Celebrating 30 Years at Oriole Park at Camden Yards
The first thing that comes to mind when talking about the 30th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards is:
Has it really been 30 years?
Yes, it may be hard to believe, but the Orioles’ home, which opened to rave reviews on April 6, 1992, turns 30 years old this coming season. If it seems like only yesterday that Rick Sutcliffe was polishing off Cleveland in the season opener with a nifty 2-0 shutout, well, can’t help you much there. We’ve all gotten older.
And yet, Camden Yards is still an architectural gem, its innovations, brick and steel construction, asymmetrical dimensions, and downtown location the benchmark against which every ballpark that has opened over the last three decades is measured – and will be for years to come.
No wonder, then, that it has earned the title, “The Ballpark That Forever Changed Baseball.”
From the 1950s until Camden Yards opened in 1992, stadiums were built as multi-purpose arenas designed to hold 55,000 to 60,000 fans, mostly for both baseball and football. From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Tampa to Cincinnati, St, Louis to Oakland, these generic, mostly concrete, facilities served a purpose but lacked a genuine feel for the cities in which they were located.
Even Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium – transformed into a two-level facility in the early 1950s to accommodate first the football Colts and then the Orioles’ move from St. Louis in 1954 – fit that category.
Camden Yards changed all that.
In fact, Camden Yards is now the 10th oldest park in use in the majors – which, in a way, is the point. There have been 22 Major League stadiums built since Camden Yards opened in 1992, all of them owing not only their style but, to varying degrees, their existence, to Baltimore’s jewel. All of those newer parks have copied, in one form or another, what the Orioles created, and the clamor to replace an existing playing facility would not have taken foot with the same fervor without the Orioles eschewing convention and looking back for their future.
Baseball executives from virtually every team looking to build a new facility have made trips to Baltimore, taking both regular ballpark tours and specially guided missions to find out about Camden Yards’ innermost details. Even the Green Bay Packers came calling when they refurbished Lambeau Field.
Without the Orioles taking a chance on a new and dynamically different approach to ballpark construction, we may never have seen the spurt of new stadiums, each building upon Camden Yards’ elements, mostly in downtown areas that spurred their own urban rebirth.
For those of us who grew up at Memorial Stadium, the idea of the Orioles going to Camden Yards was like moving from your childhood home. It wasn’t just the uncertainty, the unfamiliarity of the new place – Memorial Stadium was home!
But it took only a few innings sitting in the new ballpark to realize that Camden Yards was something special. It wasn’t just the wider rows, wider seats, wider concourses. It was the look and feel of the place, almost as if it had been there for years. It borrowed from storied old ballparks like Fenway Park, Ebbets Field, Shibe Park and Wrigley Field, but incorporated modern amenities – a new stadium with an old-time feel. It was revolutionary.
The idea of a new facility to replace Memorial Stadium had been kicked around and studied for nearly two decades. But it wasn’t until the sudden departure of the football Colts in the spring of 1984 that the talks took a more serious, frenetic pace. The threat – real or imagined – that the Orioles (owned at the time by legendary Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams) would move nearer to or into the District of Columbia, could not be discounted.
The state had agreed to building a baseball-only ballpark in 1987, but what kind of baseball park and where it would be built still had to be determined, and the Orioles were not going to sign a lease until they knew what they were getting.
Though other sites had long been discussed – including Port Covington, the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, as well as places midway between Baltimore and Washington like Laurel and Columbia – the Camden Yards site was preferred by Gov. William Donald Schaefer because of the impact it could have on the city and the neighborhoods surrounding it. Putting it in the suburbs, he and others believed, would not provide the economic boost to nearby businesses; going to the game would be the “sole destination.”
Schaefer saw a ballpark in Camden Yards as a major boost to revitalizing the area west of the inner harbor. The Orioles finally agreed on the location; they just wanted a baseball-only facility, not a multi-purpose stadium like those of the past. Ironically, without the decision to build a baseball facility at Camden Yards, with ample room to the south for a football stadium and shared parking, it’s likely there would be no Baltimore Ravens – the state legislature wouldn’t have funded a football stadium without a team, and no NFL team would move here without the promise of a new stadium of its own.
(It’s also hard to ignore the historic symmetry of the Orioles “returning” to Camden Yards. When the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore for the 1954 season, it was here – actually, next door, at the old Camden Station – that the Orioles arrived by train from their season-opening games in Detroit. The players then got into convertibles for a parade through the city to Memorial Stadium for the first-ever home game.)
The news that Baltimore would get a new baseball park came against the backdrop of “Fantastic Fans Night” on May 2, 1988. A sellout crowd came to Memorial Stadium to welcome back an Orioles team that was returning home with a 1-23 record, including a record-breaking and humiliating 0-21 start to the season. A capacity crowd of more than 52,000 fans turned out on a Monday night to show support for the team.
It was on that night, in a hastily prepared pregame ceremony, that Williams, the Orioles owner, and Gov. Schaefer announced an agreement for a new baseball-only stadium to be built on the site of the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train yards. The final details, in fact, had been hammered out and written on the back of a menu in an Amtrak train club car on the way from Washington, DC, to Baltimore for that night’s game.
The architectural firm of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City was brought in to design the new ballpark. Originally, HOK (now called Populous) presented plans similar to those of a stadium they had just designed – the new Comiskey Park in Chicago (now Guaranteed Rate Field) – an updated, modernized ballpark, but one that wasn’t far removed from the stadiums of the ’60s and ’70s.
Orioles officials had different ideas. They wanted an old fashioned and traditional park that fit neatly into the urban neighborhood surrounding it, unlike anything that had been built since the early 1900s, like Boston’s Fenway Park, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Among the “must haves” were:
*an intimate and old-fashioned feel; instead of a move to the future, it had to have a look of the past.
*brick and exposed steel trusses, instead of the massive concrete used in stadiums for more than a half-century.
*an asymetrical field, molded into the space allotted, similar to the early baseball fields whose grandstands and outfield boundaries were governed by and built to conform to the layout of the streets that surrounded the ballpark.
The biggest question revolved around whether or not to use or demolish the mammoth, eight-story B&O Warehouse. Some wanted it preserved, both as office space as well as the backdrop it would provide from the stands; others saw it as an eyesore and wanted it torn down to allow for views of Baltimore’s skyline and newly-refurbished Inner Harbor. The debate among the media and public was fierce.
The Warehouse endures, not only as a symbol, but as a functional building, housing office space for the Orioles, the Maryland Stadium Authority (which oversees the facility for the state) and other private tenants, as well as office, kitchen and catering space for the facility’s concessionaire.
As hard as the two sides argued at the time, it is hard to imagine Oriole Park now without the Warehouse, the longest building on the East Coast at 1,016 feet (yet only 51 feet wide). Except for hanging a few number banners on its side along the way, the Warehouse remains the iconic structure that separates Camden Yards from other ballparks.
Land acquisition and demolition began within months. Actual construction didn’t begin until February 1989 and progressed steadily over the next three years. One of the last hurdles was the name of the new ballpark. Eli Jacobs, who had bought the team from the Williams family estate (Edward Bennett Williams died from cancer three months after announcing the deal for the new ballpark; the game on May 2 was the last time he would see the Orioles play) wanted Oriole Park, which had been the name of several stadiums used by minor league teams earlier in the 1900s. Gov. Schaefer wanted Camden Yards. It wasn’t until the eve of the Orioles’ final series at Memorial Stadium in October 1991 that the two sides agreed to a merger.
And so on April 6, 1992, the Orioles christened “Oriole Park at Camden Yards.” The Orioles victory that day, Sutcliffe’s shutout over Cleveland, was almost an afterthought to the ballpark’s opening.
“This is a building capable of wiping out in a single gesture fifty years of wretched stadium designs, and of restoring joyous possibility that a ballpark might actually enhance the experience of watching the game of baseball,” wrote Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for The New York Times, when Camden Yards opened.
A 1997 editorial in The Sun said: “Baltimore’s success at Oriole Park practically overnight caused America to rethink its view of stadiums as being more than just big bowls where athletes clash.”
That view still holds true.
George Will, the noted political commentator, baseball author and fan, calls Oriole Park at Camden Yards one of baseball’s three most important developments since World War II, along with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and free agency. He is not alone in his assessment.
“Camden Yards may be one of the two or three most powerful events in baseball history,” said former commissioner Bud Selig. “It changed everything. It really did. I’m not sure people grasp the significance of it. It set it all off. It never would have happened without Camden Yards. But I don’t think anybody could really have understood how dramatically it was going to the change the face of baseball and the Orioles.”
A year after their own ballpark had opened, a number of senior White Sox officials came to Baltimore to see what all the fuss was about. One looked around Camden Yards, shook his head, and was heard to mutter, “What did we do?”
Much as the Inner Harbor started downtown Baltimore’s rebirth when it opened in 1980, Oriole Park at Camden Yards became a symbol for the city’s revitalization. Apart from the 73 million fans who have attended games there – nearly double the number that attended games at Memorial Stadium over 38 seasons – the construction of the ballpark facilitated a resurgence in people re-experiencing downtown and the Inner Harbor. Across the street from the ballpark, the Baltimore Convention Center nearly tripled in size as its business grew. That led to new hotels like the Hilton beyond the bullpens and the Hampton Inn behind the left field corner.
The renaissance of the Hippodrome Theatre and the nearby Lexington Market’s refurbishing can all be tied to what Camden Yards has brought to the area west of the Inner Harbor.
The city’s skyline was remade – much of which, it can fairly be said, would not have happened without the spark created by the new baseball park. The economic impact of Camden Yards, according to Maryland Stadium Authority reports, is more than $10 billion in the last 30 years.
For as much as Camden Yards changed Baltimore, it also changed the game of baseball itself. Oriole Park became the model copied by every stadium built since. In addition to the 22 Major League ballparks, at least 160 spring training, minor league and college ballparks have opened. Talk about progeny.
Heck, the Rangers and Braves have built TWO new ballparks since Camden Yards opened. And even among those older, the Angels, Cubs, Dodgers, Royals, White Sox and Red Sox have done significant “makeovers,” spurred by what transpired in Baltimore.
The Orioles haven’t settled for leaving well enough alone, either. They have made improvements to Camden Yards along the way.
Wider seats were installed in all levels of the ballpark before the 2010 and 2011 seasons, reducing the seating capacity by 2,319; Oriole Park now seats 45,971 fans.
A kids’ play area was added, and the concourses have been brightened with remodeled and upgraded concession stands offering expanded food and beverage choices.
In 2012, in time for the 20th anniversary of the ballpark, the Orioles added a rooftop bar above the batter’s eye wall in center field and lowered the height of the right field scoreboard, creating new and improved viewing areas for fans to congregate.
That same year, the club’s rich history was put on broader display with larger photos, murals and banners throughout the ballpark. Statues of the six Orioles “legends” in the Hall of Fame – Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Earl Weaver – were erected beyond the bullpens in left field next to the picnic area, which was expanded and opened to the public during non-game times.
And in 2018, Camden Yards became just the third existing ballpark to be awarded a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certificate by the U.S. Green Building Council. The Warehouse was awarded LEED Silver.
As we move toward the celebration of the 30th anniversary opening next March, the Orioles constantly are looking for ways to improve the ballpark and further invest in the viability of the businesses surrounding Camden Yards. Entertainment initiatives, such as the Billy Joel concert in 2019, are among those enhancements.
While those and other elements have been added to make the fan experience better, the same basic qualities that gave Camden Yards its charm in 1992, like the sun roof over the upper deck’s top rows, the foul poles from Memorial Stadium, and the smell of Boog’s BBQ cooking on Eutaw Street, remain the same.
But 2022 is not the end line. As Orioles Chairman and CEO John Angelos told a group of area business leaders in 2019, “The Orioles are a Baltimore institution” and will be here “as long as Fort McHenry is standing watch over the Inner Harbor.”
The Ballpark That Forever Changed Baseball still glistens and will continue to evolve in the next thirty years to remain a top destination for baseball and other events, much as it was in 1992 when it started a revolution.