Orioles fans woke up on this day in 1954, which was Easter Sunday, with a .500 baseball team in town. The 20,000-plus fans who headed to Memorial Stadium to see their 2-2 Orioles play were the last group to see a non-losing baseball team take the field in Baltimore. The O’s crept back to 4-4 with an extra-inning win in Chicago the following Friday and never reached the break-even point again.
It might seem like some consolation that those fans at the ballpark on Easter had the opportunity to see a young Don Larsen pitch. However, the 24-year-old Larsen, pitching in only his second big league season, was on his way to recording the most losses in Orioles history. Larsen dropped to 0-2 with the O’s 8-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers and finished the season with a 3-21 record.
Two of Larsen’s three wins in 1954 came against the New York Yankees, his soon-to-be employer. The O’s traded Larsen to the Yankees that offseason as part of a 17-player deal that brought Gus Triandos to Baltimore. Perhaps the Yankees were impressed by Larsen’s outing on July 30, 1954, when he hurled a complete-game shutout against them for his final victory of the year.
I’ve been struck for some time now by the contrast between seasons for Larsen, a 21-loss pitcher who was perfect in the World Series two years later. Perhaps it was a case of a young pitcher learning his craft. Larsen also enjoyed the benefit of moving from a very bad team to a very good one, which can certainly affect wins and losses (Larsen had a career high 11 wins against five losses in 1956).
A peek at some of Larsen’s numbers before and after the trade suggest that he did benefit from the backing of a better defense. His batting average on balls in play during that miserable 1954 season was .284, 10 points higher than the league average. His BAbip dropped to .241 in 1955 and bottomed out at .216 in 1956. He finished with a career .268 BAbip.
The Orioles committed 147 errors in 1954, seven more than the league average, which ranked them sixth in the eight-team American League. Billy Hunter’s 32 errors were the fourth-most by a shortstop that season. The 1956 Yankees committed 136 errors, which ranked third in the A.L. Third baseman Andy Carey led the team in errors with 21. Defense was at least part of the equation.
Most folks remember Larsen as the guy who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history; I associate him with one of the toughest seasons ever endured by an O’s pitcher. It was a mixed bag for Baltimore fans back then. They had to watch a guy the team traded away produce one of baseball’s most memorable moments just two seasons later. However, they enjoyed a full year of .500 baseball the year after that in 1957. That should have been some consolation.
Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. Follow him on Twitter: @RoarFrom34. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.