Baltimore Orioles:1954 – 1959, A Whole New Ballgame
After 50 years without Major League Baseball, the Baltimore Orioles returned in 1954. For Orioles fans, it was a whole new ballgame.
In 1954 the city of Baltimore officially became a Major League town again when the St. Louis Browns moved to Charm City. The path from St. Louis to Baltimore actually began in Milwaukee where the team began its existence in the American League as the “Brewers”; a fitting name for a team that would eventually begin play in Baltimore under the ownership of a local beer brewing giant.
Around the time that the first version of the American League Orioles were wrapping up their short tenure before moving to New York, the Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis and became the Browns, which had been the original name of the existing St. Louis franchise, the Cardinals. The Browns spent the next 50 years in a futile effort trying to supplant the Cardinals as the premier team in St. Louis. During that time the franchise fired Branch Rickey, fielded a one armed player, and took advantage of having a roster full of military service non-eligible players in 1944 and reached the World Series only to lose to, you guessed it, the Cardinals, with whom they shared a ballpark. Most other team’s stars had either volunteered for or had been drafted into military service during WWII.
After Baseball pioneer Bill Veeck bought the team in 1951 and was equally unsuccessful in forcing the Cardinals out of the city, he tried to move the team back to Milwaukee first, and then Baltimore. However other owners blocked the move as they were tired of Veeck’s antics as an owner, which included sending a 3’ 7” batter to the plate as one of many publicity stunts. After Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro and lawyer Clarence Miles realized that the American League owners wanted Veeck out, they brokered a deal for a group of investors to buy the owner’s stake in the team for $2.5 million with National Brewing Company owner Jerold Hoffberger as the largest shareholder. American League owners would approve the relocation for the 1954 season and Hoffberger would own the team for over 20 years.
Call to the Pen
1954 Baltimore Orioles
So the new Baltimore Orioles of the American League began play at Memorial Stadium in 1954 with Jimmy Dykes at the helm. The team Dykes fielded was full of unknowns and has been’s including former National League All Star First baseman Eddie Waitkus, Third baseman Vern Stephens who led the team with 8 Home Runs and 46 RBI, and former Philadelphia Athletics All Star Pitcher Joe Coleman.
Also on that team was Short Stop Billy Hunter who was an All Star in 1953 for the Browns. Hunter only played one season in Baltimore but would return in 1963 as the team’s Third Base coach and would maintain that role for 14 years. After a successful but tumultuous stint as Manager of the Texas Rangers in 1978, he eventually became the Baseball Coach and Athletic Director at Towson State University. He still lives in Lutherville today.
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Two other notable players on that 1954 team would go on to become World Series MVPs for the New York Yankees; 24 year old Don Larsen, who lost 21 games for the ’54 O’s, and 23 year old “Bullet” Bob Turley. Larsen would make history as the only pitcher to toss a perfect game in the World Series in 1956 to become the Most Valuable Player. Turley would win the award in 1958.
All told, that first season ended with 100 losses and Jimmy Dykes was not invited back to manage. But there was no denying it; Baseball was back and the new Birds fans flocked to Memorial Stadium. That first season saw over 1 million fans pass through the turnstiles; twice as many as the nearby Washington Senators and more than Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. The Orioles were a hit.
1955 Baltimore Orioles
The 1955 Orioles were led by Paul Richards who took on the dual role of Manager and General Manager. The team was only slightly better, finishing 57-97 but there were a few bright spots. During the off season the Orioles sent Hunter, Larsen, and Turley to the New York Yankees for a handful of players including Short Stop Willy Miranda, who would finish his career in Baltimore, and most notably, Gus Triandos, who would play First Base in 1955 and eventually become a three time All Star as a Catcher for the Orioles.
Attendance dipped below 1 million in 1955 as the excitement of the new team seemed to wear off quickly and fans wanted to see a winner. For some of those diehard fans who stuck it out late into the season, a glimpse of the future was revealed in the form of an unassuming 18 year old infielder from Arkansas who played in six games and quietly collected his first 12 hits in an Oriole uniform. However it was his glove for which Brooks Robinson would eventually be revered.
1956 Baltimore Orioles
In 1956 the Orioles brought in future Hall of Fame Third Baseman George Kell to try to boost fan attendance and the team finished in 6th place in the AL at 69-85. Young Short Stop Tito Francona would finish 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting and go on to a very solid 15 year Major League Baseball career but his greatest contribution to the game might be his son, two time World Series winning Manager Terry Francona.
Triandos topped 20 homeruns for the first time in his career after moving to Catcher and Brooks Robinson added another 10 hits including his first Major League Homerun in limited action. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati another Robinson was turning heads with his powerful bat on the way to winning the National League Rookie of the Year. He would set the rookie record for Homeruns with 38 long balls. The Orioles Outfield combined for 32. It would be 10 years before Frank Robinson became an Oriole but two of the primary pieces of a baseball powerhouse were now wearing Major League uniforms and a short, foul mouthed, failed ball player began his managerial career in Knoxville, Tennessee. The winds of change for Baltimore were finally beginning to blow.
1957 Baltimore Orioles
In 1957 Brooks Robinson officially became a rookie and by the end of the season he was starting at Third Base, totaling 50 games at the hot corner. It should come as no surprise then that the Orioles team ERA dropped from 4.20 in 1956 to 3.46 in 1957. He’d torment right handed batters with his magical glove work for the next 20 years.
The Orioles finished without a losing record for the first time in franchise history at 76-76 and another piece fell into place to set up the arrival of Frank Robinson and the Orioles ascension to the Baseball Promised Land; 18 year old Pitcher Milt Pappas, a center piece of the future trade with Cincinnati, made his debut in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Earl Weaver was hired away from the Knoxville Smokies to manage the Orioles ‘D’ League club in the Florida-Georgia League, the first rung on the managerial ladder that would lead him to the Orioles.
1958 Baltimore Orioles
The 1958 Orioles were not terribly successful as they finished in 6th place with a 74-79 record but there were a few highlights, including the city of Baltimore hosting its first All Star game, at Memorial Stadium. Also notable was a late season acquisition that served as a major upgrade to the pitching staff.
The Orioles claimed knuckleballer and future Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm off of waivers from the Cleveland Indians. Baltimore was Wilhelm’s 4th team in seven seasons. After a successful run in San Francisco, he was traded to St. Louis, and then claimed off of waivers by the Indians and then the Orioles. He was a highly regarded pitcher but not much was known about the knuckleball at that time and his managers fretted over the number of passed balls they were giving up.
The Orioles decided it was a problem they could live with after watching Wilhelm no-hit the eventual Champion New York Yankees less than a month after the acquisition. It was the first no-hitter in team history and although Wilhelm would win an ERA title and appear in three All Star games as an Oriole, pairing the knuckleballer with the slow and un-athletic Triandos behind the plate advanced the research of how to handle a knuckleball pitcher exponentially, filed in the “what not to do” category….
1959 Baltimore Orioles
Not much changed for the Orioles in 1959 other than Lee MacPhail coming onboard as the team’s GM. MacPhail is credited by many as the architect of the Orioles run of success in the late 60’s and early 70’s even though his last year in the Front Office was the year before their first World Championship. 50 years later, his grandson Andy would play a similar role in Baltimore, building a team that would see success not realized in almost 20 years.
Next: Baltimore Orioles: Media Critique
The Orioles ended the 50’s with a 74-80 record and a 6th place finish, almost exactly like the 1958 season. The next decade would bring a new era of winning ways to Charm City and begin more than 2 decades of success that would see Baltimore as a model franchise in Major League Baseball.
Check back later this week to read about the Orioles 1960-1965 seasons!