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Inside Baltimore's backyard ballpark that once hosted Babe Ruth — before it burned

There was a time in Baltimore when a functioning ballpark once fit into two neighborhood blocks.

The old Oriole Park, which hosted the team from 1916 until it burned in 1944, sat where Waverly, Charles Village, Abell and Harwood meet. Baltimore had the dropped down to the minor leagues and competed against teams from Reading, Pa., Jersey City, N.J., Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., and Toronto.

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Even more unlikely than the park’s location was home plate’s. It was halfway up a hill, in the 2900 block of Barclay Street, near the back wall of what is now Peabody Heights Brewery and across from the Barclay Elementary School. The wood grandstands were watered after games for fear a discarded cigar or cigarette would cause a fire — though it was a precaution that did not save the place.

Baseball historians will tell you this Oriole Park, which is the fifth, or Oriole Park V, was not the only playing field at Barclay and 29th streets. Babe Ruth, as a rookie Oriole, played on an earlier field south of 29th Street on what would be the bed of today’s Ilchester Avenue.

In 1919, Ruth returned to Baltimore as a member of the Boston Red Sox. (He was such a promising rookie that Orioles manager Jack Dunn sold him off in 1914.) Ruth and his Boston teammates put on exhibition games beginning April 18, 1919. The Sun’s baseball writer, C. Starr Matthews, called him “the most extraordinary ballplayer in captivity.”

Despite Ruth’s fame — and his standing as a hometown boy — there were only about 2,000 fans in those wooden stands to witness a contest whose outcome was headlined as “Breaks World’s Record.”

The major league Red Sox beat the minor league Orioles, 12-3. “The score really made no difference,” The Sun said in its account.

“Johnny Honig, [an Orioles player] in the outfield sat on the wall and four times Babe Ruth, the greatest clouter baseball has ever known, drove the white rocket far over his head, thus equaling the world’s long distance batting record established years ago by big Ed Delahanty.”

On that cold and windy afternoon, Ruth smashed four home runs out of Oriole Park — a distance estimated at 500 feet. One landed in a the backyard of a home in the 2900 block of Greenmount Ave. The Sun’s account suggested that Dunn should have stationed his outfielders and groundskeepers outside the ballpark that day.

Ruth’s short visit proved a charm. The Orioles won the International League championship that year, and for six more.

The wood park burned to the ground in the early morning hours of July 4, 1944. The Orioles then took off for the old Baltimore Stadium nearby on 33rd Street, which was itself plowed down when a new Memorial Stadium was constructed. The Orioles returned to the major leagues in 1954 on 33rd Street.

Their old home field remained a tangle of charred wood loosely covered with fill dirt. Part of the old wall where Ruth powered those four runs remained until the late 1950s, when bulldozers regraded the entire block from 29th to 30th Street at Barclay.

A nearby and once celebrated 18th-century mansion, the Vineyard — it was unharmed in the 1944 fire — also was razed to enlarge this parcel for redevelopment. The Barclay Elementary/Middle School rose. The bed of Barclay Street was cut through and a small industrial park filled in the diamond with a Nehi-Royal Crown Cola bottling plant, a DuPont de Nemours warehouse and a Dun & Bradstreet office.

No clues remained of that April day in 1919, when Ruth put on his show and the fans went to the ballpark to see if Ruth could hit it over the fence.

“They got their money’s worth many times over,” The Sun said.

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