Remains of an era

Memories: A time capsule buried in Memorial Stadium's cornerstone is opened.

January 18, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Former Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III watched over the opening of the Memorial Stadium time capsule yesterday - just as his father presided in 1954, when the small lead box was tucked in the cornerstone for posterity, brimming with baseball souvenirs, business cards and the hope, as a note suggested, that the new structure on 33rd Street would stand forever.

The opening of the box yesterday was a clear sign that it would not. Demolition of the last remnant of the stadium - the 10-story memorial wall - is expected to begin late next week.

The box was encased in the cornerstone Sept. 9, 1954, in a ceremony before a game between the Orioles and the defending world champion New York Yankees, who had Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle listed in their lineup that day. (The Orioles won a one-hitter, with Joe Coleman on the mound.)

The game program and an official major league ball, signed by Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., were among the treasures discovered in the box. Mysteriously, 36 cents in nickels and pennies was also found. So was a snapshot of two sailors, with no names to identify them. Onlookers at yesterday's unveiling held their breath as the box was opened and became misty at the sight of the simple offerings.

A full 47 years, four months and eight days after the items were stowed, Maryland Stadium Authority officials said yesterday that all signs of the beloved Baltimore beacon will be gone from the city landscape in a few weeks.

"It's a sad moment to bid farewell from one century to another. ... It's very tough to see it vanish," said D'Alesandro, adding, "But once the mayor made the call, we've got to go on and not look back."

He spoke as if he were a priest among mourners.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who did not attend the time capsule event, said yesterday: "All of us are sad to see the bricks and mortar coming down." But he was in no mood to revisit the city's decision to tear down the stadium over protests and award the site to a church-based nonprofit group, which will build senior housing, and the YMCA, which will build a recreational facility.

O'Malley said the stadium's demolition would be good for housing prices in the area, and he defended the politically delicate move of taking down a memorial to world war veterans.

"Far from dishonoring veterans, there will be an equally fitting new memorial downtown in Camden Yards, where the city and the region come together for sports events," he said.

After opening the trove of memorabilia, it fell to D'Alesandro to give an impromptu eulogy to the sports enthusiasts, construction workers and Babe Ruth Museum officials who came to witness the walk across time.

"It was the cradle of professional sports for Baltimore, responsible for big-league baseball and football coming here. It housed collegiate games like Notre Dame and Navy, and great high school rivalries, like City-Poly. This is sacramental ground," the former mayor said. "We lived most of our lives here as far as Sundays were concerned. It was the equalizer, for everybody to enjoy themselves."

A member of the Army's 101st Airborne Division at 25, the younger D'Alesandro was not there that day in 1954, but his opening of the box - soldered so tight that the contents were as clean and pristine as if they had just been left - brought back the atmosphere. Baltimore then was a booming city of nearly 950,000, compared with the 2000 Census count of 651,154.

The stadium was "99.9% complete" when the capsule was placed in the cornerstone, according to a typed document signed by the mayor and the construction engineer. It noted that the horseshoe structure stood 117 feet tall, cost $2.6 million (the Ravens stadium cost about $280 million), was made of brick and reinforced concrete, and was designed to clear a capacity crowd in 20 minutes in case of an emergency.

Among those who left their business cards in the capsule was Herbert E. Armstrong, business manager of the Baltimore Baseball Club. A TV color commentator, Bobo Newson, wrote, "Hoping structure stands and prospers forever."

The Babe Ruth Museum will exhibit the time capsule contents starting Feb. 6, Greg Schwalenberg, the curator, said as he handled various items with white gloves. The new finds will be incorporated into an existing Memorial Stadium display.

Looking at the old coins adding up to 36 cents, Mike Gibbons, the museum's executive director, said, "That and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee." More seriously, he added, "This brings a degree of finality to the process."

Two sports buffs, John Ziemann, leader of the Ravens marching band, and Gordon Thomas of Arlington, Va., discovered the existence of a time capsule last year while leafing through team yearbooks. Both attended yesterday's event.

The time capsule would have stayed intact if the facade wall were to stay in place, said Rick Slosson, MSA executive director. After considerable debate, the mayor decided late last year to have the wall taken down to clear the 30-acre site for redevelopment.

As D'Alesandro left, he said his father "never" would have believed the stadium's demise came so soon.

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