As a 5-year-old, I played in a vacant lot just out the back door of my family's Guilford Avenue home. I can't recall much about this piece of empty, moonscape-like land except that the ground still showed traces of decaying black wood. I was told these were the long-cold embers of old Oriole Park. The park burned in the early-morning hours of July 4, 1944. The team then moved to Baltimore Stadium on 33rd Street, later rebuilt as Memorial Stadium.
In the mid- to late 1950s, the bulldozers moved in and regraded the former ballpark, which had occupied a swath between 29th and 30th streets, west of Greenmount Avenue. An 18th-century mansion, the Vineyard, was also pulled down to enlarge this parcel.
Barclay Street was cut through between 29th and 30th streets, and a cluster of new buildings rose on the site. The best known is Barclay Elementary/Middle School. But there was also a mini industrial park: a Nehi-Royal Crown Cola bottling plant, an E.I. DuPont de Nemours warehouse and a Dun and Bradstreet office.
Old Oriole Park, where teams — not all of them Orioles — played from 1914 to 1944, endured in the memories of Waverly, Charles Village and Abell residents, and of anyone who ever saw a game there. Physical traces of the old park, its grandstands and base lines completely disappeared in the 1950s as the land was reconfigured and repurposed.
This week two surveyors, Anne Leininger and Tom Wilhelm, arrived to resolve a question that has vexed baseball historians for decades. Where was home plate? Nearly 71 years after Oriole Park on 29th Street burned, the surveyors established the precise location of that plate, as well as the pitcher's mound, the bases, the infield and the outfield.
Home plate, it turns out, stood in what is now a grass strip, midway up the east side of the 2900 block of Barclay St. The spot faces windows on the Barclay Elementary/Middle building. The pitcher's mound was not far from the south-facing wall of what is now the Peabody Heights Brewery, the former Royal Crown bottling plant.
The surveyors relied upon a well-preserved 1914 original survey of the park created by the S.J. Martenet Co., a firm that remains in business in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. They found the coordinates to pinpoint where the base lines would have been.
"We laid out the base lines, bleachers and grandstands in 1914," said Joel Leininger, an owner of Martenet. (It's his daughter who assisted in this week's resurvey.) He told me the outlines of the park property came into discussion recently when a neighboring building was sold. When land is transferred, it is customary for it to be resurveyed. It was this resurvey of the former DuPont warehouse that sparked the current conversation about the ballpark.
Present for the ballpark archaeology were a group of baseball historians: Bernard McKenna, a James Joyce and William Butler Yeats scholar from the University of Delaware who loves the game; David Stinson, author of "Deadball: A Metaphysical Baseball Novel"; and J. Hollis B. Albert III and Richard O'Keefe, who co-own the brewery where, as it happens, most of the playing field once stood. The brewery sends out 81,000 bottles every 10 days.
Baseball historians point out that this is not the only playing field in this neighborhood. Babe Ruth, as a rookie Oriole, played near this park, but on a field south of 29th Street. Historians engage in a mini-industry of researching the moves of the teams throughout Baltimore. It's complicated, and fun to consider on a warm spring day.
For the record, the home plate site located this week belonged to the 1914 Baltimore Terrapins, a club that played in the short-lived Federal League. Orioles owner Jack Dunn acquired the site in 1916 when the Federal League failed. It then became known as Oriole Park, and his team played there in the International League until a suspected smoldering cigarette or cigar ignited the 30-year-old wooden grandstands.