What Baltimore can teach Philly about history

Brooks Robinson ruled third base at Memorial Stadium.
Brooks Robinson ruled third base at Memorial Stadium.
Posted: June 15, 2012

I BELIEVE THE SOUL is formed at the moment of conception. That's why, even though I left Baltimore as a 2-month-old infant, I'm convinced some of the magic of that place and time seeped into my mother's womb, and marked me.

It was, after all, 1961 and there was some real greatness in Charm City. More specifically, there was greatness at Memorial Stadium, where Brooks Robinson ruled third base for the Orioles and Johnny "The Golden Arm" Unitas was leading the championship Colts. If there were other sports of any relevance, they didn't make it onto my mother's radar screen (or into my amniotic fluid.)

I, of course, have no recollection of that time, and only a few black-and-white photographs to prove that I was breathing such rarified air. In one of them, I'm wearing a white onesie and being held by my very pretty, very young mother. It looks like I'm smiling, so I must have had some inkling of the sports lineup that year.

Recently, I took a trip back to Baltimore. Physically, it's less than 200 miles south of Philly, and the driving time was just over two hours. But it felt as if I'd crossed oceans of time when I sat down in my fourth-row seat at Camden Yards to watch the Orioles play the Kansas City Royals. Even though the stadium is only 20 years old (an eternity in Philly years, given our sparkling new sports centers), I had an almost preternatural feeling that ghosts were there. That's because Baltimore respected the history of old Memorial Stadium and the amazing characters that filled it all those years ago, and made sure that Camden Yards reflected the glory of that past.

Later, when I walked by the place where Johnny U did that beautifully calibrated dance with Raymond Berry, I actually got the chills, which is a lot to say for a 97-degree day.

You might be wondering why I'm writing about Baltimore to a Philly audience. You might be scratching your head about why, in 2012, we should be interested in players who pitched or launched a ball over 50 years ago (not to mention Babe Ruth, whose memorial I also visited.) Actually, that's my point.

I rarely get that same sense of popular history when I stroll the streets of my home (but not native) town. So many of the arenas that held our own examples of greatness have been replaced by shining corporate palaces that bear the names of banks, utilities or insurance companies. At most, we get nice little historical markers that remind us what isn't there anymore.

True, Baltimore has its fair share of shiny new palaces. Camden Yards is a great-looking old stadium, but it's still a facsimile of true history, unlike Fenway, where the air was sliced with the crack of Ted Williams' bat, or Lambeau, where, encased somewhere under that "frozen tundra," are the footprints of Vince Lombardi.

Philadelphia prides itself on respecting our history, on trying to preserve for the future what triumphed in the past. We usually get it right with the obvious things, like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The new Jewish History Museum is also notable, as well as the Franklin Institute and the Atwater Kent Museum. But where we fall far short is in doing justice to things that might not make an interesting civics or science lesson but that touched our lives on a more-immediate basis.

Take, as I've already said, sports. Sure, we bring our legends back at the end of their storied careers for tearful press conferences and hope that they ignore how poorly we treated them while they were still playing (like we did with Brian Dawkins, one of the greatest safeties to ever play the game of football.)

And we also hang banners from the rafters honoring the names of departed greats. But unfortunately, those rafters belong to stadiums that have no true sense of history. And believe me, inanimate objects do have memory.

When we tore down the Spectrum and turned it into a generic shopping mall-cum-parking lot, we ripped apart the old plastic seats from which Philadelphians watched Dr. J. hoist a trophy and cheered Bernie as he straddled the ice like Cerebrus in front of the goal. And then we sold them to the highest bidders. To me, that was plunder.

And the Vet, old and ugly as she was, is bulldozed and the subway station created to accommodate it is renamed and rendered irrelevant.

Baltimore seems to care more about respecting her history. Pity the Barnes wasn't there. n

Christine Flowers is a lawyer. Send email to cflowers1961@gmail.com and read her blog at philly.com/FlowersShow

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