Baltimore once had write stuff

April 04, 1994|By John Steadman

All those years -- more than a half-century, which included World Wars I and II -- Baltimore was confined to a minor-league existence. It wasn't all that bad from an achievement standpoint because the Baltimore Orioles became the most remarkable dynasty in the history of sports, winning an unprecedented seven straight International League pennants.

Still, the label was there. Baltimore was minor league.

The city continued to hear it was nothing more than a whistle-stop between Philadelphia and Washington. It became a big-league city only two days a year -- when Notre Dame played Navy in football at Municipal Stadium, which was usually every other season, and the rite of spring, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

Baltimore then was referred to as "the nickel city," a cheap connotation of an insult, but true in a monetary sense. This was a mere financial fact supported by government records. More nickels were exchanged annually in Baltimore than anyplace else.

Baltimore was infamous for traffic jams (especially if you were driving from north to south or vice-versa), blistering summer heat and The Block. The only thing in a sporting way it had to brag about was that it produced the most momentous hero in American sports, Babe Ruth, whose popularity and achievements put him in a class by himself.

Ruth was too good to remain an Oriole in his hometown, which fed the gnawing perception if a city didn't have major-league baseball it was relegated to the role of being East Bridgeport.

A community could have other big-league sports, but without baseball it was, right or wrong, arbitrarily second-class.

How, though, could Baltimore achieve the status it craved? The quest for a major-league team began in 1938 when the prominent aircraft pioneer, Glenn L. Martin, a baseball enthusiast who had built an enormous plant in Middle River, had an idea he could move the Cleveland Indians to Baltimore. He took a swing, but never got to first base.

Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, was said to be anti-Baltimore since he would not permit another American League team in the area. False. Griffith not only agreed to let Baltimore enter the AL, but waived territorial rights and even indemnification fees.

The least Baltimore could have done two years ago was to have reciprocated and publicly welcomed a National League team to D.C. The venerable Washington Post columnist, Shirley Povich, insists Baltimore prevented it from happening. The allegation has not been proven.

Baltimore, though, did not attempt to help Washington and Orioles officials were dancing on their desktops when the D.C. bid came up short.

Another Post writer, Tom Boswell, promised the newspaper would begin a Watergate-type investigation if D.C. failed. Such a probe might prove Baltimore submarined Washington. "We're ready to look under every rock," he said. To date, no rock-hard evidence has been revealed.

The effort to make Baltimore an American League city in 1954 wasn't easy. It became, incredulously, a journalistic war. The strongest force was a newspaper no longer in business, the Hearst-owned News-Post and Sunday American. For eight years, its crusading sports editor, Rodger Pippen, made it a one-man mission, battling from 1944 until it happened, Sept. 29, 1953 -- the date the St. Louis Browns were bought by Baltimore businessmen.

Pippen's rival at The Morning Sun, one Jesse Linthicum, mocked the possibility and said it would never happen. On the eve of the Browns' official move to Baltimore, Linthicum wrote, "At a late hour last night, the Browns were still in St. Louis." Pippen persisted and won the campaign, which turned into a civic embarrassment for The Morning Sun.

Paul Menton, sports editor of The Evening Sun, was noncommittal, yet never ridiculed Pippen's campaign. It was Pippen who asked Griffith to tell Menton what he first told him -- that Washington would not stand in the way of Baltimore's joining the American League. Pippen wanted to share the story with Menton and they broke it simultaneously.

Now this Orioles season marks the 40th anniversary of the return to the American League. The city in 1954 was in such a gala mood it staged a parade to the ballpark, where Vice President Richard M. Nixon threw out the first ball.

Where was President Dwight D. Eisenhower? In a sense, he went AWOL, playing golf at the Augusta National Club. Baltimore didn't miss him. The Orioles won, 3-1, over the Chicago White Sox.

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