Sunday event will mark 50th anniversary of Frank Robinson’s blast out of Memorial Stadium

Mother’s Day is Sunday, and the holiday will be marked in many traditional ways - breakfasts in bed, hand-drawn greeting cards, bouquets of flowers and family dinners. But Mark Melonas will celebrate Mother’s Day by marking - rather re-marking - one of the most significant achievements in Orioles history on the site where Memorial Stadium used to be.

Melonas, a woodworker who lives in Ednor Gardens, near where the old stadium stood until 2002, is inviting Orioles fans to join him for a flag-raising to commemorate a unique home run. That blast, by the Orioles’ Frank Robinson off Indians pitcher Luis Tiant in the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader on May 8, 1966, cleared the gray concrete in left field, a poke of around 451 feet, and didn’t stop rolling until it had gone an estimated 540 feet, coming to a stop beneath a car on the macadam short of Ellerslie Avenue.

That was the seventh of Robinson’s 49 homers in a Triple Crown season that saw him also hit .316 and drive in 122 runs and lead the Orioles to an improbable World Series victory over the favored Los Angeles Dodgers. Robinson hit 586 homers in his 21-year Hall of Fame career - 179 of them coming in his six seasons as an Oriole - but that longball remains the only home run ever hit completely out of Memorial Stadium.

For years after Robinson’s feat, the Orioles marked the spot in left field where the ball exited the park with an orange flag that read simply, “HERE.” And while walking around his neighborhood, and watching games at the Cal Ripken Sr. Youth Development Field that rests on the old stadium’s site, the 40-year-old Melonas got to thinking about Robinson’s mammoth shot half a century ago.

“I wasn’t alive to watch Frank hit it. ... But it struck me, having been to the field there, and wondering where exactly it would be,” Melonas said. “I thought: Wouldn’t it be great to put up a flag there again?”

HEREPoster.jpgWhere? Where the “HERE” flag one stood. Reading about the historic homer in Dan Connolly’s “100 Things Orioles Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” only intensified Melonas’ belief that the 50th anniversary of the shot shouldn’t go unnoticed, so he devised HERE 50, a project that will memorialize Robinson’s stadium-clearing effort with a community celebration replete with the raising of a new “HERE” flag at the spot where the ball left the ballpark.

F.W. Haxel Co,, the Havre de Grace company that made the original “HERE” banner that flew over Memorial Stadium, has recreated the flag, which will be raised in a ceremony set to begin at 1 p.m. at Ripken Field next to the Waverly Weinberg YMCA at 900 E. 33rd St. Afterwards, a presentation on the 1966 season and Robinson’s impact on the Orioles will be held, followed by a Pitch, Hit and Run competition for children 7-14 and a home run derby for aspiring youth sluggers 15 and older.

“The “HERE” flag had a funny-shaped R among simple block letters,” Melonas said. “F.W. Haxel was able to dig up the funny-shaped R. The rest of the flag is standard block letters, but the R is kind of a goofy R.”

Living near the site of the former ballpark - nicknamed “The Old Gray Lady of 33rd Street” for baseball and “The World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum” for Colts football games - and coaching his son in the Towson Rec League helped convince Melonas that he should do something to help baseball fans old and new learn about Memorial Stadium’s storied history.

“People have such amazing memories and a real attachment to it,” he explained. “But a lot of people just assume that once it was torn down, it’s just a hole in the ground. And it’s not.”

In addition to the Ripken Field and the YMCA, the site now is home to four senior citizen apartment complexes.

HERE-Flag-jpg“I never saw Frank play and I wasn’t alive when the home run was hit,” Melonas said. “I knew Frank as the Orioles’ manager in the late ’80s. My heroes growing up were (Rick) Dempsey, Eddie (Murray) and Cal Ripken Jr.”

But in researching Robinson’s Mother’s Day homer, Melonas learned about how the slugger - acquired from the Reds in a trade when his former club thought he was washed up at 30 - helped transform the Orioles into a contender.

“He helped give us the golden age of Orioles baseball - think of the guys in ‘66 and having three Hall of Famers: Jim (Palmer), Brooks (Robinson) and Frank,” he said. “And the more I read about Frank, ... the more I tried to understand what he did, to put it in historical perspective.”

Melonas hopes HERE 50 will help get some of the kids in his neighborhood interested in the game he loves. Like many urban areas, Baltimore has seen a significant drop in the number of children - especially African American youths - who play the national pastime. Melonas wants young fans to learn about Robinson’s achievements, many of which came in an era where African American players still faced racial prejudice decades after Jackie Robinson shattered baseball’s color barrier.

“The kids in my neighborhood don’t play baseball,” he says. “If we can energize the kids to play baseball on this great field we’re lucky enough to have, and to help them know what kind of a hero Frank Robinson was, then we’ve done something.”

Attempts to reach Robinson through Major League Baseball, where he currently works as executive vice president of baseball development, were unsuccessful. The original “HERE” banne was removed after the final Orioles game at Memorial Stadium in 1991.

“From what I’ve heard, Frank kind of dismisses the home run,” Melonas said. “To him, it’s just one of however many he hit. But for a lot of people, it was an exclamation point in the 1966 season. And it was very important.”

blog comments powered by Disqus