Baltimore Orioles: History Lesson – Before ’54
Although the Baltimore Orioles we love today came to Charm City in 1954, the twists and turns of the many incarnations of the Orioles throughout Baseball history are a rich part of diamond lore.
As an avid baseball card collector and insane Orioles fan, I decided about two years ago that I wanted to acquire every Topps Orioles team set beginning with their inaugural season of 1954. That resulted in hours of research on those sets and the players that filled the Orioles rosters during each year. I was fascinated to find names I’d never known about and it grew into even more research about those Oriole teams. Then I realized I wanted to share what I was learning because it’s important as a fan to know your team’s history.
Oriole fans are often lauded for our knowledge of the game and our team’s history, but I realized through this exercise that there was much I did not know. To save our readers the hours of research, I’ll drop some knowledge on you through several columns as we lead up to the Orioles 2016 season, their 62nd in team history…at least this version of the Orioles.
Before we get into the current incarnation of the Orioles, let’s look at the original Birds. As many fans vaguely know, we have the distinct pleasure of letting Yankee fans know that Baltimore was the birthplace of their beloved franchise. Or at least we had that pleasure, until 2014 when baseball historians rightly corrected this notion. You see, the Baltimore Orioles joined the American League in 1901 and played two seasons. The team had a few young future Hall of Famers in Joe McGinnity and Roger Bresnahan and a few future Hall of Famers at the end of their playing careers and about to embark on successful managing careers in Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw. Robinson was actually a Player-Manager of those Oriole teams.
As many of us thought we knew, the Orioles then moved to New York City in 1903 and became the New York Highlanders from 1903-1912 and then changed their moniker to the Yankees thereafter. However it didn’t actually happen like that as the Baltimore Orioles of the American League simply folded and a new franchise was awarded to investors in New York City. Several Orioles players were on the Highlander’s roster but that’s about the only link the teams shared.
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The Orioles history goes back much farther than that however to the old American Association. In 1882 the Baltimore Orioles became a charter member of the Association which was a premier league of the time along with the National League. That franchise boasted Robinson, McGraw, Wee Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings and several other stars and they enjoyed success in the mid 1890’s winning three pennants and two Temple Cups after a move to the National League. They were famous (or in some cases infamous) for their style of play which was built around stellar pitching, stout defense, and speed. One “trick” play this team originated was purposely driving the ball down in front of home plate to create a high enough bounce for the hitter to reach first base and any baserunners to advance. It became known as “The Baltimore Chop”. Manager Ned Hanlon and most of the star players were sent to the Brooklyn Dodgers soon after the successful run and in 1899 the league contracted from 12 to 8 teams and the Orioles were one of the teams disbanded.
Two years later the aforementioned American League installment of the Orioles began play and for two seasons they took up residence at the old Oriole Park in the Waverly neighborhood of Baltimore. Along with the few future stars I mentioned earlier, the roster had names like Slats Jordan, Tacks Latimer, Chappie Snodgrass, and Crazy Schmit. If I were writing a fictional book about baseball in the late 19th and early 20th century, I’d have been proud to create characters with such rich names. And I’m quite sure if I had a time machine, I’d set it for 1902 and head directly for a corner tavern in Waverly, where I’d undoubtedly find Slats, Tacks, Chappie, and Crazy and share a few mugs of suds with their likes. Wouldn’t that be the cat’s pajamas?
Okay, I digress. As much fun as those names are to toss around, there are two other names that eventually came to play for the Eastern League (which became the International League) Orioles team that replaced the previous team in 1903; Babe and Lefty. Although the team was mediocre at best for the first few seasons the arrival of Jack Dunn as Manager began to turn their fortunes and they won their first championship in 1908. In 1914 local talent George Herman “Babe” Ruth came onboard as a pitcher and the future looked bright for the Birds. However they were challenged for status by the Federal League Baltimore Terrapins and had to sell Ruth and other star players to the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore had its own little “Curse of the Bambino” as the Orioles relocated to Richmond, VA and Major League Baseball was still 40 years away from existing in in Charm City.
Minor League Baseball however returned again in 1919 after the Federal League disbanded and Dunn brought the Orioles back to Baltimore where they became a powerhouse in the International League and supplying the Major Leagues with stars between 1919 and 1953 including another Maryland bred future Hall of Fame Pitcher named Lefty Grove, who would go on to win 300 games for the great Philadelphia Athletics teams, as well as the Boston Red Sox. It was during the great Orioles International League run of the 1920’s that Baltimore earned the dubious nickname of “Mobtown” after having to forfeit a championship game due to the home town fans rioting. A far cry from “Charm City” it would seem!
Next: Did the O's pick up a new starter?
In 1954 the Baseball God’s would grace Mobtow…I mean Charm City with a Major League franchise at the expense of St. Louis as the second rate Browns would relocate to Baltimore and become the Orioles that we know and love today. But you’ll have to check back later this week to read more about that inaugural season! Now go tell a Yankee fan to thank Baltimore for Babe Ruth!