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Centennial of an Historic Orioles Spring Training

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

We have heard much, and will hear much more, about the 60th Anniversary of the modern Orioles this year. I have a soft spot of commemoration and will enjoy all of it. But when I think Orioles history I also think back beyond that great parade day in 1954. A few years ago, I reviewed a great book on the National League Orioles dynasty of the 1890s. The sad ending of that story saw Orioles baseball sold out to the benefit of New York City.

If there was any consolation, it was that the owner/manager of those great, lost Birds, Ned Hanlon, felt badly to leave Baltimore without a team. So he purchased the International League franchise in Montreal and moved it to Baltimore, re-establishing Baltimore Orioles in 1903. In 1909, he sold the team to Jack Dunn, who had been a utility player for John McGraw’s short-lived American League Orioles. Former NL Orioles manager sells IL Orioles team to former AL Orioles player. How many towns have that many layers of professional baseball history?

Dunn was legendary for scouting talented amateurs, establishing them as IL stars and then selling their contracts at profit to the majors. In 1913, he was scouting a promising local pitcher from Mount St. Joseph named Bill Morrisette. Along the way, he became aware of another, a lefty for St. Mary’s Industrial School named George Ruth. Dunn may have seen the two pitch head-to-head in a St. Joe/St. Mary’s game on a field at what is now the Cardinal Gibbons campus, at Wilkens and Caton Avenue. Ruth beat Morrisette that day, 6-0. Dunn signed both kids.

A hundred years ago this week, Babe Ruth was having his first experiences as a professional ball player. He had taken his first train ride and arrived at Orioles Spring Training camp in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fans didn’t make tourist trips to ST back then and it’s a good thing. It rained so much that most of camp consisted of playing catch in the local armory.

On March 7, 1914, the rain let up and the Orioles played an intersquad game that was Babe Ruth’s first pro outing. He played 5 innings of shortstop and pitched 2 innings in relief. He also hit his first pro home run. Locals said it was the longest they had ever seen, outdistancing a legendary homer from a Carolina Leaguer named Jim Thorpe.

Orioles beat reporters noted the home run for the papers back home in Baltimore. Later in the month, Ruth proved he could get major league hitters out as the starting pitcher in two exhibitions against the Philadelphia A’s (except for Home Run Baker, who raked Babe for 4 and 5 hits). The wheels of history were in motion. St. Joe’s Morrisette was released when the team got back to Baltimore.

Could some amazing, historic player be waiting to emerge in Orioles Spring Training this year? Honestly, the only thing the 2014 Orioles camp has in common with the 1914 one is that there is another St. Joe kid (Steve Clevenger) working out. Baseball’s future gems are so thoroughly tumbled and so carefully inspected today that a mute, inglorious Ruth hidden among them is almost impossible to imagine. But when I feel goofy for obsessing about apparently meaningless baseball details in March, it’s some comfort to know that great things have had their start this time of year.

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Factoids courtesy of Robert Creamer’s Ruth biography Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.

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