Neighborhood stadium packs up attics full of memories MEMORIAL STADIUM: END OF AN ERA

THIS OLD HOUSE

September 29, 1991|By JOHN STEADMAN

Closing the gates to Memorial Stadium signifies an end to a majestic edifice and a glorious era that has produced a treasury of momentous memories, all shaped to your own individual perception and joys of recall. It becomes a deeply personal experience, this shutting down of the old to make way for the new.

What it physically means, apart from the sentimentality that gushes forth at a time like this, is akin to moving to a modern house in a different neighborhood. But now the games will continue amid the setting of downtown Baltimore and its harsh backdrop of brick and glass-faced office buildings rather than the soft greenery and pleasant residential surroundings of Memorial Stadium.

The stadium that's being left behind has been in its present configuration since 1953. Before that, a huge horseshoe of wood that once accommodated 80,000 spectators was on the same location, beginning in 1922, when it was erected in a mere seven months.

Pictures flash to mind of crowds, caught in emotional bedlam, extolling the names of Brooks Robinson, John Unitas, Frank Robinson, Lenny Moore, Cal Ripken Jr., Raymond Berry and a litany of other legendary heroes. And let us not forget Ed Garbisch, who drop-kicked four field goals for Army in a 12-0 win over Navy in 1924; Larry Kelly and Clint Frank of Yale in 1944; Glenn Davis and Felix "Doc" Blanchard of Army in 1944; and Bob Williams, first as a Loyola High School quarterback and later the leader of the national championship Notre Dame team of 1949.

Remember, too, the Naval Academy brigade marching to a football game on a cold Saturday afternoon with a mass of floating blue overcoats moving in unison and white hats dotting the impeccably lined formation. Of a horse mascot racing the perimeter of the field after the Baltimore Colts scored. And a bearded wonder, known as "Wild Bill" Hagy, leading cheers from atop the Baltimore Orioles' dugout. All a part of the stadium scenario.

And, then, too, an airplane crashing in the upper deck after a Colts-Pittsburgh Steelers playoff in 1976. Tragedy was averted because the Colts were losing in a rout, which suggested to the crowd it would be convenient to leave early. All of this and much more unfolded on the giant stage that has been Memorial Stadium and, before that, Municipal Stadium.

Recalling the memorable moments resembles, in a way, turning the pages of a family album. There have been two distinct chapters in the life of the stadium, this house of thrills on 33rd Street. It came into being as Venable Stadium, built in 1922 with a capacity of 45,000, that was soon to increase to 80,000 and then, ultimately, decrease to 65,000 with the passing of the years.

Army-Navy played there on two extraordinary occasions, in 1924 and 1944. And the first time Navy met Notre Dame was in 1927, with the legendary Knute Rockne in command. This kicked off the longest continuing intersectional college football rivalry in the nation. From Venable Stadium it became Baltimore Stadium and then Municipal Stadium, where Navy football was the focus of interest, playing some of the country's collegiate elite, such as Ohio State, Michigan, Cornell, Princeton, Yale and California.

The original stadium was in place for 22 years before baseball made its belated appearance. It happened after the International League team, the Orioles, was burned out of an antiquated tinder-box known as Oriole Park. The spectacular fire on the Fourth of July, 1944, forced the club into an emergency situation. It needed a place to play and it was decreed that Municipal Stadium, rarely used after the college and high school football seasons shut down (the traditional date was Thanksgiving Day), offered the best of minimal possibilities.

The blaze that sent the Orioles out of their tiny playpen, which barely held 11,000 (if the occupants were eased in by shoehorn), opened a dramatic vista for baseball in Baltimore. Instead of limited audiences, the same minor-league Orioles began to pull crowds of 30,000 to 40,000. And then came the glorious, scintillating moment that notified America it could no longer regard Baltimore as a stop on the railroad between Washington and Philadelphia.

The date was Oct. 9, 1944, a Little World Series game against the Louisville Colonels, representing the American Association. The attendance was announced as 52,833 but there may have been another 10,000 uncounted, including a schoolboy who later became a sportswriter and was literally swept into the stadium without a ticket, along with numerous others, on that golden fall evening.

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