It was a determined baseball team that departed Camden Station that frosty night in March 1896. Two hundred fans saw the Orioles off to spring training, waving pennants and tipping their fedoras to the defending regular-season National League champions.
The players acknowledged the crowd, gathered their gear (including three dozen new ash bats at $1 apiece) and boarded the club's private car, a Pullman sleeper, for Macon, Ga.
Frankly, the Orioles were glad to leave town. For two straight years, they had won the NL pennant but lost the playoffs to the second-place club. Both times, they weathered the off-season gibes of a skeptical press that suggested Baltimore was lucky, not good.
The players were eager to prove critics wrong.
Three days later, the Orioles rolled into Macon and tumbled out of the train to practice, which included a mile run on a nearby track. Outfielder Steve Brodie amused his mates by running with an armful of bats.
Brodie's antics set the tone for the next two weeks. Each day, another Oriole played tough guy. "Dirty" Jack Doyle slid headfirst into every base. Wilbert Robinson, the club's stout catcher, loped from hotel to practice field, a distance of nearly a mile. And shortstop Hughie Jennings refused aid when a line drive took his fingernail with it. "It would take much more than an ordinary hurt ++ to keep the king of the short stops out of a game played by the Orioles," The Sun reported.
Even Ned Hanlon, Baltimore's dignified manager, caught the bug. Hanlon bought a bicycle, determined to learn to ride. Players noticed him wobbling around the cinder track and teased Hanlon, who retreated to a local park for 6 a.m. workouts to "wrestle with his new wheel alone."
The Orioles broke camp in good spirits (third baseman John McGraw stayed behind with a "chill") and chugged north via Pullmans and freight trains and steamboats toward Baltimore, stopping in backwater towns to play local teams offering cash for a shot at the champions.
Most of the fields were primitive and perilous. In Athens, Ga., Robinson found it difficult to catch, given the three-foot drop behind home plate and the "precipitous banks on both sides." Left fielder Joe Kelley "stood on a small mountain. The remainder of the outfield was delightfully undulating."
In Richmond, Va., the field was so uneven that "a player standing in deep center field could not be seen from the players' bench."
At most whistle stops, the Orioles were met by crooked umpires, distrustful players and hostile crowds. In Norfolk, Willie Keeler was called out on strikes when a ball bounced on home plate. But when a Norfolk batter fanned on a Bill Hoffer sinker, the hitter complained that the ball was doctored.
"It must be, to turn at such angles," he declared.
A close game in Petersburg, Va., ended in a brawl. The Orioles were kicked, choked and beaten by irate townsfolk. Robinson found himself fighting off the feeble charge of a one-armed, gray-haired veteran in a faded Confederate uniform. Robby's response: "Well, old man, you are a soldier yet, ain't you?"
Bruised and battered, the Orioles limped home with "no more enthusiasm than a cart horse." The sandlot games had filled their purses but taken a toll. The players who hobbled up 25th Street to Union Park to prepare for the opener resembled "a crowd of convalescents practicing on the back lot of a hospital."
There was more bad news via telegram from Georgia: MCGRAW HAS TYPHOID STOP TEMP 102 STOP OUT 4 MONTHS.
It was a stiff Orioles team that took the field that muggy Opening Day before a boisterous crowd of 11,200. Politicians and preachers, bricklayers and bootblacks swept through the gates from a crush of streetcars that unloaded in front of the ballpark at the rate of two per minute.
The press box was packed with cigar-chomping scribes. "A corps of writers and telegraphers were flashing the news of every play all over the land," The Sun wrote. "Yes, baseball has become a right important sort of national game, but golf and croquet are waking up, too."
A rocky beginning
What sport were the Orioles playing? In a 6-5 loss to the lowly Brooklyn Bridegrooms, the champions made seven errors and managed six hits off Bill "Brickyard" Kennedy, who would go on to lose 20 games. Brooklyn won the next day, too, pounding Hoffer, the Orioles ace who had won 31 games the year before. Baltimore attendance plummeted to 2,750.
A feverish McGraw scrawled a missive to the team. "My heart is with the boys," it said. Arlie "Doc" Pond, a full-fledged physician, revived the club, pitching two five-hitters in less than a week. But the Orioles' pulse was erratic. Inconsistency hounded the regulars. One game, Doyle was hero, stealing his way around the bases after being struck in the head by a pitch; the next day, he was goat, striking out with the bases loaded and "performing the 'Casey' act to the very letter of the celebrated poem."
Where was Baltimore's ballyhooed "brainy teamwork"? The fleet Kelley was caught napping by the old hidden-ball trick. Sure-handed Jennings made three errors in one game. Pitcher Sadie McMahon allowed eight runs in one inning.
By early May, Baltimore (5-7) had sunk to 10th place in the 12-team league. The hottest Oriole now was McGraw, whose temperature soared to 104.
Concerned, manager Ned Hanlon mustered his men for a rousing pep talk. The Orioles surged, winning 10 of 12, including a game in Chicago in which they shelled Clark Griffith, the team's star pitcher, for 13 runs before a sellout crowd that stampeded the field beforehand for a look at the champs.
Then the Orioles soured again, dropping four straight and bottoming out with back-to-back losses to last-place Louisville. When an 18-year-old farm boy handcuffed Hanlon's club on May 22, it was too much for Baltimore to bear. Headlines screamed, "Are These The Orioles?" The Sun likened them to "Mount St. Joe's third nine."
Back in form
Not for long. Two days later, the Orioles defeated New York, scoring all the runs they needed in the first inning on four walks, two bunt singles and a pair of sacrifice flies. Then they banged out 16 hits against St. Louis, as Kelley saved the game with a leaping catch at the fence. Then came a shutout by Hoffer, a gritty effort by Pond (who had tonsillitis) and a three-game sweep of first-place Cincinnati.
Perhaps the Orioles were roused by the press, their fans or a looming homestand. Maybe Hanlon stirred them on the sly. But the team won 10 in a row, roared back into the race and won the pennant with two weeks to spare. McGraw recovered, and so did the Orioles. After May 22, they played nearly .750 baseball, winning 75 of their last 101 games.
These were the Orioles of yore. In New York, they worked four straight hit-and-run plays in one inning against the dazed Giants. On Labor Day, they swept a tripleheader from Louisville, as Keeler sprayed seven hits around the park. During a blistering heat wave in August that claimed 130 lives in Baltimore, the Orioles won six in a row, averaging 14 runs.
Even the loss of Robinson for a month (amputation) failed to slow Baltimore. "The end of [Robinson's] little finger has ascended to the celestial realms," Sporting Life reported, "and still the club wins on."
Nothing could stop the Orioles, including Connie Mack, Pittsburgh's savvy young manager, who danced up and down in the third base coaching box, trying to rattle Doc Pond. "He can't get 'em over! He can't get 'em over!" Mack yelled. Undaunted, Pond pitched a four-hitter and Mack gave up in disgust.
In pennant-hungry Cincinnati, the Orioles played before 25,000 "howling demons" who gamely tried to turn the tide:
"The instant it was the Reds' turn to face the pitcher, the noise fiends opened up their valves. Horns tooted, bells clanged, devilrines shrieked, tin whistles tore chunks out of the air, clapper boards were smashed against the woodwork until they were splintered. Add to this a variegated assortment of whoops, yells, catcalls and shrieks, and you have some faint idea of what [Cincinnati's] Rooters' Row did to try to win yesterday's game."
Baltimore won, 14-6, scoring nine runs in the seventh inning. The rally caused one Cincy fan "to have a fit and be carried out of the grounds."
Time and again, the Orioles pulled games out of the fire. Give up? Baltimore? Hanlon's team scored eight times in the last inning to nip Philadelphia by a run. An Orioles rally in the ninth at Cleveland prompted the Spiders' angry fans to hurl bottles and cushions onto the diamond. The crowd was stalling for darkness, in hopes that the game would revert to its eight-inning score. But the umpire ordered the field cleared and the game finished. The Orioles won.
It was an assortment of heroes that kept them winning. Keeler hit safely in 27 straight games. Hoffer won 10 in a row. Jennings hit .401 and played with abandon, once sliding into first base so hard that his pants were torn to shreds: "The game was called until Hughie, his nether limbs wrapped in a sweater, beat a hasty retreat to the clubhouse for new trousers."
Batting in the ninth inning of a tie game with Pittsburgh with the bases loaded, Jennings turned his back on a fastball that struck him squarely between the shoulders. The play forced home the winning run, despite the Pirates' protestations that Jennings planned it all.
On Sept. 12, the Orioles clinched the NL flag and were feted by their followers at Sterling's Cafe, where captain Robinson received a laurel wreath in honor of the club's third straight pennant. Nevett Lusby, an avid fan, hoisted an Orioles flag in his yard at 114 Jackson Place. Phillip Deitrich (2123 Bank St.) did the same.
Accolades poured in, including praise from Cardinal Gibbons, who toasted the troops at a dinner at St. Charles College in Ellicott City:
"You and your manager have reflected much credit on our city," Cardinal Gibbons said. "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. Much credit is due the Baltimore club, not only for their professional skill, but for their personal and moral rectitude."
During an Orioles reception at Ford's Grand Opera House, each player was honored in verse, including Keeler . . . .:
A hit-and-run young man,
A take-the-bunt young man,
A very foot loose-ety, run like the deuce-ety,
Eat up the flies young man.
. . . . and Kelley:
An over-the-fence young man,
A hit-it-for-keeps young man,
A pull all the flies-ety out of the skies-ety,
Jolly the bleachers young man.
On to the Temple Cup
The Orioles finished 90-39 (.698), the best percentage ever by a Baltimore big-league team. All that remained was to win the elusive Temple Cup, a best-of-seven series against the NL runner-up. (The American League did not yet exist.)
The opponent? The Cleveland Spiders, whose bullying tactics topped those of the Orioles. The Spiders cursed rivals, slugged umpires, trashed ballparks. In Brooklyn, they beat down a locker room door with their bats. The Spiders thought nothing of grabbing runners, lifting them into the air and tossing them about when the umpire's back was turned. Player-manager Patsy Tebeau routinely was hauled into court for his foul language and was known to rip the mask off an umpire's face.
Such doings cowed most teams, including Baltimore, which had lost the '95 Temple Cup and the '96 season series to Cleveland. The Orioles dropped eight of 11 regular-season games to the Spiders (including back-to-back shutouts), were outscored 91-45 and made 52 errors against Cleveland, nearly five a game.
"A Screw Loose Somewhere Whenever The Baltimores Meet Them," The Sun surmised after yet another Cleveland victory. "The shrewd, scientific, undaunted champions become wild, nervous, error-making, weak-batting mediocres when they have to contend with Tebeau's men."
The Spiders had the game's top hitter, Jesse "The Crab" Burkett (.410), a mean-spirited outfielder who despised the public, and the top pitcher, 28-game winner Cy Young, who -- at 29 -- was at the peak of his career.
The champions were underdogs.
The Orioles prepared for the playoffs with benefit games against local nines, including a team of overmatched dandies from the Catonsville Country Club. Hanlon's men showed no mercy. No Catonsville runner reached second base, Keeler laid down bunt after bunt and Jennings managed to get hit by a pitch.
In rainy Cleveland, the Spiders sat around for a week, awaiting the Temple Cup opener.
It was a resolute Orioles team that trotted onto the field at Union Park on that cool, crisp October day. Baltimore's pennants of 1894 and '95 hung from the stands, and the '96 flag -- a 25-foot, blue and white pennant -- flapped from the center-field pole. The umpire brushed the plate with an orange and black broom the home team had given him. And the Orioles began their sweep of the series.
They hammered a curiously ineffective Young for 13 hits and won, 7-1. Robinson and Kelley had three hits apiece. Cleveland went quietly, except for Tebeau, who sprained his back flailing at a Hoffer curve and retreated to the Carrollton Hotel.
The Orioles won Game 2 easily, 7-2, defeating the Spiders' Bobby Wallace, who promptly quit pitching and became a Hall of Fame shortstop. Game 3 belonged to Hoffer (again) and Robinson, who doubled, made three acrobatic catches of foul pops and threw out a runner in a 6-2 win.
Cleveland's humiliation ended at home. Joe Corbett, a 20-year-old pitcher whom the Orioles had kept hidden most of the season, won his second playoff game, 5-0, and got three hits himself.
Afterward, both sides celebrated Baltimore's victory in a Cleveland saloon, filling the Temple Cup, a large silver jug, with 17 quarts of champagne and hoisting it around. Second baseman Heinie Reitz, the most reserved Oriole, immersed his whole head in the bubbly. The players then punted the trophy around the place until it was rescued by a bartender, shipped to Baltimore and displayed in a show window on Baltimore Street.
(When the booze wore off, the Spiders were in an ugly mood. xTC Tebeau and several teammates wandered into another bar and beat the daylights out of a sportswriter who was drinking there.)
The Orioles returned home to a hearty welcome. Players and fans gathered at Ganzhorn's Hotel, toasted Hoffer and Corbett, and sang this ditty:
Oh, where is Cleveland's pennant pole?
In the town of oyster stew.
And where's the blooming Temple Cup?
Afraid we've got that, too.
Pub Date: 7/09/96