A century ago, Baltimore had baseball fever.
In 1920, the Orioles won 110 games — including the final 25 — to capture the International League pennant. The team’s success buoyed the spirits of a city struggling through the third and final year of the flu pandemic that killed 675,000 Americans.
Baseball, too, was hit by the flu. At least eight pro players succumbed, as did an umpire and several sportswriters. Even slugger Babe Ruth caught it once, or maybe twice. Not coincidentally, 1920 saw baseball ban the spitball pitch for all but a handful of veteran hurlers who’d always thrown it.
The disease cut a swath through Baltimore, killing 5,400 in 1918 alone, but somehow spared its Class AA ballclub. The Orioles, who also won it all in 1919, were minor league in name only. Routinely, they won exhibitions against big league clubs with a lineup of aspiring 20-somethings and grizzled journeymen whose chemistry was unsurpassed. As a team, they hit a robust .318, led by Merwin Jacobson, a 26-year-old Swede who led the league in batting (.404) and, at times, frivolity. After one road win, Jacobson frolicked on the train at 2 a.m. in his pajamas, performing Spanish dances while using a teammate’s shoes as castanets.
Pitching? The club had plenty. On Opening Day (April 21) at Oriole Park, Jack Ogden, a savvy right-hander out of Swarthmore College, threw a three-hit, 8-0 shutout over the Buffalo Bisons, whose lineup, The Sun reported, was “as helpless before him as a mouse before a kitten in the corner.” Later that season, Ogden started both games of a doubleheader, sweeping both. He won 27 in all, two more than did Harry Frank, a hometown boy and one of a handful of Jewish players in baseball. Struck by a line drive in June, Frank suffered a fractured rib but pitched on.
That same month, the Orioles signed Robert “Lefty” Groves, a 20-year-old pitcher from Lonaconing, a gritty mining town in Allegany County. Groves (he later dropped the "s") won three straight en route to a Hall of Fame career. But most impressive that summer was Jack Bentley, a Quaker farm boy from Montgomery County whose unorthodox windup flummoxed batters and left him twisted like a pretzel. Though spiked on his pitching hand in June, Bentley went 16-3 with a league-leading 2.11 ERA. He also played first base, batted cleanup and hit .371 with 161 RBIs, tops in the IL.
Lamenting its losses to both the flu and the Great War, the city rallied around the Orioles, tooted their triumphs and rode their team’s rivals without mercy. Several times, after games, Baltimore police wielding blackjacks were called to escort opponents off the field. In August, a rhubarb during a game with Buffalo sparked a melee with fans who pelted the visitors with pop bottles and stones; four spectators were arrested. Another time, when an umpire ruled against the Orioles on a close play, hundreds swarmed onto the field and began to strike the arbiter with rolled-up newspapers. More than once, fearing for their safety, umpires refused to work games at Oriole Park (29th Street and Greenmount Avenue), leaving the combatants to mediate themselves using one player from each team.
Stellar play aside, on Aug. 29, Baltimore (85-43) sat in second place, 0.003 percentage points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs. Twenty-five games remained — and the Orioles won them all. Everyone chipped in. Groves spun a one-hit shutout. Then Bentley exploded for five hits (two home runs, two doubles and a triple). Soon after, shortstop Joe Boley saved a victory with a leaping backhand catch of a line drive, somersaulting twice while hanging on to the ball. One day, the Orioles banged out 27 hits; the next, they pulled off a triple play.
On Sept. 19, they bowed out in style with a 17-4 rout of the Reading Barons. In hindsight, the Orioles had to run the table as Toronto, in near-lockstep, won 24 of its last 26 games. Baltimore’s 25-game streak was a minor league record, one shy of the all-time mark set by the New York Giants in 1916. But the Orioles weren’t through. A week later, they suited up against the New York Yankees and their Baltimore-born slugger, Babe Ruth, celebrating a 54-home run season. Before a crowd of 10,000 at Oriole Park, the home team won, 1-0. Ruth struck out twice, confessing afterward, “I tried as hard as I know how.”
Finally, the Orioles met the St. Paul (Minn.) Saints, winners of the American Association, in a best-of-nine showdown dubbed the Little World Series. Baltimore breezed, five games to one, ending with a 1-0 victory as Ogden went the distance and Boley hit an inside-the-park home run.
At a gala in their honor at the Belvedere Hotel, each Oriole received a leather belt with a silver buckle and the thanks of a grateful populace. Bentley addressed the crowd, saying, “I played four years in the majors but, if the Orioles go on like this, I would much rather remain in the minor leagues.”
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The Orioles obliged, winning seven straight pennants.