Life Before 1954: Baseball's Rich History in Baltimore

The Baltimore Chop

During Game 2 of the NLCS last October, the Padres' Manny Machado smacked a pitch into the ground in front of home plate. The ball bounded high above the infield; by the time it returned to earth, Machado was well on his way to reaching first base safely. "A Baltimore chop for the former Baltimore Oriole!" exclaimed the announcer.

Did you ever stop to think why that type of hit is called a Baltimore chop? It is, in fact, directly related to the Baltimore Orioles; yet the term originated some six decades before our beloved Birds arrived from St. Louis. Many fans are unaware of the rich history of baseball in Baltimore prior to 1954, and the major role that the city's early teams and players had in shaping the game as we know it today.

Baltimore's First Major League Team

Major league baseball in Baltimore began in the 19th century, just a few short years after the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all-professional club. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first pro league, debuted in 1871; the Lord Baltimores, commonly known as the "Canaries" due to their bright yellow knickers and stockings, joined the National Association the next year. One of the Canaries' stars was pitcher Candy Cummings, who was later elected to the Hall of Fame for (arguably) inventing the curveball -- or at least perfecting it.

The Canaries were joined in the NA the following year by Baltimore's second major league club, the Marylands, who played just six games that season -- and lost all of them. By 1875, both the Canaries and the Marylands had folded, leaving Baltimore without a team.

The Original Orioles

The city's wait for the return of big league baseball didn't last long. The American Association formed in 1882 to challenge the National League (which had replaced the NA in 1876). The Baltimore Orioles were one of the new league's charter members.

The Orioles initially played at Newington Park, the old home of the Canaries. Soon they would relocate to a new ballyard at Greenmount Avenue and 25th Street called Oriole Park, whose namesake now stands next to the warehouse at Camden Yards. These Orioles, managed by Billy Barney, had a middling record during their time in the AA.

The Association started with six teams and expanded to twelve within a few years. However, before long, some of the clubs began defecting to the rival NL. First it was the Pittsburgh Alleghenys (who later became the Pirates). They were followed by the Cleveland Spiders, Cincinnati Red Stockings, and Brooklyn Bridegrooms (soon to be known as the Trolley Dodgers). Finally, in 1892, the AA shut down; but four clubs -- the Orioles, Washington Senators, Louisville Colonels, and St. Louis Browns (who would later switch from brown stockings to red, adopting the nickname "Cardinals") -- were absorbed into the renamed National League-Association (subsequently shortened back to "National League").

The Glory Years

The Orioles got off to a slow start in the League-Association, finishing dead last out of twelve teams in the '92 season with a record of 46-101, a whopping 54 1/2 games behind the champion Boston Beaneaters (the franchise that would take on several different names over the ensuing years before finally settling on "Braves"). But partway through the campaign, team owner Harry von der Horst made a move that would change the club's fortunes, bringing in manager Ned Hanlon.

The role of manager in the 19th century was somewhat of a hybrid between the GM and field manager duties that we are familiar with today. With "Foxy Ned" at the helm, the Orioles acquired several new players and began their climb up the standings. In 1893, Baltimore improved to eighth place, posting a record of 60-70. In addition to rebuilding the roster, Hanlon began experimenting with new game strategies to gain any advantage he could. Realizing that defenders left a hole in the infield when covering second base, Hanlon would often send his baserunners on the pitch, instructing his batters to place the ball through the vacated spot; this is the origin of the hit-and-run. Foxy Ned also created major controversy by teaching his batters to tap bunts that out-of-position opponents had no chance of fielding, a tactic that many fans and opponents considered unsportsmanlike. One of Ned's players, George Van Haltren, was particularly adept at slapping the ball into the hard dirt in front of home plate and safely reaching first on the high bounce, a play that became known as the aforementioned Baltimore chop (unlike Machado nearly 130 years later, Van Haltren and his teammates executed the chop intentionally).

By the time 1894 rolled around, Hanlon had assembled a powerhouse team stocked with future Hall-of-Famers including slugging first baseman Dan Brouthers, star outfielder Joe Kelley, tough-as-nails third baseman John McGraw, slick-fielding shortstop Hughie Jennings, catcher Wilbert Robinson, and batting champion Wee Willie Keeler (who famously coined the phrase "hit 'em where they ain't" -- a skill that would surely foil the defensive shifts of modern baseball). With this core of players and Hanlon's "scientific baseball" style, the Orioles stood head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Baltimore won the NL pennant three consecutive seasons from '94 through '96.

Demise, Rebirth -- and Relocation(?)

Sadly, baseball's conflict between sport and business was just as confounding in the 1890's as it is today. There was no league rule that restricted ownership positions in multiple clubs; so von der Horst, struggling financially despite the on-field success of his Orioles, entered into a consortium with the Brooklyn team prior to the 1899 season. To maximize both gate receipts and the chances of winning another pennant, von der Horst and his new partner Charley Ebbetts decided to funnel the Orioles' top players to Brooklyn in order to stack the Trolley Dodgers' lineup. Gone were Keeler and Jennings, along with several other star players. McGraw and Robinson, who jointly owned a sports-themed beer hall on Howard Street called "The Diamond" (which lacked the space for full-sized bowling alleys, giving birth to duckpins), refused to leave their business behind and stayed in Baltimore.

The syndicate's plan went as expected -- at least partially. Brooklyn jumped from just 54 wins in '98 to 101 wins and a league championship in '99. Meanwhile, McGraw, stepping in as player-manager, led the depleted Orioles to a surprisingly respectable fourth-place finish at 86-62. (Another such syndicate sent all of Cleveland's best players to St. Louis; the Spiders were dismal, finishing 20-134 -- the worst full-season record in MLB history.) But while the Birds were competitive on the field, they were no longer financially viable. The NL contracted from twelve teams to eight following the season, and Baltimore was left without baseball once again.

But all was not lost. In 1900 the Western League expanded into several major cities in the East, rebranding itself as the major-league level American League. Prior to the 1901 season, the new league placed teams in the cities that had been abandoned by the NL. (Also that year, the AL Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis and became the new Browns; the franchise would relocate again, 53 years later.) The Orioles, under McGraw and Robinson, had new life.

Sadly, the reprieve lasted only a couple of years. The "senior circuit" and the upstart league had to find a way to coexist as equals. As part of a peace agreement reached prior to the 1903 season, the NL allowed the AL to place a team in the nation's largest city. There is still disagreement as to whether the ensuing transaction constituted a relocation or the dissolution of one franchise and establishment of a new one. At any rate, the original AL Orioles had played their last game, replaced in 1903 by the New York Highlanders -- yet another reason for us to hate the Yankees!


Although it would be more than a half century before the Browns moved from St. Louis, giving rise to the modern-day Orioles, Baltimore was not without professional baseball in the interim.

An Eastern League team took on the Orioles name (and several of the AL Orioles' players), providing the town with minor league baseball from 1903 through 1914. This club was managed by Jack Dunn, and was the first professional team that Babe Ruth played for.

A new major league challenged the NL and AL in 1914 and 1915. The Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League were owned by Ned Hanlon.

After the Federal League folded, Dunn brought back minor league Orioles baseball in 1916. This team continued to play in the International League until 1953.

Meanwhile, several Negro League teams called Baltimore home, most notably the Black Sox (who won a pennant in 1929), and the Elite Giants (league champions in 1939 and '49).


Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years by James H. Bready, 1998.

The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball by David Nemec, 1997.

Where They Ain't: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, The Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball by Burt Solomon, 1999.

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