Flashback: 1890s Orioles dynasty couldn’t prevent contraction (and a recommendation for “Deadball”)

A week in Ocean City, Md., does wonders for perspective. Yes, it’s August and the Orioles remain in postseason contention. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? But as I rode the Boardwalk tram last week, I was heartened by the amount of orange and black being worn from the Dunes Motel down to Trimper’s Rides and Amusements. Seems the Orioles have replaced the Steelers as Ocean City’s favorite team - really, shouldn’t they always have been? - if the absence of those annoying Polamalu and Roethlisberger jerseys is any indication.

Simply put, people like a winner. Well, most people. Historically speaking, baseball hasn’t always treated winners as well as you’d expect. Would you believe that an Orioles team that once won three consecutive championships was so reviled that it was contracted right out of existence? Yes, it really happened, and a book on my summer reading list intersects with a Charm City baseball history lesson in this edition of Flashback.

18902Orioles.jpgSee those nattily attired gentlemen to the right in this photo from the present-day Orioles archives? They’re the Baltimore Orioles of 1896. That stone-faced guy in the front row, second from the left, is third baseman John McGraw, a hard-nosed sort who was considered one of the dirtiest, meanest players of his era, as likely to spike an opposing second baseman as he was to hurl an obscenity-laced insult his way. Seated next to him (on the other side of the chicken - yes, the chicken) is “Wee” Willie Keeler, a sprite of a batting artist renowned for his “hit ‘em where they ain’t” philosophy more than his ample abilities in right field. The mustachioed man above Keeler’s left shoulder is Wilbert Robinson, the durable catcher nicknamed “Uncle Robbie” who once caught a tripleheader followed by a doubleheader on consecutive days that season. The stoic suited chap in the middle is Ned Hanlon, the manager, ringleader and babysitter for a team that was generally considered the baddest, most incorrigible collection of diamond talent in the 1890s. Legend has it these guys were fast and loose with the rules, hiding extra baseballs in the high outfield grass to nab unsuspecting runners who thought they’d hit a sure-fire extra-base hit, or grabbing opponents by the belts as they rounded the bases.

And did I mention how much they won? Playing in the National League, the 1890s Orioles were a downright dynasty, claiming the league championship each season from 1994-96 and posting second-place finishes the following two seasons. They tilted infield glass so that bunts ran fair to take advantage of their fleet feet, showing those who thought they knew baseball how small ball could be winning ball. Ever hear of the Baltimore chop? Adroit batters would pound the ball on the plate and cross first base before an opposing fielder could even imagine a throw by taking advantage of the high bounce. A rough-and-tumble crew, they practically invented the scientific side of the game that’s still employed. And they never get enough credit. Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, Dan Brouthers (who may or may not have been the protagonist in “Casey at the Bat”) - they never get sufficient credit for their place in Baltimore’s storied baseball history.

These bygone Birds scored 3,175 runs between 1894-96, won 89, 87 and 90 games, and garnered three championships. Ninety-six victories in 1898 were good enough for only second place. After a fourth-place finish the following season, they vanished, contracted by the National League much to the dismay of then-player/manager McGraw, who followed through on his threat to establish a team in the newly formed American League (by then, most of the Orioles’ top players had already beaten a path to the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were also owned by Harry Von der Horst). Unfortunately, those Orioles only lasted two seasons before being sold to New York interests, who renamed them the Highlanders and later the Yankees. Yes, those dreaded pinstripes are rooted in a team that once prowled Union Park up near 25th Street.

Those 1890s Orioles were stocked with stars, though the franchise was one of four contracted for financial reasons when the National League went from 12 to eight teams for the 1900 season. McGraw eventually wound up managing the New York Giants for three decades, often matching wits with old teammate Robinson, who skippered the Brooklyn Robins for 17 seasons. Hanlon later managed the Brooklyn Superbas and Cincinnati Reds, and his 1,313 career wins still stand as 28th most in baseball history. Kelley, once hailed as “Kingpin of the Orioles,” also managed in the bigs for the Reds and Boston Doves. All four eventually made their way into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., though their accomplishments are largely forgotten, relegated to sepia photos and oral histories.

All four share another common bond - they’re buried in New Cathedral Cemetery, a sprawling patch of West Baltimore real estate that is also home to period politicians, notable high rollers and Baltimore elite, whose final resting place is a mammoth homer from the baseball diamonds at Edmondson High School. I first discovered this fact when taking a class in the 1890s taught by the late James Arnquist at UMBC, and used a tour of the final resting place of some of baseball’s brightest stars as final exam project. New Cathedral boasts the distinction of holding more Hall of Famers than any other cemetery in the U.S. (according to this site, Maryland is the final resting place of 13 of baseball’s all-time greats).

McGraw, New Cathedral and those 1890s Orioles are also prominent players in “Deadball: A Metaphysical Baseball Novel” by David B. Stinson, a long-time coach and former litigator for the U.S. Department of Justice. A copy of the novel wound up in my mail slot several months ago and I set it aside for the first week of August next to the rooftop pool at Captiva Bay on 85th Street. I wish I hadn’t waited so long, and encourage you to check out this wonderful appreciation of Baltimore, baseball and history. It’s a good read, especially for your favorite baseball junkie.

“Deadball” focuses on mythical former Orioles farmhand Byron Bennett, whose career topped out at Triple-A Rochester and who now works in sales for the Double-A Bowie Baysox and lives in Ellicott City. He loves visiting old ballparks and their former sites, taking photographs from various angles for a book that may or may not ever be published, and in these travels takes a step back in time - time and time again - to a world he only knew through yellowed photographs and old-timers’ recollections. Too much information would be akin to a spoiler, so I’ll stop there, but Stinson’s effort shows much love of the game’s forgotten cathedrals, painstaking research and a genuine appreciation for Baltimore’s place in baseball history big and small.

Reading “Deadball” took me back to the days when my dad and I would venture to Memorial Stadium. My maternal grandfather managed the old Cannon Shoe Store on Greenmount Avenue, and our pregame ritual mandated subs from the Harley’s Sandwich Shoppe next door and a visit with Pop before heading to the ballpark. I couldn’t help but wonder, while reading Stinson’s words, why I’d never sought out the site of a ballpark so close by to Pop’s store. But you can be sure I’ll be venturing uptown soon to close that chapter - and to thank Stinson for his thoughtful blending of fiction and reality.

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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