Bleeve It, Hon

The tentative city the sportswriter grew up in has regained a bit of swagger

"Baltimore had once been a cosmopolitan jewel," writes Frank Deford. (iStockphoto)
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And then we became big league, certified...

It is not just my sports background which occasions me to say that it was games that began to lift Baltimore from its doldrums. The Orioles came back to the American League after a 52-year absence, in 1954. The National Football League was small potatoes then, but the readmission of the Colts a year earlier was almost as important to the city. After all, never mind the pros, Baltimore was the rare American city that didn't even have a major college team. The only prominence Baltimore enjoyed in athletics was in two arcane sports that almost nobody else competed in—duckpin bowling and lacrosse. Get this: duckpins was so important that before the big leagues embraced Baltimore in football and baseball, probably the single most famous athlete in town was a hefty woman bowler with the euphonious moniker of Toots Barger.

But then, very quickly both air Colts and air Orreos became winners, yea juggernauts.

The Colts first—and all the better that they were led by a near-mythical creature named John Unitas, who was working-class, like his new city, previously unknown, unwanted, our own deus ex machina. And when Unitas led Baltimore to its first championship since the Gay Nineties, it was a classic in overtime—"The Greatest Game Ever Played!"—over the Giants of hot-stuff New York in Yankee Stadium. How utterly sweet, how absolutely perfect. The Orioles took a bit longer to come to a boil, but soon they were celebrated not merely as winners, but as the classic do-right franchise. The Oriole Way. Baltimore was the standard.

The revival continued more substantively when the city's own champion of modern urban design, James Rouse, inspired the redevelopment of the harbor, refashioning the grubby wharves into a glorious promenade. New hotels sprang up. Run-down housing suddenly became the stuff of expensive condos. A fabulous aquarium was built. The more timid types thought it imperative to erect the new baseball stadium way out of town, in the southern suburbs, so the Orioles could more easily suck from the richer Washington teat. But led by a true-blue Baltimore mayor, Donald Schaefer—a bachelor equal parts zealot and eccentric—the stadium was raised downtown, just off the new Inner Harbor. Oriole Park at Camden Yards became more than a spectacular success. In its quaint, retro design, it was seminal, the single most important piece of athletic architecture ever erected in America. Virtually every baseball park since has been designed in its image.

Oh, to be sure, not all the ills of the city have been cured. There is still too large an impoverished minority population. Drugs—and the homicides casually attendant to that trade—remain more of a scourge in Baltimore than in other cities. The population of the city itself continues to decline (even as the whole area does increase), and the metropolitan shadow next door grows longer. Now, it's: Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light...the Washington suburbs creeping closer?

But even those fancy-schmancy citizens of the capital have come to admire Baltimore for its quirkiness. Hey, there's this place that's actually real only 40 miles away. You better bleeve it, hon. More important, Baltimoreans themselves don't seem nearly so self-conscious as they did when I was growing up there. They even revel in their idiosyncrasy now. Hairspray, John Waters' movie and musical, wasn't seen as ridicule, but as affection—beehive hairdos and all. This is us. We're always going to be a little unusual, a little contradictory, but a lot genuine. There is a celebrated Cafe Hon now, a HonFest. No, we'll never be big-time again. But if the sophisticates want to condescend to us, we can take it. A sympathy wink for Baltimore? No, I think Baltimore has finally learned to wink at the world.

Frank Deford is a Sports Illustrated senior writer and an NPR commentator.

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