Many types, one goal Win: Nothing was more important to the Orioles' disparate cast of characters 100 years ago

July 08, 1996|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The 1896 Orioles were a hodgepodge of baseball zealots, a melange of college grads and coal miners, doctors and dropouts, farmhands and fancy Dans.

What bound them together was a fierce will to win.

How badly did the Orioles want the National League pennant? Shortstop Hughie Jennings took fielding practice six hours before game time. Outfielder Steve Brodie cut out the pocket of his mitt, believing he could snatch stinging liners better with his bare palm. Pitcher Bill Hoffer asked to start every other game -- and sometimes did.

Such sacrifices ruined arms, shortened careers . . . and made Baltimore the capital of baseball. The Orioles won three straight NL flags, bowing out with a bang: The '96 team finished 90-39 (.698), the best winning percentage in the city's big-league history.

Acclaim came easily; riches did not. In 1896, most Orioles earned less than Cal Ripken receives for one half-inning's work ($2,300), yet holdouts were rare. The players had known hard times. They had weathered the depression of 1893. Their fathers had clashed in the Civil War. The Orioles were immigrants, or the sons of immigrants whose families thought sports a waste of time: His Irish-born father beat young John McGraw for playing ball.

Brash and belligerent, "Muggsy" McGraw was the quintessential Oriole, a poster boy for the plucky team. A third baseman, McGraw would block, trip or grab runners by their jerseys to keep them from scoring. Dirty tricks aside, McGraw could play. A cocky hitter, he would "call" his bunts, using his bat to draw a circle in the dirt in front of home plate. The ruse rarely failed; McGraw's on-base percentage topped that of all 19th-century players.

Popular, he was not. Baseball historian Robert Creamer calls McGraw "a pugnacious Billy Martin-type with a chip on his shoulder." Umpires despised McGraw, a.k.a. "that vicious demon," for arguing toe-to-toe, spraying tobacco juice in their faces and grinding his spikes into their shoes. Out-of-town sportswriters deliberately butchered his name in print, calling him "McGrump" or "McGrit," to get McGraw's goat.

Teammates hadn't crossed him since 1892 when, as a 20-year-old, McGraw was greeted with cries of "batboy" and booted off the end of the Orioles' bench. McGraw, 5 feet 7, dusted himself off and pummeled his tormentors on the spot, to the crowd's delight.

What he couldn't lick was sickness. Influenza felled McGraw late in 1895, and typhoid sidelined him much of '96. No sooner did he return in August than McGraw was ejected from a game for telling the umpire he was "full of dope and cheap whiskey." With McGraw back, the Orioles won 16 of 18 games and clinched the pennant.

A rubber-armed shortstop

McGraw's sidekick was Jennings, a redheaded, rubber-armed, bowlegged shortstop who, it was said, bore a freckle for every runner he had thrown out. The two became fast friends; both had endured bleak childhoods. McGraw lost his mother and four siblings to diphtheria. Jennings was reared in a coal miner's shack in Pennsylvania, where he learned to drive a mule car deep inside the earth.

Jennings was an intense but light-hitting (.136) pepper-pot when acquired by the Orioles during the 1893 season. McGraw suggested he change his stance, and Jennings' average soared. He hit a career-high .401 in '96, had 209 hits and knocked in 121 runs.

He also led the league in fielding, erratically though he played. One game, Jennings flubbed two grounders and threw a ball six feet over the first baseman's head, costing the Orioles a win. Next day, he atoned with a play that had Baltimore buzzing for weeks.

Against Chicago, with the tying run on third base and an overflow crowd milling about in foul ground, Jennings dived into the throng to catch a pop fly. Then he wheeled and threw to the plate, over a sea of straw hats, nailing the runner for a double play.

Sporting Life called Jennings, 5-9, "that auburn-topped spark of electricity," suggesting that "fancy can hardly paint his superior [at shortstop] in the future."

Jennings and McGraw shared a room at 12 W. 24th St., a three-story brick rowhouse that looks much as it did a century ago. There, the two future Hall of Famers burned the midnight oil, talking baseball and diagramming plays by the light of a kerosene lamp.

"In our room at night, Jennings and I used to discuss ways of playing our positions," McGraw recalled later. "Often, we would go out early in the morning to practice on a certain kind of grounder that had been missed the day before. I had Jennings hit as many as 60 at me until I overcame what we'd considered a fault. Then I would hit to him."

Then they did it again.

Baseball was Jennings' passion. He threw himself into the game, literally, leaning into fastballs and getting plunked 49 times in 1896 -- a record that would stand for 75 years.

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