Posts Tagged ‘Baltimore Orioles’

“The Greatest Day of My Life”

March 21, 2012

Chet Laabs, a Browns stalwart

I actually knew a St. Louis Browns fan. My wife’s grandfather was born in the 1890s in the St. Louis area. He was just reaching an age when sports becomes important to a kid when the American League dropped a team in St. Louis to rival the Cardinals. He told me he became a Browns fan because they were new, and because he knew the Cardinals were terrible at the time. Unfortunately for him, the Cards got better and the Browns were traditionally awful. But in 1944 they won a pennant. The day they clinched the title he call “the greatest day of my life.” Then he looked around sheepishly to make sure no one else, especially his wife, had heard that claim. I made a promise that I would never tell either his wife or his daughter (my mother-in-law) he said that.

From the beginning the Browns were bad. They finished second in 1902 (OK, they weren’t bad the first season, but just wait), which is apparently what caught the attention of my wife’s grandfather. It was downhill from there. In 1908 they got back to the first division (4th), then stayed in the second division until 1920. They had decent runs in the 1920s, finishing as high as second (1922), third in 1921, 25, and 28. They finally found a handful of quality players. George Sisler was at first, hit .400, stole some bases, had no power. Ken Williams, Baby Doll Jacobson (they don’t make nicknames like that anymore, do they?), and Jack Tobin patrolled the outfield, and Urban Shocker was a better than average pitcher who went on to play for the 1927 Yankees.

It didn’t last. The 1930s were dismal. They finished as high as fifth once and the best they could do for an All Star was Harland Clift, a good ballplayer, but not a true star. Things got better in the 1940s. They finished third in 1942, the first war year, then won their first (and only) American League pennant in 1944. That year produced the above mentioned “greatest day of my life” moment for my wife’s grandfather. So in his honor, let’s take a moment and celebrate the stars of the only Browns pennant winner. The catcher was Red Hayworth, who hit .222 with an OPS just barely over .500. The infield consisted of  (from first around to third) George McQuinn, Don Gutteridge, Vern Stephens, and Mark Christman. If you’re lucky, you’ve probably heard of Stephens; and if so, it’s probably in conjunction with his stint with the Red Sox. The outfield had Gene Moore, Mike Kreevich, and Milt Byrnes. Chet Laabs was supposed to be the regular left fielder, but was off at war work for much of the season. He got back in time to play in the Series. The staff consisted of such household names as Denny Galehouse, Jack Kramer, Sig Jakucki, Bob Muncrief, and Nels Potter. All were right-handed and none went on to greatness. The main man off the bench was Al Zarilla, of “Zarilla slud into third” fame.  They lost to the Cardinals in six games.

“Zarilla slud into third” is a good way to look at the problem of the Browns. Their most famous member was up in the broadcast booth. Dizzy Dean became the Browns radio announcer and his mangling of the English language, but obvious baseball knowledge, made him a national figure. It’s tough to take the team seriously when the announcer is their most famous member. And for those interested, Dean pitched his last game, a four inning affair in 1947, with the Browns. It gave him 10 years in the Majors and a ticket to Cooperstown.

The 1944 season was the highlight for the Browns. By 1945 they slid back to third, despite getting 77 games out of Pete Gray (whose story is worthy of telling sometime). By 1946 they were seventh, moved to sixth in ’47, then never finished above seventh the rest of their time in St. Louis. Meanwhile the Cardinals were becoming among the best teams in baseball, and attendance, never very good, was falling at Browns games. In 1947 they brought Hank Thompson to the big leagues, becoming the third team to integrate. Thompson was a poor choice, the first ex-Negro Leaguer to be a failure, and the Browns were unable to profit from their foray into black baseball.

By the end of the 1953 season the Browns were in terrible shape. But in 1953 the Boston Braves had taken a flier and moved to Milwaukee. It worked. Their attendance was up, they went from seventh to second in the National League. Browns ownership decided to move. They picked Baltimore, jettisoned the Browns name and became the Orioles. Although they did well in attendance, the team was still miserable. By 1960 they were climbing up the standings, culminating in an initial World Series victory in 1966, giving them something that St. Louis never saw, a Browns winner.

And my wife’s grandfather? Well, he continued to follow the Browns after they moved to Baltimore. He told me he liked a number of the players and stayed with the team until those retired or were traded. By 1966, although gratified that the Orioles won, he’d switched his allegiance to the Cardinals, a team he remained loyal to until his death. And I kept my promise and never told either his wife or his daughter about his “greatest day.”

The Antithesis of Baltimore

March 25, 2010

Kid Nichols

There were two truly great teams playing in the National League in the 1890’s. Very few teams have been more unalike. The Orioles were loud, obnoxious, rowdy, obnoxious, dirty, obnoxious, full of fight (did I mention obnoxious?). Their counterparts were the Boston Beaneaters.

Unlike Baltimore, Boston had a tradition of winning teams, at least in the 1870s. The city could claim the last four National Association pennants and two of the first three National League pennants. They’d even won the only Player’s League championship.

After spending most of the 1880s outside the rarified air of pennant contenders, Boston got back in contention in 1889, then slid back in 1890 when the Player’s League raided them. One significant change occured in 1890, they brought in Frank Selee to manage the team. Selee was a minor league manager who had been incredibly successful and was brought on board to revamp the team. It worked.

The Beaneaters (as I’ve said before, what a terrible team nickname) were the antithesis of the Orioles. They played solid, fundamental, unspectacular baseball. They didn’t brawl, they didn’t fight. They hit well, they played good defense, and they pitched really, really well. Like Baltimore, they are credited with inventing the hit and run. I don’t know which, if either, actually did it. In 1891, ’92, and ’93 they won pennants and took the 1892 split season postseason series against Cleveland by winning five straight games after a first game tie. They slipped to third in 1894, fifth in ’95, and fourth again in ’96, then roared back to the top in both 1897 and 1898. They finished second in 1899 and finished the century in fourth.

Lots of players rotated through the Beaneaters during the final decade of the 19th Century, but the core of the team consisted of 10 or so players: first baseman Tommy Tucker, second baseman (and converted outfielder) Bobby Lowe, shortstop Herman Long, third baseman Billy Nash (who was replaced late in the run by Jimmy Collins), center fielder Hugh Duffy, the two left fielders Tommy McCarthy and Billy Hamilton, and pitchers Kid Nichols, Harry Staley, and Jake Stivetts. Of that crew Duffy, McCarthy, Hamilton, Collins, and Nichols (along with Selee) later made the Hall of Fame.

If John McGraw stood as the ultimate Oriole, the centerpiece of the Boston team was Kid Nichols. Along with Cy Young he is one of the greatest pitchers of the 19th Century. During the 1891-98 run he averaged 31 wins and 14 losses for a winning percentage of .688. He made the transition to 60’6″ and a mound easily, his record going from 35-16 to 34-14 at the change. In 1896, ’97, and ’98 he led the league in wins (you aren’t going to lead often if you have Cy Young in the league). For the century he was 310-167, a .650 winning percentage.

Like Baltimore, the Beaneaters didn’t do well in Temple Cup play, losing the only series (1897) they entered. As stated in earlier posts involving the Temple Cup, first place teams tended to take the games as exhibitons and figured that winning the regular season was enough. Boston was no exception.

These were the glory days of the National League team in Boston. The American League put a team in the city in 1901 and the Beaneaters waned about the same time. The new team, now the Red Sox, won and thus became the darlings of New England. The National League team faded in both the standings and in fans. By the 1950s it was in enough trouble it moved to Milwaukee. Although the new team in Milwaukee, and later in Atlanta, returned to glory, it was a sad end to a great franchise in Boston.

I hate to go out on a sad note. Late in their history, the Boston NL team, now called the Braves, called up a lefty pitcher named Warren Spahn. Put him together with Nichols and you get what is surely the best left-right combination produced by a single franchise in baseball history.

The Mighty Orioles

March 24, 2010

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.

William Temple’s Cup

December 18, 2009

Temple Cup

By 1894 the National League was the sole Major League, the American League not yet formed and the American Association defunct. It was a Big League (literally) with 12 teams. Noone thought it a good idea to run the League as two divisions, and a split season had been tried once and didn’t work. That meant that when th regular season ended, a champion was crowned with no postseason play. That could make for some awfully boring last months of pennant races. If you couldn’t get enough baseball, it was just too bad. Enter William Chase Temple.

Temple owned the Pittsburgh team and decided he wanted more baseball, postseason baseball, a close pennant race. So he offered a postseason series for possession of the Temple Cup, a garrish trophy to be presented to the winner of a best of 7 series at the end of the season. But wait a minute, there’s only one league. Where do you get the two teams necessary to hold a series? Simple, Temple argued. You take the league leader and the runner up and have them face off. It took some work, but Temple finally got the League to agree (it was difficult because if you’d already won the pennant, why jeopardize it with another series).

Between 1894 and 1897 the Temple Cup series was played annually. In 3 of the 4 years the second place team defeated the league champion, indicating that the champion wasn’t taking the Series too awfully seriously. After 1897 the series was discontinued and with one exception there was no postseason play until the modern World Series began in 1903.

The Cup? Well it took a while to track it down, but it was eventually found and now rests in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Temple Cup results:

1894-second place New York Giants beat the champion Baltimore Orioles (not the current Orioles) in 4 stratight games.

1895-second place Cleveland Spiders beat the champion Baltimore Orioles 4 games to 1.

1896-finally the first place team wins as the Orioles knock off the Spiders in a 4 game sweep.

1897-the second place Orioles defeat the champion Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves) 4 games to 1.