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Beer, baseball and Baltimore

This is a tale about Baltimore beer barons, the owner of the Washington Senators, a silver bullet, and how the Orioles got to Baltimore. Now, with the O's generating a buzz as they fight for first place in the American League East and prepare to meet the Washington Nationals for a weekend series in D.C., it seems like a good time to spin it.

I heard it some years ago when Dawson Farber Jr., a former executive at National Brewing Company who died in 2007, told me this version of the story.

Jerry Hoffberger, owner of the National Brewing Company, was one of a group of Baltimore businessmen who wanted to bring the St. Louis Browns to town in 1954. At the time, Mr. Hoffberger, according to Mr. Farber, had a limited knowledge of baseball. So he took Mr. Farber — his aide who had played high school baseball at Gilman and in college at Princeton University — with him to meet with Browns owner Bill Veeck at the St. Louis ballpark. Before the game, Mr. Farber huddled with Mr. Hoffberger, briefing him on the St. Louis team and its players. After sitting through the game talking baseball with Mr. Hoffberger, Veeck took a liking to the Baltimore beer man. The deal was off to a good start.

Meanwhile, executives at other Baltimore breweries — Gunther, American, Globe — were stirring up fan support and putting together the money to secure a franchise. An ownership group led by Clarence Miles, James Keelty Jr. and Joseph A.W. Inglehart was set to bring the team to Baltimore from St. Louis.

But before an umpire could holler "Play ball!" in Baltimore, the Washington Senators had to say OK. According to the business practices of Major League Baseball, no team could move within 50 miles of an existing franchise without the approval of the owner of the existing franchise. This meant Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, some 30 miles south of Baltimore, had to agree. This was where the silver bullet came into play.

Mr. Farber was dispatched by Mr. Hoffberger to Washington to lay the groundwork for a deal. During one of his visits with Griffith, Mr. Farber noticed that Griffith was a huge fan of "The Lone Ranger." This show, which started on radio in 1933 and spawned a television version starting in 1949, featured a masked former Texas Ranger, his horse Silver, and his Native American companion, Tonto. With theme music from the "William Tell Overture" and catchphrases such as "Hi-yo Silver — away!" and "Ke-mo-sah-bee" (a salutation meaning trusted friend that Tonto issued to the Lone Ranger), the series was wildly popular. Armed with silver bullets, the Lone Ranger battled injustices in the old American West.

When Griffith's birthday, Nov. 20, rolled around, Mr. Farber arranged to have a real silver bullet, the Lone Ranger's trademark, sent to Griffith.

Griffith appreciated the gesture, according to Mr. Farber, and soon was ready to make an arrangement with the Baltimore brewer. Griffith agreed to let the Orioles set up shop in Baltimore. In return, Mr. Hoffberger's National Brewing Company agreed to sponsor television broadcasts of Griffith's Washington Senators games.

As is true with many stories involving beer and bygone days, some of the facts have gotten fuzzy. It is well established that Griffith was an ardent fan of "The Lone Ranger." When he died in October 1955, among the notables offering their condolences were President Dwight David Eisenhower and Brace Beemer, the actor who played the Lone Ranger on radio. It is also certain that Griffith got a silver bullet as a birthday present. (Bob Addie mentioned the bullet several times in the columns he wrote in 1950s for The Washington Post.) When Calvin Griffith, the nephew of Clark Griffith and the subsequent team owner, cleaned out his uncle's desk at the ballpark in November 1955, he found the silver bullet.

But who had sent the senior Griffith that silver bullet? Was it the masked man — or was it the work of Baltimore beer barons?

Addie, the Washington scribe, wrote that the birthday bullet was inscribed by "The Lone Ranger."

Yet Griffith did agree to let the Orioles play in Baltimore. Moreover, a Baltimore brewery, National, did end up sponsoring broadcasts of Griffith's Washington team. So while Baltimore may not have gotten public acclaim for the silver bullet, it did get a baseball team.

Sometimes, Ke-mo-sah-bee, it is wise to work in the shadows.

Rob Kasper, a former Sun staff writer, is the author of "Baltimore Beer: A Satisfying History of Charm City Brewing" (History Press of Charleston, S.C.), from which this article is adapted. His email is rob.judy.kasper@verizon.net.

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