Today I’m unveiling the historical minor league team that I will begin to cover in its entirety – 20 players, from the manager and starting lineup to the pitching staff and utility players.
Ever since I started this blog a decade ago after the sudden passing of my father, I wanted to cover an entire historical team in The Infinite Baseball Card Set style. But, as with everything else, life gets in the way. The biggest obstacle to my covering an entire team is that I lose interest quickly. That’s why The Infinite Baseball Card Set skips around so much. Look at the past 5 players I covered: Sol White, Hi Bithorn, Ford Meadows, Karl Scheel, and Bruce Petway. There’s no connection between any of those players, except that I, for some reason or another, found them to be interesting at the time. But now, the time has come to take on the challenge of doing a 20-card set that limits me to a single team in a single season.
The problem was, what team to cover?
There’s the “go-to” great teams like the 1927 Yankees or the 1931 Homestead Grays. Both absolutely world-class ball clubs with star-studded lineups. But everyone covers those teams. No one really needs to see my take on them. I have always tried to keep The Infinite Baseball Card Set a place where the un-ordinary and un-celebrated are given a home, brought to life again after decades of obscurity. If I may quote Neil Young on how the unexpected success his album “Harvest” launched him into superstardom:
“(Harvest) put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
That kind of sums up what I always tried to do with The Infinite Baseball Card Set, and is the reason why I chose the team I did for this series. After the virus lock-down has lifted, I’ll make these into a limited edition card set. There’s a Hall of Famer and well-known All-Stars, scrubs and never-weres. And it is but one team, right in the middle of a seven consecutive pennant-winning dynasty.
I’m talking about the 1921 Baltimore Orioles.
Why the 1921 Orioles?
There’s no cut and dry answer, but actually a multi-tiered justification for a 20-card treatment.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you probably know I went to art school in Baltimore. While there, the rich baseball history of the town intrigued me, and I learned all I could about the teams which once played there. The old Baltimore Orioles of John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson and Wee Willie Keeler are well known and an important part of baseball history. Charm City has a rich history of Blackball teams, with the Black Sox and Elite Giants being two teams that represented the city during the Golden Years of the Negro Leagues. But by far the most successful, and at the same time most overlooked, is the minor league Baltimore Orioles that won seven consecutive pennants from 1919 to 1925.
This relatively obscure team never received a comprehensive book treatment nor does the modern-day big league Orioles recognize them. More people remember the 1914 Orioles, due to it being the first professional team that Babe Ruth played for. Yet this pennant-winning juggernaut claims six slots in MiLB’s “Top 100 Teams,” five in the top-20 alone.
A smaller reason why I wanted to do the 1921 Orioles is because the 2021 Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention will be held in Baltimore, the 100th anniversary of this great team. A good old-fashioned Centennial is as good a reason as any to breathe new life in this forgotten team, and baseball geeks like us SABR members love a good obscure team.
One other minor reason for me wanting to cover the ’21 Birds is that artistically speaking, the uniforms the team wore are beautiful in their simplicity. The snow white home togs were ornamented with a simple black trim down the front and collar paired with an understated but dignified “B” in a diamond on the left sleeve. The black stockings boasted three thin orange stripes, adding a dash of flair to a relatively conservative look. But it is the team’s distinctive ballcap that really makes this uniform stand out – the black brim and crown highlighted by orange piping and a large Oriole bird. Simply outstanding, especially when compared to today’s weird minor league getups. You’ll notice how much I enjoyed recreating this look in my illustrations.
But I guess the biggest reason “why the 1921 Orioles?” is the present situation of professional baseball.
Starting at the top, Major League Baseball has been going through some very (to me) un-needed changes over the past decade. It almost seems like the bigwigs are trying to over-compensate for their looking the other way when Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and all the other juicers were soiling the sacred record books. Now that those guys have been disposed with naturally through retirement or injuries, the decision makers decided it was time to make decisions.
First, we are told that the game needs to be speeded up. Ok, fine. I get that. I cannot believe even the purest SABRmetric guys like it when a manager brings in a reliever for a single batter. So sure, go ahead and make it a rule the pitcher must face x-number of batters before he is replaced. But then MLB decides that it needs to incorporate video replay? How much longer does that tack onto a game while some faceless drone in New York reviews a call that the umpires were once believed capable of calling themselves? How the umpire union let that one slip out of their grasp by is beyond me.
Now we’ll get closer to answering “why the 1921 Orioles?”
Perhaps the biggest change that will affect the most fans across the country is the contraction of the minor leagues. This past week MLB pulled the trigger on the plan that cut 42 teams at all levels. Small towns that hosted a ball club for decades have had their MLB affiliation revoked, thereby sucking all the cash out of franchises that were built to depend on bucks doled out by their Major League benefactor.
Most of my baseball friends, if not all, call this contraction the death of the minor leagues. Me on the other hand, am more optimistic. I think this may be the re-birth of the old bush leagues, independent ball clubs that will become responsible to scout and sign their own players, which they can then sell to the Major Leagues. Of course this depends on if there is still the strict draft structure in place and if any young player would be willing to sign with an unaffiliated team, making their path to The Show more circuitous.
This un-affiliated path might actually uncover a few diamonds in the rough, just like in the old days. For example, Brooklyn superstar Dazzy Vance spent almost decade and a half in the bush leagues until he finally developed into a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher at the age of 31. On the other hand, this modern-day independent league system might bring to light a few real great characters that otherwise would be overlooked by an all-MLB led minor league system. Case-in-point is a guy now playing in the Pecos League, Rod Tafoya. Rod is a 55-year-old southpaw, a baseball lifer who is just two wins shy of 450 wins. That’s FOUR HUNDREAD AND FIFTY wins. Who wouldn’t want to see that milestone reached? But there would be no way an MLB-affiliated minor league team would find space for a guy like Rod Tafoya to reach his coveted goal. You have to go to unaffiliated minor league team like the Roswell Invaders of the independent Pecos League for something as special as that.
Believe me, I know there is a ton of things that can go wrong, namely owners unwilling or unable to take on the risks of operating a free, unaffiliated ball club. However, I feel this will weed out any owner or general manager who lacks any creativity or passion for the game. This may make way for a more interesting brand of baseball.
One thing that I always bring up when asked about current baseball is what I call the “homogenization” of the minor leagues. Over the past 20 years, every minor league team (with a few classic examples) looks like they have the same logo. To me, as a designer, this is really boring. Take a look at the independent leagues out there no, such as the Atlantic League or the Frontier League. Their team logos, while perhaps crude and lacking that MLB polish, at least they are more or less unique. Likewise with the current MiLB names. Somewhere along the way someone decided it was imperative to smush all team nicknames together, for instance “SwampDragons,” “RoughRiders,” and “LumberKings.” I guess the ad agency that named all these teams offered a bulk price break for their services. Look at a list of the 2019 minor league teams and you’ll see what I mean.
A lack of originality creates monotony which breeds indifference.
Look, I know independent baseball is a huge undertaking, but, if one looks closely at the past, it can be done, and done successfully. The majority of minor league teams remained independent up until the Great Depression, and there was no firm MLB-approved farm structure in place until after World War II. So, it is proven that running a successful independent minor league team was, at least at one time, quite feasible.
All this brings us closer to the answer to, “why the 1921 Orioles?”
The 1921 Baltimore Orioles were members of the International League, at that time rated a “AA-class” league. This archaic rating system translates to what today would be called “AAA” or “Triple A,” the highest minor league. Because there were only 16 Major League teams at the time, the level of talent found in the International League and the other two “AA-class” leagues, the American Association and Pacific Coast League, was quite significant. Many talented ballplayers languished in the high minors simply because there was no more room at the top for them. So, seeing an International League game back in 1921 was almost like watching a Major League game today, factoring in all the other professional sports that lure away athletes today and the watering down of talent that occurred when the majors expanded to its present 30 team structure.
Now this 1921 Orioles team was the third of what would be seven consecutive pennant winners. SEVEN. From 1919 to 1925 the Orioles completely dominated the International League, so much so that the other team owners forced Baltimore to sell off some of their players to even the playing field a bit. See, the Orioles were so powerful that attendance in other league cities suffered because there was simply no hope that fans in Buffalo, Toronto or Newark would see their team beat the Os for the pennant.
Of this seven-year dynasty, the 1921 team is considered by many to be the best of the bunch. I certainly can’t argue too strenuously about that, with a pitching staff that consisted of 31, 25 and 24 game winners and a guy who simultaneously won the batting Triple Crown AND led the league with a .923 pitching winning percentage. So, yeah, the 1921 Orioles were one heck of a ball club.
And they did it all as an independent team. There was no affiliation with a Major League team. No handouts, no working capital and no pipeline of young prospects. The Orioles were a completely self-contained entity, scouting and signing their own players, totally free to sell them when and for what price they wanted. And they won–they won BIG. From 1919 to 1925 the Orioles averaged 111 wins a season, never winning less than 100 and peaking at 119 in 1921. The team sold 11 players to the majors for a grand total of $375,600 – over five and half million in today’s market. This wealth of future big league talent included four essential members of Connie Mack’s 1929-1931 team, considered by many to be the best ever assembled in the history of professional baseball.
So what makes the 1921 Orioles relevant today is that the organization could possibly be used as a model for what the new-look minor leagues could become.
Tomorrow, Monday April 26, I’ll begin The Infinite Baseball Card Set series on the ’21 Birds, starting with their mercurial owner and manager, Jack Dunn.
You can see the whole 20-card index of players HERE.
The set of 20 art cards are available for pre-order HERE IN MY STORE