Ah, the Baltimore Orioles. One of ye olde teams which has stood stalwart in representations of one of ye olde base-ball townes since the time immemorial year of… Wait a minute… 1954?! Yeah, it’s surprising. The Baltimore Orioles are a team that has a weird habit of always seeming and feeling older than it is. Baltimore has the flavor of baseball. The Orioles are a stodgy team that keeps adhering to a code ripped from the bullshit you learn about the 50’s from school. They have that charming retro ballpark. But they came along more recently than you think.
To set the record straight, the Orioles ARE a very old team that has been around forever. They were an early member of the American League. But they spent their first several decades in St. Louis, as a hard luck team called the Browns which lost a lot of ballgames. There’s a reason you don’t know that, and it’s a pretty deliberate one.
First, though, we get to visit Milwaukee. In the late 19th century, the team was called the Milwaukee Brewers. They were in the Western League, and they happened to be there when Western League president Ban Johnson declared it a major league and renamed it the American League. Johnson’s plan all along was to move the Brewers to St. Louis, but he got stuck operating them himself during an ill-fated year in Milwaukee when he couldn’t find a suitable buyer for 1901. The next year, wouldn’t you know it! He found his suitable buyer! So off the Brewers went to become the St. Louis Browns, the name being a reference to the club from the 1880’s that eventually became known as the Cardinals.
For all their reputation, the Browns managed to finish in second place in their first season in St. Louis. Of course, any amateur sports historian knows what happened from there: It was all downhill, baby! Yeah, that second-place finish didn’t start a trend or anything, as the Browns only had four winning seasons in the next 20 years. They proved to be the more popular team at the gate, though, and they swamped the Cardinals during those two decades. The thing the Browns got to be best known for is the 1910 batting champion race. The race that year was between Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb, and you may notice that neither one of those guys ever played for the Browns. What happened was that on the last day of the season, Cobb had a slight lead over Lajoie which he thought would hold up unless Lajoie was perfect at bat. So instead of risking everything to prove himself one more time, he took the day off. Meanwhile, Lajoie’s Cleveland Naps played against the Browns. Browns manager Jack O’Connor ordered third baseman Rob Corriden to play on the outfield grass, which would guarantee a hit to Lajoie if he decided to bunt in that direction. Which Lajoie did. Five times. On his last at-bat of the day, Lajoie got to base on an error, which is officially a hitless at-bat. That meant Cobb would be taking the batting title by just a few thousandths of a point. But Cobb was also a bit of a dick, no one liked him, and no one wanted him to win. So O’Connor and coach Harry Howell tried to bribe the scorekeeper into changing the error to a hit. It didn’t take. When the scandal broke, the outcry was so bad that Ban Johnson investigated it. O’Connor and Howell were both fired and basically banned from baseball.
In 1916, the Browns got sold to Philip DeCatesby Ball, who had previously owned the St. Louis Terriers of the defunct Federal League. He brought with him a willingness to throw money at everyone and everything, and from there, the Browns managed to become regular contenders during the early 20’s. Unfortunately, Ball also made a series of bad decisions which ended up backfiring in a big way. First, he fired Branch Rickey. Yeah, THAT Branch Rickey. The guy who changed all of baseball on two different occasions. That firing is what resulted in Rickey getting snapped right back up by the Cardinals. After that, Ball allowed the Cardinals to move out of their home field to share Sportsman’s Park with the Browns. Although that might have seemed like a decent idea at the time, Cards owner Sam Breadon and Rickey realized the Cards could turn a tidy profit if they sold their old place, Robison Field. So that’s what they did. Then Branch Rickey took the money they made and invested it into a system of farm teams that the Cardinals could use to develop prospects, thus changing baseball and bringing the Cardinals to respectability.
1922 did produce an outstanding year, though. The Browns probably had the greatest roster they ever fielded during their years in St. Louis; it included George Sisler, Ken Williams, Baby Doll Jacobson, and Jack Tobin. Those last three combined for a batting average of .300 or better every year from 1919 to 1923, and they did it again in 1925. 1922 was the year the 30/30 Club was founded: 30 home runs and 30 steals in a single season, and the guy who founded it was Williams. No one did that again until 1956. Unfortunately, the Browns never were able to find that elusive Pennant. This was the Roaring 20’s now, and the Browns were an American League team. In the previous 20 years of Major League Baseball, the AL had a sort of pity team in New York City known colloquially as the Highlanders or simply the Americans. They were there because it was New York City and if you had any designs on being a major player in anything, you HAD to have some sort of a presence there. Generally, they were anywhere between mediocre and good, and never really were able to compete with the Brooklyn Dodgers or New York Giants for affection from fans. But by the early 20’s, the AL’s New York Team – now known once and forever as the Yankees – bought baseball’s great superstar, Babe Ruth, and he established the Yankees as the greatest force baseball had ever seen. Yes, the Browns were plenty good; hell, Ball even predicted a World Series for them by 1926, and he even went so far as to increase the capacity of his park in anticipation of one. But as with all such predictions, he looked stupid once it was established that the Browns were just another team for the Yankees to plow over.
Life was difficult enough for the Browns with them having the misfortune of being good in the era of the Yankees’ mighty Murderer’s Row. But what made things even worse was the fact that the farm system Branch Rickey had created for the crosstown Cardinals was starting to pay off. Although St. Louis was the Browns’ town for the previous two decades, the Cards were beginning to emerge as a force in the National League. To Ball’s credit, Sportsman’s Park DID see the World Series in 1926. It just didn’t involve his team. The Cardinals played against the Yankees and won an upset victory. That was enough to establish the Cardinals as the superior team both at the gate and on the field, and the Browns started to spiral downward rapidly. From 1927 to 1943, they had two winning records. Ball died in 1933, and it was Rickey who helped broker a sale to Donald Lee Barnes.
It didn’t take very long for Barnes to talk himself into thinking he wasn’t going to turn a profit in St. Louis. Los Angeles approached him in 1942 – by then, Los Angeles was larger than every other baseball city and, in fact, every other city in the United States at all except New York City and Chicago. Barnes managed to get approval from the league to move there for the 1942 season, but the timing proved to be disastrous. There was this little scuffle in Europe that had started a couple of years before, and in late 1941, the United States got hit with a little bit of residue from it. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December, the United States officially entered World War II, the the move got nixed because baseball expected travel restrictions to be too stringent to get to and from the west coast in a timely fashion.
World War II had an effect on baseball that went further than that. A lot of the league’s biggest stars were drafted into the war effort, and that meant a lot of baseball rosters were stocked with leftovers. The Browns didn’t get affected badly by that, though; most of their players were classified 4-F, which means they were considered unfit for military service. And in 1944, with the war effort in full swing, it meant that the Browns were able to go roundabout in baseball. They fed off every depleted roster in the AL and won their only Pennant. That Pennant ultimately didn’t amount to very much, though. Their opponent was also their in-city foe, the Cardinals, and so the 1944 World Series is the most recent single-stadium World Series in baseball history. The Cardinals won the Fall Classic in six games.
The Browns followed that up with an 81-win campaign in 1945 which resulted in third place. They signed a utility player that year, Pete Gray, who was missing an arm. But 1945 was the Browns’ last winning season. In 1951, the team was sold to Bill Veeck, who was loved by a few and hated by most establishment people for making baseball fun. It was in the 50’s that modern American started to take shape, and baseball took note of that and started moving. Many of the old two-team markets became single-team markets. Veeck saw this too, and started a campaign to drive the Cardinals out of town. With everything stacked against the Browns, Veeck resorted to his usual shenanigans: In one game, he let the spectators hold up signs for his manager deciding what moves to make during the game. In another, he signed dwarf Eddie Gaedel to a contract and told him to take four pitches to get on base. (A baseball legend says Veeck had a sniper on the roof to blow Gaedel’s head off if Gaedel tried to swing. Here’s how fucking stupid baseball fans are: The number of idiots dumb enough to believe this is not insignificant.) He stripped the stadium of everything that had anything to do with the Cardinals. While the Browns never finished any more than 31 games out of first during Veeck’s ownership, his stunts made Browns games fun and unpredictable. But there was a dynamic at play there that was similar to that of every other two-team city: The fun team against the good, storied, successful team. In New York City, we have the powerful Yankees against the loose, playful Mets. (I’m from upstate New York and think of myself as a Mets fan who happens to cheer for the Yankees instead.) In Chicago, the good but traditional Cubs fight it out against the rogue White Sox. (When I moved to Chicago, I adopted the White Sox over the Cubs because I noticed this.) And in St. Louis, that happened as well. The Browns were unpredictable and exciting but couldn’t tell first base from third base. The Cardinals were conservative and stodgy but REALLY good. For a hot minute, though, Veeck looked like he was going to succeed. But then the Cardinals were rejuvinated when the Anheuser-Busch Corporation bought them. Now the Cardinals had nearly unlimited funds, and Veeck could only save face and dignity by leaving.
Veeck tried to move them back to Milwaukee, but here’s how much other owners hated him: They kept blocking him for reasons that were completely personal. Then he got in touch with the mayor of Baltimore, a city looking for a new team after half a century of not having Major League Baseball. (There was an original team in the AL there, but they are the team the Yankees trace their lineage back to.) That moved was also disapproved, mostly because the other owners wanted to get rid of Veeck. Once Veeck sold the Browns, baseball magically gave its approval for the Browns to move to Baltimore.
What I like to imagine next is the new owner of the Browns and a pair of his assistants walking into a big room full of commemorative stuff. “Wow, look at this,” he says. “So much history in this room. Decades of memories and history…” Then he turns to his two cohorts and asks, “You brought the gas and matches, right?” The cohorts smile and nod. “Good. Burn this shit to the ground. If it can’t be burned, smash it. If anything’s left, I’m firing your asses.” That pretty much sums up what the new Baltimore team – named the Orioles to honor Baltimore’s previous baseball history – did to the Browns. Most teams that move try to maintain a sense of continuity and legacy to connect with who they used to be. The newly-christened Baltimore Orioles went the opposite way – they fucking castrated theirs, then salted the earth. The current Orioles don’t try to claim any history with the Browns. They left that to St. Louis, now strictly a Cardinals city with a preservation society for the Browns. There’s nothing in Baltimore to remind anyone that the St. Louis Browns ever existed. St. Louis has an exhibit on the old Browns in its history museum, a preservation society to help keep their history, and the Cardinals sell a small selection of Browns gear in their stadium shop.
As for the Orioles, they didn’t get off to the greatest start. To begin, cutting off their ties to St. Louis also meant cutting most of their players from St. Louis too. Of course, this WAS the Browns we’re talking about, so we can safely assume the Orioles weren’t going to be any good even if they had kept them. But Paul Richards, who was both the manager and the general manager, had a plan in mind which he stuck to. And what Richards decided to go with was apparently the plan the former crosstown rivals of the former Browns used successfully for decades: Develop a farm system and start bringing home-grown players into the bigs using it. Slowly but surely, the Orioles did that, developing players like Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, and Dave McNally. It helped things along that the Orioles were a greater gate attraction in Baltimore than they had ever been in either St. Louis or Milwaukee. By the early 60’s, they were were a contrast to what they were in the past: A team that won repeatedly.
In 1965, the Orioles traded pitcher Milt Pappas to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Frank Robinson, and as if that flipped a switch, the Orioles completed their transformation into everything the Browns weren’t. They were skilled, they were powerful, and they were a team that very rarely lost ballgames. From the early 60’s to the late 80’s, the Orioles recorded only two losing seasons. 1966 was their coming-out year. The Orioles went 97-63 to win the Pennant and totally hammered the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. In fact, not only did they sweep the Dodgers, they held the Dodgers to TWO RUNS. FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES. In game two, Orioles 20-year-old pitcher Jim Palmer dueled against legendary Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax, who was in his prime and won 27 games. Koufax gave up four runs in a 6-0 loss before being pulled in the seventh inning.
In 1968, Earl Weaver took over as manager. With the Yankees now beginning the period where their corporate ownership had them rolling over and dying, the Orioles became the winningest team in baseball. They even managed to form a mini-dynasty from 1969 to 1971, during which they won three Pennants in a row. 1969 was the first year of baseball’s divisional alignments, and it was the Orioles who won their division, followed up by the Pennant. Going into the World Series, they were the heavy favorite to vanquish the upstart New York Mets. The Mets were created in 1962, and they finished in last every year of their existence until that very year. Then in 1969, they made an incredible run to first and win the NL Pennant. The Mets went 100-62 and it shocked everyone. The Orioles went 109-53 and were damn near flawless. Those 109 wins, in fact, were the record for MLB divisional play until the Yankees won 114 games in 1998. (What? Did you think it would be the Toronto Blue Jays?) The Orioles rolled to a 4-1 victory in the first game… Only to lose the following four games and the Series. They recovered the next year, though, with a 108-54 year and a World Series victory over the Reds. A 101-57 year followed that, but the Orioles fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a World Series that went the distance.
Weaver was sometimes disregarded because he inherited a talented team. Weaver Ball came into vogue – a style defined by the Oriole trifecta of pitching, defense, and the three-run home run. Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and Cal Ripken Jr. were all named league MVPs during the era. Four of their pitchers – Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, and Steve Stone – combined to win six Cy Youngs. Al Bumbry, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken Jr. all won the Rookie of the Year award. There was, however, an instance where a reporter told one of the Orioles’ general managers that Earl Weaver was just a push -button manager. The general manager flipped out and scolded him by saying that Weaver was the one who also built the machine and installed all the buttons.
The Orioles stayed dominant throughout the 70’s, but the stars of the 60’s were starting to get older, so the next Pennant didn’t arrive until 1979. The Orioles capably swapped out the old players for new ones, including Palmer and Murray. The team went 102-57 that year, beating the California Angels in the ALCS. They were matched against the We Are Family edition of the Pirates, and they fell again in seven games. But even though they lost the Series, being the class of baseball paid off, because the local teams in and around Baltimore were taking some hits. The NFL’s Baltimore Colts, once the powerhouse of the league, started to suck and were uprooted and stolen by Indianapolis just a few years later. The other baseball team around, the Washington Senators, was out the door in 1971. Baltimore’s basketball team, the Bullets, went down the road to Washington in the mid-70’s. With the Orioles being what they were, they became a civic institution that no one could imagine Baltimore ever not having.
Cal Ripken Jr. broke into the league with the Orioles in 1982. The next year, the Orioles went 98-64, winning another Pennant which they followed with another World Series title when they hammered the Philadelphia Phillies. No good team truly runs forever, though, and the Orioles finally started to weaken after that title. In 1986, they recorded their first losing season since 1967. 1988 was a disaster which is still one of the worst seasons ever posted by any team. The Orioles lost their first 21 games, and ended with a record of 54-107. They did managed to rebound the next year, though, with surprise ace Jeff Ballard taking them to an 87-75 record for a second place finish. Frank Robinson, who was now managing the team, was named Manager of the Year.
The Orioles stayed competitive through most of the 90’s. Ripken won an MVP award to kick off the decade in 1991. And in 1995, Ripken made a big splash when he broke a record long thought unbreakable: He played in his 2131st straight baseball game, breaking the record of consecutive ballgames Yankees great Lou Gehrig played in. The Orioles were always in the playoff races, and were legitimate Pennant contenders a few times, but everything they built started crashing in 1993 when the team got sold to Peter Angelos. Now, Angelos didn’t seem that bad in the beginning; his first major hire was Pat Gillick, the Blue Jays general manager who won two World Series. Gillick brought in players like BJ Surhoff, Roberto Alomar, and Randy Myers, along with manager Davey Johnson. With them, the Orioles nearly broke through in 1996. They went to the playoffs, upset the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, and then were stopped by the Yankees in a series which too many people believe was decided by a fan who interfered with a fly ball hit by New York’s Derek Jeter. Following up that year with a division title, they beat the Seattle Mariners in the ALDS, then were upset by Cleveland in the ALCS.
On September 20, 1998, Ripken finally sat out for a game after playing in a whopping 2632 straight games. It was a perfect metaphor for the Orioles. Gillick’s contract also expired in 1998 and wasn’t renewed, and Davey Johnson resigned after the year. The Orioles took an immediate downturn. Their replacements weren’t nearly as capable, and a lot of the team’s big stars left. Bad management and terrible play started plaguing the team. Also, Angelos was a bad owner who seemed to regularly gouge and insult his fans. In 2003, the team finally took a wake-up call from its fans and made a lot of changes. They hired a new vice president of baseball operations and a new executive vice president, brought on Lee Mazzilli to manage, and signed powerful new hitters like Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, ex-Oriole Rafael Palmiero, and Sammy Sosa. Everything was looking like it would pay off soon by 2005, and that year, the Orioles hit the ground running and spent 62 days in first place. But there was a lot of turmoil both on and off the field, and the team started slipping around the All-Star Break. Injuries to a lot of key players all came within weeks of each other, Palmeiro collected his 3000th hit but got suspended for drugs just 15 days later, Mazzilli was fired in August, and Sosa turned in his worst performance in a decade.
2005 was also the year a new threat appeared to the Orioles. The Montreal Expos had been in bad shape for awhile, and in 2005, they were given approval to move to Washington. Angelos was the only one who objected to the move, of course, because he had a captive audience in Baltimore and didn’t want to run the risk of having them jump ship at the expense of his cheapness. There was a bit of hope, though, that Angelos would finally get his act together and be spurred into real action at the prospect of mass fan abandonment, especially once the Nationals became good. Angelos seems to have taken the hint. In 2010, he hired manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette, and the two of them began a major overhaul. Adam Jones came up and is looking like a superstar. The team traded for Jason Hammel, and started signing players from minor leagues and from Japan. By 2012, the Orioles returned to prominence – closer Jim Johnson had 51 saves, and every pitcher on the starting rotation recorded ERAs under 3.00. Unfortunately, they’ve also been consistently running into trouble in the playoffs, so baseball fans are still waiting for the next Pennant. Still, it looks like the baseball process known as The Oriole Way is back in Baltimore, and here’s hoping Peter Angelos doesn’t start letting his greed get the better of him again.
The Baltimore Orioles have retired the numbers of Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., Earl Weaver, and Eddie Murray. Murray was the team’s only Captain. Ripken gets noted most for his streak: It’s the easiest thing ballplayers are asked to do, but so few of them are able to do it with such consistency. Ripken played in 2632 straight ballgames. Concentrating on that streak, though, does him a bit of a disservice. He’s also a player who was invited to 19 All-Star games, compiled 3184 hits, hit 431 home runs, batted 1695 runs in, won eight Silver Sluggers, and was a two-time MVP. The MVP is an award that always stands out. There are people who write off his achievements as a result of his longevity, and that’s a fair point; there’s a powerful case to be made that Brett Favre’s streak of starts is more impressive. I would be more sympathetic to the case against Ripken if he was a designated hitter or spent his career tucked away at first base or right field, but he didn’t – he was a shortstop and a third baseman, which means he was responsible for catching the ferocious darts and line drives that came his way.
The success of the Orioles can be attributed to an actual baseball methodology called The Oriole Way. Cal Ripken Sr. – who also played for the Orioles for years and then served as a coach – summed it up with the phrase, “Perfect practice makes perfect!” The Oriole Way, however, really wasn’t all that extraordinary. It was the belief that professionalism, hard work, and good fundamentals could turn anyone into a success. What it did that a lot of other teams didn’t do was push that belief that every coach in the organization should be teaching baseball the same way, which would result in the Orioles having a group of players in their minor league system that could be brought up into The Show and integrated into the Orioles with little, if any, adjustments. The results showed in the Orioles’ run of dominance. It’s pretty hard to argue with the results they were getting.
Part of the appeal, charm, and image of the Orioles comes from their ballpark, Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The architect, HOK Sport (now known as Populous), was hired because it created a good reputation by creating a beautiful retro-style baseball stadium for a minor league team, the International League’s Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons stadium, Pilot Field, was considered the great palace of the minor leagues when it was built in 1988, and it still has plenty of acclaim today. Camden Yards was the stadium that introduced the retro craze to Major League Baseball. The stadium weaved a nearby warehouse, B and O Warehouse, into its architecture. Instead of being demolished, the defunct warehouse now contains offices, service spaces, and a private club. It was only hit by a home run once, by Ken Griffey Jr. in 1993 during the All-Star Home Run Derby. Eutaw Street, which sits between the stadium and the warehouse, is closed to vehicle traffic and has many bronze plaques which mark spots that were hit by home runs. There are those, though, who aren’t too keen on the name; the Earl of Camden never set foot in America. Some people would even prefer to have it named Ruth Park, after Babe Ruth. But that’s just as ridiculous; Ruth is defined and associated with the Red Sox and Yankees, and he finished his career with the Boston Braves. He was born in Baltimore and he started his career with the minor league Orioles, but that’s not much of a connection to go on.
The Orioles also have a tradition with The Star-Spangled Banner which is rivaled by only a handful of other teams. The NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks created a fan tradition where the crowd stands up and roars while it gets played. Fans of the Orioles yell out the “OH!” in the song’s first line. It’s a tradition that managed to float out of Baltimore and into some of the neighboring states at other sports events. Baseball fans in Norfolk were doing it even before their minor league team, the Tides, was one of the farm teams for the Orioles. Orioles fans also did it for Cal Ripken Jr. when he was inducted into The Baseball Hall of Fame. They did it for Barack Obama when he made a pre-inauguration visit to Baltimore. And they did it at the Super Bowl a few years ago when the Baltimore Ravens played against the San Francisco 49ers. And while we’re on celebrating America through tradition, the Orioles also have a unique habit of displaying the country’s only 15-star, 15-stripe flag during their final homestand of the season.
It’s no wonder the Baltimore Orioles have created such a passion among their fans. Here’s how passionate Orioles fans are: While Peter Angelos was fucking up the team, Orioles fans staged mass walkouts from games. Think of what that entails: Buying a ticket that the team owner gouged you for out of your ass, with the strict intention of leaving that game early. No, the Orioles may not be the juggernaut they were a few decades ago, but that doesn’t mean they don’t offer a thousand different rewards for following them.
Seem like they’ve been around forever; The Oriole Way provides a master class of professionalism which is admirable; visiting a retro ballpark that makes a great outing no matter what; owner seems to actually be trying now
Current logo looks like a damn cartoon; The Oriole Way is a master class in getting even the Yankees to think they’re too pretentious; owner would still be fucking the team right over if the Nats weren’t two hours down the road threatening to siphon his fanbase
Should you be a fan?
Well, you’ll have to deal with the fact that the Baltimore Orioles are as close to being Yankees-like as a team can get without actually being the Yankees. But on the other hand, no one will hate you.