100 years ago, pennant fever swept through Baltimore THAT WINNING SEASON

April 03, 1994|By Patrick A. McGuire

"Two seconds after the last Cleveland man was out, old whitehaired men jumped and hip-hipped. Hundreds of men were shaking hands everywhere. The noise was loud enough to give a deaf man a headache. Scores rushed to the nearest saloon. Prohibition men swarmed to dairy lunch rooms and plunged recklessly into buttermilk. Men were laughing, girls were giggling, boys were yelling, horses braying, dogs barking. Workmen wouldn't work, salesmen couldn't sell, buyers absent-mindedly asked for a yard of pennant instead of ribbon. Never had the people such an over-all good feeling as on the glorious 25th of September, when the Baltimores settled this championship business."

-! From The Sun, Sept. 26, 1894.

So many times that season, Willie Keeler, the little man they called "Wee Willie," would step into the batter's box and nod to his scrappy Oriole teammate John McGraw, already aboard at first.

Stood end to end, these two half-pints didn't measure 11 feet, but they were more than a measure of sweet trouble: McGraw suddenly darting toward second, the opposing infielder leaving his position to cover the bag, Keeler waiting patiently until the very last moment then place-hitting the ball with scientific precision into the exact spot where the slack-jawed fielder had just stood.

By the time the dust cleared McGraw was at third and Keeler at first. And boisterous baseball fans, known then as cranks, who'd turned out by the thousands that summer at Union Park on Barclay Street, were left buzzing with talk of this new-fangled "hit and run" business.

Undoubtedly, in this hundredth-anniversary season of Baltimore's very first championship in any sport, the hit-and-run play seems tame. But in 1894, sportswriters who covered the National League's very hot Baltimore Orioles, kept pressing Wee Willie for the secret behind this revolutionary weapon.

"I keep a clear eye and hit 'em where they ain't," he would explain matter-of-factly.

McGraw, at 21 the youngest of what would one day be known as "the Old Orioles," would say of those earliest moments of Oriole magic, "We talked, lived and dreamed baseball."

Indeed, it was the dreamiest of seasons, not just for the Orioles, but baseball-mad Baltimore as well. It was a year when the home team not only finished in first place ahead of the supposedly unbeatable New York Giants in a crowded 12-club National League, but played such a unique brand of ball they were known for years after as "the famous Baltimore Orioles."

It wouldn't last. By the end of the 19th century, the Orioles' National League franchise would be cruelly stolen away to New York to re-emerge in a new American League as the Highlanders, and later the Yankees. For more than half a century, Baltimore's Orioles would exist only as a minor-league team, finally gaining entry to the American League in 1954.

But even though pennants and world championships have found their way back to Baltimore since 1954, and even though the talk of another Oriole pennant runs high this spring, it seems unlikely there will ever be a moment with quite the same heady triumph as that very first time.

"We have arrived," crowed The Sun of September 1894, echoing the relief of its self-conscious citizenry. "We are there. The pennant is ours. The New York heathen may rage . . . but they are beaten."

At the start of that season, the Orioles were considered a team of runtish, inexperienced castoffs, assembled largely by manager Ned Hanlon, a former captain of the Detroit team of 1888, which had won the National League championship.

Only two years before the Orioles won the 1894 pennant, their 46-101 record was one of the worst ever in the 16-year-old National League. For the '94 season, skeptics picked the Orioles to finish no higher than eighth. Instead, they erupted for an average of nine runs a game, batting .343 as a team, committing the fewest errors of any team that year and allowing the second fewest runs.

"The youthful band of hustlers continued to fill the wiseacres with dismay," wrote Oriole chronicler D. Dorsey Guy at season's end.

Besides McGraw and Keeler, the team included Hughie Jennings, considered then the game's finest shortstop; he would later manage the Detroit Tigers and Ty Cobb to three World Series and at his death be described by the New York Times as "the most colorful figure" in baseball.

There was beefy catcher Wilbert Robinson, the team captain described by one observer as "a perfect stone wall as a backstop." The first of a long line of Hall-of-Fame Orioles named Robinson, this Robby was so universally beloved by the cranks there was talk of running him for Congress after the '94 season.

Of left fielder Joe Kelley, one admirer said, "There goes the greatest ballplayer in the country and he doesn't know it."

The high-strung Oriole center fielder was Walter Brodie, nicknamed Steve after another Brodie who had gained national attention by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.

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