"Long before the gates were opened at 9 a.m., the vanguard of the great throng appeared over the Park Heights avenue horizon. They came in streetcars, buses and automobiles, some of them in motor trucks, from all directions. Soon hawkers were doing a land-office business selling candy bars, cigarettes -- everything to make a gala holiday. It soon became evident this day was to be one of fashion. There were all kinds and shapes of hats, some of them grotesque, others simple."
The Sun became Baltimore's stately paper of record. One of its most turned-to sections was the spot in the paper that chronicled death. Obituaries, the lengthy classified death notice column and accounts of will probates (revealing tantalizing glimpses into the deceased's financial assets) became a daily ritual for many readers.
A second Sun
The Sun's management faced a troubling dilemma in the early years of this century. A brash competitor, The Baltimore News, was chipping away at The Sun's livelihood. The News' largest asset was its timing. It was an afternoon paper whose main edition was distributed at 4: 30 as downtown workers gushed out of office buildings, department stores and factories. The Sun's morning printing schedule was powerless to address this audience.
H. L. Mencken, then a Sun editor, counseled his colleagues to launch a competitive edition to take on The News. They agreed, and that paper, The Evening Sun, made its debut April 15, 1910. Within a decade, it was a financial success. In time, it easily outpaced the morning paper's circulation while its content was thick with classified and display advertising.
Mencken remained close to the afternoon paper he helped launch. For years, his every-Monday columns (usually designed to infuriate somebody) ran in The Evening Sun. A sample:
Sept. 10, 1923: "In what way, precisely, has the average Baltimorean benefitted from the great growth of the city during the past ten years? As far as I can make out, in no way at all. All the citizen notices is that Baltimore has lost its old charm and individuality, and is now almost indistinguishable from Buffalo and Kansas City. Bringing in more oil refineries, more glue factories, more canneries, more sugar refineries, more foundries, more stinks [can be likened to] bringing the cow into the parlor. The carpet is ruined -- and the milk no better."
In the 1920s, The Sun's owners and editors determined to expand the breadth of their morning paper.
The paper opened its London bureau in 1924. In time, others would follow -- Rome, New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and Paris. The result was that Baltimore, hardly the largest of the U.S. cities, had a newspaper whose correspondents were as far-flung as those from the mightiest New York papers.
The paper's ambitious strategy did not go unnoticed. It was awarded nine Pulitzer prizes in the 1930s and 1940s -- almost all for foreign news.
Nationally, too, The Sun stepped forward. When teacher John Thomas Scopes was put on trial in 1925 for violating Tennessee's anti-evolution law, The Sun dispatched its best reporters. H. L. Mencken, who handled much of the commentary, persuaded lawyer Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes. The Evening Sun put up Scopes' bond and paid a $100 fine when he was found guilty. The trial became the basis for the play and film "Inherit the Wind."
While the paper was progressive in its coverage of the Scopes trial, the same could not be said of its portrayal of African-Americans. The race of blacks who appeared in the paper was always noted. Often, black men were referred to by their first names only. African-Americans were seldom included in news of everyday life such as obituaries and school sports.
The modern era
Baltimore newspapers never again sold as many copies per day as they did in the 1940s, when the events of World War II seized their readers' attention. In the broader world of communication, however, it was the arrival of television (Baltimore got it in 1947; the daily race from Pimlico was the big feature) that had the biggest impact on the pages people formerly turned to after their supper.
By 1986, The Sun's older competitor, the News American, folded, a victim of the competition from afternoon news broadcasts. Nine years later, The Evening Sun, itself born out of the circulation expediency of the afternoon deadline, met the same sad fate.
In the face of electronic competition, The Sun has not reacted by reinventing itself. Nor has it stood still. It remains true to the printed page, with uncluttered news columns, a concise and civil habit, without the razzle-dazzle or the short memory of television. Its scope of news presentation is broad, a Baltimore paper with an eye focused on Washington, the world and all its people. When The Sun does its job best, it employs a time-tested formula: Clear, lively writing, well presented, that informs its readers.
A. S. Abell, were he alive today, would be pleased that his paper continues to be polite, prosperous and punctual, comprehensive yet concise. Its livelihood remains those telling chunks of information, the inches of rain that fell last Tuesday and the obituary of the woman who taught you in the third grade. These are still the things that matter in life.
Pub Date: 5/18/97