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Baltimore Orioles

A professional baseball team in the American League

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The Oriole Way

  • Nov 27, 2012
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Who are the Baltimore Orioles? There are a thousand different ways to answer that question. It has something to do with the fact that constant city-shifting can take a real toll on the history of teams who have moved around a lot, especially from being in multi-team cities or small markets. So, without further ado, who are the Baltimore Orioles?

There was a team in the 1890's featuring Wee Willie Keeler and John McGraw which dominated the National League and won three straight Pennants, known as much for their innovations as their dirty tactics. In spite of their success, they were contracted out of the NL after 1899, and their best guys caught the tail of the Brooklyn Dodgers afterward. There was also an American League team called the Baltimore Orioles which was around at the league's creation in 1901. They stuck around until 1903, when they bolted to New York City and renamed themselves the Highlanders. That team is still around nowadays. They've taken on a different nickname - the Yankees - and despite MLB making a lot of attempts to forget their existence, they've journeyed in on occasion to win a Pennant or a World Series every now and then.

The modern Orioles can be traced back to beginnings in Milwaukee, where the Milwaukee Brewers were created in 1894. When the Western League adopted the name "American League" in 1900 and started operating as a major league, the Brewers happened to be there. Teams were shifted around, and the Brewers were one of the two teams that initially managed to avoid that. (The other was the Detroit Tigers.) The original plan was to move them to Saint Louis, though, and that idea flamed out.

Or did it?! In 1902, the team packed up and moved out to Saint Louis anyway, a larger city whose team was known once and for all by then as the Cardinals. The new kid on the block adopted the name Saint Louis Browns, as a tribute to the Cardinals, who began in the 1880's under the Browns name themselves. The also came to be known throughout their history in Saint Louis as a second division team. During the 1910 season, they etched their name into baseball batting race lore without fielding anyone who was threatening to win the title. The race that year was between Napoleon Lajoie of the Cleveland Indians and Ty Cobb of the Tigers. In the last game of the season, Cobb had the lead, and was pretty much in the clear save Lajoie being perfect at the plate. Cobb was also a bit of an asshole, and nearly everyone hated his guts. So when the Browns played their last game of the year against the Indians, they stationed their third baseman in shallow left field. Lajoie stepped to the plate six times. He bunted down the third base line five times, and made it to first five times. The sixth time, he got his base on an error, thus turning his at-bat into a base without an actual hit. Browns catcher-manager Jack O'Connor and coach Harry Howell tried to bribe the scorekeeper to change that last at-bat to an actual hit, offering to buy her a new wardrobe, but she didn't, and Cobb won the title by one point. The outcry triggered an investigation by AL President Ban Johnson, which resulted in Howell and O'Connor both getting fired and informally banned for life.

From 1901 to 1922, the Browns only had four winning seasons. In the 20's, new owner Phil Ball, who had bought the team in 1916, didn't pull any financial punches, and the Browns were competitive - one could even say they were GOOD - for most of the decade. In 1922, they even finished second. Unfortunately, he also made several bad errors in judgement with running the team. Misstep number one was firing Branch Rickey in 1919 because the two of them couldn't stand each other's egos. He must have forgotten what a genius Rickey was, because Rickey was automatically snapped up by the crosstown Cardinals, where he changed baseball by creating and building today's farm system. In 1920, Sam Breadon, who owned the Cardinals, talked Ball into letting the Cardinals and Browns share the same park. Breadon sold the Cardinals' original park and put the funding into Rickey's farm system, creating a wealth of talent and star power which turned the Cardinals into a much bigger draw. Although the Browns were fielding the likes of George Sisler, .300 batter Jack Tobin, and Ken Williams, the first 30/30 player, Ball's blunders dogged the Browns for pretty much the whole rest of their years in Saint Louis. At the outset of the 1926 season, Ball made one of those legendary doomed guarantees, saying there would be a World Series in his ballpark in 1926! You have to [ay close attention to that wording, because Ball was right. In 1926, the Saint Louis Cardinals played in and won their first-ever World Series. Yes, I said CARDINALS. Ball had failed to specify a team in his prediction.

Starting in 1927, the Browns became acquainted with their familiar basement home again. Until 1943, they only had two winning records, and their losses included a 43-111 debacle in 1939 which is still their worst ever. That all changed in 1944, when the Browns shot to first place and their first-ever Pennant, becoming the last of the original 16 MLB teams to make it to the World Series. It took World War II to enable them to do that, and so they were lucky to strike when the talent was overseas. The Browns still had a lot of their best players, though, because most of them were classified 4-F; unfit for service. That might have been a grand triumph for the Browns; unfortunately for them, their Fall Classic opponents were thir crosstown rivals, the Cardinals, thus bring Saint Louis its only Subway Series ever. Surprise surprise, the Browns were quickly dispatched in six games by a Cardinals team which won three World Series in six years during the 40's.

In 1951, Bill Veeck bought the Browns. Veeck was a showman hated by the baseball orthodoxy for his wild antics and tack promotions. Saint Louis was the home of probably the best-known Veeck promotions that happened outside of Chicago: In one game, he gave the spectators placards with orders on them and instructed manager Zack Taylor to do whatever the spectators' placards said he should do, thus making the whole stadium manager for a day. In another stunt, he signed 3-foot-7 midget Eddie Gaedel to an actual contract and sent him to bat, under the orders to never swing. Since there wasn't a strike zone to speak of, Gaedel was walked on four pitches in his only at-bat, which gave him an on-base percentage of 1.000. There's a popular myth that Veeck had a guy with a high-powered rifle trained on Gaedel, with orders to shoot him if Gaedel took a swing. It blows me away that there are people dumb enough to believe it.

In the 1950's. Saint Louis reached its peak population of almost 860,000 people, but Veeck sensed a decline was near. (He was right, as it turned out; Saint Louis today has only about 320,000.) He didn't believe the city was large enough for two teams, so he was doing everything with the intent to drive the Cardinals out of town. He signed a lot of players who had been popular with the Cardinals, signed legendary Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean as a broadcaster, and grabbed Rogers Hornsby to manage. He destroyed all the Cardinals' material in their shared park and devoted it exclusively to the Browns. The team did start drawing again, because being a fan of the Browns was suddenly a lot more fun than going to watch the stodgy old Cardinals, who were starting to feel Branch Rickey's 1942 departure to the Brooklyn Dodgers. The 50's were the first decade since the 20's which would go by without the Cardinals winning a World Series, and their owner was caught evading taxes and forced to sell the team. Since credible offers to buy the Cardinals weren't coming in from local interests, Veeck was suddenly looking like the big bird in town.

Just as Veeck was uncorking his victory champaign, though, the credible local offer for the Cardinals showed up. The Anheuser-Busch brewery, makers of Budweiser, stepped up and specified the very intent of buying in order to help the Cardinals stay put. They also had far more money and resources than Veeck could ever hope to tap. Today, Anheuser-Busch still owns the Saint Louis Cardinals, and that's why Saint Louis is a Cardinals town and not a Browns town. Veeck decided he was better off not competing with his suddenly gigantic competitors, ceded Saint Louis, and looked to the Browns' original home of Milwaukee for relief. That move was blocked, though it was more for the personal reasons of people who hated Veeck. So he turned to Baltimore, where the city was looking to bring in some baseball after close to a half-century without. He was rebuffed again, and eventually had to sell out his business stake entirely because the people upstairs just hated him that much. Their blocked moves were an effort to push Veeck out of the sport. Don't feel too bad for him, though; in 1959, he returned to baseball in his defining gig, running the Chicago White Sox for over 20 years.

The Saint Louis Browns were moved for the 1954 season. Unlike the other teams who were moving around in that era like the Dodgers, Giants, Athletics, and Braves, the Browns decided not to cling to their past by holding on to their old name and history. They made a try to almost completely sever any connections to the old Saint Louis Browns. First, they renamed the team the Baltimore Orioles, a tribute to the old baseball teams of the city's rich baseball legacy. Aside from the National League dynamo of the 1890's and the early-century team which eventually turned into the Yankees, there was also a Baltimore Orioles team from 1903 to 1953 in the International League, one of the higher-level minor leagues. They had won nine league titles and in their earliest years, featured a young southpaw pitcher named George Ruth. Calling the MLB newcomers the Orioles only made perfect sense. Further distancing themselves from the past, they made a 17-player trade with the Yankees that included most of their more notable players in December 1954. It didn't do much for them on the field, but it did help them establish a new identity.

Paul Richards was both the manager and general manager of those earliest Orioles teams. They were the hip new attraction in the city, so they drew a lot even though they only posted a .500 record just once in their first few years. In the 60's, anyone who felt bad for the shitty team that even lost its home in Saint Louis stopped feeling so bad when the Oriole farm system started producing Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, and Dave McNally. In 1960, they finished second, the first time they were a factor in a Pennant race since 1944, or even further back if you want to discount that war fluke. It was a sign for the AL that, since the Browns weren't there to be anyone's doormats anymore, they were going to be the league steamroller from now on!

In 1965, pitcher Milt Pappas and a few other players were sent to the Cincinnati Reds for Frank Robinson. Frank Robinson was just what the Orioles needed. In 1966, he won the batting title and Triple Crown as he powered the Orioles to the World Series, where they swept the Los Angeles Dodgers. Instituting a policy of conduct which came to be known as The Oriole Way, the team stressed hard work, professionalism, and a strong understanding of baseball's fundamentals. Whatever they called it, it sure as hell worked, and the Orioles were one of the most feared teams in the American League from 1966 to 1983, a stretch which saw them win six Pennants and three World Series. They were the best team in MLB during that run. They produced three MVP's - Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and Cal Ripken Jr. They found four pitchers who won the Cy Young - Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer (who won it three times), Mike Flanagan, and Steve Stone. Three of the players were Rookie of the Year - Al Bumbry, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken Jr. Manager Earl Weaver, one of the greats, had his managerial savvy questioned by a reporter. A reporter quipped to the Orioles' general manager that Weaver was just a push button manager who benefitted from his talent. The general manager said back Weaver built the machine and installed the buttons.

After the 1983 title, the Orioles began to decline. In 1986, they suffered their first losing season in a long time. In 1988, they fielded one of the worst squads ever, a disaster that lost 107 games. They led sort of an up and down existence until the mid-90's under new owner Peter Angelos, a penny pincher who seems to treat his fans with contempt. In 1996, they returned to the playoffs, playing the ALCS against the Yankees. It was in game one that a young fan named Jeffery Maier interfered with a ball hit by Derek Jeter, thus awarding Jeter a home run which may or may not have impacted the game. The Yankees took that momentum to win the series after that, and eventually won the World Series that year. They went wire to wire in 1997, wiped out the Seattle Mariners in the first round, and lost the ALCS to the underdog Indians. After that year, the team's manager, Davey Johnson, resigned because of a dispute with Angelos. In 2001, longtime team cornerstone Cal Ripken Jr. retired, and the team took a nasty downturn.

The Orioles struggled in the millennium. Occasionally, they could tease; in 2005, they held first place for 62 days, before a rash of injuries to key players let the Yankees and Boston Red Sox take them down. In July, Rafael Palmeiro collected hit number 3000. That was a joyous occasion, and it would continue to be one of Palmeiro's career highlights if he didn't deny using steroids in March. That proved to be a nasty hit to his reputation, though, because 15 days after hitting number 3000, Palmeiro was caught violating the MLB drug policy and suspended. He filed for free agency at the end of the year, but no one took him up. His career is over. Sammy Sosa, also facing trouble for 'roiding up, put on his worst show in ages and enjoyed terrible relationships with other players and his batting coach. Basically, the Orioles were the 2005 equivalent to today's New York Jets in the NFL - a soap opera.

If they weren't already pissed, 2005 was the final straw for even longtime diehards. Angelos had screwed up in a thousand ways, insulted the fans, used new imagery which wasn't exactly embraced, and refused to call the team the Baltimore Orioles. He apparently had the belief that the Orioles were the Maryland and Washington DC team, because he had even taken the name "Baltimore off the road jerseys. Fans started staging protest rallies, with fans - who bought tickets! - walking out of games. The fans who didn't go in for that showed Angelos just how wrong he was to assume the state and capitol were both his. That year, the Montreal Expos moved in and became the Washington Nationals, and fans started defecting. That appears to have finally snapped Angelos back awake, and he gradually started rebuilding the team. They gradually got better, but still continued to play losing seasons until 2012, when they stunned the baseball world by winning 93 games and going a full five against the Yankees in the ALDS, a series the Yankees were quite lucky to win.

As the Saint Louis Browns and Milwaukee Brewers, the very distant past doesn't have a whole lot to include in Orioles lore. The Brewers had one Hall of Famer with Hugh Duffy. The Browns had a bunch, but the only two specifically there for contributions to the Browns are George Sisler and Bobby Wallace. Fortunes took a better turn in Baltimore, whose Hall of Fame players include Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, and Earl Weaver. Those same six guys are also the list of players whose numbers have been retired by the Orioles. Ripken got the special honor of being the one player in baseball history to ever appear in more consecutive games than the legendary Yankee Lou Gehrig. Gehrig was nicknamed the Iron Horse for starting 2130 games in a row, a record which many believed would never be touched. Ripken broke it in 1995. Naturally not a guy for a day off, he kept going. The absolute WORLD record for consecutive games played was 2216, held by Japanese League player Sachio Kinugasa. Ripken broke that record too, with Kinugasa in attendance. He kept going after that, too, and so both records were not just broken, but thoroughly shattered by a man who would eventually play in an incredible 2632 games in a row. On September 20, 1998, Ripken took a personal day for the first time ever. He said he did it to avoid any offseason controversy about his playing status, and to end it on his own terms. His replacement player that day, Ryan Minor, was a rookie that year and thought his teammate were pranking him when he was told he was slated to start.

The Orioles' biggest rivalries haven't felt like real rivalries lately, what with all their suckage and the non-suckage of the Yankees and Red Sox. They exist, though; Baltimore fans certainly haven't forgotten about them. Now they're competing against the Washington Nationals too. This contest is going to get very interesting in the coming years, since the Nats struggled as much as the Orioles upon first moving into their territory and are now hitting a peak which saw them post the National League's best record last season.

The Oriole Way doesn't seem a bad way to play ball. It's the team's very identity, and it worked for a long time. Although Peter Angelos seems to be a snake as an owner, the Baltimore Orioles have a glorious and dominant past even during the lowlights. In 1969, they were the first baseball team to ever lose the World Series to an expansion team; that was the year of the New York Mets' famed Amazin's squad, which won it all out of nowhere. Unfortunately, bragging about the past only invites mocking from more knowledgeable baseball fans, who know about those pesky days when the team was floundering as the Saint Louis Browns. Browns memorabilia is still available in some places.

It's a shame I can't give this team a better rating. Peter Angelos is still there, after all, and so are the Saint Louis Browns. But the Baltimore Orioles have given their longtime fans good reasons to be very proud of their team. There's a reason why, despite the Nationals defections, many other fans still haven't given up on them yet.

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December 02, 2012 still impress me with the amount of detail and work you put into your write ups.
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Nicholas Croston ()
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