The Sun sign sits atop the scoreboard at Oriole Park while Baltimore Orioles right fielder Chris Davis hits a home run on June 30, 2015. Photo by Ron Cogswell/Flickr Creative Commons.

In the sketches and watercolors that graphic designer David Ashton made in 1991 to help the Baltimore Orioles visualize the future Camden Yards, “Budweiser” and “Coca-Cola” were drawn above the future centerfield scoreboard.

But months later, when the sponsor deal was finalized and the letters erected, “The Sun,” the city’s daily newspaper, was the name in that very conspicuous spot. And the folks responsible for the “Ballpark that Changed Baseball,” were delighted. Thirty years later, they don’t recall any bidding war or debate about it.

“We wanted something that said Baltimore. It was part of our obsession with details and graphics. We wanted something that smacked of local culture,” said Larry Lucchino, who served as president of the Baltimore Orioles from 1988 to 1993. “It was just a simple marriage.”

After 30 years, that marriage is over. “The Sun” sign was removed recently as the Orioles plan for a new sponsor for the prominent placement above the JumboTron. The newspaper reportedly hadn’t kept up its payment. Lucchino estimated that the deal was initially in the range of $250,000 to $400,000 a year.

Like the dramatic Baltimore & Ohio Railroad warehouse that sits behind it or the 700-pound “ornithologically correct” Oriole bird weathervanes on top of it, The Sun sign became an icon in its three decades at Camden Yards. Not a fluctuating advertisement, it became infused in the character of the park.

Sketches depict the clock that topped the scoreboard at Oriole Park. Credit: Ashton Design.

If The Sun sign was a simple marriage, as Lucchino said, it was also a match made in retro heaven. The Orioles sought an early 20th-century feel for their late 20th-century ballpark. They would have been hard-pressed to devise anything that conveyed that better than The Sun logo. It remains similar to the one that appeared when the newspaper first rolled off Arunah S. Abell’s printing press 186 years ago less than a mile from the Camden Yards site and before the game of baseball was invented.

Lucchino recalled having to goad Coca-Cola and Budweiser to use vintage advertising elsewhere in the ballpark to fulfill the look the team was seeking at Camden Yards. But The Sun’s insignia, a sunburst that includes a steam locomotive, a clipper ship, an eagle, the Greek goddess of justice and the motto “Light For All,” is a perpetual throwback.

“What was fantastic about it for us from a design perspective was The Sun’s heritage and that their logo reached back. Our goal was not just to be a new ballpark but to tell a story about the history of baseball in Baltimore,” said Janet Marie Smith, the architect and urban planner whom Lucchino hired to guide the stadium project. The green trusses that supported the sign were similarly intentional, she said: to evoke the port city’s proud history of steelmaking.

“It wasn’t just ornamentation and decoration, the way you might do at a theme park,” she said. “It was storytelling.”

The designers borrowed one twist for The Sun sign from the former Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, N.Y. – the former home of the Dodgers that inspired Eli Jacobs, the Orioles owner in the early 1990s, to push for a new Orioles stadium that evoked that golden age of baseball. At Ebbets, the “H” and the “E” lit up in a large Schaefer Beer sign. (And likewise in a Rheingold Beer sign at the former Polo Grounds, also in New York). The purpose was to announce whether the official scorekeeper had credited a batter with getting on base by a hit or by fielder error after a questionable play. The Sun sign was wired directly to the scorekeeper’s station for similar instant use of the “H” and “E” in its name.

A blueprint shows The Baltimore Sun’s insignia that adorned the scoreboard at Oriole Park: a sunburst that includes a steam locomotive, a clipper ship, an eagle, the Greek goddess of justice and the newspaper’s motto “Light For All.” Credit: Robert Kaye/Triangle Sign & Service.

The Orioles and stadium executives may have desired The Sun in that prime space, but Diana Murphy, the newspaper’s senior vice president of sales and marketing at the time, recalls a brief window for a decision.

“What I remember is that I literally had like 10 or 15 minutes. I had asked for the right of first refusal and then they gave that to me, but they said, ‘Look, we assume you guys don’t want it and we’ve got a national beverage company that desperately does,’” she said.

“But, for me, it was obvious that the Baltimore Sun needed to do it. I did not have the authority to spend the amount of money for the sponsorship that they were asking for, but I just figured that I would go out on a limb,” said Murphy, now involved in tech investment in Georgia. “It wasn’t really negotiable. It was just a very time-sensitive decision. That’s why I remember it so vividly. It’s not often when you’re out over your skis.”

The scoreboard sponsorship made sense because The Sun was in a period of aggressive sales and promotion to solidify the market, Murphy said. Just a few years earlier, ownership of the newspaper had shifted from more than a century of private control by its founding families to a publicly traded, Los Angeles-based media conglomerate. Around the same time, the other major daily newspaper in town, The News American, had folded, so its long-time advertisers had to be won over by The Sun as well, she said.

For the ornate, 14-foot-diameter clock that crowns the scoreboard, early ideas for sponsors included Miller Brewing’s “girl in the moon” symbol. But once the Sun sponsorship was settled, the creative team was delighted that the 12 letters in “Baltimore Sun” could substitute perfectly for the clock numerals. The concept visually echoed the clock face on the early 1900s Italianate-style “Bromo Seltzer” tower a few blocks north of the stadium. The view of that graceful tower beyond centerfield was initially, by extension, part of Camden Yards’ elegance. About 15 years ago, the tower was hidden by the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor. Fans eventually adjusted to that visual change – just as they would a new prime sponsor on the scoreboard.

Sketches depict the clock that topped the scoreboard at Oriole Park. Credit: Ashton Design.

In recent years, The Sun reportedly had an arrangement to provide the Orioles with advertising rather than direct payment as compensation for the sign sponsorship, but that fell out of favor with the team. The publisher had stopped paying directly for the sign years ago – long before the hedge fund Alden Global Capital purchased the paper along with the rest of Tribune Publishing chain in 2021.

“The Sun sign was definitely iconic, but money talks,” said David Ashton, the sign designer.

His graphic design firm was down on its luck in the early ‘90s after the recession, withered to two employees from eight. The largest sign he’d designed to that point was 2-by-4 feet for a real estate developer. But Janet Marie Smith was impressed by graphic work he had done, including for the urban design visionary and Harborplace creator James Rouse. Ashton was a little reluctant to bid on the project, but Smith intuited that his style would help achieve the team’s vision for Camden Yards. His renderings now reside in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“The funny thing is I was really not that much of a baseball fan,” said Ashton, who at Aberdeen High School in the early 1950s was a few grades behind a varsity baseball catcher named Cal Ripken Sr. “For a not-serious baseball fan now to be in Cooperstown is kind of funny. I have a lifetime pass to the Hall of Fame in my wallet.”

Dominant advertisements have long been part of the experience of American baseball stadiums, especially in the mid-century era that the Orioles and Maryland sought to convey at Camden Yards. Giant signs with three-dimensional cigarettes long ago urged fans to “Always Buy Chesterfield” at ballparks in New York, Chicago and Cleveland. An eagle flapped its wings on a Budweiser sign at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis (for the Browns team that moved to Baltimore in 1954 to become the Orioles.) And at Baltimore’s former Memorial Stadium, a huge Gunther beer sign made fans feel at home with its signature tagline, “What’s the good word?”

Robert Kaye has built and installed some of the most visible signs around Baltimore: the “Natty Boh” man that looms above Brewers Hill, the original Domino Sugars, all the retired numbers at Oriole Park. But he expresses special affection for The Sun at Camden Yards. “It was as prolific as they come,” he said. “I’ve always loved that sign.”

He built it with neon tubing and sheets of polycarbonate strong enough to withstand a home run (apparently anticipating the Orioles might draft Clark Kent or “The Natural” Roy Hobbs swinging his “Wonderboy” bat.) Kaye, who sold his Triangle Sign company in Halethorpe a year ago, marvels that his profession has reached the point where games on TV now project virtual advertisements that look as if they’re inside the stadiums but aren’t.

A blueprint shows how The Sun sign would be mounted to the scoreboard at Oriole Park. Credit: Robert Kaye/Triangle Sign & Service.

Actually, The Sun logo and Camden Yards both withstood the tug of modernity.

In the mid-1960s, a Baltimore Sun promotions manager thought that the newspaper’s insignia was outdated and cluttered, according to a 2010 history by Frederick Rasmussen, a long-time obituaries writer for The Sun. The manager proposed a more streamlined design with a diesel train, an ocean liner and a jet plane in place of the steam locomotive and sailing ship.

The suggestion wound its way to Charles “Buck” Dorsey, the newspaper’s brusque managing editor. He was unenthused. “I am a complete conservative in such matters, and I would not want to change,” he wrote the paper’s general manager, the story goes. Later revisions of the nameplate, of which there have been several, retained the 19th-century inspiration.

In February 1989, Bruce Hoffman faced similar tension. Over the next decade, he would manage the construction of Oriole Park, the Ravens’ football stadium and the start of the University of Maryland basketball arena. But on that winter’s day, as the new executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, he entered a fraught meeting with a dozen stadium and team executives in the pentagonal World Trade Center on the Inner Harbor.

An argument raged over whether to retain the B&O Warehouse – not because a popular Sun sportswriter in his columns emphatically urged its demolition – but because the idea of putting team executive offices and a restaurant in a building beside the stadium, rather than inside it, was considered a wild, revolutionary concept. Also, the warehouse was scarred by broken windows, a leaky roof and an area that reeked from former use as a horse stable. It was a mess – far from the showcase that’s familiar today.

“Some officials were very nervous about keeping (the warehouse) because the team offices wouldn’t be behind home plate as they typically are,” said Hoffman, from his current home in upstate New York. “Everybody in the end said to keep it. It was the best decision we ever made.”

The scoreboard sign at Camden Yards is hardly the first prominent sponsorship to change in a stadium. A similarly conspicuous sign at Boston’s Fenway Park for the insurer John Hancock is also being replaced after 30 years with a new sponsor, Mass Mutual. And in Pittsburgh, football fans are still struggling to get accustomed to the new name for the Steelers’ stadium. The insurer Acrisure replaced the famed ketchup brand Heinz as sponsor.

A blueprint shows The Sun sign above the scoreboard at Oriole Park. Credit: Robert Kaye/Triangle Sign & Service.

The removal of The Sun sign also reflects the reality that the past 30 years have been much less kind to newspapering than baseball. Both industries had prospered through the 20th century. Radio and television became the mother’s milk that turned Major League Baseball into a giant. Broadcasting also fed the media chains, which plumped newspapers to record size.

When Oriole Park opened in 1992, “The Sunpapers” were delivered to five times as many homes as today. Its staff included a half-dozen foreign correspondents plus freelancers posted on every continent, which had inspired the ad slogan, “The Sun never sets on the world.” The daily edition included nearly two dozen pages of classifieds and display ads from major department stores, which have also experienced harsh times.

But perhaps the most astonishing item in the newspaper from that April 1992 day that Oriole Park opened was a tiny “house ad” for The Sun’s free, automated “Sundial” service. Readers were invited to dial four-digit codes on their “touch tone phones” to access recorded information on a range of topics, from Dow Jones stock averages to “cardiac care.”

Even despite that service, it was unlikely that the publisher could fully grasp how print media and telephony were about to take very disruptive turns. The commercial internet was still a year away. A world in which many people can’t spend an idle minute without glancing at their personal device was still the stuff of science fiction. In 1992, barely one in 100 people owned a mobile phone, according to the World Bank.

“I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but it seems to me we should periodically remind ourselves that we have no constitutional right to stay in business,” Michael Davies, the paper’s publisher in 1989 said in a speech that year to the American Newspaper Publishers Association. About a third of young adults in their 20s told researchers that they read a daily newspaper, compared to two-thirds who answered that way 20 years earlier, he pointed out.

For all but a few very large newspapers, the Internet has taken away much more than it has giveth. The year that Oriole Park opened by coincidence happened to be the last one in which U.S. daily newspaper circulation surpassed 60 million copies – a benchmark that had been exceeded every year between 1964 and then. The total is now less than 25 million daily, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center.

When Janet Marie Smith returned to work for the Orioles for a second go-round to make some upgrades at Camden Yards nearly 20 years after it opened, Orioles owner Peter Angelos told her he saw the newspaper’s sign on the scoreboard as a totem to the importance of the press in civic life. Angelos himself had served a term on the City Council in the early 1960s. He later ran for president of the City Council and mayor, losing both times to Nancy Pelosi’s brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III. Angelos went on to make a fortune in law that enabled him to form a partnership to purchase the Orioles from Eli Jacobs in 1993.

“I can distinctly remember him saying, ‘I think the media is important. It keeps us all informed as a society. It keeps our elected officials in the spotlight so that we know what they’re doing. It keeps us as citizens sort of held to task,’” Smith said. “He felt it was a symbol of societal value. He cared about those things.”

The Athletic had reported last summer that Angelos favored The Sun sign remaining, but his sons – who recently settled a legal battle that clouded future control of the team – thought the scoreboard sign wasn’t close to reaping its potential value. In Boston, Mass Mutual is reportedly paying $17 million a year to the Red Sox to replace the large, neon John Hancock sign, along with other marketing opportunities.

In Maryland, the Birds have long helped sell a lot of newspapers (and more recently, plenty of digital subscriptions). The daily paper, in turn, helped cement the team in the identity of the city and state, as much as crabs and Old Bay. Front-page photos of Brooks Robinson leaping sky-high upon winning the 1966 World Series and of an emotional Cal Ripken Jr. when he set the consecutive-games record are indelible images that define the Orioles’ brand. The Orioles are about to begin their 69th season in Baltimore, their 31st at Camden Yards.

“When the project first started it wasn’t a guarantee that the Baltimore Sun would take center stage up there. But you could see how beautifully it fit. It was so artfully done, it’s easy not to even think of it as advertising,” said Jeremy Hoffman, current design director at the Ashton firm. “It’s in such a prominent location that the desire to have ad revenue is real. But it has been there so long … It’s a really hard pill to swallow.”

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4 Comments

  1. Great story. I was at The Sun when the sign went up, and I’m sad to see it go. As Ratner points out, it fits perfectly in so many ways.

  2. Great story, Andy! I remember that opening day well, as I worked in a building behind the newly erected stadium. Well done! My Dad is rolling over in his grave re: the removal of The Sun presence.

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