The Orioles, Chicago White Sox, and the Army Marching Band mass around home plate for the playing of the National Anthem as Baltimore returns to big league play.
The Orioles, Chicago White Sox, and the Army Marching Band mass around home plate for the playing of the National Anthem as Baltimore returns to big league play. (The Baltimore Sun)
The day the Orioles arrived in Baltimore, trolleys clanged down cobbled streets. Kids rushed to see Pinocchio at the Hippodrome. Banana boats dumped their bushels onto weathered wharves where the Inner Harbor now stands.

On April 15, 1954, Baltimore had no Beltway, no Harbor Tunnel, no Jones Falls Expressway. Working farms still prospered inside the city; ditto, a row of bustling department stores.

Nationally, April was a month of firsts. Hank Aaron hit his first home run. Elvis cut his first single. America suffered its first casualty in Indochina.

But in Baltimore, the focus was on its new big league baseball team, a group of exiles from the Midwest hitting town for their first home game.

At Camden Station, the Orioles - having traveled from Detroit, where they split their first two games - stepped off the train and into Oz. Lampooned for years in St. Louis, the players paraded through the streets of Baltimore, flanked by brass bands and beauty queens and hailed by a crowd of 350,000 - more than had attended all of the Browns' home games in 1953.

People lined Charles, Madison and Howard streets, and hung from trees and fire escapes in a cold drizzle to watch their team, a caravan of .250 hitters and journeyman pitchers. Perched atop the back seats of cream-colored convertibles, players lobbed plastic baseballs - 20,000 of them - to the slew of school kids given the day off.

"I did keep one of those balls as a souvenir," said outfielder Chuck Diering, 81. "Still have it, in my game room."

Bob Turley, who would pitch that afternoon against the Chicago White Sox, tossed the balls out underhand.

Five thousand Hawaiian orchids were strewn along the 3 1/2 -mile parade route, ahead of the Orioles' entourage, though many spectators darted between cars and scooped up the flowers to use as corsages.

Baltimore's revelry went national: NBC-TV carried festivities live on the Today show with Dave Garroway. The New York Times likened the procession, 90 minutes long, to "the Florentine Army clanking triumphantly home after the second sack of Pisa."

Fifty years later, pitcher Duane Pillette, 81, called the reception "one of my most exciting times in baseball. I never had a big ego, but my heart and body kind of puffed up right there, during the parade. I thought, `Damn, we're pretty good.' "

What last-place club rates a salute of 22 bands and 33 floats? Army bugles, Scottish bagpipes and German oom-pahs led the Orioles downtown. A 14-foot papier-mache statue of Babe Ruth sprouted from one float; the reigning Miss America waved from another. One crowd-pleaser featured a mechanical oriole chirping as her brood hatched from a huge, baseball-shaped egg. Next came Bozo, a live spider monkey dressed in an Orioles uniform, riding the back of a long-legged whippet.

Dignitaries, too, got swept up in the fervor. One woman stood out in her black silk suit, orange blouse and matronly hat with orange and black feathers: Mrs. Clarence Miles, wife of the Orioles' owner.

Epidemic of Orioles fever

The city was awash in team colors. Merchants clambered aboard the baseball bandwagon, peddling everything from Orioles T-shirts to Orioles neckties to Orioles cigarette lighters engraved with the team's insignia. Hess Shoes advertised footwear made of "baseball-glove leather." Arundel ice cream stores unveiled the "Oriole Sundae" - a scoop of chocolate topped with butterscotch, fudge, whipped cream and a cherry.

On North Avenue, the Oriole Cafeteria did its normal brisk business.

A fielder's glove that had belonged to Ruth dressed the window of Hutzler's, on Howard Street. Inside the department store, patrons were urged to head to housewares "for pennant-winning values."

Everyone, it seemed, had baseball fever. Two days earlier, thieves struck a sporting goods store on Belair Road and took baseballs and gloves worth $124.

Even burlesque establishments on The Block acknowledged the new club in town. "Welcome, Orioles!" heralded a newspaper ad for the 2 O'Clock Club, reminding all that "That Big League `Wow' Girl Is Back! Jessica Rogers - She's a hit in any man's park!"

By midday, fans streamed into unfinished Memorial Stadium, its double-decked facade draped with 2 1/2 miles of red, white and blue bunting - in part to hide the scaffolding. Three hours to game time, plumbers and electricians finally finished work.

Opening Day had its glitches, parking among them. Cars ringed Lake Montebello, three-fourths of a mile from the park. Fans located their seats to learn some tickets had been sold twice. And in the Orioles' clubhouse, manager Jimmy Dykes opened his desk to find stationery with the letterhead of the St. Louis Browns.

Those who didn't attend - including Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro, whose efforts to procure the team landed him in Bon Secours Hospital for "nervous exhaustion" - could watch on WMAR-TV.

Shoppers stopped outside the window of an appliance store on Park Avenue, where nine television sets aired the game. More than 1,000 people wedged into the State Theater, on Monument Street, which showed the game free on the big screen. On the Fallsway, a used-car dealer hooked his loudspeakers to the radio broadcast and boomed out the play-by-play for two city blocks.

All over town, taverns tuned their black-and-whites to the doings on 33rd Street. "It's the biggest thing since beer came back," a barfly on Greenmount Avenue said.

The hubbub fired up the players who, as ex-Browns, were used to more tepid receptions. Catcher Clint Courtney charged through the clubhouse, shouting, "Let's go git these guys and keep right on a-going the rest of the year." As they clattered out to the field, Dykes took a last drag on his cigar and slapped each Oriole on the rump.

Ellwood Gary, a local tenor with ties to the Metropolitan Opera, sang the national anthem - into a dead microphone. "It was like listening to Caruso in Braille," New York columnist Red Smith wrote.

Vice President Richard Nixon, who had ridden in the parade with his wife and two daughters, threw out the first ball. "May the new Orioles be as good and strong as the old Orioles," he proclaimed, nodding toward the two survivors of the city's 1896 National League champions, Bill Clark, 87, and "Dirty" Jack Doyle, 84.

A cast of characters

At 2:30, the sun emerged, the Orioles broke from the dugout and the crowd of 46,354 roared.

Their hurrahs saluted a cadre of codgers, characters and castoffs. Pitcher Dick Littlefield played for 11 teams in nine years, outfielder Sam Mele seven teams in eight years.

Some, like third baseman Vern Stephens, were on the wane. Of his 247 career home runs, Stephens the Oriole could muster eight. Beset with back problems, he was one of four Opening Day starters who would quit the game within two years.

Another slugger, three-time All-Star Vic Wertz, shipped out after 29 games. Flummoxed by the size of the outfield - 440 feet to dead center - Wertz managed only one home run before he was traded.

"The hugeness of the Baltimore ballpark demoralized me," he said.

Instead, fans rallied around neophytes like Bobby Young, the second baseman out of Catonsville High, and Billy Hunter, a tobacco-chewing shortstop who turned double plays while nursing mouthfuls of Mail Pouch the size of Calvert County.

For Courtney, the scrappy, backwater catcher, Baltimore fell head over heels - much the way the bespectacled Louisianian chased pop flies. "Clint really struggled with pop-ups," Hunter, 75, recalled. "Finally, he decided that instead of waiting for the ball to come down, he would jump up in the air and meet it.

"I guess he thought that if he didn't catch it, he'd get another chance before it hit the ground."

Some players came to Baltimore with heavy baggage. His bizarre shooting by an unhinged bobbysoxer in Chicago in 1949 left Eddie Waitkus with deep scars and a brooding mien when the Orioles bought him in spring training. Waitkus, the genesis of Bernard Malamud's novel The Natural, would share first base with Dick Kryhoski, a World War II veteran wrestling with his own violent past.

Kryhoski's ship, the USS Ticonderoga, had been struck in a kamikaze attack, killing more than 100 seamen. The nightmares lingered for years, accompanied by Kryhoski's screams of "Fire! Fire!" that terrified his roommates on road trips.

Orioles pitching, fraught with blighted arms, hinged on "Bullet Bob" Turley, 23, whose 98-mph fastballs were the inspiration for baseball's first radar gun, and Don Larsen, a gangly right-hander nicknamed "Goony Bird," who had oversized ears and a bar bill to match. An avowed night owl, Larsen settled into an apartment atop a tavern on Charles Street and defied club officials to keep him in tow.

Even now, Larsen can tick off the names of his favorite downtown haunts, from the Harvey House to the Blue Mirror - "any place that had a bar and a pinball machine."

Team officials even hired a gumshoe to follow him. Said Dykes: "The only thing Don Larsen fears is sleep."

The affable Dykes managed six clubs between 1934 and 1961 but never won a pennant. He smoked cigars, as many as 24 a day, and liked to greet reporters in the clubhouse wearing an 11-cent stogie and little else.

"Jimmy was happy-go-lucky, the ideal manager for the Orioles because he could roll with the punches," late Orioles scout Jim Russo said earlier this year. "He was accustomed to losing; he knew how to lose."

For one day, all was well

There would be bad times ahead, but not on Opening Day. Turley spun a seven-hitter. Courtney and Stephens whacked home runs. Waitkus and Mele made circus catches. Overhead, several small planes circled, gnat-like, trailing "Welcome Orioles" banners. In the stands, fathers sipped 30-cent Gunther beers, hollered themselves hoarse and nudged their sons with looks of: Remember, you were here.

An inning later, Stephens pulled a fat slider to left, where it disappeared amid a windmill of arms in the 75-cent seats. Orioles, 2-0.

Three singles pushed across a Chicago run in the seventh. But with two outs, Turley struck out the dangerous Minnie Minoso who, the News-Post reported, "swung so viciously ... he spun around and landed on the seat of his pants."

Moments later, the Orioles rallied again, sending Trucks to the showers amid a derisive wave of white hankies. This was "The Baltimore Farewell," a nod to the city's minor league days. Trucks, a 20-game winner, responded with an obscene gesture. Cue more hankies. Orioles, 3-1.

Chicago threatened in the ninth, when, with two outs, Turley issued back-to-back walks. Dykes glared toward the mound, but stayed the course. "If you'd seen what we had in the bullpen, you'd know why," Turley told The Sun last month.

The next batter, Bob Boyd, took a pitch outside, then bounced sharply to Turley, who threw him out.

Baltimore had won the World Series. Or acted like it.

"I remember thinking, `We're in first place now,' " Turley said. "For us, that was a big deal."

A News-Post editorial called it "the most thrilling day in Baltimore history since the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812."

Success proves short-lived

An overture for the rest of the season, it was not. The team would end 54-100 for the second straight year and finish 57 games out - worse, even, than the Browns had done in 1953.

It wasn't the pitching staff's fault. By early May, Turley had pitched two two-hitters and right-hander Joe Coleman a three-hitter - all in losing causes. At year's end, the club had 58 complete games (the 2003 Orioles had nine). The team's ERA was a svelte 3.88, a figure that Baltimore has bettered twice in the past 20 years.

Punch is what those Orioles lacked. They averaged 3.14 runs, worst in the AL since 1919. They hit a league-low 52 home runs. A local merchant offered a $25 savings bond to the first player to break the club mark of eight homers, set in 1902 by Jimmy "Buttons" Williams. Surely, a hitter would do it.

No one did.

Forty-four times that summer, the Orioles mustered one run or fewer. "Was it tough?" asked right-hander Lou Kretlow, 82. "You almost had to throw a shutout to win."

Dykes tried to jump-start the attack. He extended practice. He canceled it. He moved workouts to the Gilman School, in North Baltimore. There, shortstop Hunter, ever the jester, borrowed a student's lacrosse stick and used it to field grounders and throw to first base.

"Being from Pennsylvania, I'd never seen lacrosse before," said Hunter, who lives in Towson. "I told the guys that my range would improve 100 percent with the stick."

Orioles bats slept on. Dykes fiddled with 70 different lineups that season, to no avail. The Orioles lost 10 straight in May, nine in a row in June and 14 in August.

They traded Wertz, the balding would-be slugger mired at .202. The Sun wrote his epitaph: "Vic could have been Wertz, but not much Wertz."

The swoon stymied Dykes, who lost 12 pounds and began chain-smoking cigars. During a doubleheader loss to Cleveland, the manager, who doubled as third base coach, drew words in the dirt with the toe of his shoe, for all to see. "NUTS!" was one, "USELESS" another.

"I never saw 25 men in a slump at one time before," Dykes said. "All we've got are leadoff hitters. What we need are power guys."

The lineup had so little oomph that Larsen, the free-swinging pitcher, was called to pinch hit. He finished second on the club in slugging percentage (.409).

Larsen's pitching was something else. By August, his record was the laughingstock of the league. Quipped the News-Post: "He's 3-17 now, and a cinch for 20 defeats, if he stays healthy."

Larsen finished 3-21.

"We tried to do our best without embarrassing ourselves," said Larsen, who resides in Idaho. "It didn't work."

Every victory seemed hard-fought. An 8-7 defeat of the Boston Red Sox took 17 innings and lasted 4 hours, 58 minutes, an American League record at the time. Hunter collected four hits, a Herculean feat that the newspapers attributed to a pre-game kiss from pop artist Patti Page, who sang the national anthem.

More often, folks filed out glum. Once, a thunderstorm stopped play with two outs in the last of the ninth, two runners on base and the Orioles trailing Chicago 4-3. After a 67-minute delay, Courtney stepped in and took a called third strike. Game over.

The Sun dubbed them "Baltimore's wallopless wonders" and wisecracked: "That friendly little pigeon who persisted in alighting on the Memorial Stadium infield yesterday perhaps didn't realize how safe he really was."

One young fan wrote light-hitting outfielder Cal Abrams and asked for help in obtaining autographs - of players from other teams.

Some club officials attributed the power failure to the park's minor league lights, some of which happened to illuminate the fans, not the field. "We had better lights in Class D ball," outfielder Gil Coan said.

Others fingered those far-off fences and vowed to move the outfield in. Why bother, wrote News-Post reader R. Hackney, of Baltimore: "The only thing that would be accomplished ... is that instead of losing 4 to 2, we would lose by about 15 to 6."

No shortage of fans

The sniping didn't slow the turnstiles. Attending an Orioles game was an event, win or lose. For their 28th wedding anniversary, Howard Simpson, president of the B&O Railroad, took his wife to the stadium. They were among the more than 43,000 fans who attended the first night game on April 21, a wrenching 2-1 loss to Cleveland. Two outs shy of a no-hitter, Turley surrendered a two-run homer to Larry Doby.

"The pitch got away from me," Turley said. "Three hundred fifty feet away."

A record crowd (46,796) turned out in May for a doubleheader with the hated Yankees, who'd wrested the Baltimore franchise to New York in 1903. On May 19, the Orioles surpassed the Browns' 1953 home attendance mark of 297,238. On July 30, they topped St. Louis' all-time attendance record of 712,918, set in 1922.

The city embraced the players, most of whom lived downtown in apartments or rooming houses and hobnobbed with the public.

"I don't know how many times I took my wife to dinner, to have someone at another table pay the check," said Kretlow, who won six of 17 decisions.

When it was learned the Turleys were expecting a child that summer, well-wishers presented them with gifts of cloth diapers and a crib.

Pillette remembered shopping for an automobile in 1954.

"We liked the convertible sitting in the showroom, except for its atrocious green and yellow color," he said. "My wife told the dealer, `Repaint it, and we'll buy it.'

"They did - and sold it to us, wholesale."

Changes at season's end

By September, the city knew it had purchased a lemon. The Orioles fired Dykes and hired Paul Richards, who would dismantle the club come winter. The day Dykes was canned, a reporter passed him in a hotel lobby and asked, "What goes, Jimmy?"

The reply: "Dykes does!"

The 100th defeat on the final day was an 11-0 drubbing by the White Sox. Hunter slid into first base for the final out. And 50 Little Leaguers attending the game were rushed to area hospitals, suffering from food poisoning. All survived.

Two months later, the club cleaned house. Courtney was traded to the White Sox as part of a seven-player deal. Turley, Larsen and Hunter went to the Yankees in a record 17-man swap. There, Turley pitched in five World Series and won the Cy Young Award in 1958. Larsen threw a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 Series.

The trade elated Turley. "I'd have crawled to New York," he said.

"What did I learn from that '54 season? That I never wanted to be on a loser for the rest of my life."

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.


10,000 - Miles traveled by Orioles in spring training at Yuma, Ariz.

185 - Bob Turley's AL-leading strikeout count for the year

46 - Vern Stephens' team-leading RBI total

7 - Strikeouts by Clint Courtney, lowest in the AL since 1933

14 - Games in which the Oriolse were shut out

40 - Miles of wiring required for stadium's new $172,000 electric scoreboard, the world's largest