A giant once, now a January sort of city even in summer, spring and autumn. An anonymous city even to those who live there, a city that draws a laugh even from Philadelphia, a sneer from Washington, with a hundred tag lines that draw neither smile nor sneer from the city. Baltimore: Nickel Town, Washington's Brooklyn, A Loser's Town, The Last Frontier, Yesterday Town.
"I'll take a sleeping pill, just in case," said a Briton, preparing to visit the city. "I want to make sure I can keep up with the pace."
So it is October, and the town, which CORE made a target city in the summer gone (and failed to whip up one good, solid riot), is a World Series town, attracting attention it really does not enjoy, feeling a piston-like beat of the heart it has so seldom fell, and provoking—by just being what it is—more cackling from all those who came and found January in October.
All right, Jack, but don't knock it as a sports town, say the blue collars who are always in the side-street bars when shadows start climbing up factory walls. They say it next to a draft beer and a sports section opened to the racing page. From which the eyes never veer. Looking for a number or looking for an edge, looking for a chance to make tomorrow different from today, or just looking. By bar light or kitchen light, by neon or track light, with racing page or scratch sheet, with money or no money.
October 9, 1966
"Make sure," a publisher of one newspaper told his secretary, "I see the handle from the tracks every day. It gives me a good picture of the economy of the city."
"I've dreamed and I've schemed and I ain't never found any cream." the uncle used to tell his nephew. "Sonny, pray you grow up to be a bookmaker in this here town."
A racing town, then, but you can forget about charm and tradition, Old Hilltop and the Preakness, rolling acreage with dancing Thoroughbreds. That's for the Establishment, the Valley and Elkridge and all those who think they are a part of it, for the ones in good tweed with the F. Scott Fitzgerald rich-boy faces lined with exquisite dissipation who, 48 years old, are known within the circle as Skippy or Junior. Take the charm, the tradition, if you want it, because it's there; but deal around the other ones, the mobs that bust out of the steel mills, shipyards and can factories and try to reach the frozen face behind the window for the last two at Pimlico.
"In this here town, Sonny," said Uncle, who could talk about the loveliness of Saratoga even after getting wiped out, "only suckers and short arms and those with no arms [check evaders and nonspenders] go for the charm, and they ain't fillin' the closet of any track owner's wife with mink."
Racing, as even the bankrupt, dreamless ghosts of Pratt Street can see, is the silent giant of sports in this dudeless town, but the street-corner bigmouth is pro football. College guys who wish they were back, high-school types who wish they had been, Valley dandy and Highlandtown scuffler—everybody has a piece of the Colts. Never try talking to a bartender after the Colts get busted up on television. Never scoff at the sophomoric cheering, from old ones who have never been young and young ones who don't want to grow old, that floods barrooms and lounges during a television game. Never knock the club, or you'll be knocked.
"Remember the big one with the Giants?" says one knocker. "Well, I had been putting the club down all year in this place where I hang, just to get a rise in the joint. So the Colts take the Giants, and that night I get nasty telegrams and a dozen phone calls telling mc what a creep I am."
"John Unitas," says a newspaper copyreader, "never has a cold, he has pneumonia. He never has a sore leg, he has a broken leg. The smallest detail about the club is embroidered and turned into what they consider exciting conversation. Colt fans, the real ones, are the biggest bores in town."
A waterfront orphan in the eastern megalopolis, the city, it seems, relates to the Colts, and each autumn it waves them like a banner in front of all the lifted noses in the nation, in front of all those who used to motor through town on wine-soaked, fetid U.S. 40 and then went home and pronounced the city just a tunnel between Philadelphia and Washington, in front of all those who came and left calling it a tapped-out bumpkin of a town smothered with sullied monuments to forgotten heroes of forgotten wars.
But it is not just that the team has won, it is the way it has won. Scratched up and head down from the hook, they took the Giants on one faraway December day. Then last season, chipless and light in the center of the table, they called the Packers and raised them with a halfback at quarterback and nearly made the bluff stick. Baltimore, with its massive inferiority complex, needs the Colts.
Class D sports town or big-league town, who can make a case? Unfriendly toward Navy, indifferent toward Maryland, the city gets no play from college football. Lacrosse is first-rate, but college basketball is an atrocity to be earnestly avoided. The hockey is minor league, and so are the fans. Say the same for attendance at NBA basketball. Nobody knows, or cares, that the Bullets are here, in this town full of nine-hole women golfers and dart-throwers and pinochle players gone wrong.
"All the throwers and players are gone, Sonny," Uncle used to say. "Gone to fresh air and clothes that hurt an old man's eyes. They're all golfers now. In the old days they would have chased fire engines, too. That was big in this here town."
Once, too, it was a fighter's town, and a town full of pool hustlers and crapshooters who worked during jazzless hours. Five champions came out of the town: Joe Gans, who owned the old Goldfield Hotel; and Kid Williams, who owned only misery; Joe and Vince Dundee; and Harry Jeffra. Fight Night made it through the '40s, but it died in the '50s, along with the pool-hall salesmen and the crapshooters and the last of the marks who fled when work in the war-production plants ebbed. The city, the diehards say, then went back to sleep.
Now, in this October, a World Series comes to a town that has a grand and rich past in baseball. John McGraw, Willie Keeler and Wilbert Robinson worked here, when the city belonged to the old National League. Jack Dunn was the first to have Babe Ruth, a Camden Street urchin and a reform-school dropout. Dunn once brought the city seven straight International League pennants, and—so say the old men who sit in the public parks and play checkers and lament the passing of the 5¢ draft beer—he had to sell all his players because the fans, bored, stopped coming to the park.
The city had Lefty Grove and Joe Boley and Max Bishop and Jack Bentley then, and later, in the '40s, it would win a Little World Series with names that now are only recalled in trivia exercises: Kenny Braun, Bias Monaco, Stan Benjamin, Stan West, Bo Bo Barillari and Bob Latshaw. Fifty-five thousand attended one of those Little World Series games in the old and vast stadium of weather-frayed wooden benches, and even now, when the moon is full, those who were there and those who were not dredge up a day of minor glory that Baltimore baseball has not felt since—and then call the newspaper.
"How many people were there that night?" the voice will ask.
"Fifty-five thousand," he is informed.
"You're crazy," the voice will say. "Had to be at least 70,000 there."
Uncle could understand. "Sonny," he used to say, "every time you turn around you bust into a monument which nobody ever looks at, but don't try to tear any of 'em down, and don't ever say The Star-Spangled Banner sounds like it was written by a gent up to his ears with busthead."
"Was it?" he was asked.
"No, but you can bet only a Baltimorean could have written the Banner, and if he was drinkin' it was beer, because this here town is a beer drinker of a town and a show-bet-on-a-favorite kind of town. Whack it one real good and it comes back at you with Lord Baltimore and the War of 1812. No power, but lots of foundation. They try to take you out with the past and with tradition."
Town with too much past and too little present, town with a big-league club in a boarded-up pub—all of this has been claimed since the St. Louis Browns metamorphosed into the Orioles in 1954. Say it isn't so, but nobody knows. Baseball attendance in the sixth largest city in the nation, where the Colts often draw 35,000 for a scrimmage in August? From 1954 through 1965 the Orioles averaged 13,685 a game. Last year, third place: 781,649. This year, a pennant: 1.2 million—maybe.
True, the club and the city can build a two-pronged rebuttal: baseball competes with the dubious summer wonders of Chesapeake Bay and the population's lust for "shore" living, and the Orioles, unlike other big-league teams, do not have a large hinterland from which to draw. The Eastern Shore, an antediluvian settlement of oyster shuckers, does not help much; it has long wanted to secede from the state and, in particular, Baltimore. Western Maryland thinks that it is in Pennsylvania, and hence throws its support behind the Pirates. Rap the gate figures, if you want, but don't expect to be rapped back by an Oriole fan.
If there is such a thing, the solid Oriole fan is a subterranean creature, the antithesis of the Colt fan. He has no identity. Noiseless and spiritless, he reminds one of a guy who might apologize for not buying a vacuum cleaner from a salesman at the door. No insult can inflame him, and no losing streak can distract him. He just goes to the games, and he is hardly ashamed that restaurant, bar and department-store windows are not covered with imbecilic slogans and other displays of pennant fever. The only noise he makes is directed at the absentee Oriole fans, who talk a lot but never go to the ball park.
"Hell, why don't they bunt more?" says one absentee at an East Side bar.
"Yeah, they never bunt," says a second absentee.
"Nobody bunts anymore," says No. 1.
"No runnin' or buntin' anymore," says No. 2.
"They ought to do something with Frank Robinson," says No. 1. "He can't field. He's just been lucky. If he's so good, why isn't he back in Cincinnati?"
"They knew somethin' we ain't found out yet," says No. 2.
"Pardon me," interrupts a guy three glasses down, "when was the last time you two were at the stadium?"
"A couple of months ago when the Yankees—" starts No. 1.
"How come?" presses the interrogator.
"Why, there's no runnin' or buntin' anymore," says No. 2.
Uncle could understand that. "Sonny, the bunt solves all problems in baseball in this here town," he used to say. "It's a single-hitter's town and a bunter's town and a town with no heroes. 'If you're good what're you doin' here?' is the way they feel in this town."
Uncle, who always thought that Babe Ruth had never been honored properly by the town, was wrong. It is a town with heroes (see cover), but it is suspicious of them. It does not embrace the hero quickly, but when it does it elevates him to a point beyond simple hero. Then if the hero drops to one knee, becomes temporarily imperfect, he is shorn of his toga and garland until he proves that he can stand tall again, until he justifies the town's commitment of pride in him. The bond between Baltimore and the hero is sort of matrimonial in nature, fraught with all the emotions and pettiness of marriage; nowhere else does adulation dip and rise as it does in Baltimore. Only Art Donovan, the tackle, and Gino Marchetti, the defensive end, were, inexplicably, spared the sting of the town. Reticent and with a mechanic's attitude toward his work, John Unitas, if off form on Sunday, becomes a dart board on Monday.
Paul Richards was no hero, but the people expected much from him. They did not understand that he was a teacher and a builder and that the Orioles desperately needed him. In the end they resented his genius. Hank Bauer came from the Yankees, and this is his big edge; they seem to stop before they knock anyone—or anything—that has been a winner in New York. Philadelphia, Washington, Boston—none of these places count in Baltimore. Frank Robinson has tapped their emotions, but not completely. He is the man whom they have been looking for since 1954, but they do not truly believe that they have him. It is as if they are all waiting for him to support their suspicions, waiting for their question to be answered: Why did Cincinnati get rid of him?
The town seems finally to have realized that Brooks Robinson is not counterfeit, and when his bat sags and his glove goes stiff it forgives him. But that's because he came to them when he was quite young, and he belongs to them. He is, they feel, a Baltimore product, a "First," so to speak, and the city likes to remind others of its firsts: the First umbrella, the First city to receive the First message by Samuel Morse, the First to light its streets with illuminating gas, the First Mergenthaler Linotype and the First icecream factory. It also might claim another first. It might be the first town ever to be embarrassed by the presence of a World Series.
"No chance," says Horse Thief Burke. "The people here got no beef with the city the way it is." The Thief, a former tout ("adviser," he says), who has been exiled from the tracks, acquired his name for picking up a rope—with a horse on the end of it. "I never stole a horse in my life," he told the desk sergeant. "Where would I hide it?" The Thief now runs a "bookstore" and spends his time watching Search for Tomorrow and telling people that, no, he does not have that Dreams of an Egyptian Wit eh number. "Why should people here have any beefs?" he says. "We got more tracks here than anywhere."
"Sure, but what about accommodations?" he is asked.
"What you mean, accommodations?"
"You know, hotels. The ones you sleep in." (The explanation is necessary, because The Thief remembers hotels as bivouacs for crapshooters.)
"So, we got one."
"No, there are three."
"One, three, 20, who needs hotels to sleep? You can fall asleep right on a corner here."
"You mean it's dead?"
"Is Lord Baltimore? That's the way they like it here. No Series is gonna change it."
Once, in 1683, there was a Baltimore on the Bush River, but that settlement died when silt filled up the river; some Series visitors might leave thinking the original location was appropriate. Later, tobacco planters petitioned for a Baltimore on the Patapsco River (many citizens think the city is on Chesapeake Bay) and were given one, though first they had to quell a strenuous objection from one John Moale, whose land embraced the site of the settlement. Baltimoreans have dueled with change ever since. Finally the city did become a port of entry for tobacco, but even that failed. Wheat export saved it and pumped life into it.
A town of rolling land and dipping hills, a town of merchants, a town of rippling clipper-ship sails and rum-scented sailors, the settlement evolved into a city, the third largest in the country by 1858. All who came enjoyed it. "To my taste the women of Baltimore have more charm than the rest of the fair sex in America," said a French visitor. Barnum's Hotel, said Charles Dickens, "is the most comfortable of all hotels in the United States." Oliver Wendell Holmes called it "the gastronomical capital of the world"; visitors, looking for restaurants today, will wonder why.
Gracious living for Dickens and others, but for many Baltimore was a back-slum loudmouth, Mobtown, they called it, a town of riots and brutes who were mainly volunteer firemen and political yahoos. The volunteer firemen, who feuded often, used to start fires deliberately and see which company could get to the scene first. Often, when they did arrive, they forgot about the fire and started brawling and flinging cobblestones at each other. The elections were not as comic. In 1856, eight persons were killed and 250 wounded. The years brought many other riots before Baltimore completed its ungraceful slide into the 20th century. After that only the acidity of H. L. Mencken's column, "The Free Lance," could incite the rabble.
Born in Baltimore in 1880, Mencken, a libertine, in a sense, with a Katzenjammer mischievousness, became—and still is, along with Babe Ruth—the city's most famous figure and, in his time, its most abominated. Over a typewriter, with an Uncle Willie cigar hanging from his lips and with glasses resting on the tip of his nose, he went after "American piety, stupidity, tin-pot morality and cheap chauvinism in all their forms." Outrageously irreverent, he flayed officialdom, labeled civic leaders as Honorary Pallbearers and Baltimore's prominent citizens as being first among the city's seven deadly curses. He only supported female suffrage, because, he said, it would quickly "reduce democracy to an absurdity." He campaigned for bachelors to be taxed a dollar a day simply because it was worth that to be free, and when the Maryland General Assembly adjourned one year he wrote, "Let this be said for the legislature just hauled to the dump: It might have been worse. And that, perhaps, is the highest praise that can ever be given a dead cat."
Baltimore had only antipathy for Mencken, but he thought warmly of the city. When he edited the American Mercury and had to go to New York—which he despised—he was always impatient to return. He could relax in Baltimore, where he played Beethoven with a group of amateur musicians called the Saturday Night Club and "ate divinely" out of Chesapeake Bay. Years later he joined the Maryland Club, a repository for many of the types that he used to flog in his column. Women were not permitted in the club, and Mencken reasoned to his astonished friends: "Why not! It does not even employ charwomen. If an older member falls ill and a trained nurse is necessary he is thrown into the street." Mencken died in Baltimore in 1956 in his house on Hollins Street, which even then was surrounded by blight. He had spent his entire life there, and now only a minority of citizens and the Enoch Pratt Free Library—one of the finest in the country—recall that a frolicsome giant of letters once towered over its somber skyline of spires and church steeples.
Town where Edgar Allan Poe is buried, where Thomas Wolfe died and where F. Scott Fitzgerald brooded on Park Avenue, town where Francis X. Bushman was born, town that Father Divine had to leave to work his con, town where you can still buy a vote with a draft beer, town where a Bromo-Seltzer advertisement defaces the medieval tower of a building—Baltimore has not changed much since Mencken's time. Physically, it has been altered slightly, and more surgery is being done downtown. But Pratt Street, which faces the waterfront and is an encampment for drifters and grifters, remains unpromoted; even the Salvation Army has given up on Pratt Street.
Generally, the people resist rather than assist. Henry Barnes, now traffic commissioner for New York City, ran into their attitude when he was trying to solve traffic problems in Baltimore. A four-lane, two-way street, U.S. 40 was a national highway that was being choked by double-parking and triple-parking in front of a popular fish house. Baltimoreans, who deify the crab cake, were furious that Barnes would even think of ending the congestion around the restaurant; it was sinful. "Man, we're here to buy some crab cakes," Barnes' men were told. "We just got to have some crab cakes. You're crazy if you think we're going anyplace else. This is the best in town. Why don't you go and chase crooks and leave us crab-cake lovers alone." Barnes never did solve the problem, but the owner gave him carte blanche for free crab cakes for the entire Barnes family.
Beyond the crab cake, the monuments and the people's reluctance really to participate in the 20th century, the language is the most unique aspect of the Baltimorean and his city. It is an aggravation composed of Southern Cracker, Brooklynese and Pennsylvania Dutch Singsong that makes a New Yorker, by comparison, sound like Laurence Olivier. For instance, Baltimore is Balamer or Balmer, the Irish are Ahrsh, one does not dial a number—one dolls. A place of business is a bidness, and an accelerator is an exhillerator, and you don't go to a drugstore, you go to a drukstore. Dusk is dust, Druid Hill Park is Druidl Park, a man's paramour waits for him on the lawn every evening. Our is air, barbed wire is bobwar, home is hame, a bureau is a beero, the government is the gummint, a car is a koor, a cruller is a crawler, asphalt is asfelt, orange juice is arnjoos, and any citizen who thinks this article is garbage will call it gobbidge. Some people claim that this language is only heard in East Baltimore, but you can hear it in the velvet sections of town, too—that is, if you don't live there.
"Sonny, the only ones who don't mind hearin' that they talk that way," Uncle used to say, "are the ones in the 10th ward and in East Baltimore and South Baltimore, because they think all the other ones, the ones that live in the big houses outside of town, have to put on airs because they live in big houses. But we know they're Balamerans as soon as they open their mouths."
The 10th ward, which controlled politics in the city for years, is gone now, gone to inept second-story men and Negroes—they compose 40% of the population—who don't care to riot and aren't sure what CORE means. Besides, like most Baltimoreans, the Negroes have a group to look down on—the mountaineers, or hillbillies, or poor whites. Thousands of them, looking for work or just looking, move into the city and settle in pockets. They all have pallid faces with the same lost, lonesome look, and on a hot summer afternoon you can see them sitting on the steps in front of squalid row houses as if they were sitting under a tree in some faraway backland. They pick at their guitars and just watch the passing cars, and, sometime, when you see a window shade lifted by a sudden wind and a kid's empty face behind it, you can understand their lonesome-ness and lostness. A song tells about them, but it is only partially accurate. It tells of a man from Tennessee who lost his wife when she fell in love with the lights and streets of Baltimore. Never!
Baltimore, you see, is a lightless, no-night town, a kind of club basement, come-on-over-and-have-a-beer, one-night-out-a-week town. The Block, which the Great Fire of 1904 missed and the Salvation Army never misses, is the city's only evidence of night life. Every city has its equivalent. It is a 20-minute walk along a string of pornographic bookstores, flophouses, penny arcades, tattoo parlors, surplus stores, restaurants and strip joints. It is also a street of sounds: horns being bruised by heavy fingers, the lewd swishing on a drum and a slattern's hurt cry, "Ya cheap bum, ya, why doncha come up with somethin', go for somethin', ya stiff." It is the street of the Gorilla Woman and Blaze Starr and transient strippers who arrive and depart about as often as the flophouse sheets are changed, a street where if you have it they'll get it and if you don't, well, "this ain't the Walters Art Gallery, champ." A street, just a G-string away from City Hall and police headquarters, where the cops will go blind if you lay a roll of bologna on them.
Yet the city—just as it is not certain whether it wants to be in the North or South—can't make up its mind about the Block. The street is infamous to some and a landmark to others. "Why," they say, "everybody from all over the world talks about the Block."
It is also being talked about in Baltimore. The Block was again prominent in the city's latest examination of its police department. In a 600-page report of findings and recommendations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police raked the city's police department. The report found the city's meter maids surly, the horse patrol archaic, inefficient and odiferous, and the pedestrian injury and fatality rate the worst in the nation. It is also implied that the police—poeleece to Baltimoreans—are not very bright. A number of times, it seems, they decided that citizens had died of natural causes, only to find later that the bodies they had sent to the morgue had fatal knife wounds and gunshot holes. The report did not get any better as it went on, but the citizens remained unflappable.
Still, despite its Keystone Cop police department and its insufferable torpor, you can belong and almost go back to Baltimore, where few genuine scandals occur, where nobody reads (at least not the Sun; the "best unread" newspaper in the country has a circulation of only 184,000). A city where the numbers business grosses $10 million annually and a big operator, who gets a big share of the take, gets caught—like some untutored back-alley purse snatcher—taking a 50¢ play over the phone. A city whose Society is one of the most exclusive in the country and where all the money is clutched by a few tightfisted hands. A city of factory workers who take their politics in the bars from lightweights whose political philosophy stops at Boss Tweed and Huey Long. A city that Alabama's Governor Wallace knocked over as if it were some Boys' Club amateur. A city where you can breathe a lot less polluted air than you do in New York and see much more than 25% of a day's sunlight, and where you never have to worry about featherbedding jackhammer jockeys chopping up the street outside your window at midnight. You can belong and almost go back to the city because there is order to life there, and a certain security to life there. Still you can't really go back, because it was (even though you were unaware of it then) and is a Harry Langdon kind of town, and if you have ever seen Langdon in a movie you have to feel sad.
Besides, Uncle is gone now, and much of the section in which he lived is gone, too; the young people have all grown and left for their barbecue pits and slices of green lawn, and now only the old stay firmly on. Uncle, who used to sell produce from a horse-drawn wagon in the alleys and side streets of East Baltimore, checked out one day in an alley—right in the middle of one of his typical arguments with a housewife who claimed his hard crabs were too light and his cabbageheads were too small. He lived all his life in East Baltimore, in the Highlandtown and Canton sections, and he used to say, "Sonny, these people 'round here are the most civilized people, and this is the most civilized living in the world. They don't wanna hurt anybody, and they don't wanna be hurt. They just wanna be left alone. And if you wanna know this town, you better know these people here."
Uncle knew his town and knew his section and the people who are left. People who make sure their life insurance is never overdue, people who work hard and can be quite impatient with dreamers. People who live in blocks of row houses—red brick trimmed with white lines, window screens with pastoral scenes painted on them—that are fronted by white marble steps. Women who scrub the steps and sweep their patch of pavement. Men who go to the corner bar and buy kettles and pitchers of beer and then go home and drink it in the kitchen. People who sit on the steps on hot summer nights and in the kitchen during winter; their parlors, as they call them, once were used only for wakes and weddings. People who will listen to a Governor Wallace, because he speaks to them about everything they have always feared—change, disorder and intrusion.
"Sonny, change will come here, too," said Uncle one day by a pier, while the nephew stared vacantly at a freighter crawling through the water, and wondered where it came from, where it was going and if he would ever go. "The young will leave," he said, "and the old will stay. But the young can't leave it completely. They take a lot of the life with them, and the life here in East Balamer is a lot like the way Balamer is.
"You can't help lovin' this town," he finally said, "but you never know why. It's kinda like bein' in love with a certain kind of woman, maybe one with a broken nose. She may not be the prettiest or the most attractive, but she's real." He then jerked the reins in his hands, and the horse and wagon eased away from the pier.