Only war could stop early Oriole Flanigan from fulfilling promise

John Steadman

April 16, 1993|By John Steadman

Memories of Ray Flanigan signal a time in the history of the Baltimore Orioles, pre-dating their advancement to the major leagues, when he was regarded as a momentous pitching prospect. He won an International League game before he even graduated from high school.

Flanigan died at age 70 from chronic leukemia and leaves three daughters. One of them, Maureen, explained he frequently talked about his pitching past but never brought up the subject of World War II, where he received a battlefield commission and saw a violence that he preferred not to discuss.

His baseball career was promising but never reached the heights anticipated. He was an Oriole at a time when the manager, Tommy Thomas, had a strong liking for homegrown prospects. Because Thomas had made the transition from high school to the Orioles and on to an extensive major-league career, primarily with a fastball, he was impressed with others endowed with the same natural weapon -- an ability to throw hard.

During Thomas' regime as manager of the Orioles, he concentrated on giving opportunities to pitchers from Baltimore-area high schools, believing the best of them, if developed, could follow his same path. If their fastball was alive then that added to their allure and his interest in having them join the Orioles.

Flanigan, a Polytechnic product, was considered a prize. He had the size (6 feet, 190 pounds), a smooth delivery and velocity that turned heads. Not only had the Orioles signed Flanigan but also others with similar backgrounds, including Gordon Mueller of City College, Russ Niller of McDonogh, Dick Waldt of Calvert Hall, Alex Ronay of Forest Park and, earlier, Don Kerr. Mueller made it to the Boston Red Sox, Kerr to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Flanigan and Mueller were sold by the Orioles to the Cleveland Indians. The Indians also selected, at various times, catcher Milt Stockhausen and infielder Ted Sepkowski, both from Baltimore. Still another was Vernon Pete "Turkey" Taylor, who went from high school to the Orioles and then the St. Louis Browns.

The Orioles, when Thomas was manager, concentrated on Baltimore talent in the late 1930s and 1940s. Maybe he was influenced by more than provincialism. At the time, big-league scouts generally agreed Baltimore amateur baseball rated with the strongest in the country, comparable to what was played in Detroit, St. Louis and San Francisco.

Among all the players Thomas recruited from Baltimore, the pitcher he felt would be most outstanding was Flanigan. Before he even graduated from Poly, he had pitched for the 1941 Orioles and beaten the Syracuse Chiefs, 3-2, going the distance and not giving up a hit until the seventh inning.

"This youngster has a fair curve, but his fastball is his best pitch," said Thomas. "He certainly is a good-looking pitcher and I'm sure Ray has a great chance. In fact, I think we have three

young pitchers with definite promise. The others are Gordon Mueller and Russ Niller."

Thomas signed Flanigan off two observations, both times when Poly lost during the 1941 season to City College. So, after being beaten by City and Dick Working, he won his first start in the International League. It came out of desperation. Before the Flanigan debut, the Orioles had utilized 42 pitchers in their previous 15 games.

World War II, as it did with so many others, took away what would have been Flanigan's productive seasons. He was in the Army, with the 2nd Division, and as an infantryman landed at Normandy a week after D-Day. He subsequently received five battle stars in Europe and served over 200 days in combat while helping push the Germans into defeat.

Ray received a battlefield commission but rarely talked of his experiences. In 1946, with peace restored, he came back to baseball, briefly for Cleveland and then returning to Baltimore to work at Bethlehem Steel and then Maryland Cup.

He was never the same pitcher and life had a different meaning, as it did with so many other athletes who survived the war. Ray Flanigan remained the focus of a fading era when the Orioles were a minor-league club, developed their own players and then sold the best ones to major-league teams.

Flanigan went from a high school standout to Orioles hero just by taking a street car ride.

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