Real fireworks at old ballpark marked 4th of '44

JACOUES KELKY

July 05, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

The burning of the old International League Oriole Park is one of Baltimore's most flame-proof stories.

The ball field and wooden stands stood on 29th Street, stretching west to Vineyard Lane and east to Greenmount Avenue, thanks to a gerrymander with a block of rowhouses. The park was built in 1914. A year later, my family moved into a house in the 2800 block of Guilford Avenue that practically overlooked the park's entrance. The Orioles took possession in 1916.

There was a fragile truce between my ancestors and the Orioles management. The park could shatter the summertime quiet of the neighborhood. If you lived next door to it, this green cathedral was not a monument to baseball nostalgia. It brought noise, crowds and trash.

On the evening of July 3, 1944, my mother, grandmother, grandfather, assorted great aunts and others were sitting on the front porch. An International League Orioles game went into extra innings. It dragged on, and finally my mother let out with one of her stock expressions, "I'm going to burn that ballpark down." Her audience nodded in approval and kept on reading their newspapers. They eventually locked the front door, climbed the steps and went to bed.

My grandmother's idea of sleeping late was to rise and shine at 4 a.m. That July 4 -- in 1944 -- was no exception. As she made her rounds, she noticed a red glare over 29th Street. At 4:25, she walked into my mother's bedroom and said, "The ballpark's on fire."

"I was the first civilian in the place. I was in my glory," my mother recounted the other day. History says that Lois Etheridge was the first to sight the fire. She was a 14-year-old who lived on East 30th Street near Vineyard Lane. It was a warm night and she had been looking out her window and saw the flames under the seats near third base, a spot that would be on or near the site of today's Barclay Elementary School.

Her father, the late Dr. Allen Etheridge, loved to tell the story. He was one of the neighborhood's true characters, a dentist who broke all the rules of cavity prevention by handing out Fifth Avenue bars to any child he could find. He drove a streamlined green car that everyone called the Green Hornet.

Dr. Etheridge became a neighborhood hero because he called the fire department. The first company to respond was 31 Engine. The blaze went to eight alarms.

As the engines were arriving, my mother was out on 29th Street. She didn't bother to dress. Her fire garb was a pair of seersucker pajamas and a seersucker bath robe and a pair of new white loafers.

"I was in my glory," she recounted many, many times afterward.

She raced across 29th Street, past Gus Rauh's saloon at Greenmount Avenue and into a fast-igniting George Nissell's hardware store. The shop was alongside the wooden bleachers that were wedged in between rowhouses in the 2900 block of Greenmount.

"The firemen were all over there, on the roof, in the store. They had tochase me out," she said. At this point, her white loafers were the color of Mr. Nissell's lampblack.

The firemen rapped on the clubhouse door near Vineyard and 29th. They awakened Oriole groundskeeper Mike Scofield and Howard "Doc" Seiss, his night watchman. Charlie Price, an Oriole infielder who was being farmed out, was there, too.

They dressed quickly and opened the gates for the firemen to drive an engine on the diamond. The firemen didn't remain long. The flames worked their way eastward, from third base to home plate to first base and the bleachers. It got so hot, the 29th Street asphalt melted.

The firemen feared the flames would jump into the 300 block of E. 29th St. and ignite a block of rowhouses. Residents were ordered out. They gathered their silver and insurance policies and huddled in the alley. One woman, clutching a silver chest in her arms, let out a whoop, "Oh, Lord, I've left the baby sleeping inside the house." The fire, fortunately, never jumped 29th Street.

Mom still says that particular July 4-5 was her best holiday. "We had open house for days. Everyone came and visited. We served coffee for days. They never left the kitchen. I kept the seersucker pajamas on all day," she said. The Orioles lost their uniforms, gear and trophies. A few days later they took up residence at the old Baltimore Stadium on 33rd Street, where a new Memorial Stadium was eventually built.

As for the old Oriole Park site, it sat empty for nearly 15 years. By the time I came along about six years after the fire, the ballpark was just an unadorned vacant lot, ideal for fort construction or ball playing.

In a fit of civic upgrading, the city got progressive, cut Barclay Street through between 29th and 30th and built a school. And the outfield became a soft drink bottling plant. But don't look for an historic marker. You won't find one.

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