Bleeve It, Hon

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

Baltimore, Maryland
"Baltimore had once been a cosmopolitan jewel," writes Frank Deford. iStockphoto

If you will forgive me, a word about myself first. I came from Baltimore, and I came from money. The Defords owned a big leather company. My father was born in a house so large that when the family sold it, no private owner would buy such a monstrosity of a home; it became a nunnery. The last of all this splendor is visible today over the fireplace in our house in Connecticut; it is a painting of the great iron steamer, the Benjamin Deford, which carried the family leather, creating the family largesse, to Norfolk and Boston and exotic ports beyond.

Alas, the Deford Leather Company came a cropper during World War I. It happens to the best of family companies. So, by the time I was born, our Deford abode was three small bedrooms, two baths. My father had been bred to be a gentleman farmer. Well, he took streetcars to work and raised chickens out in the backyard as a hobby, a remembrance of glorious things past. All the money was gone. So, really, I just came from Baltimore.

But, you see, the bittersweet family history tied me even more to my hometown, because it made me better identify with Baltimore. Its splendor had disappeared, too, its image tattered. Into the middle of the 19th century, Baltimore had been a cosmopolitan jewel, gateway to Dixie, harbor to the world. It was hardly just Deford leather that shipped out. Only New York City had a greater population. Pipsqueak Washington, down the road, was less than a quarter the size of Baltimore, but, of course, it was Baltimore that had saved the hide of Washington and the whole damn country when Fort McHenry bravely held off the marauding British after James Madison and Dolley and the rest of the government had turned tail and fled the li'l burning capital...the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air / Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. Yes! There over Baltimore!

But the Baltimore I grew up in was a tentative, defensive place, only a stream or two short of a backwater. It had become the quintessential branch town; the largest employer was Bethlehem Steel—headquartered somewhere in some little hamlet up in Pennsylvania (where the big money stayed). The brand-new airport was bereft of one thing: airplanes—every respectable airline flew on to the Potomac. The harbor was a Stygian tributary leading to a humdrum skyline that was dominated by a bizarre faux-Florentine building that was topped by a rendering of an antacid fizz bottle. (And wouldn't you just know: it was Bromo-Seltzer, the runner-up heartburn remedy, after Alka-Seltzer.) It is both ironic and instructive that in the first half of the 20th century, the two most illustrious Americans to come from Baltimore were Thurgood Marshall and Billie Holiday—African-Americans who rose up out of a segregated society; so representative of Baltimore's decline was it that no distinctive white citizens emerged upon the national scene.

Also, Baltimoreans talked funny, a horribly grating nasal accent, sort of lispy, somehow produced because it was here where the harsh Bronx tones from the North crashed head-on into the softer hillbilly lilt moving up from the hollows of the Alleghenies. All sorts of dictionaries have been written, trying to capture the accent and its spelling. Here is a sampling: Bawlmer, air hametown, is in the state of Merlin, which is bounded onna ees by the Lanick Ayshun and onna souf by air Merkin capital, Warshnin, Deecee. You better bleeve it, hon.

Funny as it all sounds, though, the Bawlmer accent was a serious and debilitating measure of class, for as I caught on very early, a person's standing in the community could be measured by how thick his accent. It was said in England that an egalitarian society could never be achieved so long as people spoke Cockney; so too in Baltimore. The Bawlmer accent was neither good for mobility nor sweet to the ear.

When Mark Kram, a wonderful (if tortured) Baltimore writer, profiled our home sweet hometown in Sports Illustrated in 1966, he offered up H. L. Mencken's sweet petition as a way to pay homage to the place. To remember him, the Sage of Baltimore had suggested: "Wink your eye at some homely girl." Well, said Kram, Baltimore had itself become just such an unlovely lady. Do the poor thing a favor.

Indeed, as I quickly discovered, when I grew older and moved abroad in the land, my Baltimore was renowned for only three distinctions: crabs, the white marble steps of the city's endless cavalcade of row houses, and The Block—which was actually several blocks of Baltimore Street, a tawdry entrepôt of sin: sailors' bars, girlie shows, tattoo parlors and associated nether establishments. The most famous denizen of The Block, indeed, of all Baltimore (at least until Spiro Agnew came along), was Blaze Starr, proprietress of The Two O'clock Club, a woman whose business acumen equaled the size of her magnificent bosoms.

I myself got a swordfish on my forearm at Tattoo Charlie's down on The Block when I turned 18; I started drinking there with the demimonde when I reached 21. But then, there wasn't any part of Baltimore I didn't get to know, and when I winked at her, it was with affection, not sympathy. Withal, I dearly loved my hometown, for instinctively I seemed to understand that it was not so homely as idiosyncratic, and, surely, I thought, like my family and its lost riches, poised for comeback. (Redemption?) Somehow, too, I knew that the city had formed me in a different way than had I been born in some smug, superior burg like Washington or New York City or Boston. (I never have been able to make up my mind about Philadelphia—whether it's a big Baltimore or a small Chicago.)

The three best-known Baltimore writers contemporaneous with me are the novelist Anne Tyler and the film director-screenwriters Barry Levinson and John Waters. Tyler and Waters concentrate their work virtually exclusively on Baltimore; Levinson, mostly so. (The best Bawlmer accent ever realized by an outsider was by Danny DeVito in Levinson's Tin Men.) The devotion to things Baltimore by these storytellers best illustrates, I think, what a singular and vivid place it is. Baltimore has character and nuance, and although I may not have written about it all that much myself, I know that even though I left there many years ago, Baltimore put its stamp on me in ways I'm not so sure other more standard-issue cities could impress on their expatriates.

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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