The Memories Of Baseball Legends Haunt A Baltimore Neighborhood

April 19, 2008|By JACQUES KELLY

As the days grow longer and the weather more delightful, I've been lengthening my morning walks. The other day, I spotted a rowhouse being renovated in the first block of W. 24th St. It stands in the middle of the block, and it's probably the home of Baltimore Orioles legendary player Wee Willie Keeler.

As I huff and puff up the hills of today's Charles Village, I spot the residences of the 1890s Orioles, many of whom went on to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. It's funny - when I visited this baseball Valhalla, I was struck by a sense of reverence and awe. But when I pass their front doors, and the site of the field where they made their name, it's just a part of a nice walk in April.

Willie Keeler didn't have far to walk to his job. It's only about two blocks from his front steps to the city block defined by Barclay, 24th and 25th streets, as well as Guilford Avenue, where Union Park, the city's baseball diamond, stood in the 1890s.

There is no trace of the old park, yet when you visit the alley in the middle of this block, and view the weatherbeaten back porches of the rowhouses that went up after the ballpark disappeared, they kinda-sorta look like baseball grandstands. Occasionally the old streetcar rails pop through the asphalt on 25th or Greenmount Avenue, reminding us how so many people traveled to the games here.

I recommend a very good book on the subject. Where They Ain't, by Burt Solomon (2000), which he also calls "The fabled life and untimely death of the original Baltimore Orioles, the team that gave birth to modern baseball."

Solomon aptly described Baltimore as straddling "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 morning I spotted Keeler's home, I also glanced across 22nd Street and spotted the Gothic Revival spire of St. Ann Roman Catholic Church. It's the one with the big anchor outside.

I would have liked to have been around that January night in 1902 when the sports wedding of the year took place at the marble altar. (St. Ann's was then the local church for the baseball crowd.)

When Hall of Famer John McGraw, who went on to manage the New York Giants, walked the aisle to marry Blanche Sindall, all his legendary teammates - Keeler, Joe Kelley (he lived on for many years in a big porch-front house on Calvert Street), Steve Brodie (Maryland Avenue) and Wilbert Robinson (2700 block of St. Paul St.) - packed the St. Ann's pews.

It's amusing to consider the baseball ghosts of this old neighborhood, where, in keeping with the Baltimore virtue of not calling attention to yourself, no plaque or marker has ever been erected.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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