"Two seconds after the last Cleveland man was out, old whitehaired men jumped and hip-hipped. Hundreds of men were shaking hands everywhere. The noise was loud enough to give a deaf man a headache. Scores rushed to the nearest saloon. Prohibition men swarmed to dairy lunch rooms and plunged recklessly into buttermilk. Men were laughing, girls were giggling, boys were yelling, horses braying, dogs barking. Workmen wouldn't work, salesmen couldn't sell, buyers absent-mindedly asked for a yard of pennant instead of ribbon. Never had the people such an over-all good feeling as on the glorious 25th of September, when the Baltimores settled this championship business."
-! From The Sun, Sept. 26, 1894.
So many times that season, Willie Keeler, the little man they called "Wee Willie," would step into the batter's box and nod to his scrappy Oriole teammate John McGraw, already aboard at first.
Stood end to end, these two half-pints didn't measure 11 feet, but they were more than a measure of sweet trouble: McGraw suddenly darting toward second, the opposing infielder leaving his position to cover the bag, Keeler waiting patiently until the very last moment then place-hitting the ball with scientific precision into the exact spot where the slack-jawed fielder had just stood.
By the time the dust cleared McGraw was at third and Keeler at first. And boisterous baseball fans, known then as cranks, who'd turned out by the thousands that summer at Union Park on Barclay Street, were left buzzing with talk of this new-fangled "hit and run" business.
Undoubtedly, in this hundredth-anniversary season of Baltimore's very first championship in any sport, the hit-and-run play seems tame. But in 1894, sportswriters who covered the National League's very hot Baltimore Orioles, kept pressing Wee Willie for the secret behind this revolutionary weapon.
"I keep a clear eye and hit 'em where they ain't," he would explain matter-of-factly.
McGraw, at 21 the youngest of what would one day be known as "the Old Orioles," would say of those earliest moments of Oriole magic, "We talked, lived and dreamed baseball."
Indeed, it was the dreamiest of seasons, not just for the Orioles, but baseball-mad Baltimore as well. It was a year when the home team not only finished in first place ahead of the supposedly unbeatable New York Giants in a crowded 12-club National League, but played such a unique brand of ball they were known for years after as "the famous Baltimore Orioles."
It wouldn't last. By the end of the 19th century, the Orioles' National League franchise would be cruelly stolen away to New York to re-emerge in a new American League as the Highlanders, and later the Yankees. For more than half a century, Baltimore's Orioles would exist only as a minor-league team, finally gaining entry to the American League in 1954.
But even though pennants and world championships have found their way back to Baltimore since 1954, and even though the talk of another Oriole pennant runs high this spring, it seems unlikely there will ever be a moment with quite the same heady triumph as that very first time.
"We have arrived," crowed The Sun of September 1894, echoing the relief of its self-conscious citizenry. "We are there. The pennant is ours. The New York heathen may rage . . . but they are beaten."
At the start of that season, the Orioles were considered a team of runtish, inexperienced castoffs, assembled largely by manager Ned Hanlon, a former captain of the Detroit team of 1888, which had won the National League championship.
Only two years before the Orioles won the 1894 pennant, their 46-101 record was one of the worst ever in the 16-year-old National League. For the '94 season, skeptics picked the Orioles to finish no higher than eighth. Instead, they erupted for an average of nine runs a game, batting .343 as a team, committing the fewest errors of any team that year and allowing the second fewest runs.
"The youthful band of hustlers continued to fill the wiseacres with dismay," wrote Oriole chronicler D. Dorsey Guy at season's end.
Besides McGraw and Keeler, the team included Hughie Jennings, considered then the game's finest shortstop; he would later manage the Detroit Tigers and Ty Cobb to three World Series and at his death be described by the New York Times as "the most colorful figure" in baseball.
There was beefy catcher Wilbert Robinson, the team captain described by one observer as "a perfect stone wall as a backstop." The first of a long line of Hall-of-Fame Orioles named Robinson, this Robby was so universally beloved by the cranks there was talk of running him for Congress after the '94 season.
Of left fielder Joe Kelley, one admirer said, "There goes the greatest ballplayer in the country and he doesn't know it."
The high-strung Oriole center fielder was Walter Brodie, nicknamed Steve after another Brodie who had gained national attention by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Kid Gleason, a pitcher, was so named for his "kidding propensity" not his age. Said Dorsey Guy: "He is a hustler of the first water."
John "Sadie" McMahon was the pitching ace of the staff -- or star twirler, as they were known then. "He has at his command," wrote Guy, "all the shoots and curves and changes of pace that baffle the strongest batsmen."
And of course there was Dennis Brouthers, known inexplicably as Dan, who had played on three championship teams before 1894 and had led the National League in hitting four straight seasons.
The credit for molding these disparate characters into a winning team went deservedly to manager Hanlon. Described as "brainy" and "conscientious," and a man of "sterling and upright character," he would emerge for a time as one of the most prominent figures in baseball. But his efforts are largely overlooked today, even though five of the 17 Orioles who toiled for him that year -- McGraw, Jennings, Keeler, Robinson and Kelley -- are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The Orioles got off to a hot start in the opening days of the '94 season, sweeping three games at Union Park from the Giants and winning 34 of their first 47 games. (The 9,000-seat wooden stadium saw standing-room crowds of up to 15,000 those three days.) However, the Giants and the Boston Beaneaters played nearly as well and the race was close all season.
A hitting slump put the Orioles out of first place in late July but they reclaimed their lead by mid-August, winning 18 of 21 games. By late September they held a 3 1/2-game lead over the Giants and would clinch the pennant if they could win one of their last five games.
On the 24th, in Cleveland, the Orioles were beaten soundly by the Spiders.
The next afternoon, 1,800 Baltimore cranks crowded into Ford's Opera House to hear telegraphed dispatches relay the status of that day's game. The Orioles faced a young Cleveland pitcher named Denton True Young, whose fastball reminded so many people of a cyclone that he was tagged with the handle "Cy."
It would be remembered as "a crackerjack" of a game. Joe Kelley walked in the first inning and Wee Willie dropped one of his patented bunts down the third-base line. A wild throw to first gave Kelley an opportunity to reach third. A second wild throw on the same play brought him in to score the game's first run. Before the inning ended the Orioles had added two more, but the Spiders came right back and scored four times.
In the third inning, with the Orioles down 5-4, McGraw doubled to right and scored on Brodie's single to left. Then in the fourth Keeler put Baltimore ahead 7-5 with a two-run inside-the-park homer to deep right center. Keeler seldom hit home runs, but this one knocked Cy Young right out of the game.
The Old Orioles are remembered, of course, for their heroics on the field, but back then, opponents went away moaning and complaining that the Orioles were the dirtiest bunch of louts they had ever seen.
In a way, the game encouraged it. With only one umpire on the field then, it was easy for fielders to grab a player's belt as he rounded a base. But the Orioles took such tricks a step further, openly filing their spikes to razor points in full view of opposing teams, and playing a full-contact brand of base running designed not just to intimidate but, in the view of many opponents, to maim.
"Old Orioles hustle and scheme and scrounge for runs," wrote Leo Trachtenberg, describing the style of play in an article years ago in Yankees magazine. "Short of rigor mortis they don't quit."
He cited the testimony of Hall of Famer Honus "Hans" Wagner, who once hit an almost certain inside-the-park homer in an 1894 game against the Orioles at Union Park:
"Jack Doyle gave me the hip at first," said Wagner, "Heinie Reitz almost killed me when I rounded second; Hughie Jennings tripped me at shortstop and when I got to third John McGraw was waiting for me with a shotgun."
The result: Hans was held to a triple.
The leader of this ferocious style of play was clearly McGraw -- who went on to become the "irrepressible and lovable old scoundrel" of a manager for the perennial National League champions, the New York Giants, in the first two decades of the 20th century.
"The Little Napoleon," as he was called, was considered by most fans and writers the game's most famous name until the late 1920s when he was eclipsed by a Baltimore native named Babe Ruth.
Writers were nearly unanimous about McGraw's abilities as a player. He was a brilliant hitter -- he hit .340 that year and .336 lifetime -- who could not be intimidated at the plate. Yet, according to Charles C. Alexander's biography, McGraw was "a rough, unruly man who is constantly playing dirty ball. He adopts every low and contemptible method that his erratic brain can conceive to win a play by a dirty trick."
Among umpires he was a hated man, for he never missed a chance to browbeat and intimidate the game's arbiters, driving at least one out of the game. He was also a fearless player, once diving into a barbed-wire fence and ripping his flesh to snare a fly. Curiously, McGraw was something of a pushover off the field. Gentlemanly and quiet, he helped many a down-and-out
ballplayer and never missed a chance to hire an old Oriole.
Very much the opposite was McGraw's closest Oriole friend -- "Bashful Hughie" Jennings, a Pittston, Pa., native who used baseball to escape a life in the coal fields. Though he was considered an all-out player, an Oriole souvenir booklet of the day said the easy-going Jennings "had too sunny a disposition to spend his life down in the mines."
Jennings was the team's best base runner and was well-known for his quick tags of runners at second. Like McGraw he was a solid hitter, batting .332 in the '94 season, but he also had been hit more times by pitchers than anyone in baseball.
"He stands the blow of the speedy sphere without a twinge," said one writer. During one at-bat he was hit on three consecutive pitches but the umpire argued he'd intentionally put himself in the way of the ball. On the next pitch, ball four, he was also hit and grudgingly awarded first.
Like McGraw, Jennings went on to manage, guiding the Tigers to three consecutive World Series appearances. It was then his true zany nature emerged. He would stand alongside first base during games and launch into a wild cry of "ee-yah" when his team was at bat, delighting fans and disconcerting the opponents. His howl became so well-known that American soldiers, going "over the top" of trenches in World War I assaults, let out a Jennings cry.
When his stint with the Tigers ended in 1920, Jennings, who'd earned a law degree at Cornell, practiced for a time in Scranton. He was lured back to the game by McGraw, and acted as his assistant for four seasons with the Giants.
Of all the Old Orioles, though, none had a better playing record than Wee Willie Keeler. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he hit .393 in 1894 and carried a lifetime batting average of .343, including eight consecutive seasons with 200-plus hits. Keeler had been such a careful hitter that in his 8,500-plus at bats he struck out fewer than 170 times, the second-best percentage in history. And when Joe DiMaggio set a record in 1941 for hitting in 56 straight games, it was the 44-game record of Wee Willie Keeler he broke.
Where the rest of his teammates were brash, loud and fire-breathing, Keeler did his job as a right fielder and place hitter with quiet assurance. That doesn't mean he was above the occasional trick. It was Keeler who perfected what came to be called the Baltimore chop, a ball batted sharply into the earth in front of the plate. It bounded so high in the air that by the time it came down Keeler was at first. Before games, he and McGraw would carefully pack the home-plate areas with hard clay to ensure the play's success.
Unlike McGraw and Jennings, who married and raised children, Keeler was a bachelor who lived with his father in Brooklyn. He had saved and earned enough as a player that he was called "the Brooklyn millionaire," and long after his retirement, was known, according to Leo Trachtenberg, "as the dapper little gray haired man of sprightly step, out collecting his rents." Still, his real estate investments went bad and when he died he was nearly penniless. Many of the Old Orioles assembled at his funeral, with big, hard John McGraw weeping openly.
As famous as Keeler had been in his day, the quiet man was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1939 by only one vote over the 75 percent needed. And when Pete Rose closed in on his 44-game hitting streak in 1978, Rose admitted he'd never heard of Keeler.
"The lads were full of pepper," wrote a Sun reporter of that classic game of Sept. 25, 1894. But so were the Spiders, who tied the game in their half of the fourth. Back in Ford's Opera House, emotions ran high.
"Oh, but there were anxious moments when the score stood 7-7 at the end of the 4th inning," an observer remembered.
The game continued, according to The Sun's account, "nip and tuck for 5 innings, but then the Baltimores took the nip out of the struggle." A three-run eighth inning for Baltimore was the final straw for Cleveland, and though the Spiders mustered a pair of runs in the eighth and ninth innings, the final score was 14-9 Orioles.
As the Orioles charged off the field that cold fall afternoon, one team member let out a collegelike cheer: "Are we in it/ yes we are/ Baltimore, Baltimore/ rah, rah, rah."
From Ford's Opera House the giddy crowds began flooding into the Western Union office.
"Good boys!" read one wire dispatched to "Captain Robinson" that night in care of the Broadway Central hotel in Cleveland. "We are the people! Kindest regards to you and the boys from the Brunswick Hotel rooters." Said another: "The clerks of the Baltimore Post Office offer congratulations to the men who have so nobly pushed Baltimore to the front."
It would be a week before the team returned, by train, to Camden Station, but when it did, a massive celebration took place. The team was put into carriages and driven to the Fifth Regiment Armory, where the ballplayers were cheered wildly, and later to a huge banquet at the Hotel Rennert. There, in a famous toast, Captain Robinson ordered his players to turn their champagne glasses upside down, for they would have nothing to drink until the Temple Cup series was played.
In those days there was no World Series -- the American League wasn't formed until 1901 -- but a Pittsburgh industrialist named Temple put up a silver cup and prize money for a seven-game, postseason match between the first- and second-place finishers. The cup series, which began in 1894, was seen as anticlimactic and never drew the interest of the fans. It was discontinued after four years, but the Orioles played in every one of them. They lost the cup in '94 in spite of their alcohol-free banquet, and again in '95 after finishing in first place in the league both years. They won the cup in 1896 after a third consecutive first-place finish. In 1897, though falling to second place, the Orioles won the last Temple series ever played.
But the loss of the cup in 1894, even to the Giants, couldn't deflate the team or the city. They were national champions and would remain the old guard of baseball forever. Years later, on his death bed, Hughie Jennings would recall those days, and at the same time look ahead to other springtimes, other seasons.
"I owe baseball more than the game owes me," he whispered. "Keep it clean and honest."
D8 PATRICK A. MCGUIRE is a features writer for The Sun.