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Top 100 Teams

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2. 1921 Baltimore Orioles
Record: 119-47
International League (Triple-A)

By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians

Alphonse Thomas
(photo courtesy of Baseball Hall of Fame)

Amidst the group of Oriole champions in the first half of the 1920s, one team stood slightly taller than the rest. Pushing this team a couple of wins higher than its mates was a unique double-duty performance from the league’s best batter and pitcher.

After fielding several amateur and pro teams in the early days of baseball, the city of Baltimore, Maryland became one of six founding members of a new major league starting in 1882. Called the American Association, it was formed by a group of beer barons who chafed at the restrictive rules put forth by the National League. The Orioles started slowly, going 19-54 in 1882 and 28-68 in the next campaign. The team clambered out of the cellar in 1884, but fell back to the bottom the next two years. Its best American Association season came in 1887, when the team finished third. After the 1889 season, the team was dropped from the league, but returned mid-season in 1890 as a replacement for the doomed Brooklyn franchise.

In 1884, the American Association Orioles had major league competition from the short-lived Union Association. The Monumentals (58-47) were one of the more stable franchises in the fragmented circuit and were one of only five league teams to actually finish the year intact. The Baltimore Unions featured 39-year-old Ned Cuthbert, who was rumored to have stolen baseball’s first base in 1865 when an amateur player.

After spending several years in the National (1892-99) and American (1901-02) Leagues, Baltimore dropped down to the top-tier Eastern League in 1903, which would serve as its home for the next 50 years. After scuffling around the middle of the pack for several years, the team won its first minor league pennant in 1908. Its next, much more impressive flag would come more than a decade later.

In 1919, under the direction of owner and manager Jack Dunn, the Orioles captured the International League pennant with the first 100-win champion in league history. Baltimore followed in 1920 with a 110-victory pennant winner, edging out Toronto by winning the last 25 games of the season. Both Orioles teams are among the Top 100.

In 1921, the International League extended its schedule from 154 to 168 games. The season opened April 20 and by May 18, after having the lead four different times, the Orioles were in first place to stay. Baltimore then proceeded to win 27 consecutive games, tying the existing record set by Corsicana (Texas) in 1902. The streak was ended on June 15 by Buffalo, who defeated the Birds 19-8 in the second game of a double-header. (That record was broken in 1987 by Salt Lake of the Pioneer League with 29 consecutive wins.) When half the schedule had been played, the Orioles were 16-˝ games ahead of second place Buffalo. At one point, they led the pack by 27 games. Baltimore finished the season with a 119-47, .717 record, twenty games in front of Rochester (100-68). Traditionally a good home team, the Orioles won 70 and lost only 18 (.784) in their own park. Baltimore led the league in batting (.313), runs (1,140), hits (1,831), total bases (2,654), doubles (293) and home runs (112). The batting average set a league record, as did the runs and hits totals. The Orioles also set a league attendance record, drawing 308,970 fans through the gates.

In the 1922 Spalding Guide, Baltimore writer Fred Turbyville said, “The Orioles won their third championship with perhaps the poorest catching staff in the league and without good substitutes for the infield or outfield. Yet they marched steadily on, crushing all opposition. Around the International circuit, the fans believed the team from Baltimore was invincible. They pooh-poohed the champions of the American Association and believed the Little World Series would be a runaway for Dunn. And it was one of the greatest surprises in the history of the league - the triumph of Louisville over Baltimore. But the team was certainly not in form when the Louisville Colonels (managed by future Hall-of-Famer Joe McCarthy) were encountered. The Colonels had a hard drive right up to the finish and they were going at top speed when the Birds were taken on in the post-season games.”

Max Bishop
(photo courtesy of Baseball Hall of Fame)

Second baseman Max Bishop, who hit .319 and led the league’s second basemen in fielding (.964), had been injured and was unavailable. Baltimore received permission to borrow Ray (Snooks) Dowd, who hit .292, from Buffalo. The Reach Guide later indicated he was a disappointment both at bat (.208) and in the field. Right fielder Bill Holden also was injured and able to start only the first three games.

The series opened with four games in Louisville. The Colonels trounced the Orioles 16-1, banging out 19 hits and knocking Lefty Grove out of the box in the third inning. Baltimore got ten hits off Norman (Nick) Cullop, but couldn’t score until the ninth inning. Baltimore evened the series the next day, 2-1, as Jack Ogden outpitched Ben Tincup, who had been 9-0 in the regular season. Louisville clobbered Baltimore 14-8 in game three. Grove again was the loser, this time in relief, walking 5 in 1-2/3 innings. Oriole reliever Rufus Clarke, who had given up 7 runs and 7 hits in 2 innings in the opener, this time was hammered for 6 runs and 6 hits in 1-1/3 innings. The fourth game matched up Ogden, working with two days’ rest, and Cullop. Louisville scored three times in the bottom of the first, but tallied only one more run. The Orioles, meanwhile, scored 12 runs off four pitchers. The game was never finished. The Reach Guide says, “A riotous demonstration broke up the game, when 3,500 spectators, angered at a close decision, swarmed on the field, pelted the police and umpires with cushions and caused the game to be forfeited to Baltimore 9-0. Before the riotous ending of the game in the first half of the ninth inning, the fans swarmed on the diamond in the seventh to protest a decision by Umpire (Bill) McGowan of the International League and delayed the game 15 minutes before the police could clear the field. There were 20 to 30 police on duty at the park to handle the crowd of 6,596, the biggest attendance of the series.” McGowan later umpired in the American League for 30 years and founded one of the first schools for umpires.

After a three-day break, Baltimore took a 3-games-to-2 lead with a 10-5 victory. Ogden won again, going the distance, and Cullop was the loser. Louisville then won three in a row to capture the series. In game six, Tincup and the Colonels shut out the Orioles, 3-0. Grove lost for the third time, giving up only four hits, but walking eight batters. The next day, Louisville took a 7-1 lead off Alphonse Thomas. The Birds rallied for five runs, but couldn’t catch up and lost 7-6. Ogden, who pitched one perfect inning of relief at the end of the game, started the next afternoon, but gave up 13 hits and all of the Colonels’ 11 runs in five innings and Louisville won 11-5. Baltimore was outscored 61-44, and outhit, .329 to .280.

The Birds’ leading hitter was reserve outfielder Matt Donohue, who batted .700 (7-for-10) in five games. Donohue, 23, had played for the Baltimore Dry Docks semi-pro team and joined the Orioles late in the season, batting .301 in 30 games. He played in the minors for ten more seasons, eight in Class A or higher, with a .331 career average, but never reached the majors. Utilityman Wade Lefler, who played in the outfield during the series, batted .444 (8-for-18) in six games. Lefler, 25, had hit .316 in 115 games in his third and final year with the Orioles. Playing for Worcester, he led the Eastern League in batting in 1923-24. At the end of the’24 season, he went 5-for-8 with 3 doubles and 4 RBI for Washington, but was sent down to Memphis (Southern) in 1925, his last pro season. Jack Bentley, the league’s leading hitter, batted .314 but scored only three runs. Louisville’s leading hitter was center fielder and leadoff man Merito Acosta (.424), a former Oriole. Veteran catcher Bill Meyer was second at .400.

Jack Bentley
(photo courtesy of Baseball Hall of Fame)

Statistically, the 1921 International League season belonged to Baltimore first baseman and left-handed pitcher John Needles (Jack) Bentley. Had there been a Most Valuable Player award, Bentley could well have been a unanimous selection. He batted .412 in 141 games with 24 homeruns and 120 RBI, becoming the league’s first Triple Crown winner, one of only seven in its history. His batting average is the International League’s modern record. He set a league record of 246 hits that still stands and led in doubles (47), total bases (397) and slugging percentage (.665). The 24 homers were a league record at the time. On the mound, Bentley won 12 and lost 1, a league-best .923 winning percentage, with a 2.35 ERA. He was the Orioles’ cleanup hitter even when he was the starting pitcher. Being left-handed and with these statistics, it is not surprising that he was starting to be called “The Babe Ruth of the Minors.” Bentley was born March 8, 1895, in Sandy Spring, MD, a tiny town about 25 miles southwest of Baltimore. He was powerfully built, 5’11” tall, weighing 200 pounds. At 18, he was signed by Washington as a pitcher and made his professional debut with the Senators on September 6, 1913. He was 1-0, 0.00 in three games and was with Washington all of 1914 with a 5-8, 2.37 record in 30 games. After going 0-2, 0.79 in 1915, he was sent to Minneapolis and was with the Millers and Senators again in 1916 before being traded to Baltimore. Bentley finished the season with the Orioles, going 7-3, 2.12 in 11 games. In 1917, he pitched only one inning, playing 65 games at first and 21 in the outfield, batting .342 in 93 games. Bentley then entered the Army, seeing combat duty as an infantry officer in France.

He returned to Baltimore in 1919, playing first base exclusively, batting .324 with 11 home runs in 92 games for the first of Dunn’s string of champions. In 1920, Bentley hit .374-20-161 in 145 games, leading the league in RBI and total bases (354), and was third in batting and home runs. Returning to the mound, he was 16-3, 2.11, leading the league in ERA and winning percentage (.842), and was second in shutouts (5). He struck out 97 and walked 29 in 167 innings. After Bentley’s sensational 1921 season, more than one major league club was interested in him, but, as was his custom, Dunn held back, waiting for the best offer. Class AA teams were not subject to the draft at that time, so there was no pressure to make a deal. Dunn kept his stars reasonably satisfied by paying them as much as they would make in the majors and providing such amenities as staying in first class hotels in Manhattan when the Orioles played in Newark or Jersey City. Bentley had another outstanding year in 1922, .351-22-128 at the plate and 13-2, 1.73 on the mound. Dunn finally sold him to the New York Giants for $65,000 and two players. (Details of the deal are covered in the report on the 1922 Orioles, Top 100 team number 15.)

Bentley once told The Sporting News with a laugh that he hated to leave Baltimore “because he was the best-dressed man in town. A tailor in the Maryland city would give a player a suit for each home run. When Bentley had accumulated more than a dozen one year, he told the tailor he would take one suit for every four homers.”

Somewhat to the surprise of many observers, Giants manager John McGraw wanted Bentley as a pitcher. At first base he already had one future Hall-of-Famer, George (High Pockets) Kelly, with another one, Bill Terry, waiting in the wings at Toledo. While not a sensation with the Giants in his first season, Bentley had a successful year with New York’s pennant winners in 1923. He was 13-8, 4.48 and pitched 13 complete games, second on the staff. He led the National League in pinch-hitting, batting .500 (10-for-20) with one walk. Overall, he batted .427-1-14 in 52 games. In the World Series, won by the Yankees, 4 games to 2, Bentley pitched well in relief in the second game, allowing just one run in 5-1/3 innings. He started the fifth game and gave up six earned runs in 1-1/3 innings as the Giants lost 8-1. As a pinch-hitter he was 2-for-3, keeping a rally going in game one with a key single as the Giants won 5-4.

In 1924, the Giants won their fourth straight pennant and Bentley posted a 16-5, 3.78 record, winning eight in a row and tying for the team lead in victories. He was a perfect 6-0 against Brooklyn, the most wins by a National League pitcher over an opposing club. This was a vital contribution to the Giants’ success as they finished only 1-˝ games ahead of the second place Robins. In the second game of the World Series, Bentley held Washington to six hits, but lost 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth on a walk, a sacrifice and a two-strike double. Bentley was the starting and winning pitcher in the fifth game, besting Walter Johnson. He gave up two runs in 7-1/3 innings as the Giants won 6-2. He pitched in the seventh and deciding game, relieving Art Nehf to start the bottom of the 11th with the score tied 3-3. Frank Graham, in his book, “McGraw of the Giants,” relates what happened: “The teams struggled on to the 12th, with Bentley pitching magnificently against Johnson and the tension mounting on the field, in the dugouts and the stands. (Ralph) Miller, leading off in the Senators’ half, was thrown out by (second baseman Frank) Frisch. The next hitter was Muddy Ruel, who had made only one hit in the series. He raised a high foul between the plate and third base. (Giants catcher Hank) Gowdy, tearing off his mask, started for the ball - and what happened immediately thereafter probably never happened before or since to a major league catcher. Instead of tossing his mask behind him, Hank tossed it directly in his path. With his eye on the ball, he stepped in the mask, stumbled, kicked it off, then stepped in it again. Now his spikes were caught in the wire. He stumbled once more as he tried frantically to get under way. The ball fell a few feet in front of him as he lunged at it. Ruel, who should have been an easy out, had another chance to hit and doubled to left. Johnson was safe on a fumble by (shortstop Travis) Jackson. Now, Earl McNeely hit an easy grounder to (third baseman Fred) Lindstrom, but the ball struck a stone and bounced over Lindstrom’s head, Ruel racing home with the winning run.” The Senators were World Series champions and Bentley was the hard-luck loser.

In 1925, Bentley dropped to 11-9, 5.04. The Giants led the league for the first 2-˝ months, but then slipped to second behind Pittsburgh, where they ended the season. In January, 1926, Bentley was traded to the Phillies. When he went 0-2, 8.17 on the mound, Philadelphia Manager Art Fletcher decided to use Bentley at first base. Jack no longer was much of a threat with the bat and hit only .258-2-27 in 75 games. The Phillies gave up on him and placed him on waivers. On September 15, he was claimed by the Giants and finished the season with McGraw again. He got into only three games, two as a pinch-hitter. In 1927, he pitched in 4 games (0-0, 2.79) and pinch-hit (.222 in 8 games), before being released to Newark. Bentley pitched in 1927 (11-3, 4.25) and in 1928 pitched (6-7, 4.46) and played first base (.311-3-25 in 67 games).

Jack Dunn
(photo courtesy of Baseball Hall of Fame)

Starting in 1929, Bentley was the playing manager of the York White Roses in the Class B New York-Penn League, playing first base exclusively. He batted .363-6-87 in 1929, leading the league with 46 doubles, .368-17-103 in 1930 and .333-3-66 in 1931. He was released in August, 1931 and finished the season playing for Rochester where he batted .306-0-8 in 17 games. Bentley started 1932 as manager of the Cardinals’ NYP League farm club at Elmira, but with the team in last place early in the season he was replaced by Clay Hopper (later Jackie Robinson’s manager at Montreal). That was his last baseball connection.

In the minors, Bentley hit .354-114-717 in 1,200 games and had an 80-29, 3.05 record as a pitcher. In the majors, he batted .291 in 287 games, but hit only 7 home runs. As a pitcher, he was 46-34, 4.02. After his retirement from the game, he operated a farm in Montgomery County, MD. He died in October, 1969. The Sporting News said, “Although in his later years he was wracked by arthritis pains, he seldom complained. He spent much of his time reading Socrates, Plato and the Chinese philosophers. As he hobbled about on two canes one spring day, he looked out the window and told an interviewer, ‘it’s a heck of a good life, don’t you think?’”

All of the Baltimore infielders and outfielders hit over .300 and if Lefler was behind the plate, it was an all-.300 lineup. Otis Lawry, the 1919 batting champion, hit .352, third in the league. Merwin Jacobson, the league leader in 1920, was eighth at .340 and was second in runs scored (163). Right behind him was third baseman Fritz Maisel at .339, second in the league in hits (221). The double play combination of Joe Boley (SS) and Max Bishop (2B) led in fielding percentage at their positions. Bishop hit .319, Boley .317 with 21 triples, third in the league.

On the mound, Jack Ogden led the International League in wins (31-8, 2.30), shutouts (6), complete games (33) and innings pitched (318), was second in ERA and won 18 consecutive games, at the time a league record. Lefty Grove (25-10, 2.56) led in strikeouts (254), was second in wins and innings pitched (313) and third in ERA. An important addition to the pitching staff was 21-year-old right-hander Alphonse (Tommy) Thomas (24-10, 2.78), who was third in the league in wins and strikeouts (176) and tied with Grove for third in complete games (26).

Thomas, another Baltimore native, was a Baltimore City College teammate of Max Bishop. Writing in “Who’s Who in Major League Baseball” in 1933, Frank Young of the Washington Post said: “Thomas’ coach (at City College) Herb Armstrong (a shortstop), was to join Buffalo after school ended and, as the International League season was opening in Baltimore that year (1918), he suggested that Tommy bring out his uniform and let the Bisons manager (longtime major league pitcher Hooks Wiltse) take a look at him. Reporting with his high school uniform under his arm, much to Thomas’s surprise he was told to work for the Bisons against Baltimore that very day, as there was an epidemic of sore arms among the Buffalo hurlers and none was available. So Tommy pitched and won his game. ‘I was offered a contract, but I didn’t want to play professional ball,’ said Tommy, ‘so I went back to school and graduated that June. After getting my diploma, I couldn’t get a job except in a shipyard so I wrote to Buffalo and asked if their earlier proposition was still open. It was and so I joined the team and have been pitching professionally ever since.’” He played three years for Buffalo, going 30-29, 2.87, before Dunn acquired him for Baltimore. Thomas pitched for the perennial International League champions for the next five years.

Thomas’ best year for the Orioles was 1925, when he went 32-12, 2.97 in helping pitch Baltimore to the last of its seven league titles. He led the league in wins, strikeouts (268), games pitched (56) and innings pitched (354), and tied for the lead in complete games (28). His contract was purchased by the Chicago White Sox at the end of the season. He had won 105 and lost 54 for the Birds with a 3.34 ERA, averaging 21 wins and 277 innings pitched a year. Thomas’ best year with Chicago was 1927 when he went 19-16, 2.97. He was tied for the American Lead in innings pitched (308) and was second in complete games (24). In 1930, a chipped bone in his right elbow led to a 5-13, 5.22 record and he had surgery at the end of the season. He won no more than 11 games in a season for the rest of his career. Thomas was sold to Washington in June, 1932. The Senators released him just after the start of the 1935 season and he was signed by the Phillies. Philadelphia released him and he finished the season with Baltimore. Thomas was with the Browns in 1936 and the Browns and Red Sox in 1937. He pitched briefly for Chattanooga (Southern) in 1938. His major league career record was 117-128, 4.11.

Thomas returned home to Baltimore as a coach under Rogers Hornsby, then was appointed manager in 1940. He remained at the helm for nine years. Baltimore finished fourth, seventh, fifth and sixth in his first four seasons. Then, his 1944 Birds won Baltimore’s first International League championship since Thomas’ last year as an Oriole pitcher, 1925. Maybe it was a good omen when, James Bready wrote in his book, “The Home Team,” before the start of the season, someone decided to have the uniforms carry the same B-in-a-diamond patches worn by the 1919-25 champs. Events would seem to indicate some degree of luck was involved in their successful season. The Orioles of 1944 were not that great a team, fourth in the league in batting and seventh in fielding. The Orioles were holding a narrow lead when they returned from a road trip on July 3. Shortly after midnight on the morning of July 4, Oriole Park, home of the Birds since 1916, burned to the ground. The club’s irreplaceable archives, trophies and photographs were destroyed. The Orioles were forced to go back on the road for two more weeks while Municipal Stadium was made ready for baseball. Bready said, “The Orioles at once slumped to fourth place. They were inching upward again when Newark, last on July 6, shot past them into first place on August 20. Then, on closing day, still half a game behind, the frantic Orioles lost their vital last game - and backed into a pennant when Newark lost a double header.” Baltimore’s margin of victory was .0007 of a point. Baltimore was 84-68, .5526, Newark was 85-69, .5519. In the Governor’s Cup Series, Baltimore defeated Buffalo 4 games to 3 and Newark by the same margin, then beat Louisville 4 games to 2 in the Junior World Series. The three games played in Baltimore drew 95,832 with the first game at Municipal Stadium attracting a minor league record (fans in seats, not tickets sold) of 52,833. Putting a cap on the 1944 season, Alphonse was named Minor League Manager of the Year by The Sporting News.

In 1945, Thomas added the titles of Vice-President and General Manager. His Business Manager was his old college coach, Herb Armstrong. The Orioles could not win another title under his direction. They finished fourth, third, sixth and eighth from 1945-48. Thomas resigned on May 21, 1949 with the Orioles in last place. He scouted for the Red Sox for the next 25 years until his retirement in 1974. He died in 1988.

Baltimore won a record seven consecutive league championships from 1919-25. The Orioles also had an unprecedented string of eight straight seasons with 100 or more wins (not counting Pacific Coast League clubs who played 180 or more games for fifty years). The 1926 team that finished second to Toronto won 101 games. Ten Oriole players of that era, in addition to Jack Dunn, are members of the International League Hall of Fame: Jack Bentley, Joe Boley, George Earnshaw, Merwin Jacobson, Fritz Maisel, Jack Ogden, Rube Parnham, Dick Porter, Alphonse Thomas and Jimmy Walsh. The careers of the following members of the 1921 Orioles are covered in the reports of other Top 100 Baltimore teams: 1919 - Joe Boley, Fritz Maisel, Otis Lawry, Harry Frank. 1920 - Merwin Jacobson, Ben Egan, Bill Holden. 1922 - Max Bishop, Jack Ogden. 1924 - Lefty Grove.

The 1921 Orioles won more games (119) and finished with a better percentage (.717) than any other International League team. As a matter of fact, only one other top tier team had a better record than the best member of the Orioles dynasty - the only other team on the list to finish with a higher ranking than the ’21 Orioles.

1921 International League standings
BALTIMORE 119 47 .717 - NEWARK 72 92 .439 46.0
ROCHESTER 100 68 .595 20.0 SYRACUSE 71 96 .425 48.5
BUFFALO 99 69 .589 21.0 JERSEY CITY 59 106 .358 59.5
TORONTO 89 77 .536 30.0 READING 56 110 .337 63.0
1921 Balitmore Orioles batting statistics
Jack Bentley 1B, P 141 597 122 246 120 47 16 21 10 .412
Max Bishop 2B 140 520 106 166 28 16 14 12 .319
Joe Boley SS 152 590 103 187 37 21 5 6 .317
Fritz Maisel 3B 153 652 154 221 30 6 8 31 .339
Merwin Jacobson OF 167 632 163 215 38 14 12 26 .340
Bill Holden OF 129 490 104 148 23 10 19 8 .302
Otis Lawry OF 134 509 130 179 19 13 3 28 .352
Ben Egan C 95 319 35 86 18 1 5 1 .270
Wade Lefler OF, 1B, C 115 396 71 125 19 5 3 3 .316
John Ogden P 60 166 13 34 2 2 1 1 .205
Lefty Grove P 47 113 14 19 4 1 1 0 .168
Cal Davis C 44 108 10 29 3 4 1 1 .269
Tommy Thomas P 43 125 18 28 3 0 3 0 .224
Rufus Clarke P 38 94 11 27 5 1 0 0 .287
Harry Frank P 37 67 9 12 0 1 0 1 .179
James Lyston OF 33 74 5 14 2 0 0 0 .189
Matt Donahue OF 30 113 32 34 7 1 1 2 .301
Nigel Marlette 22 57 10 12 2 0 0 3 .211
Dick Porter 2B 16 56 5 18 0 0 0 1 .321
Lena Styles C 9 .290
James Matthews P 5 .000
Maxwell Owens 4 .091
James Aitcheson 3 .500
McComas 3 .200
Schuler 3 .600
Schimm 2 .500
Broadway Jones 2 .200
Rudolph Kneisch 1 .000
Robertson 1 .000
Ditman 1 .000
James Sullivan 1 .000
Totals 167 5843 1140 1831 293 112 102 144 .313

1921 Baltimore Orioles pitching statistics
John Ogden 31 8 .795 42 33 6 318 296 103 161 2.29
Lefty Grove 25 10 .714 47 26 1 313 237 179 254 2.56
Tommy Thomas 24 10 .706 40 26 2 301 288 133 176 2.78
Harry Frank 13 7 .650 36 7 2 178 208 55 88 3.08
Jack Bentley 12 1 .923 18 11 1 119 90 33 71 2.35
Rufus Clarke 9 4 .692 29 8 0 143 170 79 48 4.97
James Matthews 1 1 .500 5 0 0 10 8 13 5 5.40