Only glories were on field Park: Memories of the Colts and Orioles aside, Memorial Stadium, built in fits and starts, was never a monument to the city's vision.

December 13, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Say this for Memorial Stadium: It was a bargain.

Opened in phases between 1949 and 1954, the stadium was never built so much as it evolved. City officials advanced the project in fits and starts, as money could be coaxed from the voters or found in the treasury. There never seemed to be enough.

At the time of its final grand opening in 1954, the stadium had cost a minuscule $6.1 million -- the state will spend that much on the light rail station at the Ravens stadium -- and it achieved its primary purpose: It had lured major-league baseball to town.

But nearly every corner was cut. It was the first stadium built without a roof over the upper deck. Most fans sat on wooden benches without backs. There was a chronic shortage of parking and bathrooms. And the upper deck was held aloft with concrete columns that were cheap to build, but were as wide as a linebacker and spoiled the view from one out of every 10 seats.

Cash was so tight that, months after the stadium opened, one city official suggested replacement turf for the field be stripped from the grassy medians between city streets rather than purchased from a sod farm.

Later attempts to remedy the stadium's shortcomings would cost tens of millions of dollars, and still leave the city in perpetual fear of losing its teams.

"It was technologically and engineering-wise, completely obsolete from the time it opened," said David Iannucci, who studied the park and possibly renovations in the 1980s as deputy legislative officer to then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

For fans who thrilled to Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson there, Memorial Stadium is hallowed ground. It was one of the first of the modern, two-sport stadiums that defined football and baseball for a generation of American fans.

But from an architectural and economic perspective, the facility was nothing to brag about. Its two tenants were grumbling about the accommodations and threatening to move barely a decade after Vice President Richard Nixon threw out the first first pitch.

The reasons were obvious. Public spending on stadiums was a new and not very popular idea in the 1940s, making money

scarce. Baltimore was on a leading edge of a post-World War II wave of such construction, so there were few models to follow.

And the engineers started the job not knowing if the tenants would be major league and if the stadium would have one seating deck or two. Baltimore was strictly minor league then.

"In the 1950s, I think it was an adequate stadium, not a great one. None of the stadiums built in the 1950s and '60s were great stadiums," said Bruce Genther, a stadium historian and model-builder from Laurel who has researched the 33rd Street structure.

"We didn't know any different. It was certainly better than what was there before," Genther said.

Even the location was a function of the fiscal realities. Officials considered more than 20 sites for the new stadium in the late 1940s. They chose 33rd Street for a simple reason: There was already a stadium there.

Engineers estimated it would cost $1 million to bring utilities to a new site. Voters had in 1947, just barely, approved $2.5 million in bonds for the entire project.

"It was a no-brainer," said Robert C. "Jake" Embry, a civic leader and retired broadcasting and sports executive who was instrumental in the construction of the stadium.

A second bond issue was rejected by voters the next year, putting additional pressure on planners to make do with the cash they had.

"We only had $3 million to spend. We thought we needed at least twice that much. It constrained what we could do," he said.

Location, location, location

Waverly was a logical place for a stadium in 1922, when Venable, later Baltimore Municipal, Stadium, was built on the site. People got to the few events held there each year on foot or by trolley. That was typical of sports at the time.

But by 1948, the automobile was fast changing everything. Fans soon craved two things Memorial Stadium could never provide: abundant parking and high-volume access roads. By the 1960s and 1970s, game-day traffic tied up streets for miles around.

That Memorial Stadium was built at all is something of a miracle. Work began in 1948 on the first phase, a single-deck structure with a capacity of 30,000. Planners dreamed of adding a second deck, but there was plenty of reason to doubt it would ever be needed.

Despite persistent hints that a few baseball teams might be moving, no major-league franchise had relocated since 1903, when the American League Baltimore Orioles moved to New York and eventually became the Yankees.

The only tenants then signed up were minor league: the International League Orioles, who moved in after a 1944 fire destroyed their wooden home a few blocks away, and a money-losing football team in a new and struggling league, the All-America Football Conference Colts.

"Baltimore was just not a sports town back then," said Embry, who was then running the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA.

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