Reflecting on the legendary years

April 18, 1995|By Gwinn Owens

FOR THOSE of us who grew up with The Evening Sun, this is an auspicious date, filled with pride and nostalgia. Baltimore's legendary newspaper is 85 years old today. For this writer, objectivity about so grand an institution is impossible, inasmuch as The Evening Sun has supported me partially or totally for 73 of those 85 years.

The Evening Sun gave Maryland its nickname. It has been a powerful force in shaping the destiny of Baltimore. It launched the careers of some of America's greatest journalists. For those who believe I exaggerate the historic quality of its staff, I respond with a quiz: What do these famous names have in common?

Ray C. Cave, former managing editor of Time magazine.

David Culhane, veteran CBS correspondent.

Richard Frank, editor of the National Journal.

William Manchester, best-selling writer, historian and novelist, author of "Death of a President."

Louis Rukeyser, host of Wall Street Week, the longest running program on public television.

Eleanor Johnson Tracy, former editor of Fortune magazine.

The answer is that all of the above were reporters, as well as my friends and colleagues, on The Evening Sun in the 1950s. Slightly earlier, ABC sports anchor Jim McKay (nee McManus) and Southern writer-historian Burke Davis were on the staff. It is unlikely that any other newspaper in the United States had such a stable of talent in one newsroom. And I have mentioned only those who went on to the most glamorous careers. There were others -- reporters, editors, independent writers -- who made their marks more quietly.

The 1950s were one of many golden ages. An earlier one was in the 1920s and early '30s, and was focused mainly on the editorial page. It was in January 1922 that my father, Hamilton Owens, left a job in England (where I was born the previous June) to return to his native Baltimore as editor of The Evening Sun, founded 12 years earlier.

He started with a memorable asset, having inherited on the staff the incomparable H. L. Mencken, already one of the best known journalists in the United States. But today we rely too much on the reputation of Mencken. In that era and later there were others who, even with Mencken in their midst, still made their mark.

They included Gerald W. Johnson, liberal historian and author; Francis F. Beirne, widely syndicated under the pseudonym Christopher Billopp as a humor columnist; Philip Wagner (later to be editor), forceful libertarian writer who also founded Boordy vineyard and has become one of America's most respected oenologists. They provided, according to R. P. Harriss, another of its stars, "The most quoted editorial page in the United States."

From the start, Owens and his colleagues found common cause on one issue: The recently ratified 18th Amendment -- Prohibition. They regarded this as an unconscionable -- and monumentally silly -- invasion of the American citizen's private life. It was in this anti-prohibition campaign that Owens, almost accidentally, made The Evening Sun's immortal contribution to Maryland. In 1922 Owens wrote a tongue-in-cheek article (under a pseudonym) suggesting that Maryland secede from the union as the "Maryland Free State," rather than enforce Prohibition. (The Irish Free State had been born only months earlier and probably inspired the idea.)

Thenceforth editorials regularly referred to the "Maryland Free State." The name was given a further push by Prohibition-hating Gov. Albert C. Ritchie who began to use it routinely in his speeches. It caught hold, and Maryland has been the Free State ever since. (Today, for example, there are 45 businesses listed in the Baltimore area phone book whose names begin with "Free State" or "Freestate.")

There was the same freewheeling confidence in The Evening Sun's newsroom, especially in the 1950s. This was a time when evening papers often outsold their morning competitors -- and made a lot more money. (The Evening Sun of that era circulated on average 40,000 more copies daily than its morning counterpart.) Only when the nation became addicted to TV news did evening papers begin to sag, and once powerful journals, such as the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Washington Star and the Chicago Daily News disappeared into history.

When the A.S. Abell Co., then publisher of The Sun (in those days the company, not a person, was the "publisher"), created The Evening Sun in 1910, it was first envisioned as a little brother to its prestigious 77-year-old older sister, and accepted that role for a decade or so. But it was soon outselling the older paper. When Paul Patterson took over as Abell president in 1919, he turned The Evening Sun loose, with its own separate staff, to carve its own niche, completely independent of The Sun.

The independence paid off. The circulation grew steadily until by the mid-1950s it reached about 220,000. The Hearst News-Post (later the News American) had a larger circulation, but it lacked the prestige of The Evening Sun.

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