A Portrait of the Orioles as Very Young Birds

So this year I couldn’t help myself and continued my off-season baseball reading into the regular season.   The book that carried me over was Burt Solomon's 1999 history Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball.

I don’t know the histories of all the existing franchises well enough to be certain, but I think the Orioles are the only one that has had a team bearing its name that played in three leagues that are still operating.   If that’s not unique, I think the Orioles must be the only one that had a historic era of excellence in each of the three leagues.  Obviously, the American League era, bookended by our first and last World Series wins was the longest and most significant.   The International League era, with its seven straight pennants between 1919 and 1925, was the most consistent.

This book tells the history of the first era of excellence, in the National League from 1894-1897, which was the briefest and the most star-studded.   In these four years, the Orioles won 3 NL pennants and 2 Temple Cups, with a team that had 5 starters and a manager that would all go to the Hall of Fame.   For folks like me who didn’t know, the Temple Cup was the original major league playoff.   Founded after the 1893 season by the owner of that year’s runner-up Pirates team, the pennant winner and runner-up played a 7 game playoff series.  It allowed the O’s to invent playoff frustration.  


In 1894 & 95, the O’s won the NL by 3 games both times but lost the Cup.   So the media and fans debated endlessly about who was the real champion of baseball.   Modern clubs that dominate the regular season, have a bad short series in the DS and watch a Wild Card advance to the World Series, Willie Keeler, John McGraw and co. felt your pain a hundred years earlier.  Only in 1896 were the O’s indisputably champs, winning the NL by 9½ games and taking the Cup.   In 97 they missed the pennant by 2, but won the playoff.   At that point, since the Pirates hadn’t had a chance to play for it yet, the Temple Cup was withdrawn.


The team succeeded playing a new kind of baseball.  Solomon writes:


At the time, baseball had been a game of power and thick-bodied men.  Then came the Orioles, scrappy and swift. … They used the hit-and-run, the bunt, the squeeze play, the cutoff play, the Baltimore chop – whatever was unexpected and put their opponents on edge.  They never stopped thinking.  Scientific baseball, it was called, or inside baseball, or – more than occasionally—dirty baseball.

    Whatever the name, the national game would never be the same.   Before Willie [Keeler] broke in, ballplayers customarily held the bat at the very end; he choked almost halfway up and chopped and thrust and poked at the ball.   By his success, he changed what was right.  In place of the slugging came speed and strategy and smarts.  p.5


Little as we think of these ‘small ball’ plays now, this is consistent with the best Baltimore tradition of strategic play.   When Frank Robinson was gone and Paul Blair and Rich Coggins were the tools in hand, even Earl Weaver played a speed game for a couple years.  He didn’t have to like it, but he was using the tools he had.   HoF manager Ned Hanlon had Keeler, McGraw, Hughey Jennings and other small, quick, aggressive guys and adapted the game to the team.   They were also taking advantage of a basic circumstance – fields were horrible and gloves were small.  Playing small ball gave them the optimum chance to be given runs via their time’s epidemic of bad hops.    I didn’t realize how much more fans and writers stressed defensive gaffes back then until I saw the old box scores in this book, which list put outs, assists and errors where today’s box shows runs, BI and AVG.


But these O’s ‘scientific baseball’ is also an example of how baseball thinking lags behind events.    These small ball strategies were originally developed in response to the short reaction time batters had to swing away against a pitcher who was 55 feet away in a four foot wide box.   Those rules were changed before the 1893 season, so the strategies were outmoded before they were ever perfected.   If the most talented players had persisted at slugging after the rubber was installed and moved back to 60 feet, baseball history could have been very different.  Instead, baseball enshrined the ideas of Hanlon’s O’s and those ideas remained the standard of the game for the next 30 years.   The white ball came, then the spit-free ball, then the live ball but players kept at it until Babe Ruth bucked the traditions and showed what slugging could do (the story told in William Curran’s interesting book Big Sticks).   Change in baseball continues to take decades even down to the present, as shown by the gap between the first Baseball Abstracts and the references to ideas like BABIP and sample sizes that are just now emerging in the mainstream lexicon.


The second theme of this book is the business history of baseball – how its magnates pushed their teams around and the battle to create the American League.    Here, the claim that the 90s O’s ‘gave birth to modern baseball’ falls flat.   It’s true that they were an American Association team that had to merge into the NL after the Player’s League competition nearly sank all three existing leagues.   They saw that same management/workers tension continue to pulse when their stars held out for bigger salaries.   They became part of ‘syndicate baseball,’ in which one owner held multiple teams and they saw their stars shipped off to create a dynasty in Brooklyn.  They were squeezed out of the NL when it contracted to 8 teams, used as a founding site for the competing AL, and robbed of players in the ‘league jumping’ that followed.   They were the last volley in the war between the leagues, when the AL moved them to New York to compete head-to-head with the NL in the biggest market.


But the turn of the century Orioles were unique in none of these things.  More sadly, in most of them they were the passive victims of the manipulations of bigger business interests.   Solomon summarizes the disgusting facts very succinctly: 

The old Orioles had given rise—life, really—to all three of the ballclubs in Greater New York.   They had made the Dodgers, they had nourished the Giants, and they were the Yankees.  (p.264)  

I guess ‘the team that exemplifies all the stages of the birth of modern baseball’ or ‘New York baseball’s bitch’ didn’t make such good subtitles. 


Interesting as Solomon’s history here is, the style of the book is distracting.   He tries to describe ball games in the language of the day, where pitchers are ‘twirlers’, fans are ‘cranks’ etc.  Occasionally, it creates the illusion that you’ve gone back to that time.   But then he writes intervening sections about the business practices with historical distance and the disorienting effect is that you’re constantly zooming in and out in time.   It also makes it hard to tell how much he may be plagiarizing his newspaper sources.    If Solomon wanted to give readers a sense of the 1890s, he would have done better to take the approach G.H. Fleming used in his great book The Unforgettable Season.   Fleming recreates the 1908 Giants/Merkle story by just editing down the newspaper accounts and citing them, so you get not only the tone of the times but learn the voices of the individual sports writers.


Even with this stylistic weakness, Where They Ain’t is an engaging history.   If the CC Book Club is born this off season as I’m planning, I expect to nominate it for one of our reads.

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