The Mighty Orioles

John McGraw

There is no question that the most famous team of the 1890s is the Baltimore Orioles (not to be confused with the modern Orioles). Their fame in some ways borders on infamy. They were tough, they were colorful, they were winners. They were the brawlers who put up great numbers and had unforgetable players.

There had been a Major League team in Baltimore as far back as 1872. None of them had done particularly well. There had been a second place finish a time or two, but no pennants. When the National League was formed in 1876 it bypassed Baltimore. The same was true of the American Association when it started in 1882. In 1883, the Association added the Orioles to their league. They finished last. In 1884 they rose to fourth and finished last, last, third, fifth, fifth, sixth, and fourth in the remaining years of the Association (1885-91). In other words, they weren’t very good very often. In 1892 the National League decided the American Association was dragging down the Major Leagues and convinced four teams, including Baltimore, to change leagues. It killed the Association and set up a twelve team league. For Baltimore nothing changed. They finished last. By 1893 they were up to eighth, then things did change.

The 1894 Orioles won the National League pennant by three games, marking a 29 game improvement (60 wins vs. 89). What happened? Essentially they changed their roster. Hall of Fame manager Ned Hanlon moved to replace or reassign most of his losing team. The infield of 1893 consisted of (from first to third) Harry Taylor, Heinie Reitz, John McGraw, and Billy Shindle.  In 1894 Dan Brouthers was now at first, McGraw had moved to third, and Hughie Jennings had taken his place at short. Only Reitz remained at the same spot in the field where he led all second basemen in fielding. The 1893 outfield was (from left around to right) Jim Long, Joe Kelley, and George Treadway. In ’94 Kelley (who moved from center to left), Steve Brodie, and Willie Keeler became the standard outfield.. Wilbert Robinson remained the catcher. In 1893 three pitchers won ten or more games: Sadie MacMahon, Tony Mullane, and Bill Hawke.  All three were still there in ’94 although Millane won only nine games. Kid Gleason and Bert Inks joined the staff as ten game winners. In other words, it’s basically a new team, particularly among the hitters.

For the three year span from 1894 through 1896, the former woebegone Orioles won three straight pennants, capping the ’96 race by 9.5 games. They slipped to second in 1897, losing to Boston by two games, then coming in second again in 1898, this time by six games.  In 1899 they dropped to fourth and were disbanded when the National League contracted in 1900.

The Orioles were noted for a rough style of play, some called it downright dirty. They would trip players rounding the bases, throw at batters, go into the stands to slug it out with fans. If you were from Baltimore you loved them. The rest of baseball hated them. But in all of that they played good team ball. In 1896, 1897, and 1898 they lead, as a team, the NL in several major offensive categories (and in ’96 it was almost all of them).  Except for Reitz in 1894 no Oriole led the league in any offensive category (Reitz led in triples in ’94) until 1897 and 1898 when Keeler led in hits runs and batting in ’97 and again in hits in ’98. Additionally McGraw led the NL in runs in 1898, and new outfielder Jake Stenzel picked up a doubles title in 1897. What they did was play as a team. The invented the “Baltimore chop” (hitting down on the ball to create an infield single). They get credit for the hit and run, although that’s disputed.

The defining player was John J. McGraw, the third baseman. He was tough, pugnacious, humorless, and a great ballplayer. As mentioned above he only led the league in a single category one time (runs), but he, more than manager Hanlon, set the tone for the team.  Unofficially, he led the team, and the league, in umpire baiting, ejections, fights, and creative use of the English language. All the while he was learning how to manage and soon after the turn of the century he would take over the New York Giants and become the second winningest manager ever (including three World Series victories).

During the Orioles run the Temple Cup series was played for a few years. This was a series of games played at the end of the season between the first and second place finishers in the National League. It was never very popular nor very successful and the pennant winner tended to not take the series seriously. Frankly they’d just won the pennant and had nothing to prove, so the games were viewed as exhibitions by the winners. Consequently, the second place team won most of the Temple Cup series’. The Orioles won the thing in 1896 and 1897.

Although Hanlon, McGraw, Jennings, Keeler, Brouthers, Kelley, and Robinson are in the Hall of Fame, it’s really tough to root for the Orioles. There’s just too much thuggery going on. I have to admit, though, I like their intensity and think I’d have enjoyed seeing them play at least a handful of times.

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