Newsboys once handed you three separate afternoon newspapers for a buffalo nickel.
The 1920s were the glory years of the five-o'clock paper.
The Evening Sun, the Baltimore News and the Baltimore Post each possessed a voice, a persoonality and a constituency. From 1872 until today, the daily afternoon newspaper had an unbroken life in Baltimore.
It flourished at the hour of the day when the clock's hands said it was time to go home. It functioned within a downtown crowded " with workers who gushed homeward out of offices, plants and department stores. The afternoon paper was a mainstay of the neighborhood confectionery and drug store. Its finest hour came before television ruled.
If you wanted news and reading material, you bought a paper and started reading on the streetcar carrying you home.
There was a culture and local geography to the old afternoon dailies. The inky printing plants and their bustling city desks sat alongside the buildings where their many of their readers labored in the old downtown commercial office-manufacturing belt.
Some 75 years ago, The Evening Sun's home stood in the first block of S. Charles St., between Baltimore and Redwood, today the site of the Morris A. Mechanic Theater.
Its big rival, the News, was printed about two blocks eastward, in the ground floor of the Munsey Building at Calvert and Fayette streets. That building is now a NationsBank branch. The News later moved to Pratt and Commerce streets, today a parking lot due east of Stouffer's Harborplace Hotel.
Beginning in 1922, the penny Post, as Baltimoreans often called it, was issued from an old shirt factory at Lombard and Hanover streets, the present-day location of an office building.
By tradition, the afternoon papers chased the late-breaking story. They stressed the use of the word "today" in their reporting. The writing was breezy, uncomplicated and unintimidating. The afternoon reporters left the ponderous writing to the morning papers.
And Baltimore remained loyal to the afternoon papers. Until the middle 1980s, the surviving pair of afternoon papers, The Evening Sun and the News American, collectively outsold The Sun, the morning paper.
The older of the afternoon dailies was the Baltimore News, which began life on Nov. 4, 1872, as a four-page sheet. Its first 20 years were called "successful, quiet and uneventful" until one Charles Grasty bought it.
Grasty was a Baltimore legend in his time. Not universally praised, he was the agent of change in a complacent city. He brought out fear, especially within the political machines he delighted in attacking. A 1905 book on Maryland newspapers described his News: 'It scents out evils and then attacks them with merciless vigor and mad-dog tenacity." Readers also bought it.
Grasty played a pivotal role in Baltimore's afternoon papers. After he invigorated the old News, he sold it and left town for a while. Later, he returned to Baltimore to found The Evening Sun.
"I saw him daily in those early years, and knew, of course, that all his energy and attention and energies were concentrated on the projected evening edition," H.L. Mencken wrote in his "Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work," published last year by the Johns Hopkins Press.
"It hardly, in fact, needed telling for he was notoriously (and correctly) convinced that destiny was on the side of evening papers. ... It soon became plain that he thought of The Sun as no more than a convenient springboard - or maybe even only falseface - for an Evening Sun," Mencken wrote. "All his experience had been with afternoon papers, and he knew almost nothing about the operation of a morning paper."
It was about this time, 1910, that Mencken, then nearly 30, makes clear a grudging respect for Grasty's determination to start up a new afternoon paper for Baltimore.
If Mencken remains cool toward his big boss, he remains very congenial toward the result.
For the next five years Mencken threw himself into The Evening Sun. This period in his 30s seems to be one of the happiest in his life. He would perhaps be better known for a 15-year stretch of Monday Evening Sun columns, but Mencken was present at the creation of the afternoon paper and it never ceased being his preference and favorite. During the first Evening Sun years, Mencken's "Free Lance" column tickled the city.
Not that The Evening Sun had the field to itself. The Baltimore News, countering with flashy headlines and big pictures, gave it major competition, especially after newspaper baron Frank A. Munsey (to whom Grasty had sold the paper) himself sold out to William Randolph Hearst in 1923. The Hearst organization owned the paper until, as the News American, it folded May 27, 1986. Many Baltimoreans were still referring to it as the News-Post at that late date.
The Grasty-Mencken Evening Sun did not always outsell its competition. The Hearst organization was adroit at newspaper promotional tactics - games and giveaways. Its former columnist Steve Gavin once quipped, "People don't read the News American, they play it."
Baltimoreans demonstrated their preference for their afternoon papers. They supported a third paper, The Baltimore Post, from 1922 to 1934, when it was purchased by the News. The Post started life as a tabloid and initially sold for a penny. It had a populist slant and featured stories about crime, horse racing (its handicapper was named Gaby) and entertainment. From 1927 on, its local columnist was the fondly recalled Louis Azrael.
From 1934 to 1964, the Baltimore News-Post battled and often bested The Evening Sun for the almighty circulation edge.
What The Evening Sun possessed was advertising revenue. By the 1920s it had become a fat and prosperous paper, stuffed page after advertising page for retailing institutions - O'Neill's, Joel Gutman, Hutzler Brothers, Bernheimer-Leader, Hochschild-Kohn, Stewart's, Brager-Eisenberg, the May Co., Hecht's Reliable Stores, Read Drug and Chemical and many others. The classified columns also bulged.
Grasty's afternoon effort was now paying off handsomely.
Baltimore's market for evening papers was so strong there was room for brisk competition.
The News countered with all sorts of editions, one printed on a pinkish paper. It was called the "peach edition." The paper had columnist Walter Winchell, the comic "Bringing Up Father" and Ripley's "Believe It or Not." Richard Steuart, once Evening Sun city editor, wrote a News feature on old Baltimore under the name Carroll Dulaney.
There was a popular contest wherein readers phoned in news tips for cash prizes. The paper's weakness was a lack of advertising.
The papers duked it out on local news coverage. Reporters chased local criminal Jack Hart. Fire alarms were their calls to arms. They worked the Clare Stone murder, the torso murder case (a particularly nasty one wherein parts of a murder victim turned up in different locations) and the Grammer case. During World War II, both The Evening Sun and the News-Post sold stacks of papers outside war production plants.
Then came television. At first, it was a novelty. It took more than 20 years before people regularly started flipping on their sets to get the evening news. Television executives soon realized the potential profit in the news market and stepped up their effort.
Maybe it was 15 years ago when Baltimore's afternoon papers entered a twilight period. Their editors saw an end, but a core of readers remained loyal. After the News American bowed out, The Evening Sun rallied and lasted nine more years.