Oriole history: going once, going twice

November 07, 1995|By James H. Bready

WHICH '95 ORIOLE season was the greater -- this century's, with its mounting Cal Ripken excitement, or the previous century's, when Baltimore finished first in the only major league then operating?

The symbol for 1995 was four 10-foot lengths of numbered vinyl, draped from Camden Warehouse windows and giving new arithmetic nightly as Cal's consecutive-game total ever increased. What ecstasy, were there some legitimate way for a collector now to pluck them from the club's vault.

The symbol for 1895 is a cotton banner that reads ''Baltimore / Champions / 95''. Between the two lines of lettering is a large Baltimore oriole, in flight. Black and orange, it measures roughly 4 feet by 6. In the 1896 season, Mark Rucker says, it hung at Union Park as the Hanlon-McGraw-Keeler- Jennings-Kelley-Robinson Orioles went about winning a third straight pennant in the 12-team National League.

Mr. Rucker, the banner's current owner, also says it's for sale, if you'd like the thing for your baseball collection.

At the Babe Ruth Museum, several sets of eyes crossed at the news. ''That banner!'' said Mike Gibbons, director. ''It could be the centerpiece of our permanent 19th-century exhibit, when we install it in Camden Station.''

Muttering goes on elsewhere. Mr. Rucker, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, is auctioning off almost all his collection, which is rated the most comprehensive of those focusing on 19th-century baseball. Of 453 lots in the sale, half a dozen are pure Baltimore.

Run by The Best of Yesterday, an Orland Park (Ill.) house, this is an absentee, meaning phone-bid, auction -- now in progress (708-460-1989). The operators hang up Thursday at midnight. It is also a minimum-bid auction.

Everything but uniforms

On that Oriole banner, the action starts at $20,000.

''Pre-World War I baseball may well be the hottest of all Americana collector categories, right now,'' observes Greg Schwalenberg, curator at Babe Ruth Museum. ''Other than uniforms, which hardly exist, Mark Rucker shoveled up everything -- balls, bats, gloves, belts, photos, tickets, passes, programs, scorebooks, schedules, annual guides, trade cards, letters, telegrams, newspapers. He has a fantastic player daguerreotype'' -- Brooklyn, fortunately.

Also on the block: a late-1860s team photo of the Pastimes and a membership card in the Marylands, the two big names locally in pre-professional baseball. One shows, the other certifies, players named Popplein; each (min. $1,500, $500) is the only one of its kind. What Mr. Rucker quietly did was call every Popplein in the Baltimore directory (there used to be several), until he found descendants.

Lower still (min. $200) is a filled-out 1887 scorecard: Baltimores (sic) 10, New York Mets 0. Winning pitcher, the famous Matt Kilroy. And, starting at $300, an unpublished outdoor photo of John McMahon and Walter Brodie of the 1890s Oriole champions: Sadie and Steve, pitcher and center fielder. And, indoors ($900) group and individual likenesses of the 1870 Naval Academy team.

This 1895 Oriole banner seems to be the only large object remaining from the glory days. Not club-sponsored, it was a gift from fan or fans; according to Mr. Rucker, a family named Williamson. In 1901, when John McGraw's new, American League club built a ballpark of its own, the Williamson firm was a contractor. The National League having left town, supposedly the banner was returned to the Williamsons; they still had it when Mark Rucker called.

As of yesterday, auction headquarters says, no bids had been received, but the action usually doesn't start on ''high-end'' items till the last minute. Anybody have Peter Angelos' private number?

James H. Bready, a retired Evening Sun editorial writer, is the author of ''The Home Team,'' a history of baseball in Baltimore.

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