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When the 1896 Orioles played at St. Charles College in Ellicott City

The ruins of St. Charles College have been preserved at St. Charles Place and Terra Maria Way in the Terra Maria neighborhood of Ellicott City.
The ruins of St. Charles College have been preserved at St. Charles Place and Terra Maria Way in the Terra Maria neighborhood of Ellicott City. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

It was a cool, cloudy September morning in 1896 when the Orioles stepped off the train in Ellicott City and into the crowd gathered to pay homage to the best team in baseball. Baltimore had just clinched its third consecutive National League flag (there was only one league) and the club had come to play an exhibition game at nearby St. Charles College.

The students at the Howard County school, a Roman Catholic seminary founded in 1848, were geared up as the players approached the winding drive, and its spouting fountain, in an omnibus drawn by six horses. Here, in their glory, were the stars of the game — John McGraw, Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, Wilbert Robinson and Joe Kelley — all bound, one day, for the Hall of Fame.

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St, Charles College in Ellicott City in 1908.
St, Charles College in Ellicott City in 1908. (Howard County Historical Society)

Never mind that the pious hosts were to toast a rough-and-tumble team known for its dirty tricks and abrasive behavior. During the season, the Orioles hid extra balls in the outfield and, during rhubarbs, ground their spikes into umpires’ shoes. That afternoon at St. Charles, however, the players were as well-behaved as choir boys during an intrasquad game won by the regulars, 12-11. Not coincidentally, the archbishop of Baltimore was in attendance.

Afterward, at a dinner in the college refectory, his eminence, James Cardinal Gibbons, himself a graduate of St. Charles, paid tribute to the Orioles:

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“You have afforded me the pleasure of seeing my first game of baseball. … In former days, Baltimore was called ‘the city of monuments,’ but you are 18 living monuments to its greatness. It was once celebrated for its fast Baltimore clippers, but I dare say none were so fast as you can run.”

He then presented each player with a solid gold, heart-shaped charm engraved with a cross and a crown of thorns.

The day was, perhaps, a high point for both worlds. The old Orioles broke up in 1899, returning to the majors for good in 1954. And in 1911, a fire destroyed the college, which was rebuilt in Catonsville. Several stone walls on St. Charles Place are all that remain of the old school.

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