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America's Past Time

Tom Flynn Offers a Tour Through Baltimore's Baseball History

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/26/2008

Tom Flynn stands on East 36th Street near Elkader Road on a drizzly afternoon earlier this month. In his hand is a copy of his new book, Baseball in Baltimore, opened to pages 122 and 123, where on facing pages are photographs of the old Memorial Stadium, taken from the upper deck behind home plate, looking north past the diamond, the outfield, and the bleachers to the spot where he now stands.

Today, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg YMCA at Stadium Place sits along the third-base side of the disappeared stadium and senior housing along the first-base side. Between them, where the stadium once stood, is a lumpy, grassy bowl surrounded by a circular, two-lane roadway. The dreary weather only emphasizes the altered, diminished nature of the scene. And Flynn, 42, looks out at that empty, soggy patch of grass and remembers the many hours he spent in the right-field bleachers in the years after first coming to Baltimore in 1989.

"We were just out of college and just beginning the 9-to-5 grind," he says. "The bleachers were our refuge from that grind. My buddy had a job as a Cracker Jack vendor, and he'd come sit with us after the sixth inning. We'd use his vendor coupons to get sodas and pizza and we'd sit back and shoot the shit.

"Players like Jeff Ballard and Mike Devereaux were in their 20s, like us, so we could identify with them. I enjoyed it so much that after I'd saved $500 from my first job, I quit and started temping so I could go to baseball games whenever I liked. We weren't Type A guys."

Flynn flips back another page to a 1932 photo of Municipal Stadium, back when it still had its Greco-Roman facade, much like Chicago's Soldier Field. The strangest thing about the photo, though, is that its horseshoe configuration of the stadium is the exact opposite of Memorial Stadium--the open end facing 33rd Street rather than 36th.

Baseball in Baltimore cycles through the city's ballpark evolution, from Memorial Stadium to Municipal Stadium--christened Venable Stadium in 1922--and on back to the old Oriole Park at 29th Street and Greenmount Avenue, which burned to the ground July 4, 1944.

"I've read accounts of the fire, and they talked of tar roofs melting on the nearby rowhouses," Flynn says. "You look at these houses over here and you can imagine their roofs bubbling from the heat."

Baseball in Baltimore's stadium archeology goes all the way back to the 19th century's Union Park at 25th and Barclay streets, but it covers much more than the city's ballparks. It's primarily a photo history, with Flynn's pithy commentary providing some context for the pictures. It's arranged chronologically, with one whole chapter devoted to Babe Ruth and another to Negro League baseball in Baltimore. It's a welcome reminder of how many legends played for Baltimore teams before 1950, even if only briefly--not just Ruth and John McGraw but also such Hall of Famers as "Wee" Willie Keeler, Wilbert Robinson, Hughie Jennings, Chief Bender, Lefty Grove, Roy Campanella, Rogers Hornsby, Satchel Paige, and Leon Day. The book offers rare photos of them all.

Flynn didn't grow up an Orioles fan. He grew up in Chatham, N.J., about 20 miles west of Manhattan, and his earliest baseball memories are of going to Yankee Stadium in the early '70s when the home team wasn't very good.

"The Yankee fans cursed the players like you wouldn't believe," he says. "They just stood up and bashed them, as if berating the home team was a form of theater. That made a lasting impression on me. The Orioles lost the first game I ever saw at Memorial Stadium, in September 1989. It was a critical loss in the middle of a pennant race, and I expected the fans to boo the team. But instead they cheered the team at the end of the game. That fascinated me."

Like an Episcopalian becoming a Baptist, it's not easy to convert from the high church of Yankees fandom to the holy-roller religion of Orioles baseball, but Flynn eventually made the switch. Even as he got more serious about his banking career--he's now a vice president of structured finance at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage--he continued to attend Orioles games and began to dig into the town's baseball history. He'd been a history buff since he became obsessed with the Civil War as a young boy, and he began to haunt the files of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Babe Ruth Museum, and Maryland Historical Society.

"I'd missed the '60s and '70s, the Brooksie and Robbie era of the Orioles," he says, referring to Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson. "And to get up to speed for baseball conversations in Baltimore, I needed to do some research. Then the research became an end in itself."

The research yielded some surprises. He hadn't known that the Baltimore Orioles of the 1920s are recognized by experts as one of the greatest minor-league teams of all time. This was back in the day when minor-league teams were independent and didn't have to give up their best players to the majors until the price was right. Thus the Orioles could hold onto Lefty Grove, perhaps the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history, for five years while he averaged 22 wins per season, helping the team win the International League pennant seven consecutive years, 1919-'25. In Grove's 1920 rookie season, Jack Ogden won 27 games and center fielder Jake Jacobson hit .404.

But Flynn's favorite find in his months of research came when he happened upon the Henderson Collection at the Maryland Historical Society. It was little more than a box of unsorted photos of African-American life from the 1940s. But as Flynn leafed through the pictures, he came across a shot of the Baltimore Elite Giants' 1949 pitching staff, including the two aces Joe Black and Bill Byrd, standing before an outfield billboard for Arrow Beer. The Elite (pronounced "EE-light," not "eh-LEET") Giants won the Negro American League pennant that year, and are widely regarded as the last great team of the Negro League era.

"They won the eastern division," Flynn says. "And the Kansas City Monarchs won the west. But as so often happened back then, Kansas City's white minor-league team needed the field, so the Monarchs couldn't host the playoffs. So the Elite Giants played the Chicago American Giants instead. The Elites won the first two games of the seven-game series at home and went to Chicago for the middle three. But while they were traveling, they got news that their home park, Bugle Field, over in Baltimore's industrial east end, was being demolished. Imagine how that felt--to be traveling for the championship of your sport and to learn that your home field is being torn down."

This was two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major-league baseball, but it wasn't a dam bursting as most people today assume. At first it was a slow trickle, and people weren't sure if it would be a permanent change or not. There were a lot of torn feelings in the black community--should they be supporting the few African-Americans in the majors or the Negro League baseball teams that had been part of the community for so long?

"There were even torn feelings on the team itself," Flynn says. "The younger players, like Joe Black and Junior Gilliam, were hoping the major leagues would pick them up. Black went to the Brooklyn Dodgers the following year and became the National League rookie of the year, and Gilliam did the exact same thing the year after that. But it was different for the older players. Bill Byrd, the pitcher who won the first game of the playoffs, was 42. He wasn't going to the major leagues, and attendance was falling drastically in the Negro American League. Imagine how he felt."

Inspired by all this research, Flynn became co-founder and editor of a newsletter, Field: New Sports Journal (www.fieldmagazine.com), in 2006. Around the same time, he signed with Arcadia Publishing, a specialist in narrow-niche photo-history books, to compile and annotate the manuscript that became Baseball in Baltimore.

"The Orioles have not been a good team for 10 years now," Flynn says. "And the fans have to suffer the insult of Yankee and Red Sox fans taking over the stadium when their teams come to town. I wanted to give Baltimore fans a reason to be proud of their baseball tradition. A lot of people don't realize what a great baseball history we have here."

The Baltimore Orioles open the season March 31 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

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