Capturing the Cup Champions: A century ago, before there was an American League, the Orioles won the Temple Cup against the NL runner-up.

July 09, 1996|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

It was a determined baseball team that departed Camden Station that frosty night in March 1896. Two hundred fans saw the Orioles off to spring training, waving pennants and tipping their fedoras to the defending regular-season National League champions.

The players acknowledged the crowd, gathered their gear (including three dozen new ash bats at $1 apiece) and boarded the club's private car, a Pullman sleeper, for Macon, Ga.

Frankly, the Orioles were glad to leave town. For two straight years, they had won the NL pennant but lost the playoffs to the second-place club. Both times, they weathered the off-season gibes of a skeptical press that suggested Baltimore was lucky, not good.

The players were eager to prove critics wrong.

Three days later, the Orioles rolled into Macon and tumbled out of the train to practice, which included a mile run on a nearby track. Outfielder Steve Brodie amused his mates by running with an armful of bats.

Brodie's antics set the tone for the next two weeks. Each day, another Oriole played tough guy. "Dirty" Jack Doyle slid headfirst into every base. Wilbert Robinson, the club's stout catcher, loped from hotel to practice field, a distance of nearly a mile. And shortstop Hughie Jennings refused aid when a line drive took his fingernail with it. "It would take much more than an ordinary hurt ++ to keep the king of the short stops out of a game played by the Orioles," The Sun reported.

Even Ned Hanlon, Baltimore's dignified manager, caught the bug. Hanlon bought a bicycle, determined to learn to ride. Players noticed him wobbling around the cinder track and teased Hanlon, who retreated to a local park for 6 a.m. workouts to "wrestle with his new wheel alone."

The Orioles broke camp in good spirits (third baseman John McGraw stayed behind with a "chill") and chugged north via Pullmans and freight trains and steamboats toward Baltimore, stopping in backwater towns to play local teams offering cash for a shot at the champions.

Most of the fields were primitive and perilous. In Athens, Ga., Robinson found it difficult to catch, given the three-foot drop behind home plate and the "precipitous banks on both sides." Left fielder Joe Kelley "stood on a small mountain. The remainder of the outfield was delightfully undulating."

In Richmond, Va., the field was so uneven that "a player standing in deep center field could not be seen from the players' bench."

Hostile sites

At most whistle stops, the Orioles were met by crooked umpires, distrustful players and hostile crowds. In Norfolk, Willie Keeler was called out on strikes when a ball bounced on home plate. But when a Norfolk batter fanned on a Bill Hoffer sinker, the hitter complained that the ball was doctored.

"It must be, to turn at such angles," he declared.

A close game in Petersburg, Va., ended in a brawl. The Orioles were kicked, choked and beaten by irate townsfolk. Robinson found himself fighting off the feeble charge of a one-armed, gray-haired veteran in a faded Confederate uniform. Robby's response: "Well, old man, you are a soldier yet, ain't you?"

Bruised and battered, the Orioles limped home with "no more enthusiasm than a cart horse." The sandlot games had filled their purses but taken a toll. The players who hobbled up 25th Street to Union Park to prepare for the opener resembled "a crowd of convalescents practicing on the back lot of a hospital."

There was more bad news via telegram from Georgia: MCGRAW HAS TYPHOID STOP TEMP 102 STOP OUT 4 MONTHS.

It was a stiff Orioles team that took the field that muggy Opening Day before a boisterous crowd of 11,200. Politicians and preachers, bricklayers and bootblacks swept through the gates from a crush of streetcars that unloaded in front of the ballpark at the rate of two per minute.

The press box was packed with cigar-chomping scribes. "A corps of writers and telegraphers were flashing the news of every play all over the land," The Sun wrote. "Yes, baseball has become a right important sort of national game, but golf and croquet are waking up, too."

A rocky beginning

What sport were the Orioles playing? In a 6-5 loss to the lowly Brooklyn Bridegrooms, the champions made seven errors and managed six hits off Bill "Brickyard" Kennedy, who would go on to lose 20 games. Brooklyn won the next day, too, pounding Hoffer, the Orioles ace who had won 31 games the year before. Baltimore attendance plummeted to 2,750.

A feverish McGraw scrawled a missive to the team. "My heart is with the boys," it said. Arlie "Doc" Pond, a full-fledged physician, revived the club, pitching two five-hitters in less than a week. But the Orioles' pulse was erratic. Inconsistency hounded the regulars. One game, Doyle was hero, stealing his way around the bases after being struck in the head by a pitch; the next day, he was goat, striking out with the bases loaded and "performing the 'Casey' act to the very letter of the celebrated poem."

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