Baseball opener closes century

Orioles game today to mix old and new

1st pitch a mystery

April 05, 1999|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Mayor William T. Malster hurled the first pitch.

A sparse but spirited crowd of 3,900 paid as little as 25 cents for seats in Union Park. And the Baltimore Orioles -- three-time National League champions in the 1890s -- began their 1899 campaign with a 5-3 win over the New York Giants.

Even 100 years ago -- as the last baseball season of the 19th century began -- Opening Day in Baltimore was about more than the game. It was a harbinger of spring and a marker of renewal, the time to mothball the wool coats and break out the straw boaters.

Today, as the Orioles prepare to kick off the last season of the 20th century, baseball and Opening Day's importance to the local culture seem no less significant.

"It's the start of something new. Everybody has got the same chances on Opening Day," Ed Vogel said yesterday, as he searched outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards for tickets to today's opener. Vogel, of Chesapeake, Va., was in town visiting family for Easter, and figured he'd stick around for the game.

"Growing up in Baltimore, you learn that this is a time of expectancy," he said.

For the record, this year's Opening Day festivities will draw on a mix of nostalgia and contemporary raves to entertain fans.

A 15-star, 15-stripe American flag from Fort McHenry will drape over the batter's eye wall as the national anthem is sung by R&B group All-4-One.

Fans will also notice numerous beautification efforts at Camden Yards -- 13,000 tulips have been planted and a fine art gallery has been added in the warehouse -- while the shiny silver retired Oriole numbers near the North Eutaw Street entrance have grown by one: Eddie Murray's No. 33 was unveiled this weekend.

Team officials are keeping a lid on who will throw out today's first pitch.

"The person who's throwing it out doesn't even know yet," said Bill Stetka, assistant director of public relations. "We really want this to be a surprise."

Vogel, who scored two tickets to the game by early afternoon and stuck around to watch the Orioles practice, said this will mark his first opener since 1988.

"And I can remember every minute of that one," he said. "Ripken hit a two-run dinger in the eighth to win it. It was great."

Jim Bready, author of "Baseball in Baltimore," says fans like Vogel are among the most obvious similarity between Baltimore baseball now and 100 years ago.

"Fans in those days were very dedicated. They often walked to games and sat on bleachers with no backs to watch," Bready said. "You have to remember, there weren't really competing professional sports, so it meant a great deal to Baltimoreans to beat teams from other cities."

There are other similarities, too.

Union Park, which stood at East 25th and Barclay streets, was within short reach of downtown, just like Camden Yards. And many fans walked or rode streetcars to the park, much like the light rail shuttles fans to Camden Yards today.

People ate and drank at games like they do now, but the fare was a little different. Vendors sold sandwiches at the ballpark instead of hot dogs, and the only beer available was Eagle Beer: a label owned, not coincidentally, by the Von Der Horst family, which also owned the team.

Spring training was taking place every year by the mid-1890s, and the team would work its way north before Opening Day, playing exhibition games on the way. Anticipation for the season -- and the beginning of spring -- would build through reports in Baltimore's four major daily newspapers, Bready said.

In 1899, fans -- and players -- were already questioning umpires' calls at games.

"It wasn't uncommon for people to shout that the umpire had sawdust for brains," Bready said. "And some players would get after them, too."

Union Park had different ticket prices, as Camden Yards does, but the range was not as great. Cheap seats went for a quarter; the most expensive were 75 cents.

"You also didn't have the separation of the classes the way you do at Camden Yards, with the wealthy people in the club level and the working class in the bleachers," Bready said. "They all rubbed elbows together then."

Owners, Bready said, also worked the economics of the game in the same manner.

"This was a small-market team then, and the owners knew it," Bready said.

Although the Orioles had won three league championships that decade, the club had been gutted by owners in 1899 to help a team they owned in Brooklyn, where there was more money to be made.

Marquee players like Willie Keeler (famous for saying, "I hit 'em where they ain't") and manager Ned Hanlon were sent to the team in Brooklyn. The Orioles were left with few bright lights, but one of them was a 26-year-old third baseman named John McGraw, whom Bready describes as one of the hardest playing and most outspoken players in the game.

McGraw also managed the team, and drove it to a strong start. But the Orioles finished fourth. Later that year, the National League dumped Baltimore and three other cities.

The city would get another team in 1901, when the American League was founded, but would lose it before long to New York (some team that wound up being called the Yankees). Major League baseball wouldn't return to Baltimore until 1954.

Outside Camden Yards yesterday, some fans pondered the significance of closing out this century of baseball in Baltimore.

"I think baseball will transcend the millennium," said Barry Kramer of Randallstown. "There will always be a Babe Ruth, a Ken Griffey or a Cal Ripken who everyone is following. There will always be someone going for records."

Kramer, 25, said he has been at a number of Opening Day games, dating to when he was a boy, and his father would take him to Memorial Stadium.

Kramer's brother, Michael, said baseball has an amazing power of renewal that applies nicely to everyday life.

"Every time the darkest day comes, someone else comes along to save baseball," Michael Kramer said. "That's what I like about it."

Pub Date: 4/05/99

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