By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun Sixty years ago, the Orioles stank. They lost 100 games, couldn't hit a lick and finished 57 games back in the 1954 season. Good thing. Had they done better, Brooks Robinson might have gone elsewhere. Robinson, 18, signed with the club in May 1955, believing his ascent to the big leagues would be faster with the Orioles than elsewhere. "I remember sitting with my dad and [first-year manager] Paul Richards, who said: 'If you have some ability, you can play here [in Baltimore] quickly because we're not very good,' " Robinson recalled. To prove it, a month later, the Orioles played an exhibition game against the York (Pa.) White Roses, their Class B farm team, and lost, 13-1. Robinson had two hits for York, including a 380-foot home run off starter Joe Coleman, who was promptly released. Come September, Robinson was recalled by the parent club, the ninth of 10 third basemen the Orioles used that season. He went 2-for-4 in his debut against the Washington Senators and thought he'd arrived. He went hitless (0-for-18, with 10 strikeouts) the rest of the year. "Lesson learned," he said. The 1955 Orioles tried 101 different lineups and staggered home with 97 losses. Yet Robinson, who would spend the rest of the decade straddling the majors and minors before settling into a Hall of Fame career, shrugged off defeat. "I was living my dream," he said. "What other team would have given me the chance to play at 18? Being young, playing every day is all you think about, not winning or losing. "But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'We're going to get better.' I mean, you can't lose 100 games every year; it's just impossible. Nobody can keep being that bad." In 1957, the Orioles climbed to .500, a heady accomplishment for a historically dreadful franchise that had managed just 11 winners in 52 years as the St. Louis Browns before moving to Baltimore in 1954. Give credit to Richards, the Orioles' pilot for six-and-a-half seasons, Robinson said. Richards, also the general manager, shook the club to its senses, built a farm system that would serve the Orioles for decades and traded for anyone who might hold the team together until kids such as Robinson matured. "Paul was the best manager I ever played for. He never got a lot of respect because he never won a World Series, but I thought he was God," Robinson said. "He knew every position and what made it tick. He was a wheeler-dealer and a master at picking up pitchers who were over the hill -- like Hal ["Skinny"] Brown and Connie Johnson -- and making them better." Richards made 48 deals in his first two years, including a historic 17-player trade that sent the Orioles' two best players -- pitchers Bob Turley and Don Larsen -- to the New York Yankees for slugging catcher Gus Triandos and a cast of mostly nobodies. Fans decried the move -- Turley would win a Cy Young Award and Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series -- but Robinson defends it still. "The early Birds were outclassed in every area. They were the old Browns and they picked up right where the Browns had left off," he said. "They just didn't have enough talent. Richards saw that and said, 'Let's do something dramatic.' He thought he could bring in [mediocre] guys and help them become good players." The crafty Richards also dealt for aging third baseman George Kell, a future Hall of Famer and, like Robinson, an Arkansan who arrived in 1956 to mentor his sure-handed successor. "George took me under his wing, on and off the field," Robinson said. "He related what it was like to be a big league player, and he took me to see my first stage play in New York." Robinson learned quickly. Opening Day in 1957 found him playing third base, with Kell moved to first. By mid-1959, Robinson was here to stay and the farm was cranking out "Baby Birds" such as shortstop Ron Hansen (1960 American League Rookie of the Year) and pitchers Milt Pappas, Jerry Walker, Steve Barber and Jack Fisher. Though they finished sixth, the Orioles were poised for a run at the pennant in 1960, when Robinson batted .294, made the All-Star team, won a Gold Glove and placed third in the Most Valuable Player voting behind the Yankees' Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. "Looking back on those years, I was up and down for a while, but Richards knew what was best for me and for others," Robinson said. "When I got back [from the minors] in 1959, I was a better, stronger player. "Paul really knew what he was doing. He laid the groundwork for what was to come." firstname.lastname@example.org For year-by-year capsules from the 1950s, click here.
Baltimore Sun file photo