Magic in "a Tragic City": The Orioles and the Redevelopment of Baltimore, 1954-1992

Richard Hardesty

Major Professor: Zachary Schrag, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Christopher Elzey, Jennifer Ritterhouse

Online Location,
April 15, 2021, 10:00 AM to 01:00 PM

Abstract:

The Baltimore Orioles offered a unique perspective into the complicated relationship between professional sports and the redevelopment of American cities during the last half of the twentieth century. Providing the change of attitude needed for Baltimore to transform its downtown business district into the revitalized Inner Harbor, the Orioles did not solve the deep-rooted problems that continued to plague the city, serving to mask issues of poverty, blight, and racism.

Baltimore was a city in decline by the 1950s. Even as the city’s population peaked at 949,708 people, demographic shifts were taking shape. Middle-to-upper-income Whites were starting to leave the city for nearby suburbs. Baltimore’s Black population grew, and lower-income residents remained. Making matters worse, slums started to spread in Baltimore, and municipal leaders at the time were unable to curb their growth. These developments placed the city in a perilous financial position. Not only did its tax base suffer, Baltimore also faced the prospects of bankruptcy if slum growth continued unabated.

In this context, the Orioles’ arrival for the 1954 baseball season was a major victory. Civic leaders and boosters believed that, by having a major league team, Baltimore achieved the status of a major league city. Equally important, the Orioles showed that local business leaders like Clarence W. Miles could work with city politicians to affect change. The positive working relationship between business and political leaders led to the formation of the Greater Baltimore

Committee (G.B.C.), which spearheaded the redevelopment of the downtown business district as seen through One Charles Center, the Maryland Science Center, and the National Aquarium.

Municipal leaders and civic boosters regularly connected Baltimore’s image to its professional sports teams. For example, when the Orioles won the World Series in October 1970 and the Colts won Super Bowl V three months later, Baltimore prided itself as the “City of Champions.” However, as both teams grew disenchanted with Memorial Stadium, relocation rumors swirled. Politicians and boosters believed Baltimore would lose its status as a major league city if the Orioles and Colts left town. When the Colts finally departed for Indianapolis in March 1984, attention turned to the Orioles. Fearing their departure, the State of Maryland passed legislation to finance a new stadium that became Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

However, despite their importance, the Orioles never truly solved the city’s deeply ingrained problems. Baltimore’s population has been in decline since the 1950s, despite the city’s best efforts to bring people back. More troubling, issues of racism remained, culminating in unrest in April 1968 and again in April 2015. The Orioles were accused by Baltimore’s Black press for maintaining a racial quota during the 1960s. Even when the team had legitimate Black stars, like Frank Robinson and Eddie Murray, the fanbase embraced White teammates like Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken, Jr. Lastly, Baltimore has not overcome issues of poverty. Oriole Park at Camden Yards may be part of a revitalized Inner Harbor, but it masks the slums that characterize Baltimore’s urban center. While the Orioles inspired the city’s desire to be something greater, the team reveals the existence of two Baltimores.