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Oriole Park: From helicopter flight to ballyard

The idea of a new stadium for the Baltimore Orioles was of utmost importance as soon as Edward Bennett Williams purchased the team in 1979.

Memorial Stadium, then the home to both the Orioles and the National Football League’s Baltimore Colts, needed upgrades. Plans for a new stadium in the early 1970s were scrapped by the General Assembly, and a renovation of Memorial Stadium added more seats, but no revenue-generating skyboxes like other stadiums were adding.

It was a few days after acquiring the Orioles that Williams sent Lawrence Lucchino on a helicopter ride around the Baltimore-Washington area to scout potential sites for a ballpark. Lucchino, who worked in Williams’ Washington, D.C.-based law firm Williams & Connolly, had taken a short vacation after working on the acquisition when Williams called him.

“You can imagine my chagrin when I finally get a couple days off to celebrate his acquisition, and I’m in a restaurant when he says, ‘You gotta get on a helicopter, we’ve got to look at a new ballpark site,’” said Lucchino, now president of the Boston Red Sox.

Williams had believed a new stadium was necessary to sell seats, particularly season tickets. Where Memorial Stadium’s capacity was 53,500, many seats were behind columns and many were in the upper deck, far from the action. While the upper-deck seats may have been more desirable for football, Williams said those seats were less than preferred for baseball.

As Williams pushed for a new stadium, state leaders recognized the need for an agency to oversee impending stadium projects when it created the Maryland Stadium Authority in 1986. Herbert J. Belgrad, an attorney who was chair of then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes’ State Ethics Commission, was asked to act as chairman of the authority.

Also among the supporters for a new ballpark was then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who would be elected governor in 1987. Schaefer had been devoted to keeping the Orioles, and was just as determined to have a new ballpark in downtown Baltimore.

The stadium authority’s first task was to consider a new site and weigh the option of rehabilitating Memorial Stadium. The authority found that building two stadiums, one for baseball and one for football, would be more cost-effective if enough land was acquired in Camden Yards, an industrial park at the time.

To pay for the project, Schaefer and the Stadium Authority proposed a statewide sports lottery. The proceeds of the lottery — in the form of instant scratch-off tickets — would go toward the interest charges of state-backed bonds.

Not universally embraced

The plan was not universally embraced. Community groups around the area were unsure of the benefit of tax dollars paying for a new sports arena. One group, led by then-state Sen. Julian L. “Jack” Lapides and called Marylanders for Sports Sanity, collected 28,000 signatures to bring the public funding issue to a referendum.

Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr., of Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, ruled that the two-stadium proposal was subject to a referendum. But the Court of Appeals ruled that because the stadium statute was a budget item, it could not be taken to referendum.

“The whole project could have gone down if it had gone to referendum,” said Alison L. Asti, now an associate judge for Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. Previously, Asti had served as the stadium authority’s general counsel and executive director. “I would have to say it would be hard to predict how it would’ve come out, given the public spirit at the time.”

Once approved, it was Lucchino’s childhood memories of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh that sparked the vision for Camden Yards’ old-fashioned design and feel. The three-tiered steel stadium was home to the Pirates from 1909 to 1970.

“[Stadium design] went from a charming, bucolic field park to a repetitious, concrete, multipurpose stadium,” Lucchino said. “There was a better way to build.”

No ‘doughnuts’

Lucchino envisioned a traditional, old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities as the resolution to the concrete “doughnuts,” like Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, that were built in the 1960s and 1970s.

The authority hired Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum P.C. Sports Facilities Group Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., after the architectural firm’s initial plans for the ballpark won over stadium authority officials, Belgrad said.

“When we did the interview, we maintained part of the warehouse,” said Ben Barnert, a project architect with HOK Sport, now known as Populous. Barnert worked alongside senior architect Joe Spear on the project. “That was to be part of the instant recognition of the stadium, like the Green Monster [at Boston’s Fenway Park] or the ivy-covered walls at Wrigley [Field, in Chicago],” Barnert said.

To enhance awareness of all design possibilities, a tour was conducted in March 1989. The delegation from Maryland included Gov. Schaefer, stadium authority members, representatives from the Orioles, who were then owned by Eli S. Jacobs, and the design team. The two-day tour included visits to Wrigley Field, the twin stadium complex in Kansas City, Mo., and Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami.

To make Camden Yards better than Memorial Stadium, getting in and out of the stadium and parking lots had to be faster, authority officials said. MARC and Light Rail lines were closer to Camden Yards than Memorial — about 275 feet from the foul pole in right field — and highways were only a few minutes away. The ballpark also shrank to 48,000 seats from Memorial’s hulking 53,000, and the triple-deck structure made the park’s frame tighter and more intimate.

Steel, rather than concrete trusses, an arched brick façade, a sun roof over the gentle slope of the upper deck, an asymmetrical playing field and natural grass were just some of the features that tied Camden Yards to the old-fashioned ballparks of which Lucchino dreamed.

‘Whoa, whoa, slow down’

But many of the old-fashioned details that formed Camden Yards’ charm were the innovation of an architect who Lucchino and the Orioles almost didn’t hire in 1989.

“Our president in human resources was sending off a bunch of kiss-off letters, and I looked at several of the letters being sent,” Lucchino said. “I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, slow down on this one. Here’s this woman with a background in urban planning and architecture. She could be just what the doctor ordered before I drown here.’”

That architect was Janet Marie Smith, who led the Orioles’ charge on using the modified 1890s team emblem on the side of seats, the bird wind vanes, even the shade of Camden green that adorned the park.

“We felt very strongly about making this park a steel truss structure, not just steel,” said Smith, now vice president of development and planning for the Orioles, after a stint with the Boston Red Sox. “I think it’s interesting to note, overall, I don’t think there’s been a single ballpark built with anything other than a steel truss since then. And that’s probably the best compliment to that decision.”