A hot time at the old ballpark

Baltimore Glimpses

June 28, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

THE evening of July 3, 1944, 50 years ago, started out badly for the Baltimore (International League) Orioles. And though none of the thin crowd of 1,500 in the park near Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street (it held 10,000) knew it, the night would get worse.

The Orioles and the Syracuse Chiefs finished the seventh inning in a 4-4 tie, thanks, on the home team's side, to hitting by Bob Latshaw and Sherm Lollar. The eighth and ninth were scoreless. In the 10th, the chiefs broke open the game with seven runs -- four on a grand slam by a 17-year-old shortstop named Kid Carson.

So much for the game -- the last to be played at this Oriole Park.

After the game ended about 11 p.m., groundskeeper Mike Scofield and watchman Howard Seiss wet the stands down, as they did after every game. But shortly before 1 a.m., Seiss smelled smoke, so he doused the stands again. And to be sure, he did it again about 2 a.m.

Two hours later, an anonymous caller reported the ballpark was on fire. A box alarm followed in about 10 minutes. By this time Battalion Chief Charles E. Mays had arrived with the first firemen. He turned in a third alarm. Two minutes later -- a fourth.

The flames spread so quickly that fifth and sixth alarms were turned in. Acting Chief Engineer George D. Otter ordered a special alarm equivalent to two more alarms at 4:51. This brought May or Theodore R. McKeldin to the scene. (He began to mingle with the crowd and pass out autographed pictures of himself.)

Flames consumed the wooden structure. The fire threatened scores of homes as far away as 36th Street. Oriole second baseman Blas Monaco, who was having a bad year, told a caller who woke him with the news, "How lucky can I get?"

Firemen aroused nearby residents and ordered them to vacate. Many householders manned garden hoses and watered their roofs to protect them from the showers of burning embers.

In an hour, at about 5:30 a.m., it was over. There was nothing left but charred and smoking timbers around the storied field where Jack Dunn once led his magnificent Orioles to seven straight International League pennants, and where Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove played to glory.

That was the scene Tuesday morning, the Fourth of July, 1944.

The club resumed play in the Municipal (later Memorial) Stadium on nearby 33rd Street on Thursday of that week.

This July 4, the Orioles will be host to the Seattle Mariners in Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- a long way from the International League, the Syracuse Chiefs, Oriole Park (on Greenmount Avenue) and the night a half-century ago when the old ballpark burned down.

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