Money talks in the naming game

September 22, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The first professional sporting events I went to were in a ramshackle facility known as Ponce de Leon Park. Home to the Atlanta Crackers minor league baseball team, it was named after the street it was on, which was named for the Spanish explorer who sought the fountain of youth, which eventually led to Botox injections, but that's another story.

When the Braves came to town, they played in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, also home to the football Falcons. The NBA Hawks played in Alexander Memorial Coliseum at Georgia Tech, named after a coach and athletic director.

When I moved to Baltimore, sporting events took place at Memorial Stadium, honoring veterans of the World Wars, and the Civic Center. This comes to mind as pressure mounts on the Ravens to name their stadium after Johnny Unitas, appropriate since perhaps the only more famous name associated with this city is Francis Scott Key.

This wouldn't be an issue if the Ravens stadium had been named the old-fashioned way, commemorating a person or geographical feature. It would be locked in and we would be looking for another way to memorialize the great quarterback.

Such is not the case, of course, as the Ravens sold the stadium name to a company looking for mentions in the media and, as with a few other franchises, found themselves atop the bubble of the mid-'90s. Pop goes PSINet, Qualcomm and Enron.

But while decrying the commercialization of sports, it is worthwhile to look at the Baltimore institution that drew me here from Atlanta in 1968 - the Johns Hopkins University.

When I arrived at that school - named after a wholesale grocer who became a classic late-19th-century philanthropist - its main quadrangle was dominated by Gilman Hall, honoring Hopkins' first president, Daniel Coit Gilman. At the other end was the library, named after a recently retired, highly revered president, Milton S. Eisenhower.

One building on the quad was named after Joseph S. Ames, president of the university during the Depression. Two were named after original faculty members - chemistry's Ira Remsen and physics' Henry Rowland. Only one building, Mergenthaler, was named for those who gave money to construct it - descendents of the linotype inventor.

Go to that same quad today and in front of the Eisenhower library you will find a large sign that essentially says the name on the building has been upstaged - it is merely a part of the Sheridan libraries, named after a donor who gave $20 million. When the physics department left Rowland Hall in 1990, the school took the physicist's name off the building and put up that of donor Zanvyl Krieger, who gave more than $50 million and got the School of Arts and Sciences named after him.

The naming game has changed in both the sport and scholarly arenas. Buildings put up in the past few decades at Hopkins almost always bear the name of a major donor. In the mid-1970s, the Seeley Mudd Foundation offered colleges and universities a deal - money for a building in exchange for its being named after Mudd, the former dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. There are Mudd Halls across the country, including one at Hopkins.

Earth and Planetary Sciences are in Olin Hall, named after the foundation that funded it. Physics is now in the Bloomberg Center, named after New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the biggest donor in his alma mater's history. The Hodson Hall was largely funded by the Hodson Trust, named after the founder of Beneficial Corp. The Mattin student arts center was named for the family of a 1975 graduate who gave a chunk toward the costs. The Ralph O'Conner athletic facility, named after its lead donor, includes the PepsiCo Fitness Center as a grant came in from that company's foundation.

What was once a balance between honoring those who gave to the institution and those who served it in some other way has tilted totally in the direction of show-me-the-money. I should not pick on my alma mater. This is true of campuses throughout the land. Many have a deal as straightforward as a pro team with a stadium - pay a certain percentage of costs and get your name on the building.

There are exceptions. At University of Maryland - which would love more "naming" gifts - the physics building bears the name John Toll, the physicist who was once president of the university, chancellor of the state system, now head of Washington College. And down from the erstwhile PSINet Stadium is Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

For the most part, what was once a way for institutions and communities to honor famous and generous citizens has become a revenue stream. Universities sometimes sell the same commodity professional sports teams offer - exposure. Thus the new arena at the University of Maryland is Comcast Center, replacing Cole Field House, which was named after William P. Cole Jr., Board of Regents chairman from 1944 to 1956.

Usually what universities peddle is immortality. They shamelessly tell of Cecil Rhodes, the racist British imperialist who thought his ticket to timelessness was getting a country named after him. But Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, while the Rhodes Scholarships go into eternity. It's an appeal that might hit someone thinking of honoring parents - or a financial titan who thinks of all he has built disappearing into the mists of time. Ponce de Leon was looking for the same thing.

But better be careful. In Atlanta, the prominent citizen Hugh Inman Grant gave $15,000 in 1913 for the first concrete stands at Georgia Tech and the facility was called Grant Field in honor of his deceased son. No longer. In 1988, it became Bobby Dodd Stadium at Grant Field. Dodd was a football coach.

In the South, money is one thing, football is something else.

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