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“The World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum:” Memorial Stadium, Part II

A full house for the Colts vs. Washington Redskins game on October 23, 1955. "Colts vs. Redskins, Baltimore Memorial Stadium," October 23, 1955, Robert F. Kniesche, PP79.1331-2, Robert F. Kniesche Photograph Collection, MdHS.

A full house for the Colts vs. Washington Redskins game on October 23, 1955. “Colts vs. Redskins, Baltimore Memorial Stadium,” October 23, 1955, Robert F. Kniesche, PP79.1331-2, Robert F. Kniesche Photograph Collection, MdHS.

(This is the second part of a two part series. The first part was posted on December 11, 2014.)

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.

The minor league baseball team made Venable, or as it had come to be known, Municipal or Baltimore Stadium, its home, and the stands were regularly filled once again. The Venable name had fallen out of favor as Baltimoreans forgot its namesake, Richard M. Venable. Venable had helped establish the city’s park system and was a former president of the Park Board, but city residents and newspapers more often called the 33rd Street stadium Baltimore or Municipal Stadium. To prepare for the incoming Orioles who had lost their park midseason, the stadium underwent a hurried transformation from a football to a baseball stadium, so the team could finish league play. The diamond was awkwardly configured on the existing field. The results were far from ideal, but it could hold far more spectators than Oriole Park ever could. Huge crowds flocked to watch the Orioles play at Municipal Stadium, and this success extended the Orioles’ residence at the stadium.

The following year, the team played all of its home games there. The city seized the opportunity to keep the team in the stadium in 1947 and decided it was time to upgrade Municipal. The newly returned crowds highlighted the failing condition of the arena. Necessary repairs and improvements had been delayed because of the lack of funding. The stadium had no official box office or ticket booths. Bathrooms were little more than wooden outhouses outside of the stadium. The backless wooden bench seating also garnered Municipal another unflattering nickname: “Splinter Heaven.” A long-term deal with the Orioles baseball team meant that a bigger, better stadium could be built on 33rd Street.

This however drew protest from the surrounding neighborhood. The residents had put up with the annoyances of living near the stadium when they thought the arrangement was temporary. They were fed up with the rowdy sports fans, overwhelming traffic that kicked up dust from the unpaved parking lots, and the bright lights and loud noise that radiated from the stadium during night games. The Stadium Neighborhood Protection Committee filed suit against the city. The association wanted concessions from the city and the team for the inconveniences the stadium caused.

The field was set up for both football and baseball games. Fan view inside Memorial Stadium. "Baltimore Colts vs Chicago Bears at Memorial Stadium, Baltimore, MD.," October 1960, A. Aubrey Bodine, A. Aubrey Bodine Collection, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, MdHS.

The field was set up for both football and baseball games. “Fan view inside Memorial Stadium. Baltimore Colts vs Chicago Bears at Memorial Stadium, Baltimore, MD.,” October 1960, A. Aubrey Bodine, B1558, A. Aubrey Bodine Collection, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, MdHS.

Both sides hired Baltimore’s premiere legal eagles. Wilmer H. Driver represented the Stadium Neighborhood Protection Committee, and the City Solicitor, Thomas Biddison, worked the case for Baltimore. The Baltimore Orioles also hired as slew of lawyers to fight the neighborhood association. The case made it up to Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. In the end, the city and the Orioles won the case. The only concessions made to the residents were that innings could not be started after 11:30 p.m., the parking lots must be paved, and the PA system couldn’t be too loud. The court case also affirmed that the stadium could legally be used for professional sports, which opened the door to bigger opportunities.

The planning for the new stadium coincided with the return of professional football to the city. Bob Rodenberg acquired and moved the defunct Miami Seahawks from the All-America Football Conference to Baltimore in 1947. This hardly seemed like a gamble. He knew that the city loved football. The Washington Redskins had periodically played in Municipal and had always drawn good crowds. The Seahawks were renamed the Colts as result of a naming contest won by Charles Evans of Middle River, Maryland. Rodenberg initially wanted to call his team the Whirlaways after the Triple Crown winning racehorse, Whirlaway. The Colts moniker honored the city’s connection to horseracing. This team only lasted until 1951. The AAFC and the National Football merged in 1950, and the Colts were included, but poor play combined with financial instability led the league to dissolve the team. Baltimore was once again without a professional football team, until 1952, when the league commissioner challenged the team to sell 15,000 tickets in six weeks to reenter the league. The challenge was met in less than five weeks. The Baltimore Colts were reinstated in 1953. Carroll Rosenbloom moved the floundering Dallas Texans to the city with the trademark blue and white uniforms, thus creating the team that the city rooted for until 1984.

The Baltimore Colts original colors were green and silver. Program, 1948, Sports Ephemera Collection, MdHS.

The Baltimore Colts original colors were green and silver. Program, 1948, Sports Ephemera Collection, MdHS.

The new stadium also helped cement a deal to get a major league baseball team back in Baltimore. The St. Louis Browns from the American League moved to the city in 1954. The International League team was bought out and moved to Havana, Cuba, and the Browns took over the Orioles name.

Memorial Stadium was a far cry from Municipal. Construction on the new stadium was completed in 1950 and cost $6.5 million to build. It was built from reinforced concrete, had actual seats, and an imposing entrance. The firms of J. L. Faisant and L. P. Kooken were responsible for the design. The name Memorial Stadium was chosen to honor Marylanders who had served in the military, and was even more fitting with the recent end of World War II and the start of the Korean War during the construction period. Some had advocated naming the stadium after Baltimore’s native son, Babe Ruth, but this was met with criticism and ultimately rejected. A second deck of seating was added in 1954, just in time for major league Orioles’ Opening Day.

Both the Orioles and Colts met great success in their new stadium. Over one million fans attended the O’s games during their inaugural season despite the team’s 54-100 record. The baseball team won six American League pennants and three World Series championships during its tenure in Memorial. Many baseball greats graced the diamond for the O’s, including Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken, Jr., Frank Robinson, and Boog Powell.

The Baltimore Colts also regularly sold out games. The raucous passion of the fans garnered Memorial the nickname of “The World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum” by the Chicago Tribune writer, Cooper Rollow. Baltimore Sun columnist Jacques Kelly concurred with Rollow’s characterization of Colts fans, writing that “tickets were scarcer than Inner Harbor parking places, the old stadium reverberated with great touchdown huzzas. You didn’t need to turn on a radio back then; a going-crazy, packed-to-the goalpost crowd broadcast enthusiasm over a 12-block radius.”(1) Baltimoreans loved to cheer on the Colts greats, “the Golden Arm” Johnny Unitas, Art Donovan, and Lenny Moore, just to name a few. The Colts won back-to-back National Football Championships in 1958 and 1959, and made it to the Super Bowl twice, losing to the New York Jets in 1968, and winning in 1970 versus the Dallas Cowboys.

The 33rd Street stadium had returned to greatness. The city continued to update the structure, adding more seats and luxury amenities for the next two decades. Trouble began to brew again when the Colts were purchased by Robert Irsay of Chicago. The Colts owner, Rosenbloom, got the Los Angeles Rams in the deal. Irsay did not plan to keep the Colts in Baltimore and drew the ire of the loyal fans by openly shopping the team to other cities. He brokered a deal with the city of Indianapolis, and the team shipped out during the night on March 29, 1984. Baltimore would remain without a football team until 1996.

The 1954 Season schedule booklet starring the Oriole Bird. Baltimore Orioles Schedule, 1954, Sports Ephemera Collection, MdHS.

The 1954 Season schedule booklet starring the Oriole Bird. Baltimore Orioles Schedule, 1954, Sports Ephemera Collection, MdHS.

By that point, the stadium needed to be overhauled once again. The city was divided on whether to upgrade Memorial or build a whole new facility for the Orioles. In the end, the plan for a new stadium won out and Camden Yards at Oriole Park was built specifically to accommodate baseball. The O’s played their last game at Memorial Stadium in 1991. The city attempted to lease out the arena for other events, such as rock concerts, but the neighborhood vigorously protested this measure. A Canadian Football League team, the Baltimore Stallions, temporarily called Memorial home, but support for the team fizzled when Art Modell announced that he wanted to bring the Cleveland Browns to the city. The Ravens played two seasons at Memorial, but eventually the team built its own stadium, PSI Net, or as it is now known, M & T Bank Stadium.

Memorial Stadium was demolished in 2001, despite protests from Baltimoreans who remembered the glory days. The landscape of 33rd Street is vastly different. Apartments surround the where the stadium once stood. But, the property’s sport history legacy has not been totally forgotten, a YMCA was built on the stadium grounds, and in 2010, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation in conjunction with the YMCA of Central Maryland built baseball field on the location of the old stadium. Home plate sits on its old, familiar spot on 33rd Street once again. (Lara Westwood)

Sources and Further Reading:

(1) Kelly, Jacques. “Enjoy an Old Classic, Memorial Stadium, While It Lasts.” Baltimore Evening Sun, April 5, 1988.

Ballparks of Baseball. “Memorial Stadium.”

Baltimore Orioles. “Orioles History.”

Bready, James H. Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Indianapolis Colts. “History Highlights.”

Jacobs, Ben. “Baltimore’s Greatest Canadian Sports Team: A Brief History of the CFL Colts.” The Classical. December 15, 2011.

Passano File.

Sandler, Gilbert. “Baltimore Glimpses.” Baltimore Evening Sun, November 13, 1979.

Sandler, Gilbert. “So You Think Memorial Stadium Is Spartan.” Baltimore Evening Sun, December 12, 1978.

Sharrow, Ryan. “Ripken Sr. Foundation Completes Memorial Stadium Youth Field.” Baltimore Business Journal. December 7, 2010.

Vardon, Jordan. “Green vs. Garrett: How the Boom of Professional Sports Helped to Create, and Destroy, Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

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