One hundred years ago, Baltimore had baseball swagger, and deservedly so.
Orioles past and present made headlines all summer. Babe Ruth, the city’s own, hit a record 59 home runs for the New York Yankees. And the Orioles reeled off 27 straight victories en route to a 119-win season. (This year’s team could lose as many.)
Though minor league, the Orioles were flush with talent. Three standouts — pitcher Lefty Grove, second baseman Max Bishop and shortstop Joe Boley — would go on to help the Philadelphia A’s win back-to-back World Series in 1929-1930. And Jack Bentley, a pitcher/slugger in the vein of Ruth (and current sensation Shohei Ohtani), would help the New York Giants to successive National League pennants in 1923-1924.
How good were the 1921 Orioles? Seven of the eight regulars batted over .300. Three pitchers won 24 games or more on a staff that pitched 111 complete games. Right-hander Jack Ogden won 31, including 18 in a row. Twenty years ago, when Minor League Baseball ranked its 100 best teams of all time, these Orioles finished No. 2.
For Baltimore, success was old hat. From 1919 to 1925, the team captured seven consecutive International League pennants, always topping 100 victories and raising the ire of their rivals. As an independent club, beholden to no big league team, the Orioles owned their players, paid them well and kept them as long as they wanted. Grove, a Hall of Famer, spent five years here and won 108 games before going to the majors and winning 300 more.
The 1920 team finished the season with 25 straight wins; its successors topped that by two. For nearly a month, from mid-May, the Orioles tore through the league, seven times scoring in double digits while pitching four shutouts. When pressed, they won close games, too, scoring five one-run victories and winning an 18-inning contest to boot.
The Streak was three games old when, during a pregame ceremony, Baltimore Mayor William F. Broening raised the 1920 IL championship flag over Oriole Park as Farson’s Band played “Maryland, My Maryland.” The mayor then borrowed an Orioles cap, strode to the mound and threw the first pitch, nearly beaning the leadoff hitter for the Newark Bears. The crowd whooped. The home team won, 8-7.
Those Orioles were peppered with pranksters. On the overnight train trip to spring training, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, one player poured Tabasco sauce over his sleeping teammates. Once there, several masked Orioles hazed a terrified rookie by robbing him at gunpoint in a dark alley.
Razzed often on the road, they met their critics head-on. During a 16-8 win at Syracuse, Bentley — a Quaker farm boy from Sandy Spring, Maryland — took umbrage with a foul-mouthed fan in the stands. He charged off the mound, chased the man down and, The Sun reported, “grabbed and shook him and gave him a good head punch.”
A World War I veteran, Bentley won 12 of 13 decisions and batted .412, but led an impulsive lifestyle. Once, with The Streak at 24 games, he warmed up his pitching arm by playing golf at Clifton Park that morning. Another time, after winning a game and knocking in five runs, he stopped by a carnival on Greenmount Avenue, stepped into the wrestling ring and took on a champion Irishman.
Hardy souls, all. In Game 14 of The Streak, a line drive caromed off pitcher Ogden’s head in the seventh inning. The Swarthmore College graduate shook it off and finished up, striking out four of the last eight Jersey City batters.
Stellar play kept the Orioles going. In one game, outfielder Merwin Jacobson ran down a rocket, then “flung himself at it and caught it with his bare left hand,” The Sun reported. And Fritz Maisel, “The Catonsville Flash” and a former Yankee, saved many a run with his glove at third base.
Fans reveled in the local talent. Both Bishop and pitcher Tommy Thomas hailed from City College, and Bentley and Grove, of Lonaconing, were Marylanders.
The Orioles finally lost June 15 to the Buffalo Bisons, 19-8, before 13,358 crestfallen home fans.
“Fates that had smiled kindly on the clan of [manager Jack] Dunn for many moons turned frowning faces on the Baltimoreans,” The Sun reported.
But the 27-game spree had tied baseball’s all-time record, set by the 1902 Corsicana (Texas) Oil Citys. And the Orioles’ mark (119-47) stands in stark contrast to the struggles of their heirs today.