“The World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum:” Memorial Stadium, Part I
(This is the first part of a two part series. The second part will be posted in January, 2015.)
Baltimore has been lucky enough to host two storied professional football teams: the-team-that-must-not-be-named, ahem, the Colts and the two-time Super Bowl Champions Baltimore Ravens. Not to mention the fantastic local college and high school teams. Marylanders are a little spoiled when it comes to great football. When the Colts organization fled in the night to Indianapolis in 1984, Marylanders mourned the loss of their beloved football team. The team left behind almost forty years of faithful fandom and an historic stadium which welcomed some of the greatest athletes in football and baseball.
The famous Memorial Stadium began its varied career as the Venable Stadium, located on 33rd Street in Baltimore. The land surrounding 33rd Street was intended to become a grand park, similar to Druid Hill and Clifton Parks. To build this park, the city purchased the “Holyrood” estate from Kate French Taylor for $40,000 in 1907. The mansion was torn down to make way for park construction, but the project was halted and the area remained vacant for years. An abandoned clay brick quarry was also on the property. It had filled with water, and city dwellers swam there in summers and ice-skated in the winter. Sadly, during the winter following the city’s purchase of the park, a boy drowned in the quarry after skating over a patch of too-thin ice. The Department of Sanitation turned the former quarry into a landfill during World War I, which further diminished the desire to build a public park on the property.
Venable Park never quite came to be, but Venable Stadium was built in 1921. The Army 3rd Corps and the Quantico Marines played an annual football game at the Johns Hopkins University stadium. The game was always a huge success, but the Hopkins stadium was too small to accommodate the ever-growing crowd. Mayor William F. Broening wanted to keep the game in the city, so he decreed that the city needed an official stadium. Parks and other lots across the city were surveyed to find a place to construct a bigger, better arena. Planners initially hoped to convert the Mount Royal Reservoir, but the residents of neighborhood vehemently opposed the plan. An unused reservoir in Clifton Park was then chosen as the site for the stadium by City Engineer Henry G. Perring, but Secretary of the Park Board J.V. Kelly had a better idea.
Kelly suggested that Venable Park should house the new stadium. He felt the landfill could be excavated and re-purposed more cheaply than one of the old reservoirs. He told The Baltimore Sun that the inspiration had struck him as he drove down 33rd Street to his office in Druid Hill Park. When he proposed the plan, some members of the Park Board were skeptical; others didn’t even know the location of the park. Kelly “found a map…and pointed out the park location, and enthusiastically explained that a stadium located there could be more conveniently reached from all sections of the city….”(1) His suggestion beat out the other contenders.
The stadium was built in an impressive seven months. The trash was cleared away and a horseshoe shape was dug into the ground. The stadium had earthen walls, the seats were wooden planks, and it cost a mere $458,000 to build. The entrance was the grandest feature of the area, comprised of 24 Greek-looking arches and columns. The end result was rather primitive by today’s standards, but it could hold the anticipated crowd. The administration and clubhouse building remained incomplete on game day, but it was (mostly) ready to host the Army-Marine game on December 2, 1922.
Venable Stadium opened with enormous fanfare and attracted a high-profile audience. The Baltimore Municipal Journal reported, “It was really very much more than a football game that took place on December 2, 1922. It was a tremendous step forward for the city of Baltimore. At no other football game could so many cabinet officers and so many high United States officials be found. Twelve hundred distinguished visitors from official Washington and the Army-Marine and Navy fliers were guests of the city.”(2) A special phone was even installed to keep President Warren Harding and the first lady, Florence, abreast of the game’s events. The game was also broadcast to Army and Marine bases across the country, which was unheard of in its day.
A huge parade kicked off opening day. The procession weaved through the city to the new stadium. Soldiers from all over the Mid-Atlantic marched alongside the Baltimore Police and city officials. Airplanes flown by the Maryland National Guard and the 50th Squadron from Langley Field whizzed overhead to announce the arrival of the cavalcade. Almost 70,000 people flocked to town to watch the game: 44,000 spectators crammed into the stands, 10,000 stood around the playing field, and about 15,000 watched from outside of the stadium, some climbing trees and sitting atop roofs to catch a glimpse of the action.
The contest lived up to expectations. The Marines eked out a win over the Army squad by score of 13 to 12. Sun correspondent, Raymond Tompkins, proclaimed that after the game, the stadium could no longer be considered new, because “It has lived and suffered, if a giant of concrete and earth can do that. It knows the blackest depths of despair and the most golden heights of triumph, ending with a struggle that could have rocked a mountain.”(3) The grand opening went off without a hitch. The Journal even praised the city for its efficiency in traffic control after the game—the stadium “was emptied of this vast throng in twenty minutes and the United Railways had carried the crowd away in thirty minutes. Still more remarkable was the success of the special traffic arrangements for the automobiles. For there was not a single accident.” (4)
The second game played at Venable Stadium was not nearly as successful, but perhaps more historically important. The week after the Marine-Army game on December 9th, the Oorang Indians played the Baltimore Professionals. The Oorang Indians, hailing from LaRue, Ohio, only lasted one season in the National Football League, but legendary multi-sport athlete and Olympian Jim Thorpe played for and coached the team. While the team was formed by Walter Lingo as a publicity stunt to sell Airedale terriers, it was the only professional football team comprised of all Native American players. The players also performed traditional Native American dances and sports alongside plucky terriers at half-time rather than returning to the locker room. The Indians’ big star Thorpe would not take the field in Baltimore. He was still recovering from injuries sustained in a previous match and not even the thrill of the newly invented half-time show could muster Baltimoreans. The Baltimore Professionals won the match. The game drew a crowd of less than 5,000.
The stadium primarily hosted military football games in its first few years. The Naval Academy football team frequently played rivals, such as Notre Dame and Army, at the stadium, which always drew large crowds, thus requiring more seats. At one point, Venable Stadium was expanded to hold 80,000 spectators on its wooden benches. In 1924, Baltimore hosted the Army-Navy game for the first time. The game was as hotly anticipated as the Army-Marine game two years prior. Notables once again flocked to Baltimore, including President Calvin Coolidge and the First Lady. The Midshipmen were shut out, but the Academy agreed to play one game a season in the city’s stadium. Navy brought their biggest opponents to Baltimore. Most notably, they played the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the stadium every two years. Before every game, the Midshipmen paraded through the city to the stadium. It became such an event that a special platform was built at Clifton Park to accommodate the crowds of cadets.
Despite the Midshipmen’s residency at Venable Stadium, it hemorrhaged money. The Park Board could not consistently fill the stadium without a permanent professional team. Local high schools played in the giant arena, and various professional football teams only used the stadium on occasion. Renovations and repair costs outstripped revenue. This deficit also stalled the installation of concrete seats, which would replace the wooden benches which rotted and splintered from weather exposure. The Great Depression also led to a drop-off in attendance and therefore revenue.
The stadium 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 an Oriole-Syracuse Chiefs game. Because the Orioles needed a place to play out their season, they moved into Venable, or as it was now called, Municipal Stadium. This heralded a new era prosperity for the stadium, and also a new professional football team, the Baltimore Colts. (Lara Westwood)
Sources and Further Reading:
“Baltimore Then and Now.” Baltimore American, December 4, 1955.
“Kelly Tells Stadium Story.” Baltimore Sun, August 28, 1947, Morning ed.
“Opening of Baltimore Stadium a Memorable Event in the History of the City.” Baltimore Municipal Journal 10, no. 23 (1922).
Patterson, Ted. Football in Baltimore: History and Memorabilia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
Passano File: “33rd Street”
“Stadium Cost to City Put at $1,000,000.” Baltimore Sun, September 1, 1932, Evening ed.