When I look at this card, the first thing that jumps out at me is the beauty of the orange "Baltimore" script across the front of Eddie Watt's gray road jersey. For the past thirty-five years, images like this one served as little more than a pipe dream of what once was, and what might be again some time in the murky future.
But this week, news broke that the long and discontented wait of a vocal portion of the Orioles' fan base will soon be over. The team's front office has filed the necessary paperwork with Major League Baseball to return "Baltimore" to the team's road grays in 2009. Whenever an O's fan brings up the issue of the city name branding, the first question always seems to be, "Why is it such a big deal?". I don't know that there is any one answer, but there a few that come to mind.
First and foremost, it's a reminder of better times. The Birds wore away tops similar to the one above from 1956 through 1972, and during that time they rose from a bunch of second division also-rans to the powerhouses of the American League. In those threads, they went to four World Series, including three in a row, and won two of the three championships in club history.
It's also important to note that most of us who have called Charm City home at one time or another are fiercely proud and territorial. Baltimore doesn't have a great reputation, and you'll usually hear the same taunts thrown around. It's one of the STD capitals of the country, it's full of blue collar white trash, it's riddled with crime and drugs. I've got news for you: that describes most of the major urban areas of the U.S.A. Sometimes, we even rally around the very same aspects of our city that other people bash. After all, folks in "Bawlmer" speak a language all our own and that makes life more colorful. But Baltimore also has a lot of reasons to hold its head high. The revitalized Harborplace area, which includes the National Aquarium, is a great destination. We also have two beautiful, state-of-the-art stadiums downtown, and a rich history that dates back to the American Revolution. Plus, you know, we're not Philadelphia.
The thing that probably hits closest to home is insecurity. Baltimore has been one of the smallest markets in professional sports for decades, especially when you consider the fact that Boston and New York are the major divisional rivals. Local fans have had a chip on their shoulders since the beginning, often convinced that the accomplishments of their home teams are marginalized while the smallest triumphs of the Big Brother teams are glorified and blown out of proportion. When former O's owner Jerry Hoffberger decided to remove the city's name from the road grays in 1973, many felt that the city and team had lost a piece of their identity. It was a cynical business move, likely intended to appeal to a wider geographical base. (It's worth noting that the second incarnation of the Washington Senators had just picked up and moved to Texas, leaving the nation's capital and points south ripe for the picking.) A large majority of MLB teams identify themselves by city on their away togs, proudly informing the fans of the home opponent who they are and who they represent.
When Bob Irsay packed the Colts into the Mayflower moving vans in the cold, dark winter of 1984, bound for Indianapolis, the loyal supporters of the city's remaining big league team would always be looking over their shoulders. After all, the Birds were owned by a hotshot D.C. lawyer, and they played in the rapidly aging Memorial Stadium, with no plans in place for a new venue. Eventually Baltimore was blessed with the classy, functional Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the park that is still setting the pace for new baseball facilities league-wide. But Charm City was taken for an anguishing ride by the NFL during the Expansion Derby of 1993, having its hopes dashed when a franchise was inexplicably awarded to ho-hum Jacksonville. Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue rubbed salt in the wound by snidely suggesting that Baltimore use the money earmarked for a new football team to build a museum. Left with no alternative, the city accepted Art Modell and the former Cleveland Browns with open arms, and the rest is history.
This is all a long and complicated way of saying that we want "Baltimore" on the O's road jerseys because 1) that's where they play, and we want to make sure that everybody knows it, 2) that's the way it was when the Orioles ruled the roost, and 3) it just looks cool. By this time next year, it's a good bet that gray "Baltimore" tops will be selling like crazy all over Maryland.