1921 Orioles: Jack Dunn

 

The best way to start with the 1921 Baltimore Orioles is with their owner and manager, Jack Dunn.

Before he became arguably the most successful owner/manager in minor league history, Jack Dunn was a ballplayer. Born in Pennsylvania but raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, Jack Dunn carved out a nice seven year career in the majors, pitching for the Dodgers, Phillies, Orioles and Giants from 1897 to 1904. When his arm started to go, Dunn sat on the bench and soaked up all he could from his managers, particularly John McGraw. In 1907 Dunn returned to play for Baltimore, which had been relegated to a minor league team by then. He also managed the team, enjoying the position so much that he purchased the franchise two years later.

Like almost all minor league teams at the time, the Orioles were independent – in other words there was no Major League team helping them out. Their success or failure depended on how well they could scout new players and how much they could make the bigger teams pay for their contracts. In Baltimore, Dunn was able to find success quickly. He had a stellar reputation from his big league days and was well regarded by his peers. This led to a continuous string of tips on hot prospects from his legion of friends up and down the East Coast. The location of Baltimore also helped him find good players. Situated between New York and Washington, most East Coast scouts skipped over the port city, leaving a large untapped source of players, the best of  which Dunn funneled into the Orioles.

Another thing Baltimore had going for it was that it was an enthusiastic baseball town that experienced championship teams in the past. John McGraw’s old Orioles had been one of the most successful big league teams of the 1890s and the city had been a charter member of the American League from 1901 to 1902, before the franchise packed up and moved to New York, eventually being known as the Yankees. Whether major league or minor league, the city of Baltimore was ready to support its team, and Jack Dunn was the right man to exploit it.

Dunn steadily built up the Orioles, cultivating such players as Morrie Rath, Ben Egan, Lefty Russell and Fritz Maisel and selling them to the big league clubs at a handsome profit. In 1912 the Orioles moved up to the International League, the highest rung of the minor leagues. Dunn’s team had climbed steadily in the standings every season, and his 1914 team looked to be the one which would finally win a championship for him. The key to the team was one of his local signings, a big, raw-boned southpaw that a Catholic priest tipped him on: George Ruth.

Dunn had sent over a dozen of his discoveries to the majors, but from spring training he knew Ruth was different. For one, the Orioles manager had to become Ruth’s legal guardian in order to get him released from St. Mary’s Industrial School. This tie to his manager led to the rookie being dubbed “Jack Dunn’s Baby,” which morphed into “Dunnie’s Babe,” and finally just “Babe.”

The one thing standing in the way of Jack Dunn’s championship was an upstart self-proclaimed “third Major League” called the Federal League. This outlaw independent circuit placed teams in all the large major and minor league cities, including Baltimore. What’s more, the Baltimore club, called the Terrapins, built a brand new stadium directly across the street from the Orioles old park. No matter how good a team Dunn’s 1914 O’s were, fans flocked to the Terrapins due to their “big league” status. Dunn began hemorrhaging money and mid-season was forced to throw up his hands and sell a dozen players, including his finest discovery, Babe Ruth, to the major leagues. This forced transaction left a bitter taste in Jack Dunn’s mouth, and the memory would color his later dealings when selling players to the majors.

With all the paying fans siphoned away by the Terrapins, Dunn moved his team to Richmond, Virginia. Dunn bided his time until he could return to Charm City and rebuild his team. He didn’t have long to wait.

When the Federal League and the Terrapins went belly up after the 1915 season, Dunn purchased the Jersey City Skeeters franchise and moved them into the now vacant Terrapin Park, renamed them the Orioles, and began anew. Immediately after World War I, Dunn’s Orioles turned into a juggernaut that would dominate the International League for almost a decade and go down in history as possibly the greatest minor league dynasty of all-time.

From 1919 to 1925, Jack Dunn and his Orioles would win seven consecutive pennants as well as two Junior World Series’. He would find, develop and sell more than a dozen players to the major leagues, and unlike his forced 1914 bargain sell out, he would do it on his own turns. Along the way Dunn would find another Babe Ruth, trade an outfield fence for the greatest left-handed pitcher in history and his team would set individual and team International League records that still stand today. And this great success was all due to Jack Dunn fiercely defending his right to keep his Baltimore Orioles absolutely independent from the major leagues.

With all his scouting and player development done in house, Jack Dunn was able to hold on to any player for as long as he liked, selling only when his price was met. As Dunn was a savant when it came to spotting great players, this independent streak infuriated the major leagues, who had eventually managed to invoke a draft clause over almost every other minor league team in the land. This draft clause meant that at the end of a season the major leagues could draft a set number of minor league prospects for which their team was given a meager compensation. While not ideal, this agreement did pump cash into minor league franchises that were operating on a wing and a prayer. Selling their best player at the end of the summer often meant the difference between having the money to operate the next season and having to fold.

However, Jack Dunn was not like any other minor league owner. Fan support kept gate receipts coming in and Dunn was a savvy businessman, meaning he operated in the black without the fear that a bad year could doom his club. By demanding his price for his star players, many of Dunn’s discoveries would linger in the minors long after they were considered ready for The Show. The sting of having to part with Babe Ruth back in 1914 was never disappeared from Dunn’s memory.

Normally this would have infuriated most players, but Dunn treated his team like they were Big League, chartering Pierce-Arrow touring cars to chauffer them to and from the ballpark and paying his men salaries that were comparable or in excess of what they would get in the majors. He also put his team up in the best accommodations available while on the road. This meant that the Birds stayed in Manhattan when they visited Newark and Jersey City, New Jersey. The affront was so strong to the Jersey hoteliers they lodged a complaint with the league.

On the field, Jack Dunn was a laid-back skipper, letting his players do what they did best. Since Dunn personally scouted all his players, he knew what each man was capable of and gave them enough freedom with which to excel. Lefty Grove, who joined the Orioles in 1920, wrote that Dunn didn’t require practice sessions during the season and even forwent batting practice most of the time. The team would just show up at the park shortly before game time and proceed to win. Now that’s a heck of a ball club!

His good treatment and trust in his players led to a first-class team that responded by winning. From 1919 to 1925, Dunn’s Birds won 777 games, averaging 111 wins a season.

In 1923, right in the midst of his super-dynasty, Jack Dunn suffered a personal tragedy that he was never able to fully recover from. For several years Dunn’s right hand man on the team was his son, Jack, Jr. Jack had been a stand-out athlete at Baltimore City College and played several seasons of pro ball, including the 1914 Orioles, manning the outfield behind a rookie Babe Ruth. But it was as heir-apparent to the Orioles franchise that was supposed to be Jack, Jr.’s destiny. After playing sporadically for his father’s team, Junior became a roving scout, acting as his father’s eyes and ears when a tip on a prospect came in. The elder Dunn came to trust his son’s judgement completely, often signing a player with out seeing him in person, solely on his son’s scouting report. By 1921 he was the team’s secretary and was being groomed to take over his father’s dual role of owner-manager when he retired. Jack, Jr. was with the team at spring training in 1923 when he was stricken with pneumonia. As the 28 year-old battled the infection his father paced the hallway outside his door day and night, urging his boy to hold on. After languishing for several weeks, Jack Dunn, Jr. briefly regained consciousness before dying in his father’s arms. He left a young wife and son, Jack Dunn III.

The elder Dunn was completely devastated. He turned over the reigns to his ball club to third baseman Fritz Maisel and disappeared for several months to mourn his son. When he returned in June, players found that their manager was a shell of his former self, refusing to even don his uniform for games. His presence in the dugout served as an inspiration to the team and the Orioles proceeded to their fourth-straight pennant, 11 games up on second-place Rochester.

By 1925 the other teams in the International League and the Major League owner had had enough of Dunn’s Birds. The other league owners were at their wits end trying to beat Baltimore and the Orioles complete domination meant that fans in the other league cities lost interest in going to the ball park. The Major League owners were angered because unlike virtually every minor league, the International League did not subscribe to the end of the year draft which allowed big league clubs to buy a player for a set low price. Jack Dunn, still sore over having to sell Ruth in 1914, was the single owner who refused to vote yes to the MLB draft. Dunn acquiesced to the other owners and began selling off his stars one by one. 1925 would be the last of Dunn’s pennant winners. Dunn continued as manager through 1928 when he passed away from a heart attack, aged 56. Though his son could not take over his beloved Birds, Dunn’s wife Mary did, running the team through the 1940’s, followed by Jack Dunn III who remained president until the St. Louis Browns moved to town in 1954, bringing big league baseball back to Baltimore.

Tomorrow I’ll begin to introduce the team, beginning with the starting lineup, going around the horn with their first baseman, Jack Bentley.

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

 

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