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1954: the year Baltimore went ‘major league’ | COMMENTARY

Then: In August of 1954 during the Orioles inaugural season in Baltimore, young Orioles fans cheer on their team while attending a game at Memorial Stadium. The Orioles ended the year with a disappointing record of 54 wins and 100 losses, but fans were still excited to have professional baseball in town. Baltimore Sun file photo
Then: In August of 1954 during the Orioles inaugural season in Baltimore, young Orioles fans cheer on their team while attending a game at Memorial Stadium. The Orioles ended the year with a disappointing record of 54 wins and 100 losses, but fans were still excited to have professional baseball in town. Baltimore Sun file photo (William Klender /)

Spring training camps have opened, and the world already feels better. Baseball’s a game of memories, and a few geezers like me remember how exciting it was in 1954 (two-thirds of a century ago!) when the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles. Baltimore instantly became “major league.”

At the time, I was an 8-year-old, attending Arlington 234. That summer I watched all the games I could on TV — followed by “Bobo Newsom’s Knothole Gang” show — and I went to two. I saw Robert Lee “Bullet Bob” Turley beat the Red Sox 2-1 (Ted Williams went 0-for-4, which made me happy then, but not now) and watched Don Larsen lose to the White Sox 4-1 (Larsen led the American League in losses that year, with 21). Turley and Larsen went on to star with the Yankees, with Larsen throwing that perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

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Jimmy Dykes, a baseball lifer, became skipper of the O’s after Browns manager Marty Marion said the team wasn’t any good. Marion was right, of course, but lost his job for saying so. At least the team was engagingly inept.

Catcher Clint Courtney wore glasses, but he wasn’t Mr. Peepers. Scrap Iron was his nickname, and, more than once, he was pictured in a tattered uniform after an on-field fight. On opening day, he hit the first homer at Memorial Stadium, with another streetfighter, Vice President Richard Nixon, in attendance.

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First base was handled by Dick Kryhoski (a journeyman, but he had a 19-game hitting streak) and Eddie Waitkus — best known for being shot by an obsessed female “fan” when he was with the Phillies in 1949. That shooting became part of baseball lore, incorporated into the move “The Natural.” Waitkus wasn’t Roy Hobbs, however, nor did he look like Robert Redford.

At second was smooth Bobby Young, the only Baltimorean on the squad. Another native, Al Kaline, became a major league regular that year but, alas, with Detroit. He would’ve looked good in an Orioles uniform.

The shortstop, slick-fielding Billy Hunter, unfortunately couldn’t hit a lick. He went to New York with Turley and Larsen, remained inoffensive, and later became a manager. Mr. Hunter, 92, may be the only 1954 Oriole still alive.

Vern “Junior” Stephens was at third much of the time. He had driven in an amazing number of runs for the post-war Red Sox (159 in 1949!). In 1954, however, he led the Orioles with eight home runs and 46 RBIs. Wonderfully pitiful.

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The outfield often consisted of Jim Fridley (who had both RBIs in my first game), Chuck Diering (who glided across center field) and Cal Abrams. (Strong-armed Bob Kennedy and one-time speedster Gil Coan, both grizzled veterans, also made appearances.) Abrams hit .293, the top batting average on the team, but that understates his quality. Nobody paid attention to on-base percentage in the pre-Moneyball era, but Abrams’ was terrific: .400.

Some guys on the roster for part of the season saw little action in Baltimore but found places in baseball history.

Vic Wertz played 29 games before he was traded, on June 1, to the Indians, who won 111 games that year. Wertz hit the shot in game one of the series that Willie Mays tracked down in deep center field in the Polo Grounds — maybe the best catch ever — helping the Giants sweep the seemingly invincible team.

Ryne Duren — who threw bullets, had no control and wore Coke-bottle glasses — pitched in one game. With other teams he became famous by rattling the backstop with 95-plus mph warmup pitches. No hitter was going to dig in with an apparently blind flamethrower on the mound.

Frank Kellert, a first baseman, played in only 10 games. But if you’ve seen the video of Jackie Robinson stealing home in the 1955 Series, with Yogi Berra going berserk (Yogi swore he made the tag), you saw Kellert. Then a Dodger, he was at bat, staring at the play. His greatest baseball moment was as an observer.

Oh sure, the won-lost record for the 1954 Orioles was horrible (54-100) — as Marion predicted — and, by modern standards, few attended the games (slightly over a million). For us old-timers, however, that was a magical time.

Erik M. Jensen (emj@case.edu) is the Coleman P. Burke Professor Emeritus of Law at Case Western Reserve University.

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