The night of July 3, 1944, began much like any other summer night. At the game between the International League Orioles and the Syracuse Chiefs at Oriole Park, local children cheered for favorite players like Howie Moss and Sherm Lollar. Men in suits and hats meticulously kept score with pencil and scorecard. And several fans got into an altercation in one of the boxes. Perhaps they were reacting to the 10th inning debacle when the Chiefs scored seven runs— including a grand slam— that resulted in the ugly 11-4 score and the Orioles’ third loss in a row to the pesky Chiefs. Or perhaps the fans were already primed for the Fourth of July holiday, when there would be fireworks and a doubleheader at Oriole Park. Or maybe it was one too many Gunther’s.
That night, Mike Schofield, the Orioles’ groundskeeper, stayed overnight at his post on Greenmount and 29th as he always did after a home game. He made his usual rounds, dousing the wooden stands with water to protect against fire. In the wee hours of the night, he thought he smelled smoke and made two extra patrols around the park. But he found nothing and returned to his bunk.
At 4:15 a.m., a Waverly resident saw the first flames and called the fire department. By 4:34 a.m. the park was engulfed. Soon the fire reached six alarms. The heat cracked the windows of nearby houses, damaged automobiles and businesses along Greenmount Avenue and even melted the asphalt on 29th Street. Fifteen hundred people living in the neighborhood were forced to leave their homes, according to The Sun. The cause of the fire was never determined, though fire officials suspected an errant cigarette. Miraculously, no one died.
Oriole Park, however, was devastated. Besides the loss of the park, the team suffered an estimated $150,000 in damages to equipment, shoes and uniforms (luckily, 25 traveling uniforms were at the cleaners). And, The Sun reported, $25,000 worth of soda pop, peanuts, hot dogs and beer were consumed by fire rather than by fans. The Orioles lost much of the physical evidence of their history, as well. Photographs, trophies and paper documents were all destroyed. Only the park’s giant scoreboard, reputed to be the largest in the league, remained standing on the morning of July 4.
“For 25 years I’ve been battling against this very thing,” Schofield told The Sun on the day after the fire. “But at last it licked me.”
Although Baltimore baseball was already an established tradition when the first Oriole Park went up on north side of 29th Street at Greenmount in 1914, up until then, as Tom Flynn points out in “Baseball in Baltimore,” early baseball “was consistent only in its steady change.” Since the 1850s, the city had already seen several teams (the Excelsiors, the Pastimes, the Lord Baltimores, the Orioles) play in several parks (Madison Avenue Grounds, Newington Park, Union Park) for several leagues (American Association, Atlantic, the National League). Several of these parks were in Waverly, just north of the then-city line, and at least three of the parks were unofficially referred to as “Oriole Park.”
In 1901, after a great run beginning in 1894, including three National League championship seasons under Ned Hanlon, the Orioles joined the newly formed American League and were prevented from playing at Union Park, which was still under control of the National League. A new park was built at the southwest corner of Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street. It became the first official Oriole Park and was home to Jack Dunn, the great player-manager, and a hometown boy known as Babe Ruth, who began his career as an International League Oriole pitcher in the first half of the 1914 season before being sold to the Red Sox.
That same year, another park was built, this time on the northwest corner of Greenmount and 29th, for the new Federal League Terrapins. Within two years, the Federal League had disbanded and the International League Orioles had gone broke and left town. But in 1916, Jack Dunn paid $25,000 for Terrapin Park, resurrected an International League Orioles team, and moved them into what was now known as Oriole Park.
Although other cities were beginning to use modern building materials for their ballparks, the 1914 park was built entirely of wood. Single-tiered and shingled, it took up an entire city block and could seat 30,000 fans. There was a giant clock in right-center field that stopped working after some homeless men decided to nap there. The press boxes were elevated, but even better seats were the ones on top of the grandstand where people set chairs on the roof and got a glimpse of City College and St. John’s Episcopal Church in the distance. That enormous scoreboard, plastered with advertisements (“You’ll find Gunther’s dry, beery beer is smoother going down!”) showed not only the scores from the Orioles’ games but from games across the country.
“Baseball was so personal then,” explains Jimmy Keenan, baseball historian and writer of the documentary, “The Forgotten Birds: The True Story of the International League Orioles.” According to Keenan, manager Jack Dunn used to let the grounds crew shag balls during batting practice. Before the game, a man with a megaphone would call out the day’s lineup to both the right- and left-field seats. And when the last pitch was thrown, kids would wait for the players to change out of their uniforms into street clothes, and if they were lucky, catch the same streetcar home as one of their heroes. Players often became friendly with folks in the community, and it wasn’t unusual to have an Oriole at your dinner table sharing fried chicken or telling stories before playing catch with your children in the backyard.
After the July 4 fire, the Orioles hit the road for two weeks before returning to Baltimore to play in Municipal Stadium on 33rd Street, which had been hastily converted from a football field to a baseball diamond. They won their first game at the new field and went on to win the “Little World Series” of 1944.
Today a McDonald’s and an old warehouse sit at the intersection of Greenmount and 29th streets, nothing near as grand as the scoreboard that once brought the world of baseball to a corner of Baltimore.