Any city that comes with a built-in mascot – the orange-and-black bird known as Icterus galbula, the Baltimore oriole – surely has woven a place within the fabric of baseball lore, and the metropolitan hub known as Charm City hasn’t disappointed.
Only three years after the Cincinnati Red Stockings turned baseball into a vocation in 1869, the Lord Baltimores came into being. In a nefarious way, they were ahead of their time, preceding the Black Sox scandal by almost half a century with suspicions against them for throwing games.
The first professional Baltimore Orioles to which the city actually admits began operations in 1883. The team eventually joined the National League and signed future immortals John McGraw and Wee Willie Keeler, who played major roles when the Orioles strung together three championship seasons from 1894 to 1896.
They did it by creating what could euphemistically be called a hard-nosed form of small ball. The Orioles were prolific at bunts and base-stealing, but were better known for sliding spikes-high and even tripping players when they could get away with it.
This was the style of player-manager Foxy Ned Hanlon, who soon moved to the greener pastures of Brooklyn and took most of his favorite Orioles with him. McGraw was left to pick up the pieces, but soon, he also couldn’t resist the temptation to cast his fortunes in the Big Apple, basically leaving the Baltimore franchise rudderless and vulnerable.
And so it was that the team itself was ultimately sold to a pair of New York investors and moved to the Bronx in 1902, where it joined the American League. There weren’t many orioles frequenting the high branches of Gotham’s trees, so the new owners decided a name change was in order, something that reflected a cultural tie to the city.
Thus, the franchise was re-christened as the Yankees.
Major-league baseball wouldn’t return to Baltimore until 1954, when the St Louis Browns surrendered that city to the Cardinals and settled on a new home. The Orioles were born anew and quickly re-established their tradition of influence within the game.
Here are five of the more notable items in Baltimore’s legacy:
5. The Baltimore Chop
There’s a fine line between competitive intensity and villainy, and the first incarnation of Baltimore Orioles didn’t just cross it, they obliterated it.
Taking advantage of anything that could give them an edge – which was often not difficult, since games only had one umpire in the 19th century – Oriole players would cut second base completely when running from first to third and hide balls among intentionally tall grass in the outfield. Even the team’s fans would get into the act, using mirrors to shine sunlight in opposing players’ eyes and tossing balls that were even more ‘dead’ back into play in place of the original fouls that went into the stands.
It was only a matter of time before this audacity would go too far. The shenanigan that did it was paying the groundskeepers to bury cement blocks under the dirt in front of home plate.
With the blocks in place, Orioles hitters became quite skilled in the art of pounding pitches directly into the ground. The high, lingering bounces they produced gave them a few extra steps down the baseline before a fielder had a chance to make a play. And as a team built for small ball, Baltimore’s success rate was almost as high as the bounces.
If the National League had a double-secret probation back then, the Baltimore Orioles were on it. When the league decided to contract from twelve teams to eight, the Orioles topped the list. At the same time, Commissioner Ban Johnson was organizing the fledgling American League and jumped at franchises the NL abandoned. However, he would only take the Orioles if they were shifted to New York under more respectable management, which is how the investors there got involved.
Thus, the dastardly deeds of those 19th century Orioles were consigned to myth and legend. But ever since, any hitter whose swing results in a tall hop is said to have produced a Baltimore Chop.
4. Paul Richards Publishes the Oriole Way
Among the handful of Renaissance Men in baseball history, one of the least known but most influential was Paul Richards.
As a player who turned pro at the age of 17 and hung around until he was 40, Richards patched together eight years of major league service due to his proficiency as a catcher. The experience he gained in handling pitchers and directing defenses became the foundation of his managerial philosophy, first displayed when he skippered the Chicago White Sox to second place finishes behind the Yankee juggernaut from 1951 to 1953 and the Cleveland Indians in 1954.
Richards made the most of Chicago’s anemic offense by re-introducing small ball to a game that had become homer happy. This mix would propel the Go Go Sox to the 1959 World Series, but Richards was long gone by then.
The hapless St Louis Browns had moved to Baltimore in 1954, where they wasted no time in becoming the hapless Orioles. The team’s new owners were enticed by Richards’ concept that attention to detail could quickly compete against an abundance of talent, so much so that he convinced them to give him total control of the team. He thus became the first and only person to simultaneously be a general manager and manager since the days of John McGraw.
Richards wasted no time re-shaping the Orioles according to his views and because of his omnipotence:
- He immediately orchestrated a 17-player trade with the Yankees that will probably stand forever as the largest transaction ever engineered in baseball.
- He developed the oversized catcher’s glove to better accommodate knuckleballers like Orioles’ Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm.
- He was an early pioneer in the use of cross-checkers to confirm his scouts’ observations and opinions in their quest to find new talent.
- He created the On Base Percentage statistic before the term even existed. Calling it the “batting average with base on balls,” it aided his analysis of the team’s small ball endeavors.
Most importantly, Richards authored a manual that became known as the Oriole Way, a watershed moment in player development. It was a minutely detailed, systemized style of teaching the game’s fundamentals that he demanded every team in his farm system to follow.
Yes, Branch Rickey got the ball rolling when he was general manager of the St Louis Cardinals, creating the farm system concept of developing ballplayers though a series of minor league stepping stones, but Richards took it further. His book was a required methodology for everyone in the Orioles organization. He annually gathered all his organization’s managers and insisted they review every aspect of the manual in his presence so he knew they would teach it accordingly.
The Oriole Way gradually took root and was credited with Baltimore’s run of contention from 1964 to 1983. During that time, the Orioles logged 90-win seasons 16 times and won three World Series titles. It wasn’t long before most major league teams were compiling similar handbooks, emulating Richards’ vision of standardizing an organization’s player development program.
Ironically, the manual in vogue in baseball these days is the Cardinal Way. RIP, Mr Rickey.
3. Paul Richards Develops the Slider
Still, of all Richards’ innovations, nothing has permeated virtually every game played to this day than his development of the slider. It’s a pitch that’s about 10% slower than a fastball that breaks late, down, and away from the pitcher’s arm side. The late movement is what makes it so nasty.
The slider is actually a hybrid of a so-called ‘slip pitch’ Richards saw as a catcher for the minor league Atlanta Crackers. The wily veteran throwing it refused to share how it was gripped and released, so Richards was forced to study it from afar and come to his own conclusions.
While he shared these with the White Sox staff during his time in Chicago, the pitch had limited success. It was only when he refined the pitch’s delivery that it became effective in the majors. Richards taught hurlers to grip the ball along an outside seam with the index and middle fingers together and the thumb on the other side. Pressure is applied by the index finger upon release, and there’s no downward wrist snap. This makes the ball come off the hand with a sliding motion, hence the name.
The slider saved many a career as it spread throughout baseball and became lethal in the hands of aces like Bob Gibson, David Cone, and Steve Carlton, who made it his signature pitch. In fact, Carlton rode it to four Cy Young Awards. One of them came in 1972, when his 27 wins accounted for an astounding 46% of the last-place Philadelphia Phillies’ victories.
The slider has gone on to morph into related versions with names like slurve and cutter that have joined it in literally changing the game.
2. Camden Yards Leads to Return of Baseball-Only Ballparks
The Baltimore Colts’ shameful midnight exit to Indianapolis in 1984 so shocked Mayor William Donald Schaefer that he immediately accelerated efforts to ensure the Orioles wouldn’t follow. The dispute was over the worthiness of Memorial Stadium as a viable sports venue, due to a longstanding lack of upgrading its amenities.
Schaefer had a motivated point man in Orioles president Larry Lucchino, a protégé of famed Washington attorney and power broker Edward Bennett Williams, who owned controlling interests in the NFL Redskins along with the Orioles. Lucchino grew up in the shadow of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, which was built in 1919. Among other accomplishments, Lucchino was part of Bill Bradley’s supporting cast when Princeton made its old-school run to the NCAA Final Four. He was a man who respected tradition.
Lucchino had no use for carbuncles that were the cookie-cutter, multi-purpose stadiums devoid of personality proliferating sports in the 1960s, popping up in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St Louis, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and points beyond. His idea was to return the Orioles to a baseball-only park where old-time coziness would combine with modern amenities, doing their bit to make the project financially viable.
Assembling a top-shelf architectural team and grateful for Schaefer’s securing a downtown site, Lucchino oversaw the rise of Camden Yards in the city’s old railroad district. The stadium featured asymmetrical outfield dimensions, a view of Baltimore’s skyline, a family picnic area, two-tiered bullpens, wide concourses, and local food favorites such as former Oriole slugger Boog Powell’s BBQ, which is mandatory munching for many fans.
Club seats and luxury boxes catering to the more affluent fans were abundant while sightlines for the everyday fan were still intimate, which may be the most important aspect of the park’s design.
Camden Yards opened in 1992 and was an instant hit. Orioles’ attendance skyrocketed, and other cities noticed. Since then, over 125 stadiums have been built in its image, including every subsequent major league ballpark. Among the best is Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, a factor in sparking a revival at the Pirates’ turnstiles. It’s surely warmed the local boy’s heart.
Lucchino is the only known person to hold a World Series ring (Orioles and Red Sox), Super Bowl ring (Redskins), and Final Four watch (Princeton). However, perhaps his proudest achievement is having successfully returned ballpark ambience to baseball.
1. Baltimore is the Birthplace of Babe Ruth
The term superstar is tossed around ‘way too cheaply these days. A true superstar is one whose name is recognized by the world in general as a cultural icon. And one of the first ever to appear is still one of the greatest.
George Herman Ruth Jr re-shaped baseball in his image. His longball feats laid to rest the Dead Ball Era and diminished the impact of small ball. Until his arrival on the scene, the ironically monikered Frank ‘Home Run’ Baker held the post-1900 record for American League dingers in a season with 12, and Gavvy Cravath was the top bopper for the National League with 21. Keep in mind that balls bouncing over the outfield fence – what are now ground-rule doubles – were still home runs back then. None of Ruth’s 714 career blasts were in this category.
Baltimore is where Ruth discovered his talent. Consigned to a reformatory by his parents at the age of seven, he learned the game there, discovering his proclivity for belting a ball far, far away from home plate. His first professional team was the Baltimore Orioles in their minor league incarnation. Only 19, he was razzed by grizzled veterans who considered him to be the team owner’s ‘babe’.
It wasn’t long before Ruth was sold to the Boston Red Sox, ostensibly as a pitcher who had to convince the team to let him hit every now and then. This worked out so well that Harry Frazee, the BoSox owner, was able to sell Ruth to the Yankees for a sum sufficient to finance his latest theatrical production. The actual play was My Lady Friends, a non-musical that eventually was re-written under the title No No Nanette, the musical that gave us the tune, Tea for Two. Fortunately for Frazee, this eventually became a success.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the sale cost them a power hitter. Fans cited this as the reason for Boston’s failure to capture a World Series from 1918 to 1924, and the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ was born.
Upon his arrival in New York, the legend of baseball’s most famous player skyrocketed. The Yankees accommodated their biggest drawing card by wearing pinstriped uniforms to diminish perception of his girth and building a cathedral to his prowess, the descendant of which is true to the original and stands as baseball’s prime site to this day.
Bringing it full circle, Yankee Stadium – the ‘House that Ruth Built’ – served as an inspiration for Larry Lucchino and the Orioles when Camden Yards was conceived and designed. This roundabout ‘gift’ from a favorite son makes it even more appropriate that the bronze statue of a young Babe stationed at the gate welcomes fans to Orioles games in the city that gave America one of its most enduring heroes.