There's been talk recently about a new stadium for Baltimore. As long as it's just talk, it's all right. Anyone who refuses to see the charms of Memorial Stadium and wants to put a wrecking ball to it no doubt never knew its predecessor. Baltimore's Municipal Stadium was a splintery woodpile that lacked not only corporate skyboxes but the barest amenities.
To attend a game at the Stadium -- it was known simply as the Stadium, just as many still refer to Memorial Stadium -- was to risk our ancient black Ford falling into a crater in the parking lot. It was a barren lot, slanted in myriad ways, and containing huge holes. It looked like the surface of a meteor-battered planet. On hot summer days, it became a dust bowl, and those times when a rainstorm struck, the water flowed in the gullies and a car could sink in the mud, which was yellow and thick.
Inside, you had to wonder at the shape of things. The Stadium was a huge but narrow horseshoe. Right field went on forever. For a time, there was no fence. For a lefty to get a home run, he would have to put a ball into orbit in the direction of an ancient, columned administration building where the team clubhouses were, a couple of city blocks away, and leg it out. In contrast, left field was almost nonexistent. Right-handed hitters recognized paradise when they saw it; the left field stands were right behind shortstop, putting a premium on pop flies.
Howie Moss, a right-handed hitter, came to be known as "The Howitzer" for good reason; although he couldn't hit major league pitching (.097 for 22 games in the big time), he hit 53 home runs one season for the Orioles of the International League.
Howie Moss didn't need the short left field. As he recalled recently -- he's still in Baltimore, selling cars -- "I hit 'em as far as anyone." In his prime, he was stocky, with broad shoulders and a thick, sunburned neck, and he swung like he meant to knock the stuffing out of the ball, like the fictional Roy Hobbs of "The Natural." At the top of the left field bleachers was a hot dog stand -- no one claimed this stadium offered convenience, and it was a long way to climb up from your seat to get something to eat. One day, "The Howitzer" hit a Ruthian blast into the hot dog stand.
If you were a left-handed hitter and had to cope with the immense right field, you had only one choice. "You hit the ball and ran like hell," said Soup Campbell, another outfielder who swears it was more than 600 feet to right. He's back home in Sparta, Va., on a farm, waiting to put in the tomatoes.
"Tomatoes, they're the thing," he said the other day. You may not have heard of Soup Campbell, but he wore No. 3 for the old Orioles and had a classic straightaway left-handed batting stance, and a good eye. After one season, he was given 100 gallons of gasoline for leading the team in walks. (You know, he walked so much in the summer he could ride in the winter.)
During night games, Moss, Campbell and the other outfielders looked more distant when viewed from behind home plate than they actually were because they stood, like ghosts of seasons past, under the dimmest of lights. Just how dim was revealed after a test was made of the lights. Stadium neighbors had complained of brightness ruining evenings on their porches. Brightness? Actually, the lights that shone on the outfield were hardly stronger than street lamps, and the truth was -- Moss said so -- the outfielders got more light from two poles stuck near the infield than ones aimed right at them.
Next to one of those poles along the third base line was a little wood dugout put up every spring for the visitors. In pursuit of a foul ball, a third baseman had plenty of room. He needed only to circle the dugout and what lay ahead was almost as much acreage as in right field, since the curve of the big horseshoe was so far from the diamond.
Few sat on the third base side, especially if they were interested in seeing the game. But it wasn't easy for a third baseman to catch up with a foul ball during a night game; the lights weren't pointed that way and foul ground was almost as dark as night itself.
"I can remember running back there many times -- the umpire was always with me," said Al (Yogi) Cihocki, a handyman for eight years with the old Orioles. Cihocki had a sense of humor, and could sometimes exasperate Moss. After Moss would hit a titanic home run, Cihocki would say to him something like, "I've seen longer," which might goad Moss into hitting an even longer one, or fanning.
Yogi Berra played for Newark at the time.
"You're a 'Yogi,' too," he said to Cihocki.
"We were the only 'Yogis' in baseball," Cihocki proudly recalled.
If he was the second most famous Yogi then, today he is the second most famous ex-baseball player living in Nanticoke, Pa., the other being Pete Gray, the one-armed St. Louis Brown.
"The thing about that stadium," said Cihocki, who played every position in his career, and even once filled in as umpire and once took tickets, "was that you could really get to know the fans. It was a long walk to and from the clubhouse and the fans would walk along with you."
But for almost all these years, Cihocki said, "I had something on my conscience." During a road trip, he had started a notorious pillow fight in a sleeping car of a train. Bored watching the everlasting card game -- he never played cards -- he went up to the sleeping car and began creating havoc.
When the dust and feathers settled, "it cost the ball club about $700 in damages," he said. The veterans testified Cihocki was watching the card game. Three years ago, he confessed to his old manager, Tommy Thomas, now 85, and living in Dallastown, Pa. "I knew it was you," Thomas told him.
"The stadium had no conveniences," Thomas recalled recently, "but the funny thing was the fans loved it . . . "
For that to happen, there wasn't any question a new stadium had to be built, one that had its third base seats at least vaguely near the diamond, and a left field that didn't make Fenway Park's left field look like a canyon. A single-deck concrete stadium on what was distant right center field of the wooden stadium literally was built around the old Orioles, who played on amid the construction. A few years later, they continued playing as a second deck was added.
Then, you could walk up under the second deck -- parts of it were finished and the place at last was beginning to look big league. It was then and is now a park with its own character -- a lovely greensward, trees beyond the outfield, the famed rowhouses on the street beyond providing a backdrop that has bedeviled batters. It is surrounded not by a macadam wasteland, but a neighborhood. Those fat concrete poles supporting the second tier may be lamented, but once they seemed glorious, holding all hope. If you don't sit behind one, you can't help but like the place.