Parking 'playground' once hosted more games than stadium itself MEMORIAL STADIUM: GROWING UP ON 33RD

DIRT LOTS, PAVED MEMORIES

September 29, 1991|By JIM HENNEMAN

Once upon a time -- isn't that how you start children's stories? -- it was called Municipal Stadium. They tell me the original name was Venable, but Vulnerable would've been better because nobody in the area really wanted it.

Except the kids.

The massive, primarily wooden, structure could be described ione word -- ugly. Make that two words -- real ugly. To most of the neighbors it was an eyesore that blighted an otherwise charming neighborhood -- and they didn't want anything to do with the old one, let alone a new one to take its place in the early 1950s.

But to those of us who grew up in the vicinity oVenable-Municipal-Memorial Stadium in the post-World War II era, it was the mother of all playgrounds long before it became known as the "world's largest outdoor insane asylum."

During a slow week there were more games of varyindescriptions on the outside than there were in the main arena during a busy year. The parking lot was not paved in those days, so there were more makeshift baseball, softball and football fields than you could find at Clifton and Herring Run parks combined.

When there weren't any number of activities in progress, eitheside of the stadium could serve as a driving range for golfers who could count on distance -- and exercise -- as they walked between 33rd and 36th streets to shag scuffed balls.

Occasionally, after a particularly heavy snowfall and prolongefreeze, a homemade surface near the southeast corner (33rd Street and Ednor Road) would replace Lake Montebello as the handiest temporary ice skating rink -- sometimes complete with pickup hockey games.

It was the opposite (northwest) corner that attracted most of thaction, however -- probably because of the easy access to Doc Edmunds' Pharmacy at Ellerslie and 36th, the area's closest thing to a "hangout." Afternoon football games and evening baseball or softball games were a ritual. The large trees (yes, there were several) provided shade for midday summertime card games that served as intermission.

I can remember sitting in the kitchen of our home, less than foublocks from Municipal Stadium, and crying on the morning of July 4, 1944. Oriole Park, at 29th and Greenmount, had burned down and I was devastated. Only weeks before I had seen the International League Orioles play for the second time. The prospect of future visits was the most exciting thing in my 9-year-old mind -- and suddenly Oriole Park was gone.

Little did I know at the time how subsequent events would sdrastically affect me. Within weeks the Orioles had moved into my neighborhood and, as it developed, into my life.

That 1944 team produced my first -- but hardly last -- boyhoohero. Shortstop Kenny Braun was 17 years old, and it seemed like we were almost the same age. The Orioles won the Little World Series that year, beating Louisville, Braun's hometown, and outdrawing the all-St. Louis World Series in the process. Though Municipal Stadium was hardly conducive to playing baseball, our "playground" had been permanently invaded and transformed into what would become, for me, a combination of a second home and, eventually, an office.

Early on I realized a way would have to be devised to get into thstadium for free. Initially that meant finding a way to climb over, or crawl under, the fence. My personal record was getting caught twice at a Navy-Notre Dame football game, once on each side of the stadium -- by the same security guard.

Selling newspapers at 3 cents a copy was an easier way to gein.

Somewhere along the way a bunch of us began shagging ballin the outfield for some of the Orioles who were injured and working out on their own while the team was away. That's how I first met Joe Mellendick, Sherm Lollar, Frank Skaff and Herb Armstrong, who was then the general manager.

Mellendick, Lollar, Skaff and Armstrong were four of the kindestand most influential, people I've ever met. When Mellendick retired to take a coaching job at Calvert Hall, my choice of high schools was reduced to one. He was my first varsity coach, a memory I cherish to this day.

Lollar went on to play in the big leagues, and we were reunitebriefly years later when he returned to coach the Orioles and I was embarking on my career as a writer. Skaff became a big-league coach and manager, for years ran the recreation department for Baltimore County, and always had time for a kid he had befriended years earlier.

It was Armstrong, and then trainer Eddie Weidner, whpermanently opened the doors to Memorial Stadium. They brought me in as a clubhouse boy in 1950 and kept me around for three memorable years, allowing me to work around my own high school playing schedule.

Nick Cullop and Don Heffner managed the Orioles in thosyears. Baltimoreans Pete Taylor and the late Bobby Young were headed to the big leagues. Others had already been there.

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