A Matter Of Territory

Baseball: Baltimore and Washington are on opposite sides of the issue now, but their major league ambitions haven't changed since 1954.


February 18, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Fifty years ago, the baseball shoe was on the other foot. The Washington Senators ruled the Baltimore-Washington area, and they had to be romanced and remunerated to agree to allow the St. Louis Browns to become the Baltimore Orioles.

Now, Washington is seeking to acquire the Montreal Expos, and it is the Orioles who need to be persuaded, though Major League Baseball says the Orioles hold no territorial right to prevent the transfer of a franchise to the nation's capital or its Northern Virginia suburbs.

Welcome to the bipolar baseball history of the Mid-Atlantic region, where the love-hate relationship between Baltimore and Washington has complicated the effort to find a new home for an Expos franchise that has been in limbo since baseball's central management assumed ownership of the team a couple of years ago.

The group that brought the Browns to Baltimore overcame the objections of the Senators by working out a huge broadcast deal with Senators owner Clark Griffith. The two clubs coexisted until the Senators moved to Minnesota after the 1960 season and were immediately replaced by an expansion franchise, which also moved out of town - becoming the Texas Rangers - after the 1971 season.

The Orioles have spent the past 32 years trying to establish themselves as a regional team, but the Washington area has never given up hope of reclaiming its own baseball identity - even if that identity was never all that impressive.

The baseball relationship between the two cities always was a bit strange, even before it became strained. The Orioles quickly put down roots in the 1950s and grew into a baseball powerhouse that would win its first world championship in 1966 and run off a string of 18 consecutive winning seasons from 1968 to 1985.

The Senators finished ahead of the Orioles in just the first season (1954) that they coexisted, and it soon became apparent that there would be no major baseball rivalry, despite the geographic proximity of Baltimore and Washington.

"I don't think it was ever a big rivalry," said Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, who arrived in the major leagues just a couple of years after the Browns moved to Baltimore. "It certainly wasn't the Red Sox and Yankees. They didn't have the talent. We beat them up pretty good all the years I remember."

In fact, the Orioles dominated both Senators franchises, compiling an 89-65 record against the original club and a 135-61 record against the expansion team.

"They were separate," said radio personality and local baseball historian Phil Wood. "Rivalries require there to be some degree of competition. The Orioles were always better than the Senators.

"The expansion team that came in 1961, it always had bad ownership and could never compete for players. I don't think the Senators ever looked upon the Orioles as real rivals."

Current Orioles ownership views the possible return of baseball to the nation's capital as a threat to the team's economic security, but that wasn't a major issue when the Senators gave their blessing to the move that put the struggling Browns franchise in their back yard.

The Senators struck a sweeter sponsorship deal with the beer company owned by prospective Orioles co-owner Jerry Hoffberger. They also were guaranteed a cash payment of $300,000 for the territorial concession, but Griffith apparently considered the arrival of the Browns as a potential plus for his team.

"A lot of people believe they [the Orioles] bought the Senators' vote with beer sponsorship," Wood said. "I think Griffith thought at the time that because both the Browns and the Senators were terrible, it would be a rivalry."

Happy with minors

It was a different time, and Baltimore and Washington were much different places than they are now. Baltimore was largely content to be the home of the International League Orioles during the first half of the 20th century. There was no appreciable civic resentment toward Washington for holding a monopoly on major league baseball in the region.

"We loved the O's," said longtime Baltimore broadcaster Vince Bagli, who grew up in Northeast Baltimore. "They won the pennant in 1944 and won the Little World Series. That was one of the biggest thrills I ever had in sports.

"People were pretty content, kind of laid-back and happy with the [minor league] Orioles. You didn't have the TV and other things then. You weren't really aware of the politics of sports."

Bagli, 76 and retired, grew up with split loyalties, because he was also a big fan of major league baseball and the Senators were the only game in town, even if it was the other big town in the region.

"My favorite team was the Senators," he said, "because we didn't have major league baseball."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.