A century before Camden Yards, O's played ball

Union Park: New history of the original Birds, which became the Yankees, reveals much about Baltimore.

October 23, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

A BOOK I recently completed, and enjoyed so much I resisted its finish, revolves around places, events and personalities of a Baltimore we scarcely know today. There, on the city block defined by Barclay, 24th and 25th streets, as well as Guilford Avenue, stood Union Park, the city's baseball diamond, wooden grandstands and scene of some dazzling baseball play and playoff games.

"Where They Ain't," by Burt Solomon, carries the subtitle "The fabled life and untimely death of the original Baltimore Orioles, the team that gave birth to modern baseball."

It is one of the under-told stories about Baltimore, one that uses baseball to divulge plenty about the city. It is a blend of sports, people, money and personality, bound together by good writing and painstaking research.

Solomon tells us Baltimore "straddled the boundary between Catholic and Protestant" and "more virulently, between North and South. No city to the north was home to so many black people; none to the south had so many immigrants. More and more, the rising number of Germans -- nearly a quarter of the populace -- and Irish and Russian Jews lent an air of northern diligence. These collisions of cultures might have brought conflict But they also fostered a willingness to get along."

The book explains the twisty story of how the Orioles of a century ago are the ancestor team of today's New York Yankees. Maybe this is why there is so much enmity between the present-day teams from the two cities. We're related -- and there is nothing like a long-simmering family fight.

I've often thought that Baltimore has not done well by the memory of the 1890s Orioles. It's a fascinating yet complicated saga -- players, franchises and loyalties were as fluid then as today.

The 1890s Orioles -- the team of Wee Willie Keeler, John McGraw, Hughie Jennings and Joe Kelley -- were so much a part of the old 25th Street neighborhood. They lived in the Waverly-Charles Village area for the season. A few stayed; a number thought enough of Baltimore to be buried here.

As I read the book, I'd be moved to walk past the grand rowhouses along Calvert and St. Paul streets where Orioles enriched by fat salaries once lived.

On one hot July day I explored Baltimore Cemetery, at the far eastern end of North Avenue, and viewed the grand tomb of Harry von der Horst, the German brewer who bankrolled the team and was so instrumental in its moves and fortunes. His beer garden, where he served his fermented malt and hops, stood just down the hill from his grave.

But after I put the book down, I walked to 25th Street, between Guilford and Barclay, and opened the book to page 150, where the black-and-white photographs are published. On a cool fall morning, I walked down the alley that would have been the far left field, a place not too far from the recent, headline-grabbing death place of Larry Hubbard, the suspect who police shot earlier this month.

Granted, there is not one shred of ballpark or playing field left in the 90-odd years since everything was plowed up and rowhouses built on the site of the once thriving Union Park.

But, because a magic often lingers in a historic address, I compared the 1897 photo and found so much of 1890s Baltimore still intact. The rowhouses that once encircled the old park were still there. The old back porches -- many of them full of rotting wood -- gave the feel of the grandstands.

Only the back yards, some full of rusted cars and dilapidated garages, seemed at odds with the news reports -- and photos -- of the place where 30,000 fans once assembled one fall afternoon for the playoffs that seized the attention of every ball fan.

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