Counting the O's

James H. Bready

April 08, 1991|By James H. Bready

ON Opening Day, 1991, the 500th player name may appear in an Oriole box score from the modern era. Only four new names are needed to add to the 496 Orioles recorded since Opening Day 1954.

This combined roster is surely beyond the recollective powers of the most knowledgeable fan. Yet that list, even with the further increases that carry it to the year 2000, is never going to match the roll call for the first half of this century. The Orioles toiled then in the high minors, in what can be called generically the International League. From 1903 to 1953 inclusive (excepting 1915, when there were no Baltimore Orioles), their box score names totaled at least 900.

The problem in that era is not just remembering but rediscovering. The first minor-league game's first Oriole batter, at home on April 30, 1903, was second baseman Paca Childs -- probably, but not yet certainly, the same Pete Childs who is in the baseball encyclopedias as a 1901-1902 Philadelphia Phillie. The Oriole batter who made Baltimore's final International League out, on Sept. 22, 1953, in Rochester, N.Y., was Jackie Mayo. (That first game was a defeat, as was that last game.) Simply knowing both names for both players is good; especially in the early years, sports writers and guidebooks tended to cite surnames only.

The fan who compiled these International League Oriole names is Dave Howell, a staff member of WRC radio in Washington and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. At this point, his 50-year count comes to 867 players. For Woodley Abernathy (1934-1937) and Edward Zwilling (1918), he even has nicknames: Woody and Dutch. But for 141 of the 867, given names are still lacking.

Statistically, the majors' proverbial cup-of-coffee stay is likely to be longer than the minors' squirt from the water fountain. More coming and going went on in the pre-1954 minors (with their smaller squads -- sometimes only 17 or 18 players) than in the 1954-onward majors (with their 40-man September rosters).

Dave Howell, now 38 and a weekend press box regular at Memorial Stadium, is a lifelong Virginian and no relation that he knows of to the Howells on his list -- Dixie, Homer and Red. He started as a Senator fan, but Jim Gentile's rumbustious 1961 as the modern Orioles' first fence-buster converted Howell to inter-city living. Late in the 1970s, he envisioned a comprehensive player roster: names, Oriole years, position(s) played. At the Library of Congress and Cooperstown, N.Y., Howell combed the annual Spalding, Reach, Barnes and Sporting News baseball guides. Unhappily, for most years these tend not to list players who appeared in fewer than 10 games. To fill in, Howell must yet check the daily newspapers, on microfilm.

Originally entered on index cards, the list has only now been computerized. Howell wants it complete, before publishing, but a printout is at the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum and Baseball Center.

Why did no Baltimorean across the years have the gumption to perform this patriotic labor? "Beats me," says Howell.

A teamful of future Hall-of-Famers wore minor-league Oriole uniforms on their way up or down: Home Run Baker, Chief Bender, Lefty Grove, Rogers Hornsby, Hughey Jennings, Bob Lemon, Rube Marquard, Wilbert Robinson and, naturally, George H. Ruth Jr. The names compose an ethnic panorama, a Dickensian banquet (Birdie Cree, Walter Chipple, Clyde Kluttz, Tufeck Skaff, Adelphia Bissonette, Bingo Binks).

James H. Bready, historian of the Orioles, is a retired editorial writer.

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