Old Oriole Park fire burns imprint on sports in city

July 01, 1994|By John Steadman

It was a fire that singularly and dramatically revolutionized the future of Baltimore sports and opened the door of opportunity for coveted major-league identity.

Fifty years ago, the heavens were illuminated in a blaze so intense there was temporary fear German airplanes, this being the height of World War II, had somehow pene- trated coastal defenses and dropped incendiary bombs.

The flames on July 4, 1944, which totally destroyed the wooden bandbox known as Oriole Park became the catalyst that burned Baltimore out of its minor-league confinement and ignited a desire for major-league franchises in both baseball and football.

It meant, because of the emergency, Baltimore was going to be forced to utilize what was then known as Municipal Stadium, which accommodated huge crowds and helped create an enthusiasm that notified the nation spectacular change was under way.

Oriole Park, located at 29th Street and Greenmount Avenue, was made entirely of wood. After every game, the two-man grounds crew of Mike Schofield and Howard "Doc" Seiss would wet down the stands with hoses to make sure all burning cigarette/cigar butts had been extinguished.

They did that night, too, but approximately 4:20 a.m. on the Fourth of July a fire started near the third base grandstand. For 40 years, the wooden structure had been regularly coated with creosote to hold off decay brought on by exposure to weather.

An Oriole Park historian, Frank Lynch, now a Sunpapers editor, said what amounted to a ball of fire rolled around the roof and, almost within the blink of an eye, the facility was totally engulfed.

"Schofield, who slept in an office at the park," according to Lynch, "described the reaction as a 'sheet of fire' that spread faster than anything he had ever seen."

The fire department had no chance at saving the place. Its intent, after the fact, was to make sure falling embers didn't touch off other fires in the rowhouse Waverly neighborhood.

It was certain the Orioles had been burned out of their ballpark. They lost all their home uniforms and equipment -- including every ball, bat, glove and spiked shoe. With World War II in its midst, sporting goods companies had turned to producing gun stocks instead of bats and leather boots rather than gloves.

So replacements were difficult to find. The Orioles, with no place to play, became an instant road team and didn't return home until 12 days later to play in cavernous Municipal Stadium (present site of Memorial Stadium). Team business manager Herb Armstrong made all the decisions and arrangements to prepare the stadium for baseball.

It was an unusual setting. A short left field, estimated to be from 260 to 290 feet and over 500 feet to right-center field, gave the game a new dimension of excitement.

With the war on and the area crowded with servicemen and women, plus defense workers with money in their pockets and few venues of entertainment, watching the Orioles became almost a daily ritual.

The opening homestand touched off enormous enthusiasm, fed by the team playing the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers' affiliate, four straight doubleheaders and winning every game.

Meanwhile, crowds were coming to the stadium in sizable numbers, in excess of 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000. Baltimore was attracting attention as attendance figures soared. A then record minor-league crowd of 52,833 poured into the place to see a Little World Series game against the Louisville Colonels.

The Orioles had won the International League pennant on the last day of the season when the Newark Bears (a New York Yankees' farm club) lost a doubleheader to the Syracuse Chiefs and the Orioles split with the Jersey City Giants. Baltimore won by the barest of margins -- .0007 in the final percentages.

Oriole Park had been built in 1914 to accommodate the city's Federal League team, which only lasted two years. The Orioles' Jack Dunn, owner/general manager/manager, turned what was called Terrapin Park into Oriole Park.

The Orioles of 1944, managed by hometown son Tommy Thomas, created a special identity. They had two future major-league standouts in Sherman Lollar and Howard "Red" Embree, fielding phenoms at shortstop and first base in 17-year-old Kenny "Kid" Braun and Bob Latshaw and a free-swinging home run hitter named "Howitzer Howie" Moss.

After the fire, the most prophetic observations came from Rodger H. Pippen, sports editor of the then Baltimore News-Post and Sunday American, when he wrote:

"At the moment, what appears to be a baseball tragedy, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Baltimore rose from the ashes of its great fire in 1904 to be a bigger and better city. Our Orioles will come through just as soon as war conditions permit, with a bigger and better place for their games.

"The new park will be built so in case the opportunity should arise, this city will return to the big leagues. The park which is today in ruins was not suitable for big-league competition. You can't finance a major outfit with a seating capacity of 11,000."

From that point, Pippen led the crusade to return Baltimore to the American League, even overcoming the negative stand by the editors of the Sunpapers, who scoffed at the idea. The Sun, more than 40 years later, was to declare Pippen one of Baltimore's most influential sports leaders of the last century.

The fire that leveled Oriole Park literally burned Baltimore back into the major leagues after a wait of 52 years. That pre-dawn fireworks show of the Fourth of July 1944 was the spark that made a reality.

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