Union Park, home to the Orioles in the 1800s, finally gets recognition

A wall plaque is now on the side of a home on East 25th Street near Guilford Avenue, marking an overlooked chapter in Baltimore Orioles history.

The old 25th Street grandstand, known as Union Park, and the team’s successes were once huge news, but time and recognition have not been kind to the plot of land behind Guilford Avenue and Barclay Street.

The lengthy inscription tells the story of how the Orioles made sports history in this long vanished spot.

The plaque states that Union Park (known in baseball history as Oriole Park III) was home to the American Association Baltimore Orioles in 1891 and the National League Baltimore Orioles from 1892 to 1899.

The plaque was dedicated April 19, the day 130 years earlier that the 1894 National League Baltimore Orioles opened their season at Union Park, defeating the New York Giants 8-3.

Attending the ceremony were baseball historians and members of the Society for American Baseball Research — Michael Gibbons, director emeritus of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, Professor Bernard McKenna, author of “The Baltimore Black Sox: A Negro Leagues History” and Burt Solomon, author of “Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team that Gave Birth to Modern Baseball.”

The plaque tells the story of a spot that otherwise casts no shadow today.

“On Sept. 27, 1897 an estimated 30,000 spectators — the largest crowd to witness a baseball game up to that time — attended a contest at Union Park between the Orioles and the Boston Beaneaters,” the plaque notes.

“It’s been a 12-year odyssey to get something posted on 25th Street,” said David Stinson, a baseball historian who worked to get the historic marker installed.

There are surviving baseball landmarks in the neighborhood, but you have to know where to look. There’s a rowhouse on the first block of West 24th Street where legendary Baltimore Orioles player William H. “Wee Willie” Keeler lived.

The nearby diamond where he played was just sloped down toward the Jones Falls Valley at the site of today’s Pennsylvania Station. They say that Keeler kept a spare ball or two in the outfield weeds when he needed a quick throw in the days when cameras could not detect trickery.

On a warm May morning, a walk around their old neighborhood from Barclay, 24th and 25th streets, as well as Guilford Avenue, where Union Park stood in the 1890s, was evocative.

All traces of the old park are gone. But if you drop by the alley in the middle of this block, and view the weather beaten back porches of the rowhouses that filled in the landscape after the ballpark was plowed down, they recall an old grandstand’s timbers.

There are other baseball-era traces: The old streetcar rails pop through the asphalt on 25th or Greenmount Avenue, reminding us how so many people traveled to the games here. The 25th Street streetcar service died in 1947. Greenmount Avenue lasted until 1963.

Solomon, the author and Baseball historian, set the tone for Baltimore in the 1890s as a city that was “the boundary between Catholic and Protestant” and “more virulent, between North and South. No city to the north was home to so many Black people; none to the south had so many immigrants. More and more, the rising number of Germans — nearly a quarter of the populace — and Irish and Russian Jews lent an air of Northern diligence. These collisions of cultures might have brought conflict but they also fostered a willingness to get along.”

Although it’s now on the list of Roman Catholic Churches that could be closed, St. Ann’s, at Greenmount and 22nd, has a role in this story. On a January night in 1902, the sports wedding of the year took place at the marble altar.

When Hall of Famer John McGraw, who went on to manage the New York Giants, wed Blanche Sindall. His legendary teammates Keeler, Joe Kelley (he lived on for many years in a big porch-front house on Calvert Street), Steve Brodie (Maryland Avenue) and Wilbert Robinson (2700 block of St. Paul St.) — packed the St. Ann’s pews.

When McGraw died in 1934, now famous as a New York Giants manager, he was buried in West Baltimore’s New Cathedral Cemetery. The line of funeral limousines stretched blocks.

The ghosts of old baseball drift around this neighborhood. Now, at least on a large metal plaque, their story gets told.