It was 50 years ago today that Oriole Park went up MEMORY STILL SMOLDERS

July 04, 1994|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff Writer

Fifty years ago this morning, in the wee hours before sunrise, Mary Ellen Doyle awoke to hear her sister Margaret screaming, "The park's on fire!"

From their bedroom windows on Barclay Street, the Doyle sisters witnessed one of the most memorable events in city history -- a spectacular fire that destroyed old Oriole Park, home to a Birds team that, in those days, played in the minor leagues.

The flash of light that awakened Margaret Doyle that holiday morning, only hours after an extra-inning game that had lasted late into the night, was spotted by thousands of early risers in Baltimore.

Scores of curious people left their homes, many of them still in their night clothes and slippers, and started walking toward the bright orange glow coming from the Waverly-Charles Village area.

People who lived on Lanvale Street near Guilford Avenue guessed the fire was at the old McInnes Laundry on Greenmount Avenue. Hampden residents thought the Baltimore Museum of Art was aflame.

When they reached the 300 block of East 29th Street -- where Barclay Elementary School, a warehouse and a soft-drink bottling plant now stand -- the onlookers realized that they were wrong.

Flames were consuming the old ballpark, 11,000 splintery wooden seats wedged between the 300 and 400 blocks of 29th and 30th.

"You just stood there and watched in amazement until you got too hot and tired, and went home," says LeRoy "Whitey" Sinclair, 86, who now lives in Parkville, but then had a house on East 28th Street.

Robert Blatchley, a local attorney whose father was home on leave from the Navy for the birth of a daughter, remembers his dad rousting him in what seemed the middle of the night to go see history in the making.

"He got me out of bed and hoisted me on his shoulders," recalls Mr. Blatchley, 54, who lived then on Whitridge Avenue near the ballpark. "He had on his dress whites. That's the way I remember it. He wore his dress whites to a fire."

The blaze broke out after a game in which the International League Orioles lost to the Syracuse Chiefs, 11-4, in the 10th inning, recalls Bill Gavin, a retired postman and long-time Civic Center usher who still lives on Ilchester Avenue across from the park site.

"I was 17 at the time and worked the turnstiles on 29th Street," he says. "After the third inning, I was allowed to go in and see the rest of the game. That was my pay. It was a big deal to do that.

"Some of us stood on the street corner after the game," he remembers. "There was Jack Butcher, Don Beveridge and Harry Robinson, who went on to be the president of the Savings Bank of Baltimore. We got tired of talking and went home to bed."

Hours later, the park would be gone.

The first person to notice the fire apparently was Lois Etheridge, a 14-year-old girl who lived with her parents on East 30th Street near Vineyard Lane. Her father, Dr. Allen Etheridge, called the fire department.

Fire Department records indicate that Engine Company No. 31 responded to the phone call at 4:17 a.m. A fire truck drove onto the playing field, but by then the flames had made too much

headway.

Fire flashed from stands along first base around home plate to the third base side, and all was lost. Firefighters got off the field and onto 29th Street just in time. Another alarm went in at 4:25, followed by more, at 4:30, 4:31 and 4:34. It hit eight alarms.

By mid-morning, the fire had burned out. The cause was never pinpointed, but local legend has it that a smoldering cigarette or cigar started the blaze.

Mike Scofield, the Orioles groundskeeper, had smelled smoke about 1 a.m., according to reports in The Evening Sun at the time. He watered down the wooden grandstands. He repeated the watering at 2:30 a.m., then believing everything was fine, he went to sleep at the ballpark, only to be awakened by the `D screaming sirens of fire engines.

The flames "spread like a sheet," Mr. Scofield was quoted as saying.

One of the most popular places to watch the fire was the steps of the Snack-and-Chat Shop, a confectionery store at 29th and Barclay owned by Ernest E. Bentz. It vied with the Guilford NTC Pharmacy at 28th and Guilford as the neighborhood's most popular gathering spot.

"I can see Ernie now; when the flames got so hot, he couldn't stay in the store," Mr. Gavin recalls. "He ran down Barclay Street with his dog Lady under one arm and his cash register in the other."

Among the spectators was then-Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin, who worked the crowd and gave out autographed photos of himself.

The fire scorched many homes in the neighborhood. Paint blistered and asphalt roofs were seared. On Greenmount Avenue, Gus Rauh's bar and George Nissell's hardware store burned.

"The Orioles bought us a new roof," Mr. Gavin says.

Oriole Park had a classic white pine and locust wood grandstand. It was built in 1914 to serve the old Federal League's Baltimore Terrapins. The International League Orioles moved in two years later.

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