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As their season circles the drain, the Orioles near a big round number: 100 losses. They've been there before

One hundred losses?

The Orioles, a major league worst 41-99, could reach that ignominious milestone Friday night at the Tampa Bay Rays.

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Of course, they’ve registered triple digits in the loss column before — in 1954, their first season back in the American League after a 51-year hiatus, and in 1988, when they opened with 21 straight defeats.

But both times those dreadful Orioles hit the century mark Sept. 25, which is still more than two weeks away. This year’s Orioles have a .293 winning percentage, far worse than in ’54 (.351) or ’88 (.335).

1954 Orioles Opening Day starters, left to right, Bobby Young, Eddie Waitkus, Gil Coan, Vic Wertz, Vern Stephens, Sam Mele, Billy Hunter and Clint Courtney..
1954 Orioles Opening Day starters, left to right, Bobby Young, Eddie Waitkus, Gil Coan, Vic Wertz, Vern Stephens, Sam Mele, Billy Hunter and Clint Courtney.. (Leroy B. Merriken / Baltimore Sun)

The '54 Orioles were a mishmash of castoffs and old coots. They hit a league-low 52 home runs; no player had more than eight. Forty-four times, they scored one run or none, and weathered losing streaks of nine, 10 and 14 games. Yet they drew over 1 million fans, more than three times the attendance of their predecessors, the 1953 St. Louis Browns, who finished with the same sorry record (54-100).

The Orioles lost No. 100 in their final game, an 11-0 rout by Chicago. The city tried to boost the team’s spirits with a pre-game gala that featured fighter jets flying over Memorial Stadium and dancing girls in tights performing on the field.

Alas, an announced 14,755 witnessed one of the worst drubbings of the season. The White Sox chased starter Don “Gooney Bird” Larsen, a fun-loving right-hander who read comic books in the clubhouse. The loss was Larsen's 21st of 24 decisions. (Two years later, he'd pitch a perfect game for the New York Yankees in the World Series.)

During the game, 50 Little Leaguers from Pennsylvania contracted food poisoning and were hurried to local hospitals. All recovered. Shortstop Billy Hunter made the final out, grounding to third base and sliding into first, too late.

Slowly, year by year, the Orioles advanced, finishing .500 in 1957 and in second place in 1960 before winning it all in 1966 — a 13-year march to the top.

The ‘88 team also dropped its 100th game on Sept. 25 … and kept on flailing. They went 54-107, lost 17 of their last 20 and set a club record for futility only five years after winning their third world championship. These Orioles hit a paltry .238 as a team, worst in the AL and worse, even, than their ‘54 counterparts (.251) despite a lineup led by two future Hall of Famers (Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr.).

Even now, it’s hard to explain the malaise of that season in which no pitcher won more than eight games and the staff ERA (4.54) ranked last in the league.

On a chilly, somber day, Detroit handed the Orioles their 100th loss, 2-1, on a one-hitter by the Detroit Tigers’ Jack Morris. Fittingly, perhaps, No. 101 followed just hours later, in the second game of a doubleheader. Fred Lynn, an ex-Oriole, crushed a pinch-hit grand slam homer in the ninth inning for a 7-4 comeback win. Doyle Alexander, another former Oriole, got the victory.

Afterward, general manager Roland Hemond and Frank Robinson, his field boss, huddled as one consoled the other.

“A manager needs a friend sometimes,” Hemond said.

Robinson pooh-poohed the tete-a-tete.

“Aw, Roland just wanted to make sure that I didn’t slit my throat,” he said.

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One year later, the “Why Not?” Orioles rallied to win 87 games and barely missed the playoffs. Robinson? He was AL Manager of the Year.

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