Memorial Stadium resurrected at local retirement community
Memorial Stadium might be gone, but it lingers in the hearts of sports fans — and the handiwork of John Swope. A woodworker from Parkville, Swope has constructed a miniature version of the 33rd Street ballpark that was demolished beginning in 2001.
“It’s my field of dreams,” said Swope, 80, a resident of the Oak Crest retirement community. Ten months in the making, his stadium is a replica of the one where the Orioles played for 37 years, the NFL Colts for 30 and the Ravens for two. The Orioles played their last game at Memorial Stadium 25 years ago today.
There are images of fans in the stands and tiny figures representing Orioles on the baseball field, as well as people buying food at concession stands and the ever-present line of patrons waiting to use the ladies room.
There’s the “HERE” flag atop the leftfield bleachers, where in 1966 the Orioles’ Frank Robinson became the only man ever to hit a fair ball out of the park. There are dugouts filled with players, a screen backstop, press box, radio booth and four television cameras perched just where they used to be. Metal light towers, which Swope soldered himself, bathe the field in bril-
liance. Movingly, the words embossed onthe front of the ballpark echo the tribute paid to America’s World War II casualties on the original Memorial Stadium, ending with, “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”
“The stadium is fabulous; the detail is spectacular,” said Ron Stokes, president of the Oak Crest model railroad club, who asked Swope to build the ballpark for the community’s expansive train garden, a nod to downtown Baltimore. “We set the bar high for John and he raised it. He’s a great craftsman.”
Swope’s project speaks for the inventiveness of seniors, said Stokes, 77.
“Yes, we sit. Yes, we nap — but we do a lot of other things, too,” he said.
The stadium is on display at Oak Crest and open to the public Saturdays from1p.m. to 3 p.m.
Swope called the project “a labor of love,” though he turned down the club’s first three requests to build it.
“I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see it through,” he said.
He toiled on the project for seven hours a day, seven days a week, in Oak Crest’s wood shop.
“Some days I wouldn’t see him until night,” said his wife, Carol Swope, 77.
He worked off old photos as well as his recollections of having attended Orioles games years ago, when he rooted either from his seats in the mezzanine, behind home plate, or in the upper deck (Row 7).
“A lot of stuff came back to me,” said Swope, who grew up in Sparrows Point.
Armed with razor blades, super glue, X-Acto knives, acrylic paints and sheets of basswood, most of which he bought at a local hobby shop, he constructed a copy of a stadium dear to those who reveled there. The construction cost? “I’m not sure, but a ballpark figure is about $200,” he said.
It’s not finished yet. There’s an outfield fence and bullpens to be built. Swope recently added a National Beer scoreboard, circa 1970, which will have flashing numbers and a speaker playing CDs of longtime announcer Chuck Thompson’s highlights of Orioles games.
In Swope’s stadium, the home team plays host to the Toronto Blue Jays. The Orioles are clad in orange and black — he painted the figures with tweezers and a tiny brush — with bird insignias on their caps and numbers on their backs. Jim Palmer is on the mound, surrounded by Boog Powell (first base), Brooks Robinson (third base) and Frank Robinson (left field).
But there’s as much drama taking place off the field as on it.
“See that lady?” he said, pointing to a woman surrounded by three children near a concession stand. “She brought her kids to the game and all they want is to go buy popcorn. And over there, near that ramp, is a mother lecturing her little boy while a thief tries to grab her pocketbook.”
His work is not without whimsy. Outside the ballpark, a figure dozes at the base of the wall, wine bottle in hand, as a fan peers at Claire Romano, 86, helped fellow Oak Crest retirement community resident John Swope build and paint a detailed model of Memorial Stadium, which was demolished in 2001. him from above.
“I would glue people down, then stand back and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s perfect,’ ” he said.
And while he made mistakes, not all of them bore correcting.
“Look at that woman cleaning the hot dog stand,” he said. “When I positioned her there, her hand turned by accident and the glue smeared. I let it be; it looks like she’s wiping off a dirty counter.”
At Oak Crest, reaction to Swope’s project has been heartfelt.
“When we take [the stadium] around to our dining rooms and lobbies, people are emotionally moved,” Stokes said. “The first thing they do is point to a spot in the stands and say, ‘I used to sit there!’ ”
Often, folks will grab their cameras and, with wistful sighs, take pictures of the ballpark, Claire Romano said. An Oak Crest resident, Romano, 86, helped Swope paint the figures and brickwork.
“I saw the wheels turning in John’s head when he started this project,” Romano said. “When he said, ‘Would you help me?’ I said, ‘You betcha.’ ”
The sport will change with the seasons. Now that the Orioles are finished, Swope plans to replace the diamond with a football field and celebrate a Ravens theme.
“This work keeps me going,” he said. “Many’s the day I’ve gotten out of bed and not felt like doing anything … until I got to the shop. You’ve got to keep busy. You never stop learning, no matter how old you are.
“Too many [seniors] sit around watching television. I do this so I can sleep at night. Besides, it keeps me out of bars.”