Flashback: Spring training, Thomasville, Ga., and the “Oriole Way”

One of the major benefits to the Orioles’ move to Sarasota, Fla., from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., three years ago was the shortening of the distance between the club’s major and minor league spring facilities. Even though the O’s big league camp had been at Fort Lauderdale Stadium from 1996-2009, the minor leaguers remained at least a three-hour drive away at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, making it difficult to get pitchers extra innings against farmhands or for a major league manager to easily call on reinforcements from the organization’s lower levels.

But if you think the 202 miles between Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota was a difficult distance to bridge, have I got a trek for you. Back in the 1950s, when the Orioles were still in their infancy and had not yet settled in Miami, Fla., where they trailed from 1959-88, they spent part of their formative years conducting spring training in Arizona. Baltimore’s first spring training site was Yuma, Ariz., in 1954. After hop-scotching across the country to Daytona, Fla., in 1955, the Birds made Scottsdale, Ariz., their spring home from 1956-58.

During this time, however, the minor leaguers were 1,919 miles away along Interstate 10 in Thomasville, Ga., in the southernmost portion of the state, just north of the Florida panhandle. Known for its roses and not much else, minor league spring training in Thomasville was a leftover from the O’s predecessor, the St. Louis Browns, who had held workouts in the pine-ringed fields of a Veterans Administration facility since 1952.Thomasville.jpg

For eight weeks each spring, the players who would populate the rosters of the dozen or so lower farm clubs that had working agreements with the Orioles (everyone but the Double-A and Triple-A players, who trained with the big club) converged on Thomasville for eight weeks that took a decidedly military bent. They lived in barracks, ate in a mess hall, were awakened by “Reveille” and were drilled in fundamentals. Their teachers included the likes of Earl Weaver and Cal Ripken Sr. Paul Richards, then the club’s general manager, wanted the players at the lowest levels of the minors schooled in the same way so they could practice the game’s fundamentals in a consistent fashion from level to level - and not need to get a remedial course in, say, cutoffs when they moved up or down a rung on the organizational ladder.

That was the beginning of the vaunted “Oriole Way,” the black-and-orange handbook detailing the club’s philosophy on all aspects of the game, penned by then-farm director Harry Dalton and others in the early 1960s. “Having a distinct organizational playing style wasn’t revolutionary - several other teams did - but the Orioles were unbending in their convictions, and their later success helped generate the ‘Oriole Way’ nickname,” wrote John Eisenberg in “From 33rd Street to the Camden Yards: An Oral History of the Baltimore Orioles” in 2002. “It all started in Thomasville.”

By 1967, the Orioles’ investment in Thomasville had run its course, and the team’s minor leaguers began training in Fernandina Beach, Fla., north of Jacksonville. But the time in Thomasville left an indelible mark on the organization.

“It was the perfect environment to focus on baseball, which was what you were trying to do, because the more you could do that, the sooner you got to the big leagues,” Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer told Eisenberg for his book. “I had no money, no nothing, nothing to do. The facilities were horrible. Two Ping-Pong tables. If you lost, you waited two hours. It was the perfect environment to focus on the game. I don’t think they even had a TV. I just sat around the barracks and listened to George Bamberger tell stories about pitching. It was probably one of the better things that ever happened to me.”

Photos used in the “Flashback” feature come from the Orioles’ photo archives. From time to time this season, we’ll take a look back at interesting people, places and events in Baltimore baseball history through the camera lenses that captured them and lend a historical perspective to what’s shown.

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