On Opening Day in 1902, Orioles fans were an eager lot. Much was expected of their team, a favorite to win it all in the second year of American League play.
How good was Baltimore? The lineup boasted five future baseball Hall of Famers, three of whom — infielder John “Muggsy” McGraw, outfielder Joe Kelley and catcher Wilbert Robinson — starred for the Orioles’ onetime National League champions, who won three straight pennants in the 1890s. But Baltimore found itself in the new circuit, with a stellar pitcher (26-game winner Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity) and a promising young catcher, Roger Bresnahan, who also were bound one day for Cooperstown.
The city welcomed them with great fanfare: a parade over cobbled streets from the Eutaw House hotel to Oriole Park on York Road. Twelve mounted police officers and a 30-piece band led the way as folks lined the route, straining to see their heroes pass in horse-drawn carriages.
Nearly 13,000 people jammed the ballpark, whooping and hollering but to no avail. The Orioles lost, 8-1, to the Philadelphia A’s — the start of, perhaps, the most disastrous season in Baltimore sports history.
Nearly six months later, mired in last place and deserted by star players and fans alike, the Orioles lost their finale before a home “crowd” of 138. The team disbanded, and the franchise moved to New York, where it became, in time, the Yankees. Baltimore will wait 52 years to acquire another major league club.
What caused the demise? Egos, greed and the team’s mounting debts. Moreover, the Orioles were an underachieving bunch caught in the crossfire between the two warring leagues that would not make peace until 1903, after the Baltimore club was gone.
Much of the blame for those Orioles’ woes rested with two men who despised each other: McGraw, the team’s player-manager, and Ban Johnson, the American League president. The first was a combative bully, the other, an arrogant despot. The spring of 1902 found McGraw routinely jawing with umpires — he delighted in grinding his razor-sharp spikes into their shoes — and Johnson suspending him for it. Finally, on July 7, an exasperated McGraw announced that he was quitting the Orioles to manage the New York Giants of the rival NL.
“I would be a fool to stay [in Baltimore] and have a dog made of myself by a man [Johnson] who makes no pretense of ... giving a hearing to both sides,” McGraw said.
To fans who worried that, as New York manager, he’d raid the Orioles for talent, he assured them, “I certainly will not draw on the Baltimore team.”
Barely a week later, McGraw did just that. McGinnity, Bresnahan and several other Orioles defected to the Giants, whose scribes took to calling their team “the Baltimorized New Yorks.” McGraw also swiped Baltimore’s groundskeeper, Tom Murphy, a cagey fellow known to doctor the field to favor the home team. The exodus also claimed Kelley, the hard-hitting outfielder who, foreseeing an Orioles meltdown, skedaddled to Cincinnati to be the NL team’s player-manager.
Their lineup shredded, the Orioles forfeited a game, forcing the league to bolster their roster with fringe players from other clubs. Losses mounted; attendance dwindled. In early August, fans in Chicago, of all places, celebrated “Loyal Orioles Day,” applauding those Orioles who refused to jump ship. One banner read:
We greet you, loyal Orioles, you’re a credit to the land,
You’re coming like a race horse, and playing to beat the band,
All hail to the Orioles, who to their league stood true,
Undaunted and unvaunted, they are surely coming through.
That afternoon, Baltimore dropped both games of a doubleheader to the White Sox.
The end came, mercifully, on Sept. 29 at Oriole Park in a 9-5 loss to the Boston Americans (later Red Sox). Robinson, the pudgy catcher who became manager, was cheered by the smattering of fans, as much for his allegiance to the Orioles as for his three base hits that day. The Baltimore team that started the season with such optimism finished 50-88, last in the eight-team league.
In December, Johnson announced, with much hoopla, that New York would field an AL team in 1903; the Orioles were out. Johnson’s revenge on McGraw was sweet: Not only did he dissolve Muggsy’s old team, but he created a new club, the Highlanders, in a bid to siphon fans from the Giants in their own town.
The Orioles? They were stuck in the minor leagues until 1954.