera star Eleanor Steber switched to Camels and was proud of it, L&M cigarettes were advertised as "just what the doctor ordered," and Ballantine beer was said to "watch your belt-line." You could buy an Olympic 21-inch television set for $199.95. In 1954, there were only six flavors of Jell-O, and no one wanted diet sodas. You could buy an Esskay hot dog at the new stadium in Baltimore for 25 cents.

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