Opening act

On April 15, 1954, the Orioles' first game in Baltimore featured 46,354 fans, 22 bands, 33 floats and a 3-1 win over the White Sox


April 15, 2004|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The day the Orioles arrived in Baltimore, trolleys clanged down cobbled streets. Kids rushed to see Pinocchio at the Hippodrome. Banana boats dumped their bushels onto weathered wharves where the Inner Harbor now stands.

On April 15, 1954, Baltimore had no Beltway, no Harbor Tunnel, no Jones Falls Expressway. Working farms still prospered inside the city; ditto, a row of bustling department stores.

Nationally, April was a month of firsts. Hank Aaron hit his first home run. Elvis cut his first single. America suffered its first casualty in Indochina.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's editions of The Sun, an article on the 1954 Orioles stated incorrectly that the team finished last that season. The Orioles were seventh in the eight-team American League in 1954. The Sun regrets the error.

But in Baltimore, the focus was on its new big league baseball team, a group of exiles from the Midwest hitting town for their first home game.

At Camden Station, the Orioles - having traveled from Detroit, where they split their first two games - stepped off the train and into Oz. Lampooned for years in St. Louis, the players paraded through the streets of Baltimore, flanked by brass bands and beauty queens and hailed by a crowd of 350,000 - more than had attended all of the Browns' home games in 1953.

People lined Charles, Madison and Howard streets, and hung from trees and fire escapes in a cold drizzle to watch their team, a caravan of .250 hitters and journeyman pitchers. Perched atop the back seats of cream-colored convertibles, players lobbed plastic baseballs - 20,000 of them - to the slew of school kids given the day off.

"I did keep one of those balls as a souvenir," said outfielder Chuck Diering, 81. "Still have it, in my game room."

Bob Turley, who would pitch that afternoon against the Chicago White Sox, tossed the balls out underhand.

Five thousand Hawaiian orchids were strewn along the 3 1/2 -mile parade route, ahead of the Orioles' entourage, though many spectators darted between cars and scooped up the flowers to use as corsages.

Baltimore's revelry went national: NBC-TV carried festivities live on the Today show with Dave Garroway. The New York Times likened the procession, 90 minutes long, to "the Florentine Army clanking triumphantly home after the second sack of Pisa."

Fifty years later, pitcher Duane Pillette, 81, called the reception "one of my most exciting times in baseball. I never had a big ego, but my heart and body kind of puffed up right there, during the parade. I thought, `Damn, we're pretty good.' "

What last-place club rates a salute of 22 bands and 33 floats? Army bugles, Scottish bagpipes and German oom-pahs led the Orioles downtown. A 14-foot papier-mache statue of Babe Ruth sprouted from one float; the reigning Miss America waved from another. One crowd-pleaser featured a mechanical oriole chirping as her brood hatched from a huge, baseball-shaped egg. Next came Bozo, a live spider monkey dressed in an Orioles uniform, riding the back of a long-legged whippet.

Dignitaries, too, got swept up in the fervor. One woman stood out in her black silk suit, orange blouse and matronly hat with orange and black feathers: Mrs. Clarence Miles, wife of the Orioles' owner.

Epidemic of Orioles fever

The city was awash in team colors. Merchants clambered aboard the baseball bandwagon, peddling everything from Orioles T-shirts to Orioles neckties to Orioles cigarette lighters engraved with the team's insignia. Hess Shoes advertised footwear made of "baseball-glove leather." Arundel ice cream stores unveiled the "Oriole Sundae" - a scoop of chocolate topped with butterscotch, fudge, whipped cream and a cherry.

On North Avenue, the Oriole Cafeteria did its normal brisk business.

A fielder's glove that had belonged to Ruth dressed the window of Hutzler's, on Howard Street. Inside the department store, patrons were urged to head to housewares "for pennant-winning values."

Everyone, it seemed, had baseball fever. Two days earlier, thieves struck a sporting goods store on Belair Road and took baseballs and gloves worth $124.

Even burlesque establishments on The Block acknowledged the new club in town. "Welcome, Orioles!" heralded a newspaper ad for the 2 O'Clock Club, reminding all that "That Big League `Wow' Girl Is Back! Jessica Rogers - She's a hit in any man's park!"

By midday, fans streamed into unfinished Memorial Stadium, its double-decked facade draped with 2 1/2 miles of red, white and blue bunting - in part to hide the scaffolding. Three hours to game time, plumbers and electricians finally finished work.

Opening Day had its glitches, parking among them. Cars ringed Lake Montebello, three-fourths of a mile from the park. Fans located their seats to learn some tickets had been sold twice. And in the Orioles' clubhouse, manager Jimmy Dykes opened his desk to find stationery with the letterhead of the St. Louis Browns.

Those who didn't attend - including Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro, whose efforts to procure the team landed him in Bon Secours Hospital for "nervous exhaustion" - could watch on WMAR-TV.

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