On opening day in 1902, Orioles fans were eager. Much was expected of their team, a favorite to win it all in the second year of the American League game.
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’ one-time National League champions, who won three straight games in the 1890s. pennants won. But Baltimore was on the new circuit, with a great pitcher (26-game winner Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity) and a promising young catcher, Roger Bresnahan, who was also on his way to Cooperstown one day.
The city welcomed them with much fanfare: a parade down cobblestone streets from the Eutaw House hotel to Oriole Park on York Road. Twelve mounted police officers and a 30-strong band led the way as people lined the route, straining to watch their heroes pass in horse-drawn carriages.
Nearly 13,000 people stuck the ballpark, whooping and screaming, but to no avail. The Orioles lost 8-1 to the Philadelphia A’s – the start of arguably the most disastrous season in Baltimore sports history.
Nearly six months later, caught in last place and abandoned by star players and fans alike, the Orioles lost their final to a home “crowd” of 138. The team fell apart and the franchise moved to New York, where it became, on time, the Yankees. Baltimore will wait 52 years to take over another major league club.
What caused the downfall? Egos, greed and the mounting debt of the team. In addition, the Orioles were an under-performing couple caught in the crossfire between the two warring leagues that would not make peace until 1903, after the Baltimore club disappeared.
Much of the blame for those Orioles’ misery lay with two men who despised each other: McGraw, the team’s player-manager, and Ban Johnson, the president of the American League. The first used to be one combative bully, the other an arrogant despot. The spring of 1902 saw McGraw routinely chew with umpires—he loved grinding his razor-sharp spikes into their shoes—and Johnson suspended him for that. Finally, on July 7, an exasperated McGraw announced that he would be leaving the Orioles to lead the rival NL’s New York Giants.
“I would be a fool to stay” [in Baltimore] and let a man make a dog of myself [Johnson] who doesn’t pretend . . . to hear both sides,” McGraw said.
To fans who Worried that, as manager of New York, he would raiding the Orioles for talent, he assured them, “I certainly won’t be calling on the Baltimore team.”
Just a week later, McGraw did just that. McGinnity, Bresnahan and several other Orioles defected to the Giants, whose scribes referred to their team as “the Baltimorized New Yorks.” McGraw also slammed Baltimore’s gardener, Tom Murphy, a reluctant dude known to practice the field to favor the home team. The exodus also claimed Kelley, the tough-as-nails outfielder who, while foreseeing an Orioles collapse, sauntered to Cincinnati to become the NL team’s player manager.
Their lineup fragmented, the Orioles forfeited a game, forcing the league to bolster its roster with fringe players from other clubs. Losses mounted; attendance declined. In early August, fans in Chicago, from all places, celebrated “Loyal Orioles Day,” applauding those Orioles who refused to jump ship. A banner read:
We salute you, faithful Orioles, you are an asset to the country,
You come like a racehorse and play to beat the band,
All tribute to the Orioles, who stood true to their league,
Fearless and undaunted, they are sure to get through it.
That afternoon, Baltimore dropped both games of a doubleheader for the White Sox.
Fortunately, the end came on September 29 at Oriole Park in a 9-5 loss to the Boston Americans (later Red Sox). Robinson, the chubby catcher turned manager, was cheered by a few fans, both for his loyalty to the Orioles and for his three 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 fuss that New York would be drafting an AL team in 1903; the Orioles were out. Johnson’s revenge on McGraw was sweet: Not only did he disband Muggsy’s old team, but he created a new club, the Highlanders, in an effort to transfer Giants fans into their hometowns.
The Orioles? They were stuck in the minor leagues until 1954.