Ocean City resident made stadium letter-perfect


There are 317 stainless steel letters on the great stone face of Memorial Stadium.

Chuck Yealdhall made every one of them by hand.

"It wasn't a matter of 'Can you do it?' " said Mr. Yealdhall, who did the work for the Belsinger Sign Co. "It was: 'Here, do it!' "

The big letters, along with four numbers that say "1954," make up the dedication to America's dead in the world wars that is bolted, letter by letter, to the front of the stadium.

And when the sun sparkles across the polished steel script, it is the most beautiful part of a building in which little apparent thought was given to beauty.

"When you get far away from it and look up at it, maybe the ordinary person doesn't appreciate it," said Mr. Yealdhall, shielding his eyes to stare up at an achievement once believed to be the largest display of stainless steel in the world.

"It was very impressive doing them, when you're right next to them and they're so big," he said. "Then you can see the work in them."

It would be hard to miss the work in 10-foot high, three-dimensional letters of steel like the ones that crown the ballpark with the legend: "MEMORIAL STADIUM."

Few things appeared more odd to Baltimoreans of 1954 than the exotically modern letters on the front of their new sports stadium. "They were ahead of their time," said Mr. Yealdhall. "The architect must have dreamed them up. If you had a book of every [typeface], I don't believe you'd find it." And you wouldn't, according to the designer, a Polish architect named Francis J. Tarlowski.

"It is not an imitation of anything, and it has no precedent," Mr. Tarlowski told a reporter in 1954. "It took a little courage to do certain things. . . . I was personally very pleased."

"Somebody said it looked like Russian hieroglyphics," said Donald Belsinger, one of five Belsinger brothers who inherited the company from its founder, Harry Belsinger Sr.

The sans-serif, monotype letters are indeed very strange -- the M's are actually N's with an extra stroke slashing down through each of them; the E's are tall and thin with the center bar nearly touching the bottom; and long S's tilt so far to the right that they look like tildes, the wavy Spanish accent marks.

"This kind of M I've never seen before except here. If you tell me it's a letter, I know it's an M, but if you just put that shape on the wall and said, 'What is it?' I wouldn't know. We're definitely looking at somebody who took the opportunity to express their personal artistic bent in letter form," said Stephen Heaver Jr., an instructor in the Maryland Institute of Art Department of Design and an expert on type faces.

"I don't have a lot of sympathy for this kind of thing; it's not made for easy reading," said Mr. Heaver. "But I suspect he was sincerely trying to interpret the mood of the building, and perhaps because people stop to study [the oddity] they take the time to stand long enough to read the dedication."

Said Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, president of the Baltimore Art Deco Society: "So what if they stray too far from standards? That's how different typefaces evolve. I think it's nifty that this memorial was so important that they designed a whole system of lettering just for this building."

When Mr. Yealdhall began slicing the first letter out of big sheets of 20-gauge stainless steel in a sign shop on North Payson Street in 1953, he was still a young man: a World War II veteran several years out of the Army Air Forces, living in a Brooklyn Park apartment with his English war bride and their young son.

He is 68 years old now, white-haired and retired in Ocean City.

As the last major league season at Memorial Stadium rolls toward its goodbye summer, Mr. Yealdhall ponders the job he did 38 years ago for the Belsinger company.

He wonders what will become of his work once the old brick ball yard is abandoned.

"I'm very proud of it," he said of the gleaming inscription: ". . . a memorial to all who so valiantly fought and served in the World Wars . . . with eternal gratitude to those who made the supreme sacrifice. . . . Time will not dim the glory of their deeds. . . ."

Beneath that poetry have streamed tens of millions of fans to cheer and boo and marvel at some of the 20th century's greatest athletes: Ted Williams, Johnny Unitas, Pele, Brooks Robinson, Jim Brown, Jackie Robinson and Warren Spahn.

The massive dedication was shepherded from design to reality by Mr. Yealdhall between late 1953 and April 15, 1954, when he worked for the Belsinger company. Major league baseball had just returned to Baltimore after being gone for a half-century.

He remembers it as six months of careful, deliberate work -- though once, in the middle of the job, somebody caught one of the Belsinger kids using one of the giant A's for a sliding board.

"I guess I put in about 1,000 man hours on them," said Mr. Yealdhall. "There was no continuity, you didn't do 'em in the order of the words. You just did 'em. Maybe one day I'd do all the C's or all the E's. You'd cut 10 or 12 of them at a time."

"The skill involves the knowledge of how to bend the steel," said Donald Belsinger. "You have to analyze it and know what you need to do to shape odd pieces, to achieve what the architect and designer wants."

Mr. Yealdhall said it went like this:

* First, a co-worker traced full-sized patterns of each letter on brown paper.

* Then carbon paper was laid on the sheets of steel, the brown paper pattern of the letters was put atop the carbon, and the letters were traced by hand, leaving an outline of the shapes to be cut.

* The steel was placed on a 1946 state of the art "Do-All Zephyr" band saw at Belsinger's, and the blade's 4,000 revolutions per minute carved out the letters with friction. Every letter was made on the Zephyr at the Payson Street shop except the ones 10 feet tall, which Mr. Yealdhall made at a shop with a bigger saw.

* All burrs and imperfections were filed down by hand.

* With hand shears, Mr. Yealdhall snipped strips of metal to be welded around the edges of the flat letters to give them depth.

* Inside the hollow backs of the letters, the edges of the sheared strips were soldered for strength.

* Threaded bolts were then fasted to the back of the letters for mounting on the stadium.

* The last step before mounting was to go over each letter with dry Bon Ami polishing cleanser.

As Ms. Shapiro said, pretty nifty.

Mr. Yealdhall thinks so too.

Looking up at the letters, he shielded his eyes from the shimmering glare and tried to conjure the memory of seeing them in place for the first time. He couldn't, the memory lost somewhere in the last 38 years.

But with the future of the stadium in doubt [although many people believe the dedication will be preserved in some form] Mr. Yealdhall had no trouble expressing how he felt about the letters today.

"It's a memorial and should be kept as one," he said. "Maybe people will appreciate it more after they tear it down."

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