Jousting, Anyone? Before the glory of Unitas and Ripken, Maryland was a big-time sports wasteland

August 31, 2003

My father was born in Maryland in 1902. He enjoyed sports but
wasn't much of a fan. You could understand this about any
Marylander who lived there in the first half of the 20th century.
It was slim pickings if you were interested in championship
sports played by human beings. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any
state so populous and well located, possessing one of the largest
cities in the nation, that had less big-time sport than Maryland
did.

It is true that horses were something else again. (Would it
surprise you to learn that the state's official sport is
jousting?) Maryland, which is, geographically, the
ninth-smallest state, had nine racetracks, strategically
located, which meant that no Marylander was ever far from a $2
window. I combined my own budding journalism career with sports
by leaving Baltimore's Gilman School early to take the school
newspaper pages to the printers, in Pimlico, and then sneaking
over to catch some races at the track. There, at Pimlico, the
Preakness gave the state its one day a year in the sporting sun.

Maryland's sports life started to go to hell a few months after
Daddy was born. The Baltimore Orioles had been America's most
sensational team in the 19th century, but in the fall of '02 the
franchise was Irsayed to New York, becoming the Highlanders
(although they would subsequently earn somewhat more renown as
the Yankees). Baltimore did get a franchise in the short-lived
Federal League in 1914-15. But the only significant thing the
Terrapins (47-107 in '15) accomplished was to sue when the Fed
folded, which got the Supreme Court to declare, inscrutably, that
baseball was not interstate business and, thus, should own an
antitrust exemption. Sure, good for Judge Landis then and Bud
Selig now, but Maryland was left with nothing but the bushes.

Poor Maryland didn't even have much in the way of college sports.
The University of Maryland had a football team whose main claim
to fame was that the coach, Curley Byrd, got promoted to school
president. Wow! That kind of thing never even happened in pigskin
provinces like Alabama or Nebraska.

Of course, if you are familiar with geography, you know that
there's a rectangular area that was carved out of Maryland's
hide. Quaintly known as the District of Columbia, it had two
major league teams, the Senators and the Redskins. Nonetheless,
even though these teams cavorted just over the state line,
gen-u-wine Marylanders hated them because they owned territorial
rights and kept the bigs out of Baltimore. Don't go there!

So, with no games worth seeing, most everybody in the state who
was not playing the Daily Double went "downashore" and fished or
crabbed.

Then overnight it all changed. Suddenly Maryland got major league
teams galore (and, ha-ha, better than Washington's!), champions
and heroes. In a real way--if more spectacularly--what happened
to Maryland was the model for what would happen to so many other
disparate states that would be knighted with big-time sports as
the century wore on.

My gracious, it happened fast. In '47 Baltimore got a team in the
Basketball Association of America (forerunner to the NBA), and
the next spring the Bullets won Maryland's first title in
anything since the 1896 Orioles' National League crown. Then a
Dixie sharpie named Sunny Jim Tatum, recruiting in the
Pennsylvania coal-mining towns, made the Terps into a football
power--the 1953 national champs! And next: Johnny U and the
Colts! Brooks and the Birds! Camden Yards, the most influential
sports structure ever built!

I think it's safe to say that Daddy died happy, knowing that old
meanie Washington, having lost the Senators, couldn't get back
into major league baseball without first kissing up to Baltimore.
What goes around....

All right, there were a few bumps in the road, but if the Bullets
left for Deecee and the Colts for Indianoplace, Maryland stole
the Browns from Ohio and named them in honor of a drunken poet
who had, felicitously, died in Baltimore, and the Ravens won a
Super Bowl. The Preakness got even bigger. And the Terps finally
won a basketball title to kick off the 21st century. Also,
downashore, there's still lots of fishing and crabbing.

Senior contributing writer Frank Deford grew up in Baltimore.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

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