The Fire that Burned Baltimore into the Big Leagues
It’s hard to imagine a more unusual set of circumstances which propelled Baltimore’s arrival into the pinnacle of professional sports. For fifty-two years, the city was relegated into minor league status when the major league Orioles pulled up roots and became the New York Highlanders, and ultimately, the Yankees. When the Federal League disbanded, International League Orioles owner Jack Dunn moved his team into Terrapin Park, located at 29th and Greenmount, and renamed it Oriole Park. It was a wooden edifice, seating 11,000, and the bleachers were repeatedly treated with creosote to ward off deterioration and decay.
Then on the evening of Independence Day, 1944, the place caught fire and was burned to the ground. The Orioles went on a 12-game road tour while Municipal Stadium, an earthen football stadium located on 33rd Street, was readied for baseball. Because of its immense size, the old stadium, which had previously been used almost exclusively for football, was able to draw unusually large crowds for minor league baseball games. That same year, the Orioles made it to the Little World Series and vied with the Louisville Colonels for the International League title.
At the same time this series was drawing in excess of 52,000 in Baltimore, the major league cross-town series, between the Cardinals and the Browns, was drawing a paltry 31,000 at Sportsman Park in St. Louis. People across the country took note, and began talking about the potential in what was, at that time, the eighth largest city in America.
Yet, it was football that made the first splash onto the scene when the All-American Football Conference awarded the defunct Miami Seahawks franchise to Baltimore. A fan contest to rename the team saw three submissions suggesting the name “Colts”. Because of an essay touting the Colts name and its tie to Pimlico and the Preakness, Charles Evans Hughs of Middle River, Maryland won first prize- a lifetime pass to Baltimore Colts games.
Meanwhile, a sports editor at the Baltimore Sun, one Roger Pippen, began to urge the city to re-build Municipal Stadium in order to attract major league baseball. Facing a lot of criticism, even from the editors of his own paper, Pippen went on a one-man crusade to spur interest in the project. In 1949, he succeeded and over the next two years, Municipal Stadium was gradually transformed into Memorial Stadium, which could accommodate both sports equally well.
At first, the new stadium was a concrete, single-deck facility seating 31,000. When it became known that St, Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck was interested in selling his team, the city decided to add an upper deck increasing the capacity to 49,000 seats- large enough for big league baseball. Attorney Clarence Miles assembled a group of investors, and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954. Ironically, another Browns franchise would relocate to Baltimore forty-two years later, and return Baltimore to the NFL twelve years after their beloved Colts had departed for Indianapolis.
Since the early fifties, Baltimore’s professional teams have been sometimes hot, and sometimes cold, but always of great interest, regardless of their standings. Yet, were it not for the fire of 1944, and the impetus that provided, they might not have been teams at all. From the ashes of 1944, Baltimore rose to a prominent place in both sports boasting world championships in 1958, 1959, 1966, 1970, 1983 and 2000.
(author’s note- the Baltimore Ravens won their second Super Bowl following the 2012 Season, six years after this was originally published in the Baltimore Sun)
-Drew Nickell, 14 March 2007
© 2007, by Drew Nickell, all rights reserved