Eagle reporter Joe Giordano asked about the Steel Bowl. I had seen many references to this bygone tradition, but I knew next to nothing about it, so I thought it an excellent question. As usual, I hightailed it down to the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society to get the answer. And I learned a tale of some importance. In these dark days when it seems that even our integrity as a political entity is under threat, (Note from 2016: This column was written in 2002 when it appeared that Legislative District 6, that covers Dundalk and Essex, would be redistricted so severely that it would include parts of Anne Arundel County and exclude Essex altogether. This attempt was defeated in court) I was astounded to discover one of the great traditions of our forebears, an annual event that lasted a generation and brought our community together each Thanksgiving for a celebration of local pride and unity.
It all started back in 1944. For a reason that may be lost to history, Baltimore County public schools discontinued their football programs in the 1940s. At the time, our area had only one high school. The administration at Sparrows Point High focused on lacrosse, presumably as a less violent alternative to the contest on the gridiron. While, outside Maryland, lacrosse remains a sport most often associated with prep schools and children with hyphenated last names and weak chins, around here the sport always had an egalitarian quality. The sons of steelworkers and shipbuilders took up sticks and played with a gusto those prep school brats could never hope to match.
But they never forgot football. Football is the best way for boys and young men to run around and smash into people without getting arrested. And, regardless of county policy, SPHS principal Taylor Johnson knew it. He asked coach Jeff James to see what he could come up with. James approached the YMCA and organized youth league teams.
The YMCA teams were organized on the basis of where one lived. Boys in Dundalk ended up on the Dundalk teams even though they went to high school in Sparrows Point. As a result, a certain amount of tension arose in the school halls as players for Dundalk and Sparrows Point boasted and cajoled.
The situation had all the earmarks of a great regional rivalry, but there was a problem. At the time, the Y had only teams for boys under 14 years old. The Sparrows Point team allowed in only boys weighing 145 pounds or less. Dundalk’s weight restriction, however, was 160 pounds. Each played YMCA teams in its own category from Baltimore County and Baltimore City. But the players all went to the same school. Their brags and boasts about which team was better were pretty hollow because they never played each other.
Then, in the cold autumn of 1944, the boys got an idea. They could prove their worth in an informal football game after school, according to Sparrows Point player and Dundalk Sports Hall of Fame inductee Dick McJilton. The teams met on the field where Dundalk Middle School stands today and slogged it out for all they were worth. You want to talk about defense? Sparrows Point won 2-0. The Dundalk players walked away wanting a rematch.
From these humble beginnings, a true neighborhood tradition was born. The game became annual, and the teams met each other on Thanksgiving. In 1946, the Junior League teams (ages 14-16) played as well. Later, the event became a three-game extravaganza featuring first the Termite League teams (ages 9-12), then the Midget League (ages 12-14) game and finally the main event, the Junior League grudge match. In the early years, James stayed on as the head coach for the Sparrows Point YMCA while Dave Keim became head coach for Dundalk.
By 1950, the tradition had grown far beyond a matter of football. Each side had a monstrous pep rally each Thanksgiving Eve with bands and thousands of screaming fans. In the morning, each side held a parade with decorated floats carrying athletes, notables and the Dundalk and Sparrows Point Steel Bowl queens and their courts.
After the revelry, everyone settled down for some serious football. According to more than one estimate, more than 5,000 people a game showed up to root for their side at the bowl games in the 1950s.
After these mighty contests, athletes and spectators alike retired to their homes to enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving meal (though I imagine the losers ate a lot of crow as well). Then everybody went to a dance where the trophy was presented to the winning team and the Steel Bowl Queen was crowned.
The tradition grew to such size that Bethlehem Steel constructed a stadium with lights and bleachers in Penwood Park to host it.
But Sparrows Point town was dying out by the late 1960s. I couldn’t find a reference to a game after 1967 (the 22nd anniversary). Eventually, the tradition ended when the YMCA closed its Sparrows Point center.
The Steel Bowl died but left behind something of a ghost, a haunting memory of two communities united to celebrate sportsmanship and their own identities. If you’re looking to resurrect the town spirit of Dundalk, you can learn a lot from football.
(First published 2002)