// you’re reading...

Lost City

Lost City: The Burning of Oriole Park

Baltimore - Stadiums - Oriole Stadium, 1938

Lost to fire. Old Terrapin Park a.k.a. Orioles Park, the fifth. Baltimore – Stadiums – Oriole Stadium, 1938, photographer unknown. Subject Vertical File, MdHS.

On the evening of July 3, 1944, the International League Baltimore Orioles squared off against the Syracuse Chiefs at Oriole Park on 29th Street and Greenmount Avenue. The Orioles entered the game with a slim first place lead over the Montreal Royals, while the Chiefs were fighting to stay out of last place. Nonetheless, the Chiefs jumped out to a 4-1 lead. The Orioles scored two in the sixth and one in the seventh to push the game into extra innings. However, the Chiefs would then erupt for seven runs in the tenth inning, sparked by a grand slam from 17-year-old shortstop Bob “Orb” Carson.[1] The Orioles still maintained their hold on first place, but the game became known for another reason. Unknown to any of the participants at the time, the game would be the last one played at Oriole Park.

The park’s wooden structure left it vulnerable to fire. After every game the grounds crew, consisting of Mike Schofield and Howard “Doc” Seiss, watered down the stands in order to extinguish all cigar and cigarette butts. They followed the same procedure after the Chiefs’ victory on July 3. However, in the early morning hours of July 4, a fire started by the third base grandstand. The flames quickly engulfed the stadium, a result of the creosote used to protect the wooden structure from decay. Schofield described the scene as a “sheet of fire.” The heat became so intense that it cracked windows in nearby houses, damaged cars and businesses, and melted the asphalt on 29th Street. In all, the fire forced fifteen hundred people to evacuate the neighborhood and caused $150,000 in damage. Along with the park, the Orioles lost the physical evidence of their history, as the fire destroyed photographs, trophies, and documents.[2]

The “sheet of fire” that burned Oriole Park provided a symbolic dividing line in Baltimore’s sporting history. The destruction of Oriole Park marked the beginning of the end to Baltimore’s minor league heritage. Yet, the fire’s aftermath showed Baltimore’s potential as a major league town. The city rallied around the Orioles as they pushed for the International League title. Facing off against the American Association’s Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series, the Orioles and Baltimore gained national attention when one home game outdrew the Major League World Series taking place in St. Louis. Baltimore no longer represented a minor league city, but a city with major league potential that would not be fulfilled until the St. Louis Browns arrived ten years later.

Known initially as Terrapin Park, the stadium had ironically been built in 1914 to mark Baltimore’s return to the major leagues. The city had a brief major league history. The Baltimore Orioles joined the American League in 1901. However, after the 1902 season, the team left for New York, becoming the Highlanders and then the Yankees. For twelve years, Baltimore lacked a major league team, though the International League Orioles filled the void admirably. In 1914, major league baseball returned to the city with the creation of the Federal League’s Baltimore Terrapins.[3] The Federal League stood as an “outlaw” league that competed against the established American and National leagues. For two seasons, the Terrapins played in the new stadium, but interference by the American and National leagues led to the dissolution of the Federal League after the 1915 season.[4]

Damn Yankee was once our very own. George Herman "Babe" Ruth Jr. bats in Oriole Park V. "Babe Ruth at bat," Robert Kniesche, 1931, PP79.40, MdHS.

Damn Yankee was once our very own. George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. bats in Oriole Park V. “Babe Ruth at bat,” Robert Kniesche, 1931, PP79.40, MdHS.

The Terrapins cut into the gate receipts of the minor league Orioles who played across the street.[5] Their arrival forced the Orioles to make several financial decisions. In the summer of 1914, as the Terrapins played their first season in Baltimore, Orioles owner Jack Dunn sold the contract of Babe Ruth to the Boston Red Sox. Ruth, who had won 22-games with the Orioles and the Providence Grays that year, would go on to have a storied major league career with the Red Sox and the Yankees.[6] Dunn also sold the contracts of eleven other players to major league teams, and then moved the team itself to Richmond in order to make payroll. When the Federal League folded after the 1915 season, Dunn sold the team to Richmond-area investors. He then purchased the Jersey City Skeeters and moved them to Baltimore, playing games in the new stadium – now renamed Oriole Park.[7]

"Frederick “Fritz” Maisel at old Oriole Park," Robert F. Kniesche, ca. 1931. MdHS, PP79-18.

“Frederick “Fritz” Maisel at old Oriole Park,” Robert F. Kniesche, ca. 1931. MdHS, PP79-18.

Jack Dunn, Baltimore Orioles manager, 1921. MdHS, PVF.

Jack Dunn, Baltimore Orioles manager, 1921. MdHS, PVF.

 

For the next twenty-eight-and-a-half seasons, the Orioles made Oriole Park their home, and played some of Baltimore’s best baseball. The Orioles won 100 games in 1919, and went on to win seven-straight International League titles. In the process, they made six-straight Little World Series appearances against the American Association champion, and won three of them. Oriole Park provided the venue for such players like Frederick “Fritz” Maisel and Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove. A speedster known as the “Catonsville Flash,” Maisel hit .336 in 1919 and stole sixty-three bases. Grove, a left-handed pitcher, won 108-games with the Orioles in five seasons before advancing to the majors, where he won 300-games in a Hall of Fame career with the Red Sox and Philadelphia A’s. The period from 1919 to 1925 represented one of the most impressive periods of baseball in Baltimore. While subsequent Oriole teams did not enjoy the same success, they did come close to winning the International League in 1936, 1937, and 1940.[8] The Orioles appeared headed for the post-season in 1944 when the fire destroyed Oriole Park.

The fire had a significant logistical impact on the team. When the fire struck, the Orioles were in the midst of a home stand, and held a slight first-place lead over the Royals. They had been slated to play an Independence Day double-header against the Chiefs. The fire cancelled the double-header, and, by night fall, the Royals gained first place. In the fire’s aftermath, the city agreed to give the Orioles use of its football field, the 65,000-seat Municipal Stadium. The grounds crew, though, needed time to adjust the field for baseball use. Consequently, the Orioles went on the road to complete their home stand against the Bears and the Jersey City Giants. On July 16, the Orioles returned to their new home to play a double-header against the Giants. The Orioles resoundingly won both games in front of 13,000 people.[9]

At the same time, the fire had a significant impact on the community and its relationship with the Orioles. Writer Jacques Kelly noted that “Oriole Park was one of those classic urban ball fields. The property seemed to be scissored out around rowhouses, a florist’s greenhouse, streetcar tracks and the village’s Episcopal church, St. John’s Huntingdon.”[10] The park defined a significant part of Greenmount Avenue, and the Orioles defined an important part of Baltimore as a whole. As a result, the city rallied around the team after the fire, turning out in large numbers at Municipal Stadium. Orioles General Manager Herb Armstrong estimated that 118,500 fans came out to the team’s first twelve home games in the new stadium. As the Orioles heated up for the stretch run, winning eighteen of nineteen games at one point, attendance rose. Columnist John Steadman noted that the Orioles played in front of 20,000 to 40,000 people. Those crowds would not have been possible in old Oriole Park, which seated approximately 11,000.[11]

The Orioles ultimately won their division on the last day of the 1944 season, and they went on to face the Newark Bears for the International League’s Governor’s Cup. In a series that went a full seven games, the Orioles won their first International League title since 1925, defeating the Bears in front of 14,747 drenched fans at Municipal Stadium.[12] The victory set the stage for the Junior World Series against the American Association champion Louisville Colonels. Beginning the series in Louisville, the Orioles took two of three on the road, including a then-record 14-inning contest in game three. The series shifted to Baltimore, where the Orioles and Colonels played before a crowd of 52,833 fans in game four. The Colonels won the game 5-4, but the Orioles rebounded by winning games five and six to win the Junior World Series.[13]

Baltimore Municipal Stadium, not dated. Photograph by the Hughes Company, MdHS, MC7082.

Baltimore Municipal Stadium, not dated. Photograph by the Hughes Company, MdHS, MC7082.

The fire to Oriole Park and its aftermath showed the nation Baltimore’s potential as a major league city. In Municipal Stadium, Baltimore had a facility where teams could play in front of large crowds. Game four of the Junior World Series highlighted Baltimore’s potential. Playing in front of 52,833 fans, the Orioles and Colonels actually outdrew a major league World Series game between the St. Louis Browns and St. Louis Cardinals, which drew fewer than 35,000 fans. In doing so, Baltimore received nationwide attention. Shirley Povich of The Washington Post noted how game four left the baseball world “gasping,” but, more importantly, the game helped mark “the resurgence of Baltimore as baseball town.”[14] That resurgence could not have happened but for the fire that destroyed Oriole Park in July 1944.

The “sheet of fire” that destroyed Oriole Park provided a major turning point in Baltimore’s quest for major league status. In the fire’s immediate aftermath, Rodger H. Pippen of the Baltimore News-Post predicted that “… what appears to be a baseball tragedy, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Baltimore rose from the ashes of its great fire in 1904 to be a bigger and better city. Our Orioles will come through just as soon as war conditions permit, with a bigger and better place for their games.”[15] Municipal Stadium showed off Baltimore’s potential as a location for major league teams seeking a new city. Using this potential, city officials even looked into measures to make Baltimore even more attractive, including plans to build the first-ever domed stadium in the United States. The domed stadium never materialized, but that did not prevent the Browns from moving to Baltimore in 1954 to become the Orioles.[16] Symbolically, the “sheet of fire” burned down Baltimore’s minor league image, allowing the city to rise from the ashes as a major league town. (Richard Hardesty)

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

With all the stadium hopping and league swapping, tracking the places we’ve called Oriole Park over the decades has never been an easy task for baseball fans much less historians. This handy chronology will either completely clear things up or cause your head to spin like a Gregg Olson curveball.

oriole_park_chron

 

map_details
Richard Hardesty is a doctoral student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In the summer of 2009, his article, “‘[A] veil of voodoo’: George P. Mahoney, Open Housing, and the 1966 Governor’s Race” appeared in the Maryland Historical Magazine. He’s been contributing to this blog since 2012 and is currently examining the role the Orioles played in the urban redevelopment of Baltimore.
Special thanks to Bernard McKenna for assistance with this article.
Sources and further reading:

Baltimore’s Lost Ballparks

“Oriole Park Fire Left Mark on Able,” The Darkroom.

[1] Carson’s home run would be the only one he hit during the 1944 season. C. M. Gibbs, “Orioles Lose in Tenth, 11-4,” Baltimore Sun (Baltimore), July 4, 1944; “Orb Carson,” Baseball Reference.

[2] With inflation, the $150,000 in damage is the equivalent of $2,009,043.10 in 2014 money. “Fire Destroys Oriole Stadium In Baltimore,” The Washington Post (Washington), July 5, 1944; “Oriole Ball Park Destroyed By Fire,” New York Times, July 5, 1944; John Steadman, “Old Oriole Park fire burns imprint on sports in the city,” Baltimore Sun, July 1, 1994; Mary K. Zajac, “All Fired Up,” Baltimore Style, June 14, 2011.

[3] “It’s ‘Terrapin Park’: Baltimore Federal Magnates Decide Upon Name For Their Home,” Baltimore Sun, March 18, 1914; “Work Progressing at Terrapin Park,” Baltimore Sun, March 29, 1914.

[4] The Federal League represented a third major league, but gained its status as an “outlaw” league due to avoiding the reserve clause that guided the American and National leagues. The reserve clause allowed teams to control the contract rights of a player in perpetuity, even though players signed one-year contracts. By controlling the contract rights of a player, management could dictate the amount of money they paid out, which meant they usually paid the player below market value. Players could not change teams unless they were traded or outright released. In short, the teams owned the players. The Federal League did not adhere to the reserve clause, and thus created fierce competition between the three leagues. As a result, player salaries increased significantly and demonstrated the market potential of baseball players for the first time. In 1914-1915, the Federal League owners brought a lawsuit against the American and National leagues for violating antitrust laws. The judge hearing the case, Judge (and later first commissioner) Kenesaw Mountain Landis, let the case sit, urging both sides to negotiate. By 1915, several Federal League owners faced financial distress. The American and National leagues bought out several of these franchises. The Baltimore franchise rejected their buyout and unsuccessfully sought to bring a major league team to the city. When the Federal League lawsuit went to trial, the U.S. District Court sided with the Federal League. However, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, and the Supreme Court upheld the decision. In doing so, the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court held that major league baseball was not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act. See Federal Base Ball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs et al., 259 U.S. 200 (1922); Daniel R. Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy (Lanham, Maryland: Ivan R. Dee, 2012).

[5] The stadium across from Terrapin Park was known as Oriole Park. Given that several Oriole Parks existed at various times, the stadium across from Terrapin Park became is usually referred to as Oriole Park IV.

[6] C. Starr Matthews, “The Rise of Babe Ruth,” Baltimore Sun, July 10, 1914; “Babe Ruth,” Baseball Reference.

[7] Bill Weiss and Marshall Wrights, “1919 Baltimore Orioles,” Minor League Baseball.

[8] The International League and American Association did not play a Little World Series in 1919. Maisel had an impressive major league history before joining the Orioles. In 1914, Maisel stole an American League record seventy-four bases, which stood for seventy-one years until Rickey Henderson broke it with eighty. His son was Bob Maisel, who served as sports editor of the Baltimore Sun. By the 1930s, the International League moved to a playoff format, where the league’s two top teams played each other for the Governor’s Cup. The winner would then move on to face the American Association champion in the Little World Series. The Orioles lost to the Buffalo Bisons in the 1936 International League playoffs, and then to the Newark Bears in 1937 and 1940. Ibid.; “Lefty Grove,” Baseball Reference.

[9] “Fire Destroys Oriole Stadium In Baltimore,” The Washington Post, July 5, 1944; “Oriole Park,” Baltimore Sun, July 6, 1944; Gibbs, “Orioles Win 2 From Jerseys,” Baltimore Sun, July 17, 1944; “Jersey City Loses Two,” New York Times, July 17, 1944; Jesse Linthicum, “Sunlight On Sports,” Baltimore Sun, July 17, 1944.

[10] Jacques Kelly, “July Fourth is burned into memories of neighbors of old Oriole Park,” Baltimore Sun, July 4, 1995.

[11] John F. Chandler, “Flatbush Air Hits Baltimore As Orioles Continue Streak,” Baltimore Sun, August 1, 1944; Steadman, “Old Oriole Park fire burns imprint on sports in the city,” Baltimore Sun, July 1, 1994.

[12] “Orioles Oust Bears,” The Christian Science Monitor (Boston), October 5, 1944.

 [13] The Little World Series changed to the Junior World Series in 1932. “14-Inning Tilt Breaks Mark,” Baltimore Sun, October 9, 1944; David Howell, “The 1944 Junior World Series,” Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1994.

[14] Shirley Povich, “This Morning,” The Washington Post, October 18, 1944.

 [15] Steadman, “Old Oriole Park fire burns imprint on sports in the city,” Baltimore Sun, July 1, 1994.

[16] The International League Orioles would go on to win the 1950 Governor’s Cup over the Rochester Red Wings. Eventually, the Red Wings would serve as the Triple-A affiliate of the major league Baltimore Orioles. The International League Orioles stayed in Baltimore until 1953, and then moved to Richmond and became the Virginians from 1954 to 1964. In 1965, the Virginians moved to Toledo to become the present-day Mud Hens. “New Stadium May Have Roof Held Up By Air Pressure,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 1945; “Baltimore Plans Inclosed Stadium for Grid, Baseball,” The Washington Post, May 2, 1945; “Air-Pressure Roof Support Involves No New Principle,” Baltimore Sun, May 2, 1945; “Stadium Put At $7,000,000,”  Baltimore Sun, May 3, 1945; “Stadium Proposal To Go To Council,” Baltimore Sun, July 24, 1945; “Council Gets Stadium Plan From War Memorial Group,” Baltimore Sun, October 23, 1945; Mike Klingaman, “Baltimore first put lid on dome debate in 1945; Martin’s idea predated Astrodome by  20 years,” Baltimore Sun, February 27, 1996.

Discussion

3 Responses to “Lost City: The Burning of Oriole Park”

  1. I attended games at Oriole Park 5 Bill Diyer was the Radio
    Announcer for the games and Gunther Beer was the Sponser . The game was broadcasted on Radio Station WITH 1230 am on The dial , it was a1000 watt station in Baltimore. I was also at the fire on that morning in 1944. I could be wrong ; but I think Hoffberger
    Owned the team at that time? Thanks for the story!
    Ron Zarriello

    Posted by Ron Zarriello | 13. Apr, 2016, 9:55 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] languished for years until 1944 when tragedy struck Baltimore’s other major sports arena, Oriole Park. During the summer of that year, the baseball stadium burned to the ground during the night after [...]

  2. [...] Oriole Park’s fiery end in 1944 provided a much needed revenue source for Baltimore’s Venable Stadium. The project had become an expensive city-wide joke. The stadium had become known as the city’s “White Elephant.” Venable failed to ever generate a profit, despite the efforts of many Park Board members over the years. Sensing an opportunity to solve two problems, Mayor Theodore McKeldin offered the stadium to the homeless Baltimore Orioles, then part of the International League of Professional Baseball Teams. [...]

Reply to Ron Zarriello

Current day month ye@r *

Facebook

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Pinterest