A glimmer of the O's of old

On opening day, a reminder that Baltimore baseball once bonded family members and communities, and could do so again

April 06, 2010

The orange glow of my grandfather's cigarette was the only object visible in the room. As your eyes adjusted to the darkness, the dim outlines of his imposing figure would come into view as he sat regally in his armchair with the radio close by his side. The game was in the late innings by then, and each pitch became a matter of critical analysis. My favored position was sprawled across the foot of his bed, in the spot where the humid scents of the summer night air flowed in from the open window. It was during such nights that I discovered that baseball, in its many moments of pause, was a game of conversation and reflection. During the between-inning beer commercials, the pitching changes and the conferences on the mound, I took in my grandfather's views of philosophy, history, and Kennedy and Nixon, along with the rudiments of guessing the speed, movement and location of the next pitch.

He had been born in another century and in another country, but his youthful arrival in Baltimore had afforded him the opportunity to grow up immersed in the American dream. He had bought a newly constructed home in a rising community called Canton and began raising a family. For more than 25 years, he worked the hard night hours at the B&O's bustling Mount Clare yard. At midlife, he bought a grocery store and started his own business, installing gas pumps out front to service the ever-increasing motor trade. For 10 years, the store was a huge success. Then the stock market crashed, and he and my grandmother continued to provide weekly groceries to customers who could no longer pay, in hopes that they would soon return to work. When they did not, the business was lost, and my grandfather, in his 50s, started over again.

I learned all of this during nights when the radio was tuned to Orioles games taking place as close by as 33rd Street, or as far away as Kansas City, the westernmost outpost of the eight-team American League.

My grandfather had seen the legendary Orioles that won three straight National League Pennants during the 1890s with a roster full of future Hall of Famers. All eight starting position players on the 1894 team hit over .300 and drove in more than 90 runs, and the three outfielders had amassed an astonishing 628 hits. The franchise was later "stolen away" and moved to New York, where it eventually became the Yankees. Having been witness to such excellence, my grandfather, now in his 80s, was dismissive of the team that had arrived in Baltimore from St. Louis in 1954 and had finished as high as fifth only once, while finishing sixth three times and seventh twice.

But this year of 1960 offered an air of youthful excitement. Manager Paul Richards had preached the gospel of developing talented pitching and defense, and the so-called Kiddie Korps of pitching prospects appeared ready to take the next step in its maturation. Starting pitchers Chuck Estrada, Milt Pappas, Steve Barber and Jack Fisher were all 21 or 22 years old. Moreover, the infield was full of young faces. Rookies Jim Gentile, Marv Breeding and Ron Hansen started at first, second and short — and, after a couple of seasons of bouncing back and forth to the minors, 23-year-old Brooks Robinson had assumed the starting third base job. The young staff was stabilized by veterans Hal "Skinny" Brown in the starting rotation and knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm in the bullpen. The offensive anchor was veteran catcher Gus Triandos.

During that summer, my grandfather and I together followed their every move during a stirring pennant race with the fabled Yankees that lasted deep into September. Estrada would win 18 games, Pappas 15, Brown and Fisher 12, and Barber 10. Robinson would make the first of 15 consecutive All Star teams and win the first of 16 straight Gold Gloves. Hansen would be an All Star and Rookie of the Year. Gentile would be an All Star and drive in 98 runs. While, in the end, the 89-win season was not enough to overcome the Yankees' stockpile of talent, it produced absolute magic on summer nights in the dark of my grandfather's room and provided a forum that might not otherwise exist for the sharing of memories.

Fifty years later, the Orioles today begin another season. The game and the country have changed much. But it is notable that it is a season that holds the promise of a youthful pitching staff and maturing position players. It carries the possibility that Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez are the next Estrada, Pappas and Fisher. That Kevin Millwood will be their Skinny Brown, and Mike Gonzalez their Hoyt Wilhelm. That Luke Scott will be Jim Gentile, and Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Nolan Reimold and Felix Pie will become a legendary outfield talked about by grandfathers decades from now. That Matt Wieters will become what Brooks Robinson is to a generation. And that summer nights by the radio or the big-screen TV will be remembered long after the season is gone.

Because of those nights in 1960, I have an image of the 1890s batting stance of Wee Willie Keeler that is just as clear as that of my hero Brooks. I also understand what Babe Ruth, Hollywood, railroads, steel, religion and the automobile meant to America. I appreciate the impact of world war, epidemic, depression, demagoguery and complacent acceptance of segregation. I know something about the possible location of the next pitch. And still, to this day, I can feel the wonderful buoyancy of hope and the exciting promise of youth.

Let's go, O's!

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His e-mail is rdburke@ober.com.

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