Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Century Ago, Babe Ruth & the Baltimore Orioles


Manager Jack Dunn stands above Ruth's right shoulder (photo / public domain)
Orioles' owner Jack Dunn knew that it would be a tough season. The Baltimore Sun was running articles all winter about the upstart Federal League, a so-called third major league that would have a local entry, the Terrapins, beginning play in April, 1914.

By the time February arrived, Dunn didn't need to read The Sun. Across the street from his own park "the Feds" ballpark was being thrown up quickly for Opening Day. The echo of a dozen hammers could be heard at all hours as the team raced against the clock to get the park built.

The new Terrapin Park was a colossus compared to Dunn's Oriole Park, which had years before served as the home to a brief-lived major league entry of its own. The park had a grandstand from first base around home to third, but the new park going up had a towering seating area that would extend all the way down the left field and right field lines. Terrapin Park shouted majors and Dunn's park minors, loud and clear.

It was Ned Hanlon who was behind this mess. Hanlon, the manager of the great 1890s National League Orioles, was one of the Terrapins' owners. He had started the minor league Orioles that Dunn now owned. It was Hanlon who managed Dunn in 1899 when both were briefly in Brooklyn. It was Hanlon who had cost the Orioles their American League franchise in 1902 by stripping it of talent. Now it was Hanlon who was part of the operation that was running him out of business.

Dunn wasn't idle in light of the new threat to his ballclub. He'd fought through hard times before. As a child growing up in New Jersey, his left arm was so damaged in an accident that a doctor told his mother that the nine-year-old's limb would have to be amputated or he would die.

"If it makes no difference to you, I'd just as soon die with my arm on," he reportedly told the two. The arm stayed, and Dunn lived.

He couldn't raise the arm above his head for the rest of this life, yet he made it to the major leagues. He played for John McGraw and Hanlon both, two of the greatest managers in the game. Dunn developed their same eye for talent and had a special knack for spotting ballplayers around Baltimore, guys that other people missed. Fritz Maisel turned up in nearby Catonsville and now was playing third base for the Yankees. He had stolen 44 bases for the Orioles in 1913 to lead the league, and then left before the season was through for the big leagues, where he stole another 25. Nobody could throw him out.

Now word was making it up from the same area, down near Wilkens Avenue, that St. Mary's Industrial School had a boy that Dunn should see. He wanted another player, a pitcher at Mount St. Joseph's College, but Brother Gilbert Cairnes at St. Joe's had a national powerhouse on his hands and wasn't going to part with a star pitcher so easily.

He suggested a boy over at St. Mary's, a left-hander named George Herman Ruth. Dunn respected the brother's opinion and with the Terrapins breathing down his neck, it was worth a look. If Hanlon got news of him he'd be gone soon enough.

Accounts vary on Ruth's signing. A fellow student at St. Mary's described a game involving the Babe staged for Dunn's viewing. Babe Ruth's autobiography mentions throwing for a half-hour for Dunn before he was signed. Brother Gilbert's later printed version, written along with longtime Baltimore sportswriter Rodger Pippen, varies from both accounts.

According to Gilbert, there was no game because of the cold February weather. Brother Gilbert, Dunn and Maisel traveled in Fritz's car to visit Brother Matthias, the St. Mary's prefect who, along with the school's other Xaverian Brothers, oversaw the boy in class and on the diamond.

The trio spoke with Matthias, and received a concise assessment of this talents.

"Ruth can hit," said the scouting report on the teenager.

"Can he pitch?" the Orioles' manager asked.

"Sure, he can do anything," Matthias responded.

Dunn looked the boy over. He was big enough, certainly, and signing him would at least ensure the Terrapins didn't sign him right away, even if he didn't work out. So on February 22, 1914, the just-turned-19-year-old became a Baltimore Oriole.

The manager wasted no time in getting him out of town. Despite the worst snowstorm in Baltimore since 1888, he safely got Ruth on a train out of the city's old Union Station to spring training in Fayetteville, N.C. It was best to get the prodigy out of town before the Feds had a chance at him, contract or not. All winter the Federal League had convinced major and minor league players to "jump" contracts over to the upstart league. Dunn sent an advance group under club house hand Scout Steinman and stayed behind to get a second group of Orioles out of town through the lingering snow.

Upon arrival, the Babe marveled at the elevator at the Hotel Lafayette in Fayetteville, riding it incessantly, and taking special pleasure in pulling his head in right before the automatic doors closed. Soon, Fayetteville was marveling at him. On March 7, Ruth hit a home run in practice so far that 38 years later, in 1952, 10,000 of the town's residents attended a ceremony in the rain to place a plaque where the ball landed.

In mid-March, George Herman Ruth became "Babe" Ruth. Pippen overheard Steinman allude to the kid as one of "Dunnie's babes" and found the perfect nickname for the teen-aged wonder. Later that same month Ruth shut down the major league Phillies and then the world champion Philadelphia A's in exhibitions. Just weeks removed from St. Mary's schoolyard and Ruth was shutting down the powerhouse A's. Baseball had never seen his like.

Dunn knew as much. In a letter to Brother Gilbert, he stated simply, "Brother, this fellow Ruth is the greatest young ballplayer who ever reported to a training camp."

Unfortunately for the manager/owner, time was running out on Ruth's stay with the Orioles before it ever began. The Terrapins opened to 30,000 fans and towering front-page headlines on April 13. The Orioles battled the New York Giants in an exhibition the same day before fewer than 1,000. Ruth won his first start later in April before perhaps 200 fans. Another win, a shutout over Rochester, had a paid crowd of 11.

Ironically Dunn undoubtedly had the better team but Hanlon's Terrapins had the better label, merited or not. On July 4, the Orioles were 47-22, firmly in first place, and Ruth had 14 wins. It didn't matter.

The Orioles were bleeding money every day; estimates were that the team was losing $1,000 a game. Dunn faced a simple but painful solution: sell players or lose his franchise, quickly. On July 10, 1914, 100 years ago today, pitcher Ernie Shore and catcher and captain Ben Egan were on a train north to Boston, sold to the Red Sox for an announced price of $25,000, although the true sum was probably less.

The House Ruth Helped Inspire, Oriole Park at Camden Yards (photo / T. Flynn/instagram)
Had Dunn and his Baltimore Orioles not been in such dire straits, it's likely he would have held onto Ruth for at least four years. In 1914 there was no affiliated minor league system, thus no promotion-on-demand directive coming from a parent to its farm team. Only a series of relationships between owners at the major and minor league levels existed, some closer than others. The Orioles would sell players at their market peak, often to Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's. Dunn later held onto Hall-of-Famer Lefty Grove for five years (including 25, 27, and 28 win seasons) and 111 wins before dealing him to Mack.

In the end the greatest Oriole ever to don the uniform, and the greatest find of Jack's Dunn career, was lost just three months into the season to a mid-summer fire sale. 

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