It's May 4, 1896, and the Orioles are on the fritz. The champions are 5-7, playing like stumblebums and falling toward the National League cellar. This is the Baltimore team that ran off with the pennant last year? The staff ace was shelled today. The shortstop made three more errors. And everything the Orioles hit was caught, including a foul ball that fell into a fan's coat pocket.
Next up: a grueling road trip marked by hot train rides, lumpy hotel beds and bad water.
What's a manager to do?
As he walks the one block home from the ballpark, Ned Hanlon pops a piece of Faultless Pepsin Gum into his mouth and begins chewing furiously. Pretty soon the light bulb, recently invented, goes on inside Hanlon's head.
Several hours later, Hanlon gathers the Orioles for coffee and cigars in the library of his home at 2403 Calvert St. He clears his throat, unbuttons his vest and addresses the team. "Gentlemen, you are all natural-born, winning ballplayers," Hanlon begins, and ends with "Go West, you men -- get at 'em!"
They do. Baltimore wins four straight games and 10 of its next 12, en route to the NL championship -- the Orioles' third straight title under "Foxy" Ned Hanlon, who'll be enshrined next month in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Hanlon's induction comes 100 years after the club's greatest success. The '96 Orioles, whom Hanlon built from scratch, played .698 ball -- a team record -- and led the league in batting (.328), runs and stolen bases. Speed, not strength, was Hanlon's forte: The Orioles hit more than four times as many triples (100) as home runs (23).
A former player himself -- one newspaper report called him "the consumptive-looking kid from Connecticut" -- Hanlon had risen to the majors more on savvy than skill. He managed for 19 years, winning 1,313 games and losing 1,164 for a .530 percentage.
Hanlon's Orioles teams fared best. From 1892 to 1898, Baltimore won 555 and lost 369 (.601).
Hanlon was among the first managers to take his team south for spring training (the Orioles practiced in Macon, Ga.); to pay scouts to ferret out talented young players; and to pioneer the use of hand signals during games.
He vehemently opposed a suggested 1896 ban on "kicking," or arguing with umpires, as a means of venting one's ire:
"Had the Orioles had less of that aggressiveness, we would never have won any pennants," Hanlon said at the time. "Players are only human, and when they are compelled to suppress all noise and excitement, their hearts will go down in their boots, they will become indifferent, the game will go glimmering and the public will leave in disgust. . . ."
In the 1896 Temple Cup playoffs, a best-of-seven series between the NL's two top finishers, Baltimore swept its nemesis, the Cleveland Spiders, the only team that had rattled the Orioles that summer.
Hanlon wanted to beat the Spiders so badly, he dismissed their request to practice at Union Park before the playoffs. Result: Baltimore pounded a rusty Cy Young in the Temple Cup opener and never looked back.
Hanlon's teams fought for every base, scrapped for every run, scrounged for every win. Scientific baseball, they called it, though the Orioles' style smacked of chicanery.
Hanlon had his players keep rule books by their bedside -- required reading to find new ways to bend the rules. The manager himself acknowledged having jumped out of bed to "jot down a play that might be worked out."
"We went to 'school' together in the clubhouse -- I was teacher -- but anyone could air new ideas," Hanlon later recalled. "By pulling the unexpected all the time, we had the opposition always off balance, wondering what was coming next."
Hanlon's charges listened, learned. Seven of the '96 Orioles became major-league managers, three of whom -- John McGraw, Hughie Jennings and Wilbert Robinson -- won a total of 15 pennants and three World Series.
During his seven years as Orioles manager and president, Hanlon kept shuffling personnel, swapping players like stocks until the mix felt right.
"He had a cold veneer about him," Robinson once said. "Hanlon was a peculiar genius in his relations to his players. Nothing was too good for them, but it was not because of sentiment.
"Players were materials to the manager, to be kept in perfect order that they might yield their best work."
His lack of sentiment extended to cities. Before the 1899 season, with Baltimore's attendance dwindling, Hanlon worked a deal to purchase the existing Brooklyn franchise and move the best Orioles there. Brooklyn won two quick pennants for Hanlon, who received a nice raise. Gutted of talent, the Orioles faded quickly and were dropped from the league after 1899.
Hanlon retired to Baltimore in 1907, raised a family, dabbled in real estate and struck it rich. He bought a cottage in Ocean City, became head of the city's Park Board and helped design Municipal Stadium, the ballpark that preceded Memorial Stadium 33rd Street.
He died of heart failure in 1937 at the age of 79 and was buried in New Cathedral Cemetery.
Of Hanlon's favorite team, there was no doubt. In 1925, on his 35th wedding anniversary, family and friends presented Hanlon with a cake shaped like a baseball diamond, decorated with white baselines, green "grass" and nine tiny photographs spaced around the playing field.
The pictures were snapshots of the 1896 Orioles.
Pub Date: 7/08/96