10 Moments to remember

December 14, 1997|By John Steadman | John Steadman,SUN COLUMNIST

Not a shrine nor an edifice with luxurious amenities. It wasn't intended to be a showplace. Merely a baseball park and a football field known as Memorial Stadium. Not exactly a distinctive name, but built as a fitting monument to the dead of all wars. A dual facility arrangement. Without it, as modest as it now seems, Baltimore would still be a wasteland for sports entertainment.

It has fulfilled its purpose, and the time has come to move on; the old place is at last going to be abandoned, eventually taken down by either a wrecking ball or dynamite. Yet, a word to the wise: Listen closely, and you'll always be able to hear the faint echo of those who cheered the exploits of their athletic heroes and, of course, suffered the often silent disappointment of their failures.

Memorial Stadium was all about providing a home for Baltimore's major-league sports. Since 1954, it has been there growing old, not always gracefully, with the passing of the seasons but offering a certain stability by its bulky presence. Before the present memorial, there was another stadium built on the exact location in 1922 that remained in use until it was replaced in 1954.

That a stadium has been on the same property for 75 years has given Baltimore a constant point of focus. History was made in both stadiums. A center for diverse attractions regardless of whether the stands were made of wood, as they used to be, or of concrete and steel. Joe Louis once boxed there; Charles Lindbergh was welcomed by 20,000 celebrants in a driving rainstorm after soloing across the Atlantic; Gen. Douglas MacArthur attended football games; the Harlem Globetrotters put down a portable court and played basketball; Easter morning sunrise services were held; and a daredevil automobile driver named "Lucky" Teeter circled the cinder track in a stock car.

Through the mystical mist of all those yesteryears comes an effort to turn back the clock, again to retreat for a passing moment into the frequent glory of times past. It's a concerted attempt to evaluate and capsulize the most momentous events that have occurred in the stadiums - that's plural - since the first one was built in 1922 and then was replaced three decades later in a remarkable transformation in which construction work proceeded while play continued in the original wooden structure.

How does one objectively cull the extraordinary from the mundane, covering, in all, 75 years of sports activities, while discarding the routine and spotlighting the significant happenings that transpired within the stadium and upon this venerable grass-covered stage?

What follows is a concise top 10 list that makes an attempt to categorize some of the epic games that were played there and to measure them with two retrospective criteria - precisely what they meant to Baltimore historically and how they affected the sports world at large:

1. Baltimore's return to Major League Baseball after being confined to the minor leagues for more than a half-century was the city's most meaningful sports moment. It happened April 15, 1954. Baltimore and the Orioles, city and team, were again where they belonged. Vice President Richard M. Nixon threw out the ceremonial first ball because the presidential pitcher, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was off to a place called Augusta National indulging in his passion for golf.

A crowd estimated at 350,000 lined the streets for a motorcade and parade, including 22 marching bands, that reflected the mood of what qualified as an unforgettable occasion. Inside Memorial Stadium, the Orioles defeated the Chicago White Sox, 3-1, with brilliant pitching by Bob Turley and home runs by Clint Courtney and Vern "Junior" Stephens. The plate umpire was a Baltimore native and former Oriole, Eddie Rommel, who had the distinction of voicing the call his fellow citizens had been waiting to hear for 51 years: "Play Ball."

Being a part of the major leagues of baseball, which then only numbered 16 clubs in 13 cities, offered incalculable civic prestige. No other sport conveyed such importance. Baltimore had been relegated to the baseball purgatory, the Eastern League and International League, for much too long. An exciting new chapter was to be written. But without an improved place to play, Memorial Stadium, it couldn't have happened.

2. The Army-Navy football game of 1944. It was, without a doubt, the single most important sports event played in the country during those wartime years. Appropriately, it was between the two service academies. They also had the two best teams, and their meeting would decide the national collegiate championship.

Army, with future Heisman trophy winners Glenn Davis and Felix "Doc" Blanchard, defeated Navy, 23-7, before 70,000 spectators. The game was transferred to Baltimore from Annapolis so a larger crowd could be accommodated, with the proviso that every ticket buyer also had to purchase a war bond to support the cost of fighting a war.

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