Closing the gates to Memorial Stadium signifies an end to a majestic edifice and a glorious era that has produced a treasury of momentous memories, all shaped to your own individual perception and joys of recall. It becomes a deeply personal experience, this shutting down of the old to make way for the new.
What it physically means, apart from the sentimentality that gushes forth at a time like this, is akin to moving to a modern house in a different neighborhood. But now the games will continue amid the setting of downtown Baltimore and its harsh backdrop of brick and glass-faced office buildings rather than the soft greenery and pleasant residential surroundings of Memorial Stadium.
The stadium that's being left behind has been in its present configuration since 1953. Before that, a huge horseshoe of wood that once accommodated 80,000 spectators was on the same location, beginning in 1922, when it was erected in a mere seven months.
Pictures flash to mind of crowds, caught in emotional bedlam, extolling the names of Brooks Robinson, John Unitas, Frank Robinson, Lenny Moore, Cal Ripken Jr., Raymond Berry and a litany of other legendary heroes. And let us not forget Ed Garbisch, who drop-kicked four field goals for Army in a 12-0 win over Navy in 1924; Larry Kelly and Clint Frank of Yale in 1944; Glenn Davis and Felix "Doc" Blanchard of Army in 1944; and Bob Williams, first as a Loyola High School quarterback and later the leader of the national championship Notre Dame team of 1949.
Remember, too, the Naval Academy brigade marching to a football game on a cold Saturday afternoon with a mass of floating blue overcoats moving in unison and white hats dotting the impeccably lined formation. Of a horse mascot racing the perimeter of the field after the Baltimore Colts scored. And a bearded wonder, known as "Wild Bill" Hagy, leading cheers from atop the Baltimore Orioles' dugout. All a part of the stadium scenario.
And, then, too, an airplane crashing in the upper deck after a Colts-Pittsburgh Steelers playoff in 1976. Tragedy was averted because the Colts were losing in a rout, which suggested to the crowd it would be convenient to leave early. All of this and much more unfolded on the giant stage that has been Memorial Stadium and, before that, Municipal Stadium.
Recalling the memorable moments resembles, in a way, turning the pages of a family album. There have been two distinct chapters in the life of the stadium, this house of thrills on 33rd Street. It came into being as Venable Stadium, built in 1922 with a capacity of 45,000, that was soon to increase to 80,000 and then, ultimately, decrease to 65,000 with the passing of the years.
Army-Navy played there on two extraordinary occasions, in 1924 and 1944. And the first time Navy met Notre Dame was in 1927, with the legendary Knute Rockne in command. This kicked off the longest continuing intersectional college football rivalry in the nation. From Venable Stadium it became Baltimore Stadium and then Municipal Stadium, where Navy football was the focus of interest, playing some of the country's collegiate elite, such as Ohio State, Michigan, Cornell, Princeton, Yale and California.
The original stadium was in place for 22 years before baseball made its belated appearance. It happened after the International League team, the Orioles, was burned out of an antiquated tinder-box known as Oriole Park. The spectacular fire on the Fourth of July, 1944, forced the club into an emergency situation. It needed a place to play and it was decreed that Municipal Stadium, rarely used after the college and high school football seasons shut down (the traditional date was Thanksgiving Day), offered the best of minimal possibilities.
The blaze that sent the Orioles out of their tiny playpen, which barely held 11,000 (if the occupants were eased in by shoehorn), opened a dramatic vista for baseball in Baltimore. Instead of limited audiences, the same minor-league Orioles began to pull crowds of 30,000 to 40,000. And then came the glorious, scintillating moment that notified America it could no longer regard Baltimore as a stop on the railroad between Washington and Philadelphia.
The date was Oct. 9, 1944, a Little World Series game against the Louisville Colonels, representing the American Association. The attendance was announced as 52,833 but there may have been another 10,000 uncounted, including a schoolboy who later became a sportswriter and was literally swept into the stadium without a ticket, along with numerous others, on that golden fall evening.
From that moment on, Municipal Stadium - a pile of lumber resting upon two earthen banks, from dirt hallowed out of the ground for the building of the playing field - was standing on borrowed time. All the seats were made of raw wood planks, lacking back supports, and each seat's number was stenciled on. The cry, led by sports editor Rodger H. Pippen of the Baltimore News-Post, was for the creation of a modern stadium, one that would attract major-league baseball. He was ridiculed, even scorned, but battled on.
It took almost 10 years of campaigning, but a new stadium was created. When Baltimore had the structure in place, in 1954, the St. Louis Browns transferred here to become the Orioles. As modern linguists are fond of saying, it opened up a whole new ballgame. It was there, too, that the Colts, members of the National Football League, played and won the hearts of an adoring community ..... and two world championships.
Ten Colts - Y.A. Tittle, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, Raymond Berry, Jim Parker, Lenny Moore, John Unitas, Joe Perry, Ted Hendricks and coach Weeb Ewbank - were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was in the stadium, in 1959, that the Colts beat the Giants, 31-16, before 57,545 enthralled witnesses. Unitas passed for touchdowns to Jerry Richardson and to Moore and carried one across himself. Johnny Sample returned an interception for a score and Steve Myhra kicked a field goal as the Colts repeated their title conquest of the year before when they went into overtime in New York.
Memorial Stadium represented to the Colts and their followers what Cooper Rollow, a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune, referred to as the "world's largest outdoor insane asylum." There was Unitas setting records and passing to Moore, Berry, Jim Mutscheller and later Jimmy Orr. And, of course, near-crazed fanatics screaming and stomping and a real live colt mascot circling the field after every home team score.
The Baltimore Colts became a way of life. Too bad that a team, founded in 1947 and with 35 years of tradition, was torn away during the middle of a lamentable March night in 1984. It was smuggled off to a place known as Indianapolis, where owner Bob Irsay sought greener financial pastures.
The Orioles, facing a longer and more expensive struggle to attain respectability, gained maturity under the direction of manager/general manager Paul Richards. Young pitchers of imposing talent, such as Steve Barber, Milt Pappas, Jerry Walker, Jack Fisher, Chuck Estrada and Wally Bunker, gained quick attention and helped move them up in the standings in the early 1960s.
But it wasn't until Richards left and Pappas was traded away for Frank Robinson in 1966 that the Orioles became a perennial contender. They won it all in Robinson's first year here. On a Mother's Day afternoon in 1966, he also drove a Luis Tiant pitch completely out of Memorial Stadium - the only time it happened, the ball rolling to a stop 540 feet from home plate.
With Frank and Brooks Robinson serving as the catalysts, the Orioles took the American League pennant, then beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in four straight. Other championship appearances came in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1979 and 1983, and twice more they won the World Series, in 1970 against the Cincinnati Reds and 1983 over the Philadelphia Phillies.
The two Robinsons and pitcher Jim Palmer, winner of 268 games, were voted into the Hall of Fame in their first years of eligibility. Brooks gave 20 years and 72 days of excellence to the Orioles. The late Ed Hurley, an American League umpire, watched Robinson in his early tenure and uttered a classic assessment: "He plays third base as if he came down from a higher league."
The stadium, both when it was Municipal and then Memorial, was used for more than Orioles baseball and college and pro football. It was a gathering place for functions of all types, including religious services on Easter morning, fireworks extravaganzas, marching band contests, automobile thrill shows, rodeos and midget car races. And in 1927 when Baltimore spread the welcome mat for Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly the Atlantic Ocean, the ceremony climaxed in the stadium.
It also was the scene for high school football games on Friday afternoons and nights, boxing matches that included Joe Louis vs. Jimmy Bivins in 1951, cricket, polo, the Harlem Globetrotters playing on a portable court, an appearance by Pele, the greatest of all soccer players, and a game between two teams of the All-American Girls' Professional Baseball League.
The Baltimore Fire Department, in the 1930s and 1940s, had an annual football meeting with the Quantico Marines, or, as the sportswriters liked to write, the "Smokeaters vs. the Leathernecks." But, comparatively speaking, little went on there, prior to the arrival of the Colts and Orioles. The stadium in the 1930s was disdainfully referred to as "Lonely Acres" and the turf was praised as the plushest in the country ' which wasn't surprising since neither man nor beast often set foot upon the luxurious carpet of grass.
This infrequent use of the stadium changed when the major leagues arrived - the Colts in 1947 and the Orioles in 1954. It was where Rocky Colavito of the Cleveland Indians hit four home runs in a game and, appropriately enough, Al Kaline, a hometown product, collected his 3,000th American League hit as a Detroit Tiger and then jogged to the stands to embrace his parents. The 1958 major-league All-Star Game was played there, offering lineups that included Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and Stan Musial.
Oddly enough, the first North-South football bowl was held in the stadium in 1932, but a blizzard swept into the city, which reduced the crowd to only 1,723. Another "first" was the North-South college lacrosse all-star game in 1940. So, most outdoor spectator sports, at one time or another, were played there. The 1944 Army-Navy contest was the only occasion a game in Baltimore directly decided the national college football championship.
It was of such epic proportions, it drew a crowd of 70,000 and raised a record one-day sale of war bonds, $58,638,000. When it was over, Gen. Douglas MacArthur sent the following cablegram from his Pacific base to West Point coach Earl "Red" Blaik: "To the greatest of all Army teams. We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success."
Yes, it was an arena of historic athletic achievement. But, more important, deeds were truly written on the fields of "friendly strife" that the same Gen. MacArthur had used as an analogy while superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. Memorial Stadium, and its predecessor, Municipal Stadium, represent a vital fabric in the growth and stature of Baltimore.
It embellished the quality of life, within the realm of fun and games, and provided some golden nuggets of history that deserve to endure for perpetuity.