Youth rally in '69 suddenly turned into nightmare of violence MEMORIAL STADIUM: AN UNUSUAL DAY

THE DESCENT OF DECENCY

September 29, 1991|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

A Sept. 29 article in The Sun incorrectly reported the sponsor of the annual Christmas tree sale at Memorial Stadium that benefits the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland. The correct sponsor is the American Legion, Department of Maryland.

The Sun regrets the errors.

It was anything but decent.

BThey held a big rally at Memorial Stadium in the spring of 1969, a rally for local youth to come together and show that not all of America's children were drug-crazed hippies intent on dismantling the establishment of the United States.

Said one participant: "It was supposed to show that everything wasn't going to hell in a handbasket."

This gig was trouble from the word go.

Memorial Stadium has often been used for non-sporting events, and an assortment of oddities have taken place there since 1954, when the ballpark's current configuration was essentially completed.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

In 1981, Christian evangelist Billy Graham held a ballpark crusade to save souls; fireworks launched from the outfield regularly exploded across the Waverly skyline during Independence Day celebrations; the city held a pep rally for public school teachers there before the 1989-90 school year; and thousands of people show up at the ballpark every winter to buy Christmas trees from Lions' Club volunteers working for the Eye Bank of Maryland.

From 1940 until 1976, George Bull and the Hamilton American Legion Post No. 20 sponsored the "March of Champions" drum '' and bugle corps competition that brought marching bands and majorettes to the stadium from up and down the East Coast.

Easter Sunday sunrise services have been celebrated at the stadium and, although not in the current structure, the 33rd Street site has been host to rodeos, boxing matches, open-air town meetings, "I Am An American Day" parades and auto races.

But nothing -- not even the big lightning storm that forced rock star Eric Clapton to cancel a stadium concert during the %J bicentennial summer of 1976 -- rocked the big pile of bricks on 33rd Street like the decency rally.

"I don't know what started the trouble," said a local reporter sent to cover it. "But it was quick and ugly."

Although it was promoted in every high school throughout the metro area, very few kids knew exactly what it was they were attending.

Many youngsters arrived on the rampant rumor that James Brown and his Famous Flames were going to give a free concert. Others believed it would be an arena to protest the war in Vietnam or a forum to push for the right of 18-year-olds to vote.

And thousands of naive youngsters from churches and community centers in the suburbs arrived on buses for an afternoon of wholesome music and good clean fun.

Altogether, more than 40,000 people showed up at the stadium on April 20 to attend the "Maryland Youth Rally for Decency."

By the time police shut the rally down not long after it started, rioting and mugging left 138 people hurt, 142 arrested and seven stabbed. Seven police officers were injured, including one whose kneecap was crushed when someone threw a trash can down a ramp. One girl was nearly raped in the upper deck, 40 transit buses were damaged, seats were torn from the stands and thrown onto the field, a blind kid was punched in the face and robbed of his bus fare, and police got a call for a bomb at the stadium in the middle of everything.

"This was supposed to reunite everybody, to get the teen-agers together and make everybody happy," said Baltimore police officer Joseph H. Longo, assigned to a traffic detail at the ballpark that day. "It didn't work."

Looking for a quick yardstick to measure the difference between Baltimore today and Baltimore 22 years ago? In all the violence and confusion at Memorial Stadium's Decency Rally, no one fired a gun.

The rally was patterned after a similar festival that attracted 30,000 young people in Miami several months earlier, an event staged in response to singer Jim Morrison's arrest for exposing himself at a Doors concert in Florida. Others were expected across the nation.

Said Baltimore comptroller Hyman A. Pressman, the key adult organizer of the event: "This [will] give youth an opportunity to show that the majority have a love for decency and the respect for morality which is the badge of proper upbringing in their homes."

Pressman, in failing health and unavailable for comment for this article, seized on the event, icing it with the kind of buildup he lathered on the March of Dimes Walk-a-thon for years. He predicted that Baltimore could stage a rally for decency bigger and better than any town in the nation.

He was assisted by state Senator Larry Young (D-Baltimore), who was chairman of the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council in 1969. "We got together to counter all the negatives being espoused about young people back then," said Young. "Hyman Pressman was our adult liaison."

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