Nathan, Daniel, Ed. Baltimore Sports: Stories from Charm City. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2016. Pp. ix + 291. Notes, Contributors, Index. $24.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Daniel Glen Hedrick
“Here you go, hon.”
The phrase was repeated over and over by my grandmother as she passed out meatball subs to anyone who looked her way during an O’s game in the mid-70s.
My passion for the Orioles started early. My parents took all four children out of elementary school in Tennessee to attend Game Four of the 1970 World Series – the only game the Orioles lost. A home run ball hit by Lee May off Eddie Watt hit a few rows below us. I was hooked.
From the excitement of boarding the bus outside the family owned bar on Edmundson Avenue heading to an O’s game, to the sadness of seeing my grandfather shed a tear when the Colts unceremoniously left in the middle of the night in 1984, my love for Baltimore began early and has remained genuine and resolute. So I have that in common with Daniel Nathan, the editor of Baltimore Sports: Stories from Charm City.
In a series of twenty essays that chronicle specific athletes, teams, and sporting events, this anthology sheds light on Baltimoreans’ relationship with sport and its contributions to Baltimore’s historical and contemporary identity.
In the opening chapter, “Till Death Do Us Part,” David Zang tours the city’s graveyards to discuss beloved sport figures, both human and equine, who are buried in Baltimore. Think Jim McKay, Chuck Thompson, Johnny Unitas, and Rube Marquard–dubbed by Bill James as “the worst starting pitcher ever inducted to Cooperstown” (p. 8). Zang notes that the heart of Baltimore sports lies in the past rather than the recent present. Ari de Wilde next explores the history of the longest running sporting event in Baltimore, the Preakness. Specifically, he looks at the entrepreneurs who created the Preakness Stakes as it developed a reputation as a site of power, prestige, and status for the Baltimore elite. De Wilde argues that while the Preakness horse owners have almost exclusively been white, upper-class men, the more recent inclusion of African-American and female jockeys mirrors the move of women and minorities into many Baltimore positions of power, including the mayoral office.
In chapter three, “Black Knights and Engineers,” Dean Bartoli Smith and Ted Patterson, cover the storied history of the second-oldest public high school football rivalry, Baltimore City College vs. Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, better known as City vs. Poly. The different cultural and academic emphasis of each (City – liberal arts, Poly – math, science, engineering) has long fueled the rivalry. Perhaps inevitably, the rivalry has lost some of its intensity as more schools opened and the game is no longer played on Thanksgiving Day, but it continues to matter to locals as an integral part of ongoing history “in the heart of Baltimore” (p. 36). (Of note, City just defeated Poly on November 5th, 2016 in double-overtime to take five straight in the series – Poly still holds a 62-60-6 all-time lead).
The significance of race and gender runs through many essays in the anthology. In chapter four, “For a White Boy’s Chance in the World,” William Gildea chronicles the racial divide that confronted Joe Gans, boxing’s first African-American champion. Gildea notes that Gans, the first black man in Baltimore to own a car, was largely ignored for two reasons: he died young from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-five and a white obsession with heavyweight Jack Johnson for various dubious transgressions (including transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes). Furthermore, in chapter five, “On the Courts of Druid Hill,” Amira Rose Davis addresses race and gender in the story of Lucy Diggs Slowe and the rise of organized black tennis in Baltimore during a time of extreme segregation. Davis notes that Slowe’s access to Druid Hill Park was eventually allowed only after she distinguished herself from the “black underclass” (p. 50). Chapter six continues a gender theme, with Elizabeth Nix’s essay “Sweat Equity: Physical Education at The Bryn Mawr School for Girls” discussing the Baltimore women who instituted a “physical culture” program at the independent school they founded. The Bryn Mawr School for Girls push to allow women equal access to “the life of the intellect and the spirit” (p. 59) is seen as an important precursor to the philosophy behind Title IX.
The next three chapters of Baltimore Sports cover various iconic institutions and teams. In “More Than a Century of Champions,” Neil Grauer examines the history of Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse and how it is an integral part of the University history (women’s lacrosse is mentioned once – to note that it was established in 1976). It’s suggested in the essay that Johns Hopkins is known equally for its medical school and its lacrosse program. Then, Jerry Bembry describes, in “The Bears of Baltimore,” the proud history of Morgan State University Athletics. Notable athletic greats include Willie Lanier, who became the first black player to be a star linebacker in the NFL, and fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame member Len Ford. Bembry also recites the downward trajectory of Morgan State sports as it mirrors the fate of many Historically Black Colleges and Universities athletic programs. Finally, Chris Elzey, in “The Team That Made Baltimore Proud, examines the topsy-turvy swings of the Baltimore Bullets, a professional basketball team that played in the American Basketball League. He examines the origin of the nickname “Bullets”–a tribute to the Baltimore factories that manufactured cannonballs, shots, and actual bullets.
The greatest female duckpin bowler of all-time is the subject of Stacy Karten’s wonderful essay titled “Toots Barger: Queen of Duckpins. Before the arrival of the modern day Colts and Orioles, in 1953 and 1954 respectively, Toots Barger was arguably the most admired and dominant athlete in the city. Also included is an informative history of the sport of duckpin bowling (small squat pins and smaller bowling balls) which effectively pushed tenpin bowling out of Baltimore.
Another favorite son of Baltimore would be “the man who kept the laughs alive” (p. 141). That title belongs to Art Donovan, Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman, who was the subject of Michael Olesker’s essay titled “The Best Ambassador Baltimore Ever Had.” Also known as Artie and Fatso, Donovan best epitomized the common man connection between Baltimore and the Colts. Olesker states “The gift he gave was ecumenical: he made an entire metropolitan area realize it had a shared history, and made everybody fall in love with each telling of the gladdest pieces of that history” (p.143). The affable Donovan was also a hit on the late night circuit later in life: Art Donovan on the Johnny Carson Show. Finally, the disdain for Colts owner Robert Irsay is evident throughout this essay. Olesker writes about the consequences of Irsay sneaking the team out of Baltimore in the middle of the night in 1984, “In that moment, Irsay did two things: He drove a stake into the heart of Baltimore football fans, much the same as Walter O’Malley killed something in Brooklyn years earlier when he moved the beloved Dodgers to Los Angeles. And he legitimized the art of blackmail in sports” (p. 144). “Franchise free agency,” the modern term given to holding a city hostage under the threat of relocating, is now practiced routinely among professional owners.
In chapter twelve, “Sam Lacy and John Steadman: Empathy and a Conscience on the Sports Page,” Dennis Gildea offers a powerful biography on two Baltimore sportswriter legends who both routinely became personally involved in their stories, whether it pertain to sports, politics, or race relations. Rafael Alvarez follows with “Baltimore’s Bard of Baseball: Jim Bready Remembers the O’s of Old,” which discusses Bready’s seminal book The Home Team: 100 Years of Baseball in Baltimore, written in 1958 and his subsequent career as a writer of all things Baltimore until his retirement in 1986.
In “Black Sports in Baltimore: Spats, the Judge, and the Pearl,” James Coates, Hannah Doban, and Nevon Kipperman chronicle the journey of African-Americans Lenny Moore of the Colts, Frank Robinson of the Orioles, and Earl Monroe of the Bullets as they navigated racial prejudice and discrimination that permeated Baltimore’s professional sports scene. All three were considered excellent role models by most Baltimoreans and provided inspiration and pride for local black communities. Connections to present-day race struggles were highlighted by noting that Robinson was on hand to help mentor local black Little Leaguers in west Baltimore after the protests in April 2015.
Lee Lowenfish, in “Orange and Black Forever: How a New Yorker Fell in Love with Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles,” addresses the reasoning behind the unthinkable, a “Yankee” rooting for the Orioles. Earl Weaver, hired as the manager of the Orioles just a few weeks before the author accepted a teaching position at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, is credited in part for the author’s fandom transition. The Weaver formula—pitching, defense, and three-run homers–and the “proud, intelligent baseball at Memorial Stadium” were openly welcomed by a city that viewed itself as somewhat of an “ugly duckling” (p. 204).
Four of the final five chapters in the anthology deal with more contemporary historical Baltimore athletes or teams. Richard Hardesty, in “A Missed Opportunity: Baltimore’s Failed Stadium Project, 1969-1974,” discusses the disillusionment of all three owners of professional teams with city leaders. The Bullets moved to Washington, D.C., in 1974 citing a lack of interest, and both the Colts and Orioles were ready to move from an economically obsolete Memorial Stadium. State officials proposed a new sport complex in Camden Yards, largely to be funded with public money, to house both the Colts and Orioles. It was voted down and that failure contributed to the Colts leaving in 1984 for Indianapolis. The move of the Colts, ironically, was the impetus for a successful placement of a resolution on a 1984 ballot that passed allowing the construction of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Chad Carlson follows with “The Greatest High School Basketball Team Ever,” about the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School boys’ basketball teams of 1981-1982 and 1982-1983. No less than eight players went on to productive major college careers while four, David Wingate, Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Lewis, and Reggie Williams, enjoyed lengthy NBA careers. The author notes the juxtaposition between Dunbar, which resides amid five housing projects on the east side, and the other nationally ranked basketball team at the time, Calvert Hall Catholic School, located just outside the city limits and composed primarily of “white flight” students.
In “Baltimore Baseball Icons: The Babe, Mr. Oriole, the Iron Man, and the Forgotten Day,” Daniel Nathan chronicles Babe Ruth, Brooks Robinson, and Cal Ripken, Jr, “Baltimore’s three most popular, historic, and iconic baseball players” (p. 241). The fourth is Negro league pitcher Leon Day. Noted as a better pitcher than Satchel Paige and one of the most complete ballplayers in baseball history, Day died six days after being elected to the National Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Day and Ruth, after hardscrabble childhoods growing up in Baltimore, both eventually arrived at Cooperstown following decidedly different paths. Robinson and Ripken adhered to the more structured Oriole Way during their professional baseball journey.
Charles Kupfer, in “The Ravens Flight to Normalcy: How Winning Restored Baltimore’s Football Culture,” documents Baltimore’s thirteen-year quest to return to the NFL after the Colts left in 1984. Interim occupants included teams from the United States Football League and Canadian Football League before Art Modell seriously began exploring options outside of Cleveland for his Browns. A depleted roster without a coach (Bill Belichick was fired by Modell) and without team colors finally arrived in 1996. Kupfer posits that the second Ravens Super Bowl victory in 2012 finally cemented Baltimore’s return as an NFL city with a winning team. The anthology ends with Dean Bartoli Smith, in “A Phelpsian Triptych: Mountain, Machine, and Man,” summarizing the legacy, biography, and work ethic of the newest “Baltimore Bullet,” the greatest swimmer in history and Baltimore native son Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time.
In summary, the central strength of Baltimore Sports: Stories from Charm City revolves around the consistent theme of athletes, teams, and sporting events that mirror the working class grit that defines the city of Baltimore. Baltimore is complicated. Nathan notes that “most of Baltimore is not glamorous or cool. It’s not Washington D.C. with its national political base and it’s not New York with its ‘Broadway shows and billionaires’” (p. xiv). The themes of race and gender also appear prominently in many of these well written essays. From Lucy Diggs Slowe’s on and off again struggles for access to the tennis elite at Druid Hill Park, to the racial divide that confronted Joe Gans throughout his professional boxing career, numerous essays demonstrate the complex relationship between race, gender, and sport in Baltimore.
As the editor notes, despite the wide range of topics, Baltimore Sports is by no means comprehensive (p. xviii). For example, it occurred to me as I opened this review with memories about my grandmother’s penchant for passing out meatball subs at O’s games, that Wild Bill Hagy was just a few sections over, leading raucous fans with his O-R-I-O-L-E-S chants from the mid-70s through the early 1980s. Hagy was an interesting character, certainly worthy of his own essay. Likewise, Nathan also mentions that many long-gone Negro league teams and players deserve further exploration.
Ultimately, though, for readers, this anthology is a magnificent collection of essays that documents the achievements, disappointments, failures, and triumphs of Baltimore sports at different moments in the city’s history.
Daniel Glen Hedrick is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management and Department Chair at Lynchburg College. He received his master’s degree in Sport Management from Georgia Southern University (1997) and EdD in Leadership Studies (2016) from Lynchburg College, where his dissertation, “Factors Influencing College Choice by NCAA Division III Athletes in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference” investigated why male and female student athletes ultimately chose a particular school. His research interests include NCAA Division III athletics, NASCAR entrepreneurship, and American sport history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.