Baseballville forever? 40 years with the Orioles

April 04, 1994|By James H. Bready

IN 1954, with Baltimore finally readmitted to the American League, and big-time baseball there for the watching, month after month at brand-new Memorial Stadium, we fans could relax for a bit. The goal, 51 years in the achieving, was realized. Hurrah! hurrah! and fie on anyone who worried that the team would ever be taken away.

We were so glad to have the St. Louis franchise (originally, the Milwaukee franchise)! If those listless, money-losing Browns went 54-100 again in 1954 (which they did), we wouldn't lose enthusiasm. If the major leagues expanded and teams started moving hither and yon, no sweat. Surely Baltimore's franchise was stable (even though, when you included the come-and-go 19th century, this was Baltimore's eighth try at the big leagues).

Well, 40 years have gone by, 40 uninterrupted seasons of AL Oriole baseball, and here we are athirst for the 41st to begin. All is as well as a fan (who has tickets) could reasonably ask. Our pennants (six) and World Series championship banners (three) outnumber those attained by many a larger city. Presidents and prime ministers come by, eager to see and be seen. (Invite the pope to your skybox, Peter?) On the bad side, should the players develop beriberi, there are funds and farms for replacements. Should an earthquake tilt Oriole Park at Camden Yards, we have a backup stadium.

All is well -- and yet . . .

A longer look at the spectator-sports scene could reduce the breadth of an Oriole fan's smile. Much has changed hereabout since 1954. Then, Maryland was

keen also on horse racing (with its betting stimulus), on lacrosse (if you had been to private school or college), on pro football (if you hadn't been to college), on pro basketball, pro boxing, pro wrestling.

Today, the competitors have obstacles. Horse racing has slumped (there are so many other, simpler -- or fancier -- ways to gamble). Lacrosse is big by now in public schools and colleges too, and women play it; but it still has no pro teams. Pro football rocketed up past baseball but then fell painfully back to earth; it tries now to recover. Pro basketball draws many of its players from Baltimore but won't put a team here. Pro boxing and wrestling are moribund. Forms of soccer and levels of ice hockey pass through, earning moderate enthusiasm.

Did Baltimore become baseballville simply as the local phase of a national reordering of spectator-sports priorities? For an answer (which is no), compare the attention given by network television and its advertisers. Baseball (a poorly managed industry) plods along, amid grumblings about wages, prices, strikes, slowness of play, etc. Basketball, meanwhile, keeps gaining, and perhaps hockey; there seem to be entire channels for golf, tennis, international tournaments in this or that. The World Cup comes to the U.S.

During those 40 years, Baltimore baseball had some bad moments. One, disguised at the time, was in 1954 itself. The franchise-seekers had a hard time raising the necessary dollars, all 2,475,000 of them. What saved the situation was beer -- the rivalry between Gunther and National. The companies' owning families invested, seeking broadcast and scoreboard rights, but were prohibited by baseball's code at the time from receiving proper public credit.

A second, larger crisis arose in 1979. Ownership by then was in a single family's hands; it decided it would rather have assets with larger and more steady returns. The Orioles were put on sale for $12 million. As month after month dragged by, it became glaringly plain that nowhere in Baltimore's business community was there an individual, or a firm, with the faith, the sense, the civic-mindedness to put up the money. The memory is shameful. Eventually, the club was sold to a Washington lawyer and businessman who, although he never said so publicly, figured on moving the Orioles to Washington.

The idea of building a chic venue nearer the Potomac, and appeasing Edward Bennett Williams, would have struck a 1954 fan as high comedy.

Baltimore fans (careful: fighting words ahead) are probably as fickle as those elsewhere. Behind them, institutions thrive, or move, or die, with dizzying speed. As a federal shadow falls over more and more Baltimore institutions, the blur increases, the blur of corporate individuality and responsibility, of managerial intentions, of customer loyalty. If Oriole Park at Camden Yards didn't exist, think of the monster ballpark that Jack Kent Cooke would now be seeking to build at Laurel!

Still and all, a Baltimorean who has weathered 40 years' worth of ecstasies (sweeping the Dodgers!) and grunge (no, no, not a 21st straight loss!) could justifiably expect the Orioles still to be here in -- OK, 2001.

How long before we win the pennant again, though -- that's a tougher one.

James H. Bready is historian of the Orioles.

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