In the rough-and-tumble baseball of the 1890s, Baltimore rose to the top with skill and guile

  • The 1896 Orioles did what it took to win, from blocking base runners to hiding balls in the oufield to bunting a pitcher batty.
The 1896 Orioles did what it took to win, from blocking base runners… (Babe Ruth Museum )
July 07, 1996|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

A century ago, Baltimore was a bustling, brawling, blue-collar city of 500,000, teeming with trolleys and privies and chimneys that belched coal smoke. The skyline was beveled by breweries and churches. Cardinal Gibbons and Enoch Pratt were people, not places. And George Herman Ruth (1 year old) was really The Babe.

Then, Baltimore was port for about 4,000 immigrants who streamed into Locust Point each month. One, a young German named Frederick Peter Ripken, settled near Aberdeen, opened a general store and started a family. His descendants would lean toward baseball.

It was the age of handlebars: Men with waxy mustaches rode bicycles down cobbled city streets, past saloons and stables and stores like N. Hess' Sons, which offered free patent leather shoes to any baseball "crank," or fan, who could predict the outcome of the National League race.

What race? In the summer of 1896, John Philip Sousa played Baltimore, and the Orioles played ball to beat the band.

Baltimore won 90 games, lost only 39 and rolled to the pennant in the National League, then the only league around. Next month, the maestro of that Orioles team, manager Ned Hanlon, a cunning strategist whose clubs won five championships, will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Five of his players await Hanlon there: John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley and Wilbert Robinson.

Tough outs, all. In 1896, that barbershop quintet hit a combined .377, despite a string of setbacks. McGraw contracted typhoid, Jennings was beaned twice and Robinson had part of a finger amputated.

Hanlon weathered all. A short, stout manager who sat on the Orioles bench in a three-button Victorian suit, circa "Life With Father," Hanlon shuffled lineups, plugged holes and traded for journeymen who became one-year wonders when dressed in orange and black. (McGraw's replacement, a utility man named Jim Donnelly, hit .328 in his lone summer here -- 99 points above his lifetime average.)

Hanlon's gambles paid off. The Orioles won the league by 9 1/2 games and swept the playoffs.

That Baltimore even had a 19th-century major-league team will surprise some Orioles fans, who thought life began in 1954, when the current club was born. Or 1966, when Baltimore won its first World Series behind the Robinsons, Brooks and Frank.

Not so. Before B. Robby and F. Robby, there was W. Robby, catcher and captain of a conniving, single-minded ballclub whose tactics were as sharp as its spikes.

Sophomoric to sublime

The '96 Orioles did what it took to win, from blocking base runners to bunting a pitcher batty. They hid extra balls in the outfield, which they sneaked into play when a hit got past them. They writhed on the ground and pinched themselves to fake being hit by a pitch. They worked the hit-and-run a dozen times a game in an era when most players swung from the heels.

Baltimore's tactics ranged from sophomoric to sublime. Players yelled, "I've got it!" on pop-ups hit by teammates, and interfered with foul flies that drifted near their bench. Runners scooted from first base to third when the lone umpire's back was turned.

The Orioles also shaved their wooden bats flat on one side, for better bunting, until league officials caught on and banned the renegade bats.

It was typical Baltimore subterfuge. "When there was a hole in the rules, we were quick to take advantage of it," Kelley recounted later.

To end one slump in '96, the Orioles looked toward heaven. After a shutout of Baltimore, four players -- Kelley, Jennings, Keeler and pitcher John "Sadie" McMahon -- called on Cardinal Gibbons, who greeted the boys and presented each with a medal blessed by Pope Leo XIII. Thus endowed, McMahon took the mound and defeated the Washington Senators, 10-2. Keeler got three hits, Jennings had two and Kelley stole two bases.

Masters of psychology

The Orioles were among the first to fiddle with their rivals' heads. Before games, they would sit on a bench outside the visitors' dressing room, filing their spikes and glaring at their opponents as they emerged.

Hanlon's players were known deliberately to mash catchers' feet as they crossed home plate; Orioles catchers threw their masks in the paths of runners racing home.

The fastest Orioles placed steaks in the bottoms of their shoes, to ward off blisters. Opponents found something else at the bottom of their stockings, courtesy of Captain Robinson. Crouching behind home plate, Robby casually would drop pebbles into the shoes of unsuspecting batters, to slow them down.

"It was Hanlon who taught us to do the unexpected," Robinson said. "That was his great motto."

Rivals derided Baltimore's strategy, calling it "trick stuff by kids."

"This isn't baseball the Orioles are playing," one NL manager said. "It's a completely new game."

But it worked. Hanlon's teams won three straight pennants, beginning in 1894, none sweeter than the last. Baltimore took nearly seven of every 10 games in '96, the best winning percentage in Orioles major-league history.

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