Baltimore's true rite of passage every spring

April 02, 2001|By Raymond Daniel Burke

BALTIMORE GREETED opening day of the 1894 baseball season with the ubiquitous sounds of its commerce and the dreams fueled by the possibilities of the industrial age.

The wharves from Canton to Locust Point were abuzz with activity, and the streets were filled with the movement of people and goods. Horses' hoofs on block pavements lent rhythm to a symphony of train whistles, boat horns, streetcar bells and hissing steam boilers. Even on a clear day, the air hung dark and heavy with industry's soot and carried the stench of a harbor that was both economic lifeline and sewer for a city of a half-million.

Above the din could be heard the languages and accents of much of the Western world. Blue-blood scions, first-generation Irish, Italian and German, newly arrived Poles and Lithuanians, and the descendants of slaves and free blacks -- all seeking opportunity.

In the many boisterous saloons, the talk was of the Orioles' chances of improving on last season's eighth-place finish. Since a 101-loss season in 1892, manager Ned Hanlon had been confidently building a new team, but "experts" forecast another year in the second division.

The prior season had seen Hanlon bring in Heinie Reitz as the second baseman and 20-year-old John McGraw to play shortstop. Veteran Dan Brouthers had been acquired from Brooklyn to handle first. Although McGraw had enjoyed a breakthrough year in 1893, he was being moved to third base to open a starting spot for a young and unproved shortstop named Hughie Jennings.

In the outfield, 23-year-old left-fielder Joe Kelly, a gifted natural athlete, returned for just his second full season in Baltimore. He would be joined by center fielder Steve Brodie, acquired from St. Louis, and a 5-foot-4-1/2-inch-tall 21-year-old by the name of Willie Keeler.

Returning as catcher was the team's massive and jovial mainstay, Wilbert Robinson, while Sadie McMahon, who had been the winning pitcher in 23 of the team's 60 victories in 1893, would again anchor the starting rotation.

A marching band led the opening day ceremonies to a bunting-draped Union Park, which stood at what is now the southwest corner of 25th and Barclay streets. Lines of suited men in bowler hats and long-skirted women in spring bonnets handed over their 25-cent tickets at every turnstile. The bicycle racks along the ballpark's east side were soon full.

On this day, optimism overwhelmed objectivity as 15,000 fans turned out, filling the 9,000 seats in the two grandstand decks and spreading out in standing room space along the foul lines and around the outfield.

The visiting opponent was the mighty New York Giants, and the Orioles would introduce them to "inside baseball," featuring the hit-and-run, squeeze bunts, and the soon-to-be-famous Baltimore chop.

The Orioles won 8-3, commencing a four-game sweep of the bewildered Giants. They would go on that year to capture the city's heart and imagination, winning the first of three straight National League pennants. All eight starting position players would hit over .300 and drive in more than 90 runs; six would score more than 130 runs; and the three outfielders would amass an astonishing 628 hits, with Kelly incredibly reaching base 306 times by a hit or walk. Robinson, McGraw, Kelly, Keeler, Jennings and Brouthers would all one day be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Today, Baltimore welcomes another opening day. The team has been drastically reconstructed after three straight dismal seasons, with some emphasis, at long last, being given to youth.

But expectations remain low, as the faithful grumble about mismanagement. After all, a team with a cash-generating ballpark and an enormously strong fan base should be a powerhouse, not a doormat. Mishandled negotiations with popular stars like Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Mussina, and the unfathomable budget-busting signing of Albert Belle continue to irritate. The firing of a winning manager and the loss of a beloved play-by-play announcer remain sources of fan discontent.

But today is not a day for recriminations. It is a time to contemplate an everyday role for Jerry Hairston, a full season for Chris Richard and an opportunity for Melvin Mora.

As in a century past, it is a day to come together in the spring air with heartfelt hope for our team and for Baltimore. In baseball and in the larger game we all play, no October glory can ever be attained without the dreams of April.

A collection of athletes cannot succeed as a team, and a people cannot succeed as a community, without collective faith in the possibilities of what they can achieve together. Ned Hanlon and his Orioles figured that out a long time ago.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in the Baltimore law firm of Freishtat & Sandler.

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