In the rough-and-tumble baseball of the 1890s, Baltimore rose to the top with skill and guile
The 1896 Orioles did what it took to win, from blocking base runners to hiding balls in the oufield to bunting a pitcher batty. (Babe Ruth Museum / March 29, 2013)
Then, Baltimore was port for about 4,000 immigrants who streamed into Locust Point each month. One, a young German named Frederick Peter Ripken, settled near Aberdeen, opened a general store and started a family. His descendants would lean toward baseball.
It was the age of handlebars: Men with waxy mustaches rode bicycles down cobbled city streets, past saloons and stables and stores like N. Hess' Sons, which offered free patent leather shoes to any baseball "crank," or fan, who could predict the outcome of the National League race.
What race? In the summer of 1896, John Philip Sousa played Baltimore, and the Orioles played ball to beat the band.
Baltimore won 90 games, lost only 39 and rolled to the pennant in the National League, then the only league around. Next month, the maestro of that Orioles team, manager Ned Hanlon, a cunning strategist whose clubs won five championships, will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Five of his players await Hanlon there: John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley and Wilbert Robinson.
Tough outs, all. In 1896, that barbershop quintet hit a combined .377, despite a string of setbacks. McGraw contracted typhoid, Jennings was beaned twice and Robinson had part of a finger amputated.
Hanlon weathered all. A short, stout manager who sat on the Orioles bench in a three-button Victorian suit, circa "Life With Father," Hanlon shuffled lineups, plugged holes and traded for journeymen who became one-year wonders when dressed in orange and black. (McGraw's replacement, a utility man named Jim Donnelly, hit .328 in his lone summer here -- 99 points above his lifetime average.)
Hanlon's gambles paid off. The Orioles won the league by 9 1/2 games and swept the playoffs.
That Baltimore even had a 19th-century major-league team will surprise some Orioles fans, who thought life began in 1954, when the current club was born. Or 1966, when Baltimore won its first World Series behind the Robinsons, Brooks and Frank.
Not so. Before B. Robby and F. Robby, there was W. Robby, catcher and captain of a conniving, single-minded ballclub whose tactics were as sharp as its spikes.
Sophomoric to sublime
The '96 Orioles did what it took to win, from blocking base runners to bunting a pitcher batty. They hid extra balls in the outfield, which they sneaked into play when a hit got past them. They writhed on the ground and pinched themselves to fake being hit by a pitch. They worked the hit-and-run a dozen times a game in an era when most players swung from the heels.
Baltimore's tactics ranged from sophomoric to sublime. Players yelled, "I've got it!" on pop-ups hit by teammates, and interfered with foul flies that drifted near their bench. Runners scooted from first base to third when the lone umpire's back was turned.
The Orioles also shaved their wooden bats flat on one side, for better bunting, until league officials caught on and banned the renegade bats.
It was typical Baltimore subterfuge. "When there was a hole in the rules, we were quick to take advantage of it," Kelley recounted later.
To end one slump in '96, the Orioles looked toward heaven. After a shutout of Baltimore, four players -- Kelley, Jennings, Keeler and pitcher John "Sadie" McMahon -- called on Cardinal Gibbons, who greeted the boys and presented each with a medal blessed by Pope Leo XIII. Thus endowed, McMahon took the mound and defeated the Washington Senators, 10-2. Keeler got three hits, Jennings had two and Kelley stole two bases.
Masters of psychology
The Orioles were among the first to fiddle with their rivals' heads. Before games, they would sit on a bench outside the visitors' dressing room, filing their spikes and glaring at their opponents as they emerged.
Hanlon's players were known deliberately to mash catchers' feet as they crossed home plate; Orioles catchers threw their masks in the paths of runners racing home.
The fastest Orioles placed steaks in the bottoms of their shoes, to ward off blisters. Opponents found something else at the bottom of their stockings, courtesy of Captain Robinson. Crouching behind home plate, Robby casually would drop pebbles into the shoes of unsuspecting batters, to slow them down.
"It was Hanlon who taught us to do the unexpected," Robinson said. "That was his great motto."
Rivals derided Baltimore's strategy, calling it "trick stuff by kids."
"This isn't baseball the Orioles are playing," one NL manager said. "It's a completely new game."
But it worked. Hanlon's teams won three straight pennants, beginning in 1894, none sweeter than the last. Baltimore took nearly seven of every 10 games in '96, the best winning percentage in Orioles major-league history.
They outpitched Cy Young, outfoxed Connie Mack and out-jawed the umpires, who were cowed by the in-your-face antics of the Orioles, most of whom were about as short, and as combative, as Earl Weaver.
City flexes with team
Kicking and screaming, they dragged baseball into the 20th century, and Baltimore with it. The city was flexing its manufacturing muscle, from textiles to tobacco, and baseball was good for business. Salesmen in straw hats and linen jackets struck deals over a cold beer and a 10-cent Havana cigar in the grandstand at Union Park (25th Street, between Guilford and Barclay), and at Ganzhorn's Hotel, an Orioles hangout famous for its post-game dinners of planked steak and shad.
Locals rushed to cash in on the Orioles' success. A jeweler on Baltimore Street peddled baseball buttons and pins. A brewery sold Oriole Export Lager. A baseball score card advertisement trumpeted: "All Orioles ride Eagle bicycles."
Players became pitchmen themselves, even the abrasive John McGraw, who shilled for Hess shoes. McGraw, a notorious umpire baiter, touted the footwear as being "fine shoes to 'kick' in."
Though the Orioles raised wrangling to an art form -- McGraw started a fracas in Boston that spread to the wooden bleachers and ended with the ballpark's burning down -- bickering was hardly a Baltimore phenomenon. Players and umpires routinely slugged it out, and more than one arbiter stormed off in mid-game, leaving clubs to try to police themselves.
One umpire, Tim Keefe, quit in midsummer of 1896 after a Cleveland player grabbed and "shook him like a rat" for calling him out at third base.
Enough, cried Keefe: "It is the fashion now for every player to foam at the mouth and emit shrieks of anguish whenever an [adverse] decision is given. This may not be wearying to the general public, but it is certainly disgusting to the umpire."
Fans terrorize opponents
The public took its cue from the players. During big games, overflow crowds spilled onto the playing fields and badgered the opposition. In Pittsburgh, Hanlon's troops might be pelted with bits of iron ore; in Cleveland, they dodged potatoes.
Some rules bred chaos. One hundred years ago, balls that bounced into the stands were playable, much to the chagrin of a Chicago fielder who scrambled into the bleachers at Union Park to retrieve a wild throw and was pummeled by a Baltimore fan.
Orioles patrons were among the league's rowdiest, especially when their team was losing, said Bill Hassamaer, a Louisville infielder in 1896:
"The Baltimores just break open the fence, back of the players' seats, and let in a regiment of murderers armed with brickbats, clubs, cobblestones and any other handy little heavy thing to hurl at the visitors. I'd rather have been at Bull Run than lead the Baltimores by three runs in the sixth inning on their home grounds.
"I tell you, Daniel in the lions' den had a future ahead of him, compared with the outlook of a ball team visiting Baltimore. The bleachers are simply a mob of homicides, howling for blood."
Besides the din and debris, there were other distractions afield. Many teams played on weedy, hardscrabble diamonds-in-the-rough. At Washington's National Park (7th Street and Florida Avenue), the portly Robinson chugged all the way home when his single got lost in the tall grass. Other parks played like an obstacle course. In Cleveland, the Orioles lost when an enemy hit bounded into a large iron lawn roller parked in center field, clearing the bases.
Baltimore's Union Park was fancier than most, a double-decked, 8,000-seat wooden stadium with beer garden, picnic grounds and a ladies' grandstand, where well-dressed ushers served iced drinks and doled out hand fans to women who tried to shine their vanity mirrors in the eyes of opposing players.
In spite of the Orioles' success and the lowest ticket prices in the league (25 to 50 cents), few games sold out. Attendance hit 250,000 for the season, an average of 4,000. (Baltimore sometimes drew crowds five times larger on the road, a fact not lost on club officials.)
The Orioles romped at home, winning nearly three-quarters of their games. Small wonder. The diamond was usually doctored. The third-base line slanted inward, preserving Baltimore's bunts. The first-base line sloped downhill, promoting Orioles speed. Even the mound might be booby-trapped: Parts of it were sprinkled with soap flakes, which stuck to the hands of rival pitchers and played havoc with their control.
At season's end, the victorious Orioles quietly passed the plate and collected $150 for groundskeeper Tom Murphy.
And Hanlon, the 39-year-old wonder they called "Foxy Ned," went home to devise new ways to stay ahead of the NL hounds.
Accolades trickled in from a reluctant press. "The Orioles have won the championship by shoving out little exasperating teasers, place hitting, and by playing an intellectual game," the magazine Sporting Life declared.
"The charm of the work of the Baltimores is that every man is alive and thoroughly in earnest, playing ball for all he is worth all the time," the Boston Herald wrote.
The Orioles' gritty play caught America's fancy. Robinson played all three games of a tripleheader, one month after the amputation on his throwing hand. Keeler caught a fly ball by stretching his arm through a barbed-wire fence in Washington. Jennings let himself be hit by pitches 49 times, a single-season record that stood for 75 years.
"Big pads that [Jennings] wore on his left side could not prevent the fearful-looking black and blue bruises his body bore," Robinson later recalled. "But what did he care? Neither he nor any of the other Orioles had any thought but 'getting on.' "
Hanlon's men, it was said, "played as one brain cell." Traveled that way, too. They ate, drank and caroused as a group, at home and on the road. They pedaled around town together in flashy bicycle suits and gold stockings. They talked shop while sweating in Professor Rowland's Turkish Baths, in the Equitable Building. "If it was a trip to the theater, all of us went and sat together," McGraw said. "We talked, lived and dreamed baseball."
Weak initial start
It wasn't always so. In 1892, the Orioles joined the 12-team National League and finished last, 54 1/2 games back. The club was awful from the start. By June, Harry von der Horst, the Baltimore beer baron who founded the Orioles, had dismissed two managers and hired Hanlon, a no-nonsense New Englander who had been fired by his previous team, Pittsburgh, for trying to discipline his boozing players.
Hanlon muddled through the rest of '92 and began to downsize the Orioles. "I decided we had too many big, clumsy fellows," he said, swapping the lot for unheralded rookies on the cusp of stardom. Enter players such as Kelley, a swift Irishman who would hit over .300 for 11 straight years and lead the league in stolen bases, and Jennings, a freckle-faced kid who nearly tripled his batting average in Baltimore. Exit the cellar. The '93 Orioles finished eighth.
Things were looking up. The opportunistic Hanlon secured his own future by lending $7,000 to von der Horst, who, in appreciation, named him president. Hanlon then dealt for more young talent, including the soft-spoken Keeler, only four years shy of hitting .424.
The trades put the Orioles over the top. The '94 team won the pennant, with 28 victories in its last 31 games. The city went
nuts: A parade of 10,000 fans and 200 horse-drawn floats snaked five miles through festooned streets choked with cheering mobs, to a gala reception at the 5th Regiment Armory (where fans stood in line for hours to shake hands with their heroes) and a lavish, champagne-soaked banquet at the swank Rennert Hotel.
"You men have all done the city a great benefit," Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe said, raising a glass to the Orioles. "I tell you, baseball has done more to advertise this city than anything else, and we feel grateful to each of you for it. Everyone knows #F Hanlon's boys. Your names are on every tongue from Maine to Louisiana."
The players basked in the revelry, which lasted two days and probably cost them the Temple Cup, a postseason series that matched the NL's first- and second-place teams. The New York Giants swept the woozy Orioles, four straight.
Humiliated, Baltimore stormed back in '95, repeated as champion . . . and lost the playoffs again, to Cy Young and the Cleveland Spiders, the only club more ornery than Hanlon's.
Disgrace before comeback
Disgraced again, the Orioles slunk home, resolved to win it all in '96. That winter, the hefty Robinson lost 16 pounds and lopped 6 inches off his 40-inch waist, skipping rope and lifting weights at a gym on Eager Street. McGraw, ailing much of the previous year, took brisk walks each day from his home on 24th Street to Mount Vernon Place. Even Charles "Duke" Esper, a big, lazy left-hander with a Rollie Fingers mustache, managed to shed 20 pounds -- without shaving.
Second baseman Heinie Reitz wrote his manager from California that he was "in great shape" and "full of pepper," enclosing a sketch of himself shaped like a hot tamale. Outfielder Walter "Steve" Brodie, a character of sorts, spent the off-season tussling with a black bear he had bought to keep fit. Brodie donned a catcher's mask and chest protector, muzzled the bear and wrestled it daily in his back yard in Roanoke, Va.
Hanlon noted their determination and bought the boys new uniforms: white jerseys, black caps and black sweaters with a large orange "B" over the heart. He also continued trading up. The Orioles signed Joe Corbett, 20, brother of heavyweight "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, after learning that Joe pitched as hard as the champion punched. But the biggest catch was "Dirty Jack" Doyle, a first baseman who arrived from the hated Giants. In true Baltimore tradition, Doyle liked to trip base runners, give them a hip and hold them by the belt.
That the Orioles were among those he had hoodwinked made Doyle fearful of joining the club, until McGraw suggested they show him the town. For a week, the players wined and dined Doyle until, in Ganzhorn's bar, he leaned on the foot railing, pulled a wad of bills from his trousers and proclaimed, "Let's have something -- it's on me. I am an Oriole now."
Doyle learned quickly what that meant: Rough as they were on opponents, the Orioles were merciless on each other. Errors were not tolerated; players shamed the culprit with a barrage of stinging insults.
"There never was harmony on that team when they got on the field," Doyle said, years later. "Every player seemed to be the manager. A man who didn't make a hit was roasted by everyone when he returned to the bench."
Sometimes, fisticuffs ensued. "We fought each other, but such rows were the result of some player making a mistake," McGraw said. "Woe betide the player who failed us."
Pitchers were most often censured. Once, when Corbett walked the bases loaded against Brooklyn, Jennings screamed at him: "Get out! You are no better than any of the other pitchers."
Enraged, Corbett heaved the ball into the stands, letting three runs score.
Even mild-mannered Robinson took umbrage with a teammate's poor play. Several times in the summer of '96, when an Orioles pitcher was on the ropes, Robby shouted, "I don't propose to spend a week here!" Then he hurled his catcher's mitt into the air in disgust and headed for the bench, where he stewed for the rest of the game.
Like most Orioles, Robinson was proud and obstinate -- traits that would serve the players long after their baseball days.
Robinson died of a brain hemorrhage in 1934, shortly after collapsing to the floor. Though his arm was shattered in the fall, Robby gamely shrugged it off. His final words:
"This broken arm doesn't hurt me. I'm an old Oriole. Wrap it up and let me stay here."