Baltimore Orioles

Back in the bigs

First in a series of occasional articles on the Orioles' five decades in Baltimore.

In a March 1953 meeting in Tampa, Fla., the owners of the eight American League franchises rejected Bill Veeck's plan to move his downtrodden St. Louis Browns to Baltimore.

That was strike one.

Six months later, the owners convened for three days of meetings at New York's Commodore Hotel. Veeck's latest plan for moving to Baltimore was put on the table at the first session.

The owners again said no. That was strike two.

Baltimore Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro Jr. and lawyer Clarence Miles, leaders of a two-year drive to return baseball to Baltimore, were desperate to avoid strike three.

In New York for the meetings, they spent the next 48 hours in a frenzy of fund-raising and deal-making, determined to acquire a team at the meeting.

Their hard work paid off when a reconfigured plan to move the Browns was approved and the modern Baltimore Orioles were born -- 50 years ago tomorrow.

"It was a major turning point in Baltimore's development," said Thomas D'Alesandro III, the mayor's son, who later served a term as mayor himself. "The achieving of a major league baseball franchise was tantamount to the arrival of Baltimore as a big league city.

"Not only was it important economically, but also in terms of the spirit of the city. It provided common ground. White, black, fat, thin, healthy, sick: Everyone could relate to them."

The Orioles have become an institution in the past half-century, winning three World Series titles, six American League pennants, eight division titles and 4,128 of 7,888 regular-season games for a .523 winning percentage.

They have sold 88,695,636 tickets to 3,648 games at Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards, averaging 24,313 fans per game.

Eleven members of baseball's Hall of Fame have been associated with them either as a player, manager or executive.

Although they will complete their sixth straight losing season today, only the Yankees, Dodgers and Athletics have won more World Series since 1954.

Before the Orioles' arrival, Baltimore went 51 years without major league baseball.

After the turn-of-the-century Orioles moved to New York in 1902 (and later became the Yankees), a minor league team also called the Orioles served the city's baseball interest, competing from 1903 to 1953 in what came to be known as the International League.

A team called the Terrapins also played here in 1914 and 1915 as part of the Federal League, a rival major league that failed, and a Negro leagues team, the Elite Giants, played in town from 1938 to 1948. Another Negro leagues team, the Black Sox, played here on and off from 1923 to 1934.

The arrival of an NFL franchise earlier in 1953 had excited local sports fans, but pro football wasn't nearly as popular and the Colts drew fewer than 28,000, well short of capacity, to their inaugural game at Memorial Stadium.

"Having a football team didn't have the same effect back then," said lumber executive Lou Grasmick, who was just starting out as a Baltimore businessman in 1953 after playing baseball in the minors and majors. "Baseball was unquestionably the national pastime then. There were only 16 major league teams, and they were hard to come by. If you had one [in your city], it said a lot."

Duo's initial push fails

D'Alesandro and Miles, the men who made it happen, were an unlikely partnership.

Miles was a patrician attorney with Eastern Shore roots; he had attended school with Wallis Warfield, the Duchess of Windsor, and his powerful downtown law firm represented many prominent Marylanders.

D'Alesandro was a streetwise machine politician who had served as a state delegate, city councilman and five-term U.S. congressman before being elected mayor in 1947. Brash and emotional, he had left school at 13 and still lived in a Little Italy rowhouse, but he was on a first-name basis with Harry Truman.

"They couldn't have been more different, but for some reason, they clicked," said Thomas D'Alesandro III, now 74. "They could read each other's minds without even talking."

No American League franchise had moved since the Orioles left town shortly after the turn of the century, but D'Alesandro and Miles targeted the Browns, perennial losers drawing fewer than 4,000 fans a game at St. Louis' Sportsman's Park. They found a willing partner in Veeck, a maverick who favored open-collared sports shirts to the conservative suits worn by other owners.

Veeck, who owned 80 percent of the Browns' stock (a group of investors owned the other 20 percent), had tried to draw fans with gimmicks such as giving away drinks, shooting off fireworks after games and, most famously, sending a midget up to bat. But decades of losses --the team had a .433 winning percentage in its 51 seasons -- turned off fans. The National League's Cardinals ruled St. Louis.

With little cash in his coffers, Veeck loved the idea of playing in a new market. He failed in an attempt to move to Milwaukee after the 1952 season, then turned to Baltimore, where Memorial Stadium was being rebuilt and enlarged. Working with D'Alesandro, he concocted a plan to move before the 1953 season and sell shares of stock in the team to the public, intending to raise enough money to operate.

Veeck and the mayor shook hands on a deal and took it to Tampa for an owners' vote in March 1953. American League president Will Harridge told The Sun that the move had been approved and the vote was "a mere formality."

Five of the seven other owners voted against the move.

The start of the season was just weeks away, they said, and a last-minute move could affect TV commitments, scheduling and ticket sales.

Infuriated, Veeck spent the 1953 season bickering with the other owners over television money while the Browns' attendance plummeted further. Kansas City, Montreal, Los Angeles and San Francisco joined in bidding for the beleaguered team through the summer.

Yankees co-owner Del Webb, a wealthy builder from Arizona, threw his support behind Los Angeles. "There is too much baseball concentrated in the East," Webb said in July 1953.

Maneuvers pay off

Veeck, D'Alesandro and Miles negotiated a new plan for moving the Browns. Baltimore investors would buy 40 percent of the club -- half of Veeck's stock -- for $1.2 million. Veeck would remain the principal owner.

D'Alesandro expressed confidence, but when the deal was presented to the owners in New York on Sept. 27, only four voted for it. Six yay votes were needed.

As the owners appeared increasingly intrigued by Webb's idea of a team in Los Angeles, Baltimore's once-bright chances were flickering.

The next 48 hours were as important as any in this city's sports history.

D'Alesandro went on a tirade. He complained to baseball commissioner Ford Frick that Webb was manipulating the meetings, then barged into the second session of the owners' meetings on Monday, Sept. 28.

"He told them he was friendly with presidents and congressmen," Thomas D'Alesandro III said, "and he would go to work on baseball's antitrust exemption if they didn't move the Browns to Baltimore.

"Basically, he threatened the hell out of them. He thought [his chance] was slipping away."

D'Alesandro and Miles also deduced that what the other owners really wanted was Veeck out of their hair. So Miles worked the phones, asking Baltimore investors such as developer James S. Keelty Jr. and financier Joseph Iglehart to raise their stake.

Increased pledges from Jerold Hoffberger, owner of National Brewery, and Zanvyl Krieger, of Gunther's Brewery, more than doubled the original offer.

When the owners met Sept. 29 at 4 p.m. for the final session, D'Alesandro and Miles had a deal to buy out Veeck for $2.45 million.

They also had negotiated a key yay vote from Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, who had previously been reluctant to see a team move so close. Hoffberger's brewery would sponsor the Senators' TV telecasts, a deal worth a reported $250,000.

"Hoffberger really came through there," Thomas D'Alesandro III said.

Meanwhile, the money behind Webb's Los Angeles bid had failed to materialize.

After D'Alesandro and Miles presented their offer, the owners deliberated behind closed doors for 90 minutes before calling D'Alesandro into the room.

American League secretary Earl Hilligan emerged and addressed reporters in a corridor around 6 p.m. A roar went up when the members of the mayor's contingent heard Hilligan say the word "approved."

Moments later, D'Alesandro emerged with a huge smile. He was jumping with delight.

Baltimore was back in the major leagues.

The vote was 8-0.

Even Webb had voted for Baltimore, receiving in return a concession from the owners to expand to California "if it should become desirable." (The National League beat the AL to the punch in 1958 when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and the Giants from New York to San Francisco.)

Of the five franchise moves that baseball experienced in the 1950s -- the Dodgers, Giants, Braves (from Boston to Milwaukee) and Athletics (from Philadelphia to Kansas City) were the others -- only the shift from St. Louis to Baltimore resulted in a new nickname for the team.

As soon as the move was approved, Clarence Miles confirmed that the team would be called the Orioles.

A lasting impact

A pale Veeck expressed disappointment when speaking to reporters after the meetings, conceding that his removal had been necessary, but he said Baltimore was ready.

"This is the best solution in the world," he said. "I'm no longer in baseball, but like a bad penny, I keep turning up, and I am hopeful."

His widow, Mary Frances Veeck, said that the owners' dislike of him at the time stemmed from his 1952 suggestion that they pool their television and radio income, as the NFL would do a decade later.

"That had not been posed before, and [the owners] were really annoyed with Bill for suggesting that," Mrs. Veeck said. "Bill wanted very much to come to Baltimore with the team, but the owners had a chance to get rid of him and they did.

"The reality was he did enjoy tweaking anyone who was a little on the stuffed-shirt side."

Veeck got back into baseball by buying the Chicago White Sox in 1959. He sold them, retired to the Eastern Shore, then bought the White Sox again in 1975. He died in 1986.

Miles, whose civic contributions included founding the Greater Baltimore Committee, was the Orioles' first president. His two-year tenure ended in a front office reorganization in which he was replaced by Keelty.

When Miles died in 1987, his role in securing the Orioles was listed among his greatest accomplishments.

The same was true of D'Alesandro, who served as mayor until 1959, lost a U.S. Senate bid and became a Democratic machine elder. (His son was mayor from 1967 to 1971.) D'Alesandro was one of the Orioles' most loyal fans until his death in 1987.

"We went to Memorial Stadium every night, it seemed like," Thomas D'Alesandro III said. "When you talk about major league sports in Baltimore, you can't ignore his contribution. Things looked bad for a while as far as getting the team, but he simply would not take no for an answer."

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.