Newington in the mist

James H. Bready

October 01, 1991|By James H. Bready

WE'LL ALWAYS remember you, Memorial Stadium!" the fans declare passionately. But once the structure's gone, once 1991's ticket-buyers breathe no more, will Baltimoreans really make XTC much of Memorial Stadium?

Stadiums come, stadiums go -- in some quantity. When next spring's home opener gets under way beside Camden Warehouse, major league baseball will be occupying its 10th Baltimore site. The full list taxes the memory: Madison Avenue Grounds, Newington Park, Belair Lot, Oriole Park (I), Oriole Park (II), Union Park, American League Park, Terrapin Park, Memorial Stadium, and Nametocome Parkorstadium. This is not counting Negro League and minor league sites.

If baseball fanatics really care about time past, why has nothing ever been done to memorialize the diamond where, on Monday, April 22, 1872, Baltimore's first major league team played its first home game? The scene was Newington Park, and not one in a thousand of today's fans could even place it (Pennsylvania Avenue and Baker, Calhoun and Bloom streets).

In this city of organized preservation and historical plaques, Newington represents not just forgetfulness but oblivion. What did it look like? No photo exists, no authentic drawing.

In 1872, Baltimore had a Newington Building Association and, blocks away, past North Avenue, a Newington Avenue. That's all there is to account for the name.

Where now there are rows of littered sidewalks and alleys and tired brick houses, once stood a fenced five-acre tract. "The Madison Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue and Citizens Line of Passenger Railway Cars run to within a few rods of the door," said a newspaper of the time.

Its stands had "room for 5,000 spectators" and a "gallery set apart for the fair sex." Since the owner-builder was Alphonsus T. Houck & Bro., a downtown outdoor-sign firm, presumably the fence was splashed with period display ads.

Fence or no fence, a game was visible from afar: "Upon the outskirts of the park, upon the brick piles, upon the outhouses and even upon the roofs of lofty residences, men and boys were bunched together as thick as swarming bees."

Major-league baseball occupied Newington through 1874 and again in 1882, before moving to newer premises. During that no-franchise interim, Newington was home to cricket, then popular; track meets (the Baltimore Athletic Club); the circus (Phineas T. Barnum and the immense elephant Jumbo). But baseball of itself was historical; Albert G. Spalding pitched at Newington; Al Reach played; the Hall of Fame's Wright Brothers (Harry and George); Candy Cummings, the supposed inventor of the curve ball; Bobby Matthews, the greatest native Baltimorean in baseball before Babe Ruth.

And the Yellow-Britches, that original 1872 team, resplendent in "tight-fitting silk shirts with Lord Baltimore's escutcheon on the left breast, black-and-yellow plaid stockings and white hats." (A critic thought their uniforms "a little gingerbready.") A season ticket could be had for $10. Games began at "3 1/2 o'clock sharp." The home team beat New York in that first of all home openers, 14 to 8, and Baltimore went wild.

Abandoning Newington in 1883, organized baseball moved east of Charles Street to what is now Greenmount Avenue. (It wouldn't return to West Baltimore until 1992.) The end of the century came at Union Park, where groundskeeper Thomas J. Murphy once allegedly spread soap shavings around the pitcher's mound on opening day. When New York speedballer Amos Rusie went to the dirt to rub the ball . . . well, the rest is part of the Orioles' slippery history.

One should care more about tomorrow's game than yesterday's, about the next horse-drawn streetcar, not the one that just went by. But I for one will always remember you, Newington Park, even if I can't exactly visualize you.

James H. Bready is author of "The Home Team," official history of the Orioles, from which the accompanying photograph is taken.

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