Local filmmakers'  ‘Season’ is memorial to Memorial Stadium

Chris Kaltenbach

Published on November 29, 2002
© 2002- The Baltimore Sun

Charles Cohen and Joseph Mathew thought it would be fun, taking a video camera to the final sell-off at Memorial Stadium, when the seats and the signs and the bricks and anything else that could be pried up became fair game for anyone with an active credit card or an open checkbook. 

They never really intended to spend the next two years chronicling the stadium's final days, listening to people as they waxed poetic about what this pile of concrete and steel meant to them. And they certainly never meant to witness a final act of political gamesmanship, as city officials past and present debated what to do with the stadium's huge memorial wall - a symbol of the city's reverence to its war veterans that, despite emotional pleadings and backroom maneuvering, ended up turned unceremoniously into a heap of rubble along 33rd Street. Fortunately, these two fledgling filmmakers were able to stick with the stadium, through its final days and even beyond. The result is The Last Season, a nostalgic and emotional video documentary that had its premiere at May's Maryland Film Festival and is being shown tonight at 7 at the Walters Art Museum, proceeds to benefit the festival.

 "We were just interested in doing something," says Baltimore native Cohen, 40, a free-lance writer. "We thought, `Hey, we'll go down there, it'll be fun. We'll check out the story, interview people, try out our cameras, see what happens. But as soon as we got down there, we knew right away that it was this monumental story and that we'd have to stick with it." 

The Last Season is likely to bring a tear to many a sports fan's eye, for a variety of reasons. Eschewing narration, it relies on fans' stories to propel the narrative, meaning dozens of men and women get the opportunity to speak of the uncounted hours spent in this great good place, watching Johnny Unitas throw another touchdown pass or Brooks Robinson spear another grounder. The stories are simply told, without practice or polish.

 "This was an opportunity to give voice to these people who had been sitting in the stands for 50 years," says Mathew, 37, a free-lance photographer who emigrated from India eight years ago, where cricket was the spectator sport of choice (he's since transformed into a baseball fan). "Once we were there that first day, we had to go back the next day, because we had all these great stories."

But just as emotional is the sad tale of what happened to the stadium after the teams left. It's a tale of politicians who rarely seemed able to agree on anything, of a community desperate to both preserve its past and make way for its future, of war veterans who felt slighted by the seeming disregard planners had for what was designed as a monument to their bravery and sacrifice.

 For a time, it appeared the wall, with its eloquent promise that "time will not dim the glory of their deeds," would remain standing. But practical politics eventually prevailed over the sentimental - preserving the wall, it was decided, would both cost too much and leave behind a memorial out of proportion to the rest of the neighborhood. Without any advance notice, the last vestige of Memorial Stadium, home to Baltimore's pro sports teams from 1954 to 1997, was pulled down in the early part of this year.

 "To me, it was hugely ironic," says Cohen. "I mean, here it was, this big piece of patriotism ... three months after 9/11, everybody's saluting the flag and everything else, and here they are tearing this monument down. I think it said a lot about America. America is really about building, and just keep moving, you can't stand in the way of progress."

 The Last Season includes fan stories; interviews with city officials (including Mayor Martin O'Malley, who made the decision to tear the wall down, and former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who fought to preserve it); and interviews with many of the athletes whose legends were made there, including Robinson and Unitas. Taken together, they try to answer the filmmaker's central question: What made this place so special?

 "Preservation is sometimes a really boring issue. There's a real select crew of people who are into that," says Cohen. "But this is a real preservation issue, where it really matters. How many people are going to step out in front of a building down the street and say, `I'm going to buy a brick from this building, I'm going to stand out in the rain so I can do that'? Thousands of people were doing just that; to me, that is a real preservation issue."