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When big football arrived in Baltimore

When big football arrived in Baltimore
The Army-Navy game of Dec. 2, 1944, at Baltimore municipal stadium. (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

The city got into the football business in 1922 in a big hurry. The corner of 33rd Street and Ellerslie Avenue was an old brickyard — or brick making pit in a location that bordered both the Waverly and what would become the Ednor Gardens neighborhood. It was unimproved parkland and carried the name Venable Park, a reference to Richard Venable, a onetime city Park Board president.

Ground was broken for a municipal stadium on May 8, 1922. No one knew precisely what it would cost, but the city had football fever and a hope that great crowds would assemble on 33rd Street. The contractor used some of the excavation fill to top off the old brick pit.

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Its name caused confusion. Big letters on the masonry entry gate proclaimed this to be “Baltimore Stadium.” That front portal, facing 33rd Street, resembled a classical Greek structure — with huge iron urns and columns.

Baltimoreans immediately disregarded the name and started calling it Baltimore Municipal Stadium, Municipal Stadium, Venable Stadium or simply, The Stadium.

The Stadium became entrenched, and its popularity spread. Baltimoreans love duckpin bowling, and there was once a Stadium Lanes above a twin pair of grocery stores, an A&P and an Acme on Gorsuch Avenue. There was a Stadium Lounge in Waverly and a Stadium garment manufacturing on Guilford Avenue in the Copy Cat Building in Station North.

The city pushed its rapid construction during the summer and spring of 1922. The grass seed did not make it in until the fall, and The Sun reported that crews watered the playing field daily to speed its germination. The place opened Dec. 2, 1922, with a big contest — the Marine Corps versus Army.

The Sun described that debut as a “day of pageantry, splendor and joyous tumult, ending with a struggle that should have rocked a mountain.”

The Marines won. The paper called it Venable Stadium.

There was no direct streetcar service to 33rd Street — that would come later via a rail spur on Loch Raven Road that also served City College and Eastern High School students. About 12,000 military personnel attended, and some walked from Mount Royal Station.

The masonry facade may have made an architectural gesture to ancient Greece and Olympic games, but the rest of the place was low-budget Baltimore. Steam shovels dug a deep bowl for the football playing field, which occasionally had water drainage issues. The plain seats were really elongated benches, all of wood, and surrounded the field amphitheater style. patrons complained the benches were subject to splintering.

The city secured some high-profile games. The Army-Navy game was held here in 1924 and in 1944. Several Navy-Notre Dame contests were also staged on 33rd Street. There were All Maryland lacrosse matches and a 1934 Roman Catholic religious pageant timed for the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Maryland colony. The minor league Orioles played here after the middle of the 1944 season when their old home, Oriole Park, on East 29th Street in Charles Village, burned down. It was the home of the earliest Colt contests.

Between 1949 and 1950 this well-used stadium was taken apart in stages tailored around the playing calendar. The engineers who designed what became Memorial Stadium used the structural footprint of the old football bowl. The city never quite had the funds to complete the construction work in one year. As a result, parts of a new Memorial Stadium — decks and concourses — appeared each year. When the Oriole franchise was secured and 1954 opening day arrived, Memorial Stadium was not completed. But it didn’t matter.

Memorial Stadium was razed in 2002, and an apartment complex and playing field were built on the site. And, curiously, that field now carries the name Venable.

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