July Fourth is burned into memories of neighbors of old Oriole Park

July 04, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

There's no marker or plaque along 29th Street west of Greenmount Avenue to mark the site of old Oriole Park.

The event that Baltimoreans associate with the wooden grandstands was their demise, a huge fire that broke out in the early morning hours of July 4, 1944. By daybreak, the old stands, in use since 1914, were rubble, twisted metal and ashes.

"I was there. The whole neighborhood was there that day," said Pearl Suter Dix, who grew up so close to the park she could hear the crack of a bat.

The old ballpark seemed to define a lot of living in this part of Baltimore. How far did you live from home plate? Did you ever work there? And what do you remember about the place?

Mrs. Dix's father, Waverly postman Pete Sutor, was a member of the Oxford Pleasure Club, one of those neighborhood social institutions that flourished in the days when people did not venture too far from home. Its clubhouse was at 2721 Greenmount. Not too distant, at 1661 Abbottston St. was the Clifton Pleasure Club. It was named for Clifton Park. Oxford was a 19th-century name for the southern end of Waverly.

Both groups, the Oxfords and the Cliftons, assembled at Oriole Park May 30, 1928, for a massed group photo on the diamond.

"It looks like Babe Ruth is there, but I'm not sure," said Mrs. Dix of one of the faces. She has kept this long-and-narrow rolled photo as a personal treasure since the day her father handed it to her.

She is in the photo; so is her dad, the mailman; Uncle Hap, an Orioles groundskeeper; and Mike Schofield, another Waverly legend who had charge of the park and grounds. She also spotted Sonny Bonthron, a Waverly neighbor.

Oriole Park was one of those classic urban ball fields. The property seemed to be scissored out around rowhouses, a florist's greenhouse, streetcar tracks and the village's Episcopal church, St. John's Huntingdon.

It stood on 29th Street at Vineyard Lane. Its northern boundary was 30th Street, and the bleachers touched Greenmount Avenue. The adjoining rowhouse roofs were great vantage spots for watching the game. There, admission was free, except you had to own the house.

People who lived on the west side of the 2900 block of Greenmount Ave. had these second-floor back seats. And of those residents, certainly the beloved Waverly barber John DeVos is among the most warmly remembered.

"He cut my hair until the time I got married. My parents and grandparents had their hair cut in the front room of that house. My son went there, too," Mrs. Dix said of the barber whose sign hung in the 2900 block of Greenmount Ave. from about 1915 to the 1970s.

She lived in the 300 block of 28th St., but later moved to an apartment above another Oriolesland roost, Donohue's Saloon at Greenmount and 27th. Donohue's was one of the neighborhood's friendly taverns. Orioles fans also recall Gus Rauh's at 29th Street.

"I could send my son down with a growler for a kettle of beer," she said.

Hers was a life in and around the quiet monuments of the neighborhood.

"I scooped many a dish of ice cream at Schwaab's soda fountain following that last show at the Boulevard Theatre," Mrs. Dix recalled one day last week.

In those days she held two jobs: at Schwaab's, another at a downtown hotel -- first at the Lord Baltimore and later at the Emerson.

"There was something about hotel work that made it fun. . . People would be coming and going in their evening clothes, or you'd have to work late if all of a sudden a group of soldiers would arrive without reservations," she said.

Should you visit the old Oriole grounds on 29th Street, don't look for a sign or plaque. There is none. Today the site is Barclay Elementary School, a DuPont warehouse and a bottling plant.

But Barclay and 29th does not lack a place in Baltimore's popular history, especially on July 4.

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