Only glories were on field Park: Memories of the Colts and Orioles aside, Memorial Stadium, built in fits and starts, was never a monument to the city's vision.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Say this for Memorial Stadium: It was a bargain.

Opened in phases between 1949 and 1954, the stadium was never built so much as it evolved. City officials advanced the project in fits and starts, as money could be coaxed from the voters or found in the treasury. There never seemed to be enough.

At the time of its final grand opening in 1954, the stadium had cost a minuscule $6.1 million -- the state will spend that much on the light rail station at the Ravens stadium -- and it achieved its primary purpose: It had lured major-league baseball to town.

But nearly every corner was cut. It was the first stadium built without a roof over the upper deck. Most fans sat on wooden benches without backs. There was a chronic shortage of parking and bathrooms. And the upper deck was held aloft with concrete columns that were cheap to build, but were as wide as a linebacker and spoiled the view from one out of every 10 seats.

Cash was so tight that, months after the stadium opened, one city official suggested replacement turf for the field be stripped from the grassy medians between city streets rather than purchased from a sod farm.

Later attempts to remedy the stadium's shortcomings would cost tens of millions of dollars, and still leave the city in perpetual fear of losing its teams.

"It was technologically and engineering-wise, completely obsolete from the time it opened," said David Iannucci, who studied the park and possibly renovations in the 1980s as deputy legislative officer to then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

For fans who thrilled to Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson there, Memorial Stadium is hallowed ground. It was one of the first of the modern, two-sport stadiums that defined football and baseball for a generation of American fans.

But from an architectural and economic perspective, the facility was nothing to brag about. Its two tenants were grumbling about the accommodations and threatening to move barely a decade after Vice President Richard Nixon threw out the first first pitch.

The reasons were obvious. Public spending on stadiums was a new and not very popular idea in the 1940s, making money

scarce. Baltimore was on a leading edge of a post-World War II wave of such construction, so there were few models to follow.

And the engineers started the job not knowing if the tenants would be major league and if the stadium would have one seating deck or two. Baltimore was strictly minor league then.

"In the 1950s, I think it was an adequate stadium, not a great one. None of the stadiums built in the 1950s and '60s were great stadiums," said Bruce Genther, a stadium historian and model-builder from Laurel who has researched the 33rd Street structure.

"We didn't know any different. It was certainly better than what was there before," Genther said.

Even the location was a function of the fiscal realities. Officials considered more than 20 sites for the new stadium in the late 1940s. They chose 33rd Street for a simple reason: There was already a stadium there.

Engineers estimated it would cost $1 million to bring utilities to a new site. Voters had in 1947, just barely, approved $2.5 million in bonds for the entire project.

"It was a no-brainer," said Robert C. "Jake" Embry, a civic leader and retired broadcasting and sports executive who was instrumental in the construction of the stadium.

A second bond issue was rejected by voters the next year, putting additional pressure on planners to make do with the cash they had.

"We only had $3 million to spend. We thought we needed at least twice that much. It constrained what we could do," he said.

Location, location, location

Waverly was a logical place for a stadium in 1922, when Venable, later Baltimore Municipal, Stadium, was built on the site. People got to the few events held there each year on foot or by trolley. That was typical of sports at the time.

But by 1948, the automobile was fast changing everything. Fans soon craved two things Memorial Stadium could never provide: abundant parking and high-volume access roads. By the 1960s and 1970s, game-day traffic tied up streets for miles around.

That Memorial Stadium was built at all is something of a miracle. Work began in 1948 on the first phase, a single-deck structure with a capacity of 30,000. Planners dreamed of adding a second deck, but there was plenty of reason to doubt it would ever be needed.

Despite persistent hints that a few baseball teams might be moving, no major-league franchise had relocated since 1903, when the American League Baltimore Orioles moved to New York and eventually became the Yankees.

The only tenants then signed up were minor league: the International League Orioles, who moved in after a 1944 fire destroyed their wooden home a few blocks away, and a money-losing football team in a new and struggling league, the All-America Football Conference Colts.

"Baltimore was just not a sports town back then," said Embry, who was then running the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA.

"There just wasn't much interest. The first [bond] vote was very close," Embry said.

Seen in this context, building a new stadium proved positively visionary.

Post-war hopes

Old Baltimore Municipal Stadium was the center of the city's sports scene. The ambience was rugged: The "stands" were wooden benches built directly on mounds of dirt excavated from the field. Fans climbed ramps to the top of the mounds and then took steps down to their seats.

The benches rotted at a rapid pace and, by the mid-1940s, the city was spending a fortune replacing them. Civic leaders were touting the idea of a new, publicly built stadium as a way to retain the population and prestige that had flowed into Baltimore during World War II.

This was a fairly radical idea. Other than Milwaukee's County Stadium, built at the same time as Memorial, the next most

recent stadium project was Cleveland's Municipal. It was built in 1931.

"Memorial Stadium came after a fairly long period of inactivity in stadium building," said John Pastier, a stadium historian and consultant from Seattle.

"For the time, it was probably a little bit of a cutting-edge ballpark," Pastier said of Memorial.

It was big by baseball standards. Its use of cheap, reinforced concrete was unusual in a country accustomed to steel stadiums. News reports at the time attributed the decision to a desire to save money; concrete didn't have to be painted. The government was also still rationing steel in the late 1940s, a vestige of the war.

The architects built the lower seating bowl on columns that poked through the lower deck and were capped with concrete -- just in case an upper deck would someday have to be added. Many "caps" are still visible in the exposed, northern reaches of the lower deck.

By the time the lower deck was completed, in 1949, talk of a major-league baseball team moving to town was everywhere. Voters, encouraged by this, approved in 1950 another $2.5 million in bonds for the project.

Baseball approved in 1953 the move to Baltimore of the St. Louis Browns, and the National Football League approved the move of a team to replace the Colts, who had survived long enough to merge with the NFL but failed in 1951. Work began on a second deck. The concrete caps were hacked off and the columns were extended.

The upper deck wrapped around home plate, but ended at the 50-yard lines -- meaning half of the best football seats were missing. The design reflected the greater value placed on baseball, then the national pastime, than football, a sport not considered major league.

"I thought the sightlines were OK for baseball. All the lower-deck seats faced second base. But for football, even in the '70s and '80s, it wasn't that great," said Roy Sommerhof, director of ticket operations for the Ravens and former executive with the Orioles when they played at Memorial Stadium.

Obstructing the view

The upper deck also suffered from another design decision. It was held aloft by a series of concrete pillars beneath the uppermost and middle rows, rather than suspended from the rear through a cantilever setup. Pastier said this allowed the upper deck to be closer to the action. But it also left the stadium with its abundance of obstructed-view seats.

The Orioles considered a seat obstructed if the fan didn't have a clear view of the infield. About 5,000 fit into this category. The columns were more forgiving for football, because the action moves up and down the field. The Ravens classify about 3,000 seats as column-obstructed and another 1,000 blocked by the ** team benches, Sommerhof said.

There were design alternatives, though they would have been more costly. Eight years after Memorial opened, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles became the first park built without columns blocking views in the lower decks.

Moreover, Memorial Stadium's columns, because they were concrete, couldn't be removed the way steel posts were taken out of Yankee Stadium during its renovations in the 1970s.

"It was just an impossible place," said Jerold Hoffberger, chairman of the team from 1965 to 1979, a period of much talk and little action on a new stadium.

The shortcomings were obvious from the start, such as a lack of toilet seats on women's toilets, Hoffberger said. But Memorial Stadium was built in a different era, one when the public didn't spend freely on stadiums and stadium designers didn't spend a lot of energy on public comfort.

"We produced for 10 years the best baseball, bar none, in the whole country, and we had a hard time busting 800,000 in attendance If the house had been a place to have fun, more people would have come," Hoffberger said.

By 1965, the Colts, packing in fans to the rafters, were complaining about the stadium. "Our present stadium doesn't match up with all the new ones being put up around the country," Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom told The Sun.

The Orioles soon joined in the grousing, and for a while the two teams talked about jointly developing a new park at -- believe it or not -- Camden Yards. Rosenbloom asked that Memorial be demolished so it wouldn't attract a football team from a rival league.

By 1967, the city figured it had invested $8 million in the construction and enhancement of Memorial Stadium and was not eager to have it torn down. But the city embarked on the first in a series of fixes. Bathrooms were added, seats with backs replaced thousands of benches and office space for the teams was grafted onto the outside of the structure.

The upper deck was extended northward, adding new sections of seats for football. Nine rows of new seats were built around the infield, bringing baseball fans closer to the action.

Millions of dollars were spent trying to appease the teams, but it never seemed to be enough. The Colts finally fulfilled their threat to move in 1984, and the Orioles let it be known they could be next.

The ensuing crisis gave birth to the $500 million Camden Yards complex, and a new breed of stadiums that has set a standard for sports. The state expects no more events will be held at Memorial after tomorrow's game, and it will be demolished within the next year or two at a cost of $15 million to $20 million.

"It's ironic. It's a different city now," Embry said.

Pub Date: 12/13/97

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
81°