It’s been a brutal few years for Orioles fans. The team is on pace to lose 110 games this year after losing 108 in 2019 and 115 in 2018, the last two full MLB seasons.
The three-year stretch (excluding last year’s abbreviated season) comes close to another awful period of baseball straddling the franchise’s last year in St. Louis and first two seasons in Baltimore decades ago.
In 1953, the St. Louis Browns finished 54-100, a record they would match the next season in their first year in Baltimore as the renamed Orioles, although the team more than tripled its attendance from 297,000 to 1.06 million fans. The third year, 1955, they barely improved to 57-97.
But unlike today’s Orioles, who are in the midst of a teardown to stockpile high draft choices and have their top talent waiting in the minor leagues, tanking wasn’t an option for the franchise in the 1950s, because there was no major league draft back then. So bad teams often had a hard time digging out of the ditch, and few ballclubs epitomized this challenge like the “Brownies.”
In their 52 seasons in St. Louis, the Browns finished in the top half of the standings just a dozen times. They won their only pennant in 1944 when many of the game’s best players were fighting overseas during World War II, and lost the World Series to the city’s more popular and successful team, the Cardinals. Not surprisingly, the Browns were also failures at the turnstiles, never averaging more than 10,000 fans per game in any season (and drawing just over a thousand fans a game in 1935, during the Great Depression).
Colorful baseball executive Bill Veeck bought the Browns for $1.5 million in 1951 with the hope of revitalizing them and taking on the Cardinals for top billing in St. Louis. Veeck had been a successful owner of the Cleveland Indians, guiding them to a World Series championship in 1948, and helping to increase attendance with giveaways and promotions that some stodgy owners found gauche. He also signed the AL’s first black player, Larry Doby, in 1947.
Veeck built an apartment for his family inside the Browns’ stadium, Sportsman’s Park, and immediately turned to gimmicks to draw fans, most famously signing 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel for one at-bat on Aug. 19, 1951 (he walked on four pitches). A few days later, on Aug. 24, he let fans call the shots for a game at “Grandstand Managers Night,” using placards for fans to vote on strategic decisions such as whether to play the infield in.
Veeck couldn’t turn around the Browns’ fortunes on the field, however, and they finished last in two of the three seasons that he owned the ballclub, including the final season in St. Louis, 1953. That year, the team was also last in runs scored and batting average and had three starting pitchers with nearly identically bad records (7-12, 7-12, 7-13) and a fourth even worse at 5-13. The Browns stole just 17 bases but were thrown out 34 times, a stupendously bad percentage (.333) even before analytics would frown on stolen bases decades later. One bright spot was 46-year-old pitcher Satchel Paige, who saved 11 games with a 3.53 ERA (albeit with a 3-9 record), in his last MLB season before a cameo with the Kansas City Athletics 12 years later.
The Browns played their final game on Sept. 27, 1953, before a crowd of just over 3,000 people in St. Louis. After nine innings, the Browns and White Sox were tied at 1, so they trudged on to extra innings with nothing on the line. But the hometown team had run out of baseballs.
As The Sporting News reported: “With their working capital reduced to practically nothing, the Browns came close to being unable to finish their last game of the American League season … When plate umpire Art Passarella called for a new supply of baseballs, Bernie Ebert, who handled the baseballs for the Browns, informed him that the supply was exhausted and that the team had no more left. With that, the umpire looked over the scuffed up balls that had been tossed out of the game earlier and put several of them back into play — enough to finish up the game.”
That same day, American League owners put off a vote to let Veeck move the team to Baltimore, as Yankees co-owner Del Webb pushed to have the team sold to southern California investors and relocated to Los Angeles. (Back in 1941, under previous ownership, the Browns had tried to move to L.A., but the U.S. entry into World War II persuaded AL owners to block the move.)
Two days later, the Baltimore investors bought out Veeck’s interest in the team, and AL owners — no friends of Veeck’s — quickly approved the relocation once he was out of the picture. “I got the message,” said Veeck, who went on to own the White Sox, where he originated exploding scoreboards to celebrate home runs by home players as well as players’ names on uniforms.
Baltimore brewery executive Jerold C. Hoffberger, who was part of the group trying to get an MLB team for the city, helped smooth the Browns’ move into the Washington Senators’ territory by agreeing to have his National Brewing Co. sponsor the Senators TV and radio games. “Welcome neighbors,” Senators owner Clark Griffith said.
So the Browns flew east to become the Orioles with an enthusiastic fan base waiting for them. But the Orioles merely picked up where the Browns left off. The team lost the ‘54 opener in Detroit when Don Larsen dropped a 3-0 decision, on his way to a 3-21 record — just two years before throwing the only perfect game in World Series history for the Yankees. Three other starting pitchers each had at least 14 defeats. Despite losing 100 games again that first year in Baltimore, the team leapfrogged out of last place over the Athletics, who lost 103 in their final season in Philadelphia before relocating to Kansas City.
The Orioles improved by just three games in 1955, but by then they had already taken the upper hand in the regional rivalry with the Senators, going 14-8 against Washington. The O’s finished in seventh place in the eight-team American League, four games ahead of the last-place Senators.
Without a draft to rebuild, improving the product on the field took years, and the O’s didn’t post their first winning season until 1960. Things really started to improve when Hoffberger became principal owner in 1965. He traded for Frank Robinson before the ‘66 season, and the team won its first World Series title in franchise history that year. By then, the reversal of fortune was complete. After a quick regression under .500 the next year, Baltimore rattled off 18 straight winning seasons, including five pennants and two World Series titles.
The Orioles hit another nadir in 1988 with their notorious 21-game losing streak season to start the season, on their way to 107 losses. But at least that was an anomaly — nothing like the series of 100-loss seasons they’ve piled up in recent years. And as former Baltimore Sun Orioles beat reporter Ken Rosenthal recently wrote in The Athletic, the ‘88 Orioles “were actually trying.”
Many people in baseball viewed the Browns as an embarrassment too, but to quote Rosenthal, at least they were actually trying. And as bad as the 1953-55 teams were, they still posted better records than today’s Orioles.
Frederic J. Frommer is the author of several books on baseball, including You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals, and head of sports PR at the Dewey Square Group, a communications firm in Washington. Follow @ffrommer.