Oriole Park at Camden Yards has become so widely accepted as “The Ballpark That Changed Baseball Forever,” it’s easy to forget how much opposition there was at first to both the location and the design. That may sound like “Believe It or Not” stuff a quarter of a century later, but there were no slam-dunks in what turned out to be a series of brilliant decisions.
So while seemingly all of baseball rightfully celebrates the 25th anniversary of the park that spawned its own generation of venues throughout the country, it’s also fair to pause and remember what was left behind.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted the family home I grew up in was located in the right-field suburbs of what became Memorial Stadium. It was Municipal Stadium before that, and I have vivid memories of conflicting sentiments from neighborhood residents.
Municipal Stadium, a limited-use facility that hosted two Army-Navy football games (1924 and 1944), had been built in 1922. It was part of Venable Park, a huge parcel of land on the northern edge of the city that separated countless blocks of Baltimore’s famed “row homes” from an area known for country estates for the wealthy.
Much later, those estates would famously become known as the Greystone houses beyond the centerfield fence at Memorial Stadium that tortured hitters during afternoon games. Based on what happened later, I can only imagine what the reaction must have been when the decision was made to put a stadium in the front yard of those “estates.”
In the post-World War II years, I had a paper route delivering The News Post and Sunday American (later to become The News American) in the Ednor Gardens area. Some of those Greystone houses, built in the 19th century and complete with “sun rooms,” were in my territory.
More than a few of them were occupied by residents who had been through this battle before and wanted no parts of a repeat. When News Post sports editor Rodger H. Pippen led the crusade for a new stadium to be built on the site between 33rd and 36th streets, I lost more than a few customers, so I knew firsthand about the wrath of some residents in what had evolved into a growing neighborhood.
But times were changing; there were now blocks and blocks of the iconic Baltimore row homes surrounding the “estates,” and gradually the young neighborhood learned to tolerate and eventually embrace the increased activity on 33rd Street. It was a great place to grow up and good time to be a sports fan in Baltimore, as Memorial Stadium became a central part of the city’s fabric.
But even before “the world’s largest insane asylum” reached the age Camden Yards is today (25), there was talk of another makeover. The eventual sale of the Orioles from Jerry Hoffberger to Edward Bennett Williams, and a threatened move by the Colts that eventually came to fruition, put the city’s planners on notice and the “great stadium debate” raged on for the better part of two decades.
There was fierce early opposition to any plan to relocate from 33rd Street, and this time it came mostly from those who lived in the area and considered Memorial Stadium a necessary staple of the neighborhood, as opposed to an unwanted eyesore. I can attest to the fact that many residents of that area never accepted the downtown decision — some kept a promise not to go there and others have refused any temptation to revisit the 33rd Street site, preferring instead to keep a mental picture intact (today, in part, it’s the site of a large YMCA and seniors housing).
But even the most diehard opponents — not only to the location, but those who thought the Warehouse should be demolished or those who felt old fashioned and modern urban weren’t a good design match — have come to grips with the fact that the end result is a masterpiece.
There are a lot of people who get a lot of credit for the finished product. Chief among those are former Gov. William Donald Schaefer for his insistence on Camden Yards as the site; former Orioles CEO Larry Lucchino for sticking to his belief that old can also be modern; lead architect Janet Marie Smith, who found a way to make all the pieces fit; and the Maryland Stadium Authority, which had right of final approval on most aspects and has done a good job of keeping the place fresh, inviting and up-to-date.
Camden Yards has been recognized as a jewel on the baseball map since the day the doors opened for the first time. Twenty-five years later it is older than two-thirds of the venues in Major League Baseball. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then it’s safe to say Oriole Park at Camden Yards has been flattered more than any other sports facility.
Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park are baseball’s two most iconic parks. Both are more than 100 years old.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards has already been a bucket-list destination for 25 years. I don’t think it’ll take a century to get iconic status. In fact, it may already be there.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Issue 232: April 2017