It will distress more than a few American sports fans to learn that the loveless Baltimore Orioles' new slogan is simply: "The Best Damn Baseball Team in the World." Because it concludes a statement of obvious fact, the period at the end of the phrase is obligatory, like the exclamation point in the musical Oklahoma! By consensus, the Orioles are not only the best team, but the best organization—with the best players, the best manager, the best system, the best front office, the best morale and, definitely, the best chances. This means that the world will have to put up with the Orioles, and Baltimore, for some time to come.
Nobody, of course, likes the Orioles—or the Colts either, for that matter—except for those strange citizens, numbering some couple of million, who live clustered about a tributary of Chesapeake Bay, somewhere along the train tracks between New York and Washington. There is a question whether even these eccentric home folks care; they would not fill Memorial Stadium to watch their heroes win the World Series or to qualify for the Super Bowl. "The Best Damn Baseball Team in the World." did not draw one million last year, although it always pulls well at the free airport reception when the victorious team is welcomed home at the end of each season. Sports connoisseurs around the country think that the Baltimore fans are undeserving, that their teams are dull or lucky or both, certainly that they are undeserving; after all, they represent Baltimore. Oriole and Colt stars do not find themselves bothered by endorsements, talk shows, Hollywood or Dick Schaap.
Nonetheless Baltimore now holds the championships of football and baseball, the big two, and should the Orioles win the pennant again this year, Baltimore dominance will be even more maddening for its legions of detractors. The Orioles would thus become only the fourth team in American League history to win a pennant three times in a row; Baltimore would become the only city, besides New York, to accomplish the feat in both leagues (the fabled old Orioles won the National League pennant in 1894-95-96). Indeed, historically, the might and reach of Baltimore baseball have been insidiously strong. The Orioles were absolutely instrumental in the great successes of three famed New York teams—Yankees, Giants and Dodgers (and the Mets as well, in another manner of speaking). There is evidence that Baltimore even was the real Mudville (Dennis Patrick Casey was an Oriole at the bat in 1884-85).
None of this necessarily makes the Orioles more popular around the land. They are, however, inordinately popular in the eyes of baseball officials who hold the Baltimore system in the highest esteem and have begun to structure their own organizations in its image. The team may or may not be a dynasty, but it is accepted as the model of a dynasty, as the Rickey Cardinals and Dodgers were, or the Weiss Yankees.
April 12, 1971
The Oriole organization, and, ultimately, "The Best Damn Team in Baseball." draws its virility from the contradictory strains of its forebears. Baltimore was presented with the Orioles late in 1953 when a local syndicate headed by an attorney named Clarence Miles bought up Bill Veeck's St. Louis Browns. Veeck, who lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland now, says that Miles played a late, inconsequential role, one powered by "political ambitions." The two men most responsible for securing the Orioles, says Veeck, were Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro, whose son, Thomas III, is the incumbent Baltimore mayor, and Jerold C. Hoffberger, the president of the National Brewing Company, who quietly guaranteed radio-TV sponsorship. No more will be heard of Hoffberger for another 12 years.
The Browns, wasted by Veeck's futile fight for St. Louis against the Cardinals, landed in Baltimore broke, and the new owners were not precipitate in pouring development money in. The Browns-in-Orioles-clothing played out the first season as a profitable, cheap curiosity. Jim McLaughlin had come over from St. Louis as farm director. For an assistant, he hired a kid just getting out of the Air Force, Harry Dalton. McLaughlin paid Dalton $47 a week, and the two of them ran the farm system. They learned thrift for sure. They also learned discipline and trust in each other and in what limited good scouting personnel there was.
The next year Paul Richards was brought in to run the whole show and to spread the '54 profits on the table—and under it—for prospects. Suddenly, after years of penury, the Orioles were playing table stakes and the flamboyant Wizard of Waxahachie (as the awed local press preferred) was in every pot. He hustled one phenom into the system under an assumed name. He paid a bundle to another, named Bruce Swango, and was required to place him on the 25-man major league roster. Unfortunately, no Richards scout had bothered to watch Swango pitch in a game, an omission of some consequence, it developed, since Swango did not care at all to perform before crowds. But even Richards' mistakes had a flair to them; he charmed the Orioles to life, and finally he made them dance.
Moreover, his own eager excesses and impulse buying produced a counterbalancing attention to thoroughness and detail that is still in evidence in the operation. Richards only played at administration, however, and it was Lee MacPhail, now the Yankee general manager, who at last was able to ride herd on the front office. Arriving in 1958, MacPhail put order in the organization and established formal lines of authority, then consistency and a winning tradition at all levels. Richards pulled out for Houston in 1961. After the last of the varied bloodlines were bred into the beast, MacPhail moved on in '65 to the commissioner's office and ultimately to the Yankees.
At that time, six years ago, the National Brewery, producers of National Bohemian beer, bought the majority Oriole stock. After MacPhail departed, Hoffberger put one of his assistants, Frank Cashen, at the head of the baseball division and Dalton in charge of all player business. The deal that brought Frank Robinson from Cincinnati was already in the works, and, overall, the Cashen-Dalton combine inherited a fine team and a keen staff. They have maintained it and nurtured it but, more important, they have given the Orioles an image within baseball and a loyalty and pride within the organization. It is not really their fault that everybody in the country roots against the Orioles and hardly anybody in Baltimore cares about them.
As a stepchild city, Baltimore has been violated in baseball as regularly as in other affairs—especially by New York. In 1899, still near their peak, most of the old Orioles were sold to Brooklyn right out from under the team in the middle of the season. Then, maintaining that the club was too weak, the National League folded Baltimore's franchise, which is rather like stripping a man at gunpoint and then arresting him for indecent exposure. Later, Wilbert Robinson, who played in a major league Oriole uniform longer than anybody until Brooks Robinson gained that distinction, also moved on to Brooklyn as manager, where he won the borough its first two pennants. In 1948 Branch Rickey pirated Roy Campanella from the Baltimore (Negro) Elite Giants and cleaned up some more.
The Orioles were given a franchise in the American League in 1901, and John McGraw, who is buried in Baltimore, had the team in contention the next season until July 1, when, in a duplicate of the 1899 sellout, he took his best players and made a private deal to jump to the Giants with them. The remnants of this rape struggled home in last place, and only 138 people were on hand at the conclusion of what one Baltimore paper termed the "fretful season of 1902." That also proved to be the last major league season in Baltimore for 52 years, since the Oriole franchise was promptly sacrificed when the American League needed a New York team. What was left of the Orioles became the New York Highlanders (shortly thereafter the Yankees), and a few years later Baltimore saved that franchise—and all baseball, some would argue—by shipping a South Baltimore pitcher named Babe Ruth to the majors.
Baltimore never gets much new money. Virtually no season-ticket buyers have been added to the rolls since '54, and only 1,673 complete season tickets were sold in 1970. The most popular ticket plan features only 23 games. When the Orioles played the Mets in the '69 Series, they were inundated with calls from Baltimore businesses with New York headquarters. The Baltimore branch functionaries were being ordered by the Manhattan big shots to come up with Series tickets. Guys cried on the phone to Cashen that their jobs were in jeopardy. Of course, these firms allotted no expense money to buy regular Oriole tickets the next season.
Walking-around money is so tight in Baltimore that the fact that the Colts played two extra playoff games at home is a direct reason why, months later, Oriole ticket sales for '71 were still lagging behind the not exactly torrid pace of 1970. Yet, if limited finances help account for poor attendance, Baltimoreans have picked up the cry as a convenient cop-out. The citizens there are proficient at inertia. They have backup reasons for not doing things they never intended to do anyway. Complaints about traffic, parking and Memorial Stadium (there is little cover, many concrete poles, few chair-back seats, and not a single toilet seat in the place) are repeated ad infinitum. Crabtowners have the nerve to call up the Orioles, and for some slight—a favorite player farmed out, perhaps—threaten that they will stop listening to the games on the radio.
Everybody in Baltimore excuses Oriole attendance because the community is so mad for the beach (or "shore," as it is known in those precincts, as in "C'mon down the shore next Chuesday, and we'll tip a coupla Bohs"). To hear Oriole officials tell it, it would seem as if Baltimore is the only city in the country where swimming and summer vacations are in vogue. Says a local reporter: "It was sad to hear Cashen and Dalton explaining how come we didn't even come close to selling out for the last game of the World Series. They were going on all about the weather, TV, the entertainment dollar—all like it was a bad gate with the Indians in the middle of July, not the final game of the World Series."
Anyway, Baltimore has nowhere else to turn. Washington and Philadelphia are on either side; western Maryland is sparsely populated, suburban Appalachia; and the Eastern Shore consists of Veeck, Misty of Chincoteague and a couple of hundred thousand fiercely independent chicken farmers, most of whom would cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge only to witness the signing of secession papers. The only substantial drawing area is due north, the region centering on York County, Pa. (pop. 270,000), and even this small feeder is threatened by the convenience of the new Phillies' stadium and the more natural allegiance of York to Philadelphia. On Sundays half the Oriole crowds are from Pennsylvania. "Without the York area, there probably couldn't even be a franchise in Baltimore today," Cashen says. The absolute, complete, total Baltimore drawing area probably includes around 2.5 million people, about half the population that can be found within six or seven miles of Shea Stadium.
The Orioles have drawn as high as 1,203,000, and have dipped into the 700,000s in several seasons. But even with "The Best Damn Baseball Team in the World." an ambitious promotional program is required to approach one million. Veeck, a close friend and admirer of Hoffberger's, denies flatly that he has contributed any time or counsel to the Oriole cause, but he fully approves of the Oriole promotional effort.
"They've used intelligent and modern tactics and approach," he says, "so it's even more discouraging and baffling that the franchise has not worked out as well as people had hoped. There are a lot of reasons. It may not be the most important one, but certainly I am most impressed by the fact that Baltimore is a town that talks a good game. The Orioles will always draw great in the corner neighborhood saloon."
The Orioles try hard at making baseball a fun night out. Something is given away every night. There are Dixieland bands, midget clowns, pretty Basebelles, special birthday parties, 85¢ senior citizen tickets, $1 teen-ager and collegian tickets. Oriole players will speak on a street corner if six or eight potential fans are assembled there. Even the ground crew cleans up the bases in time to snappy music, with the famous cute, blonde base-sweeper finishing up. Sadly, her days are numbered in this innocent capacity: "She's getting too big up top," an Oriole executive confides.
With absolutely everything going for them—good weather, a stable economy, a pennant race with oodles of weekend crucial series—the Orioles figure they could draw 1,400,000 tops. However—and here is the reason it all works—Cashen is able to budget for a breakeven at around 900,000. The Dodgers need something like 1,500,000 to make back their nut; even St. Louis (about Baltimore's size) needs 1,200,000. Yet Baltimore gets by at 900,000, despite the fact that the Orioles price seats as cheaply as anyone in the majors, have one of the two or three biggest payrolls, have one of the most expensive development programs and even dish up handsome annual dividends to stockholders.
These small-town yokels, in other words, have plenty of things they can teach to the smart set. The Orioles have had the best record in the league since 1958, the best record in the majors since 1963. Despite the fact that their minor league teams have been drafting late, the farm system has shown nine straight winning seasons, averaging around .530. During this period 80% of the teams have been in the first division and 25% have won pennants. In 1970, for instance, Baltimore, drafting 23rd, won the all-rookie Appalachian League with Blue-field against teams that had the edge on them in every draft round. How do the Orioles manage to do all these things?
1) A lean, precise structure.
The front office is departmentalized more than any other in the game. "Essentially, they are run the way any business should be run," Hoffberger says, glossing over the fact that baseball business rarely has resembled any other kind known to capitalistic man.
Cashen, who, like Dalton, was paid a salary slightly in excess of $38,000 in 1970, officially runs the shop as executive vice-president. His office, window-less like those of his associates, is tucked into the catacombs of Memorial Stadium. Dalton, down the hall in another cheerless cell, is vice-president in charge of personnel, and there are vice-presidents for finance and business, as well as a chief of public relations. All report directly to Cashen and all are specialists in their sphere. Unlike the old-style general managers who presumed to be as well versed in cost accounting as in the slugging averages in the Eastern League, Cashen relies on his aides.
Hoffberger, a diffident philanthropist, thunders into the phone receiver, but is otherwise quiet and composed, with no inclination to meddle. He had, for instance, met Earl Weaver only once, and then briefly, but he agreed immediately when he got the word from Dalton that he wanted to fire Hank Bauer and make the minor league nobody the manager of the Orioles.
It is Hoffberger's style to insert himself into a situation, baseball or beer, only as a last resort. He suddenly emerged as a power in American League councils when he decided at last that William Eckert must receive the terrible swift sword. Hoffberger runs the brewery much as he does the Orioles, with a Cashen-type figure under him overseeing a system renowned for its rangy efficiency. National Boh, like the Orioles, has a top local image, too. The only real difference is that Baltimoreans will buy beer.
2) A young organization that is not beholden to baseball tradition, but is beholden to basic baseball.
Hoffberger, still only 51, admitted that he knew nothing about the game when he took over. Dalton, 42, came to sports cold. "One of my advantages," he says, "is that I didn't have any background in this-is-the-way-we-do-it baseball." He was named Executive of the Year in the sport for 1970. Cashen, 44, had been a sportswriter for 15 years with the Baltimore News-American and had occasionally covered the Orioles, but he came to the team some time after leaving the paper, unburdened by baseball myopia.
A deceptively astute man who has delighted his old newspaper colleagues by displaying talents they never imagined, Cashen put himself through college and law school at night. He then worked for Hoffberger, first at Baltimore Raceway, then at the Bel Air track, before becoming director of advertising at Boh. Both Hoffberger and Cashen have an abiding interest in thoroughbreds. Hoffberger is part of the syndicate that owns the 1966 Derby winner, Kauai King, and Cashen has had more modest holdings. He refers to one trying period "when I owned a mare that was barren and my wife was pregnant all the time." The Cashens have seven children.
Frank Lane worked for the Orioles for six years before leaving recently to become general manager at Milwaukee. "When Cashen first came," Lane says, "I thought he was one of those efficiency experts, and I have an abhorrence for efficiency experts because they are usually expert only at saying 'no.' The longer I knew Frank, the more I came to have a real awe of his ability.
"And Dalton, I'm proud as hell of him. He's got class. He doesn't throw his weight around, and I know how hard it was for him to manage an old buck like me who was used to running things. [Also, Dalton is boss to Jim McLaughlin, the man who hired him, who has come back to the organization; and Walter Shannon, the respected head of scouting who spent years with the Cardinals and is two decades Dalton's senior.] But, you see, Harry has the knack of being able to disagree without being disagreeable. I'll tell you, lean see Cashen as commissioner and Dalton as league president. The Orioles are entitled to the success they've had."
If the Baltimore management is unique in many areas of operation, it never messes with fundamental baseball. Dalton's working relationship with his men in the field, guys who knew him when he was making $47 a week, is probably the linchpin of the whole enterprise. In the course of conversations, both Dalton and Shannon fall back on the word "courage" to describe why the Orioles draft and trade so well. The Oriole scouts will go out on limbs, because they recognize that they will not be second-guessed. "If I were smart enough to overrule the decisions my scouts make," Dalton says, "they'd pay me as a scout, too, and somebody else would do my job."
Don Baylor, a minor league outfielder who cannot break into the Orioles' lineup but who would already be a star on most other major league clubs, was passed over by many teams because he had a bad arm. "So did Ty Cobb," Shannon says. MVP Boog Powell was shunned by many clubs as a prospect after he had one bad amateur series. The Orioles were not afraid to trust their original judgment. Baltimore swiped two starters, Paul Blair and Ellie Hendricks, from other organizations, while, by contrast, in the Orioles' entire modern history, only Chuck Cottier and Fred Whitfield have been abandoned by Baltimore and then gone on to make the majors.
For a classic Oriole sequence, begin with Curt Blefary, the outfielder who was obtained on the say-so of Scout Ray Scarborough from the Yankee organization for $8,000. Blefary made Rookie of the Year with the Orioles and gave them a couple more good seasons before he tailed off and became expendable. Dalton offered Blefary to Houston for Pitcher Mike Cuellar, recommended highly by George Sisler. Shortly before the trade was made, Dalton read a report from Scout Jim Frey recommending a Venezuelan shortstop named Enzo Hernandez, who was in the Houston system. Dalton demanded him as a throw-in with Cuellar.
Blefary bombed at Houston and is now with the Yankees. Cuellar has had two 20-win seasons and one Cy Young Award. In November, Hernandez, a minor league sensation with no chance to make even the Oriole bench, was the bait—along with Pitcher Tom Phoebus—that pried loose Pat Dobson and Tom Dukes from San Diego. Sisler had reported them, too, as pitchers in the Cuellar mold. So, for Phoebus and $8,000, the Orioles got Cuellar, Dukes and Dobson, plus some good seasons out of Blefary and a Cy Young and a Rookie of the Year award. This is how you make ends meet on 900,000 attendance in a stadium that does not believe in toilet seats.
3) Esprit de corps.
"They're an organization, not a collective group of individuals," Veeck says. Each September, every scout and minor league coach or manager—a total of about 40—is brought to Baltimore for a five-day conference. Every player in the organization is assessed, and every man on the staff knows—and sees—that his opinion is considered. Perhaps even more important, Dalton thinks, everybody gets to know everyone else.
Managers in the minors—often referred to as "instructors" or "teachers"—may be moved up and down the system, wherever their skills seem best suited. Don Pries, an ex-scout promoted to head the Oriole farms, has written a 100-page volume detailing the Oriole method at every level. It is so specific that it includes notations for a certain day's practice detailing the "speed" and "the direction of the ball" that will be thrown in drills. The Oriole way, developed in the minds of men who can never forget that York, Pa. keeps the whole thing afloat, cannot afford the luxuries of flattery and hyperbole. Minor league morning workout reports that must be rushed to Baltimore require comment on only two subjects: weaknesses and progress.
Above all, the Orioles are renowned for moving personnel up fast, on the field and in the front office. Dalton is obviously the prime case, but all four vice-presidents are in their 40s, and most other key positions are filled by young men who were promoted within the organization. Dalton first met Weaver in Knoxville in 1956, Weaver's second night as a manager. By 1959 Dalton had decided that Weaver was a major league managerial prospect. He declared that publicly, as early as 1963, at Earl Weaver Night in Elmira, N.Y. If there is any problem in the Baltimore organization, it is that since good young men like Dalton and Weaver have been promoted to the top, there is no reason to expect any openings high up for some time. The Orioles have already had to trade away two Minor League Players of the Year because there was no room on the big club for them. It may not be long before, similarly, staff personnel will have to jump to find promotion in other organizations.
For now, in Baltimore, the Orioles have reached such a position of esteem that the Colts, previously beloved, suffer by comparison. Feeling against Colt Owner Carroll Rosenbloom runs particularly high, and if the Colts should stumble on the field, the city surely will turn on its football champions. This is the town that booed Johnny Unitas.
The Orioles' only other competition is a bush-league hockey team and the basketball Bullets, who do a one-or two-round playoff business. So, except at the ticket windows, the Orioles are fast becoming a valentine for a town that used to be a dowry for the Colts. Perhaps even Spiro Agnew, that quintessential Colt fan, will show up soon to watch the Orioles. He should, if only out of gratitude. Had the American League not accepted Miles' bid to buy the Browns, Agnew probably would not be Vice-President today.
Miles, an eminently successful man of no personal magnetism, reveled in the public acclaim that came with baseball. Long after he sold his interest in the club, he recalled the warmth of the limelight and he decided to stand for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1966, despite the warning of party bigwigs that his presence in the race would succeed only in tilting the nomination to George P. Mahoney, an easy-to-defeat conservative. Mahoney did win the nomination, and many Democratic voters defected to liberal Republican Agnew, and so forth.
"The thing I could never figure out," says a Democratic clubhouse deputy, "is whatever made Mike think they would vote for him just because he brought Baltimore big-league baseball, when they won't even go out to see the Orioles play—even when they're champions." The politician said that he knew how good the team was, because he followed a lot of the games on radio or TV and regularly talked about the Birds with his friends.
But that is the sort of thing they say about "The Best Damn Baseball Team in the World."