The Oriole Way: The Founding Fathers

This article was written by Warren Corbett

This article was published in the The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)


Major League Baseball returned to Baltimore on April 15, 1954, when the city welcomed its new team with a parade, a chest-thumping display of civic pride, and an opening-day crowd of more than 46,000. Fans can be fanatical, but pitchers have to be realists. Right-hander Duane Pillette thought, “How can they be so happy getting the St. Louis Browns? Don’t they know we lost 100 games last year?” The new Birds played like the old Browns: They lost 100 more in ’54. Their leading “slugger,” third baseman Vern Stephens, hit eight home runs and batted in 46 runs. Broadcaster Ernie Harwell cracked, “We called them the Kleenex team. They would pop up one at a time.”

Before the season mercifully ended, Orioles president Clarence Miles went looking for a savior. He found his man in Chicago. White Sox manager Paul Richards was a tall, thin, poker-faced Texan who taught Sunday school in winter and terrorized umpires and ballplayers in summer. Richards and general manager Frank Lane had revived the faded Sox franchise, producing four straight winning seasons for the first time since the Black Sox were banned in 1920. The Orioles wanted Richards to replace manager Jimmie Dykes, but “the Wizard of Waxahachie” demanded more: total control of baseball operations. Miles and his fellow owners were desperate enough to give it to him.

Arriving in Baltimore in September 1954, he declared, “I’m running the show.” Except for Connie Mack, who had owned and managed the Philadelphia Athletics, no manager since John McGraw had been granted such broad authority. In all other organizations the owner and/or general manager made personnel decisions, while the manager’s role was to run the team on the field. Even the most successful pilot of the era, Casey Stengel, complained that Yankee general manager George Weiss sometimes made trades without consulting him.

Like Richards’s home state, the Orioles had a lone star: Bullet Bob Turley, a twenty-four-year-old righthanded fireballer who was hailed as the new Bob Feller. In 1954, he led the American League in strikeouts, held opposing hitters to a league-low .203 batting average, and somehow managed a 14–15 record.

Richards traded him.

On November 17, the Orioles and Yankees announced the biggest deal in major-league history. Seventeen players changed teams in a deal completed on December 1. The key pieces were Turley, smooth-fielding shortstop Billy Hunter, and twenty-five-year-old right-handed pitcher Don Larsen going to New York for outfielder Gene Woodling, a mainstay on Stengel’s championship clubs; shortstop Willy Miranda; and two promising Triple-A catchers, Gus Triandos and Hal Smith, who were blocked behind Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. The teams exchanged several minor leaguers to round out the trade.

The news hit Baltimore like bombs bursting in air. One fan told the Associated Press: “When my son saw the papers he groaned so loud I thought his best friend had died.” Paul Menton of the Baltimore Evening Sun turned gray sky into purple prose: “Even the clouds were weeping as if to reflect the city’s mood at the startling news that Bob Turley had become a Yankee.” Richards had a ready answer: “If we hadn’t been willing to trade Turley, we would have had to start next season with the same lineup which finished seventh in 1954.” He was applying Branch Rickey’s guiding principle: Out of quantity comes quality. The Orioles’ farm system had no quality players; the Yankees had more than anyone else.

The head of the Orioles’ farm and scouting system, Jim McLaughlin, was the only St. Louis Browns executive who survived the move to Baltimore. Soon after Richards took over, he summoned the forty-year-old McLaughlin to a breakfast meeting. “It was supposed to be my last meal,” McLaughlin said. “When I got there, he must have expected me to defend the farm system, but I told him the truth: it was horseshit. We didn’t have anything, because we hadn’t been able to spend enough money. But I showed him how we might turn things around, and so he kept me on—and a few weeks later at a sports banquet I heard Richards give this speech about the farm system, and it was word-for-word what I’d told him. He just left out ‘horseshit.’”

McLaughlin was as arrogant, opinionated, and stubborn as Richards, so they were not destined to be friends. McLaughlin was determined to bring a scientific approach to scouting young players. He ridiculed the old-school scouts who believed “they could tell about a kid’s makeup just by looking at him”—what they called “the good face.” He pioneered physical and psychological testing of players. He devised a circular chart that he labeled “The Whole Ball Player.” The top half of the circle covered the player’s speed, arm strength, hitting, and other visible tools. McLaughlin instructed his men to learn about the bottom half of the circle, traits that “cannot be seen with the eye”: intelligence, desire, “teachability,” family background, habits. He brought in FBI agents to teach scouts how to conduct a background investigation. He sent minor-league managers to seminars designed by Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, to improve their communications skills. “This may sound strange,” said one of the scouts, Hank Peters, “but he didn’t have a great love for baseball. He wasn’t a guy who liked to go and sit at ball games.” McLaughlin was an administrator—a bureaucrat—who insisted on central control and was one of the first to use cross-checkers rather than betting on the opinion of a single scout. Another scout, Jim Russo, said, “He was years ahead of his time, a brilliant baseball guy.”

Most important, McLaughlin hired and trained the young men who would build the winning Orioles teams of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. They included future Baltimore general managers Hank Peters and Harry Dalton; future major-league managers George Bamberger, Billy Hunter, Cal Ripken Sr., and the incendiary Earl Weaver, who led the Orioles to their greatest heights without taking the Dale Carnegie course.

The Orioles owners had promised to spend “whatever it takes” to build a winner. Richards took them up on it. In April 1955, he signed his first “bonus baby,” Jim Pyburn, a twenty-two-year-old third baseman and outfielder who had been an All-Southeastern Conference end (wide receiver) on Auburn’s football team. Pyburn said he was paid $48,000 in a combination of bonus and two years’ guaranteed salary. The signing revealed Richards’s preference for tools over skills, in the language of scouts—youngsters with great athletic ability rather than baseball know-how. “Toolsy” players were Richards’s weakness. He signed many, but few succeeded. In his first two years he spent an estimated $700,000 on bonuses. The team’s accountant, Joe Hamper, remembered: “Overnight, we went from a conservative organization to a very aggressive and, in some respects, reckless organization. It was a complete change in philosophy and a nightmare for those of us on the financial side, but the end result was the mentality that we were competitive and weren’t going to back off.”

The bonus boys not only cost money, they displaced major-league players. In a futile effort to hold down bonuses, baseball rules required any amateur player who was paid more than $4,000 to spend two years on the big-league roster. They seldom got into the lineup, but “Richards wanted us working out all the time,” infielder Wayne Causey recalled. “The bonus babies would have to come in and work out on the morning after night games, or when the team was coming off road trips.”

Only one of Richards’s first crop went on to a significant career: Causey played eleven major-league seasons, mostly as a utility man. Unnoticed among the gaudy contracts, the Orioles’ most important signing in 1955 cost them just $4,000: a skinny infielder from Arkansas, Brooks Robinson.

Richards improved the Orioles’ record by just three games in his first season—they lost 97—and attendance fell by 20 percent from the club’s first season in Baltimore. A discontented fan complained, “Why should I pay big-league prices to see a high-school team play?” But Richards had warned that building the organization could not happen overnight. While he waited for the farms to bear fruit, he loaded the major-league roster with so many shopworn veterans that Baseball Digest called the team “Richards’s Deluxe Retreads.”

When the Browns moved to Baltimore, their farm system was the least productive in baseball, yet they had one of the largest organizations, with thirteen teams, according to contemporary accounts (though some sources give the number as eleven or twelve). Jim McLaughlin recommended dropping some of the affiliates and putting the money into scouting, and Richards agreed. McLaughlin had established a minor-league spring-training base in the piney woods near Thomasville, Georgia, at an abandoned rest home for war veterans. It had eight military-style barracks with space for thirty cots in each, an administration building, a kitchen and dining hall, and four diamonds. Hundreds of hopefuls practiced together, wearing hand-me-down uniforms and numbers that rose into the triple digits. This was not a new idea; Branch Rickey originated it with the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers. The atmosphere was all baseball, all the time. Two ping-pong tables provided the only entertainment. There was nothing to do but play and talk baseball.

Dozens of non-prospects had to be culled from the final rosters of the nine remaining farm clubs. The managers met with McLaughlin every evening at 7:00 to make the cuts. Gathered in a conference room called the “Bird’s Nest,” they graded each player on a scale of one (the best) to four in hitting, pitching, running, throwing, and power, but the grades were not exactly scientific. Weaver said, “Often one of us would rate a player one while two others would rate him a three or four in the same category.” When the group decided to release a player, one of the managers had to give him the bad news. “Some of them cry, others get mad, a few go crazy,” Weaver said. “One pulled a knife on me.” The sessions, over beer and cold cuts, lasted deep into the night, a time for the managers, scouts, and coaches to shoot the breeze and bond. “Some of those Thomasville days were the best days of my baseball life,” McLaughlin’s assistant Harry Dalton remembered. Minor-league manager Cal Ripken Sr. said Richards prepared a “very small baseball manual” for the instructors. Dalton, Weaver, Ripken, and others later expanded it into a bigger book that guided the club’s player development for decades. The bible came to be called “The Oriole Way,” though those words did not appear in the original. A later Baltimore catcher, Elrod Hendricks, said The Oriole Way meant “never beat yourself. And that’s why we won so many close games. We let the other team make mistakes and beat themselves, and when the opportunity came we’d jump on it.” It was the gospel Richards preached throughout his career: Most games are lost rather than won.

Richards had earned a reputation as a master teacher of young players, especially pitchers, beginning when he was a wartime catcher with the Tigers. He got most of the credit for transforming a wild, hotheaded young left hander, Hal Newhouser, into the American League’s Most Valuable Player in both 1944 and 1945. He developed another left hander, Billy Pierce, with the White Sox, and turned Nellie Fox and Minnie Minoso into stars. Orioles scout Jim Russo said Richards believed in “teaching, teaching, teaching, 24 hours a day.” But if he was a father figure to the youngsters, he was a tough and distant one. Oriole infielder Fred Marsh said, “There was a look fathers used to give their kids, where you just backed off when you saw it. Richards had that.”

Tension between the McLaughlin and Richards fiefdoms hung thick over the Orioles’ organization and spilled into Thomasville. Weaver recalled, “Richards, in his day, would bring the minor-league managers down to spring training and show us how he wanted things taught, so the instruction was all the same at every level.” But scout Walter Youse said, “Every year Richards would send a representative down to the minor-league camp in Thomasville, Georgia, and have him teach the players to do things Richards’s way. But over on another field McLaughlin would be teaching them a different way.” Despite continual conflict, McLaughlin stayed in the key player-development role for six years. “Where Richards and I saw eye-to-eye was on pitching, the priority it ought to have in building the farm system,” he said. McLaughlin’s mission was to find promising young pitchers; Richards’s passion was to develop them into winners.

The Orioles reached .500 only once in Richards’s first four seasons. In the winter of 1957–58 McLaughlin hung a sign on his office wall: “Home grown by 1960.” By the end of the 1958 season he seemed to have won the front-office war. The owners, a group of local business leaders, expected employees to follow orders, but Richards made his own rules. Accountant Joe Hamper remembered: “The owners would talk to each other and say, ‘We can’t let him do this.’ But they never talked to Richards about it. He intimidated them.” Richards was forced out as general manager and replaced by Lee MacPhail, who had worked in the Yankee front office. MacPhail later said the owners wanted “someone to say no to Richards when he chose to ignore the budget.” Club president James Keelty Jr. insisted Richards voluntarily gave up the general manager’s job, but he was only softening the blow. “Richards is the best manager in baseball,” he said.

The rebuilt farm system began to produce in 1959; The Orioles climbed first place for one day, June 9, and remained above .500 until the end of July before dropping to sixth place. In August, Richards and MacPhail made a decision. “We were going with the kids,” MacPhail said. “It was time.” Brooks Robinson took over third base, twenty-year-old right hander Milt Pappas won fifteen games, and another twenty-year-old, Jerry Walker, won eleven.

In 1960, the lanky Ron Hansen took over at shortstop, hit a team-leading 22 home runs, and was named American League Rookie of the Year. Twenty-two-yearolds Chuck Estrada and Steve Barber joined twenty-one-year-olds Milt Pappas and Jerry Walker in the starting rotation; they were called the “Kiddie Korps.” A first baseman acquired from the Dodger organization, Jim Gentile, added 21 homers as a left-handed platoon player. Baltimore kept pace with the Yankees until mid-September, when New York swept the Orioles in a four-game series and went on to win their last fifteen in a row. The Orioles won 89 games and finished second.

Jim McLaughlin had made good on his promise of a home-grown winner, but his clashes with Richards had worn out his welcome with Lee MacPhail. “It got to the point where you were either a ‘McLaughlin player’ or a ‘Richards player’ in the organization, and there were decisions made on that basis,” MacPhail said. “Paul and Jim just never could get along.” Richards was considered the indispensable man, so MacPhail fired McLaughlin. “I hated to do it,” he said years later.

Harry Dalton said of his mentor, McLaughlin: “His legacy was organizing the farm and scouting department, and helping establish a strong pride in the organization.” In addition to signing key players for Baltimore’s pennant winners of 1966, 1969, 1970, and 1971, McLaughlin created a farm system for future general managers, including Dalton, Hank Peters, Lou Gorman, John Hart, and John Schuerholz. When Dalton became the Orioles’ general manager, he brought McLaughlin back to the organization as a scouting supervisor.

After the close race of 1960, the team papered Baltimore with bumper stickers reading “It Can Be Done in ’61.” It couldn’t. The Yankees slugged a then record 240 home runs—including 61 by Roger Maris and 54 by Mickey Mantle—and won 109 games. The Orioles won 95, but dropped to third place behind New York and Detroit. Before the season was over, Richards moved on to another building project as general manager of the expansion Houston Colt .45s in his native Texas.

Richards and McLaughlin left the Orioles with five regular position players and five established pitchers under age twenty-eight, plus a farm system brimming with prospects. Despite their mutual loathing, they complemented each other. Richards provided the high-profile leadership that persuaded the owners to commit to his building plan and stick with it, while McLaughlin supplied most of the scouts and players. More importantly, they laid the foundation for an organization that became baseball’s best. From the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, the Orioles won more games than any other team; from 1965 to 2000 they won 3,079 games to the Yankees’ 3,065. Harry Dalton said, “The Orioles became well respected, not only because of their success on the field, but a lot of baseball people thought the organization was run very well.”

The Richards/McLaughlin legacy endured into the twenty-first century. The last product of the Oriole Way was Cal Ripken Jr., whose father taught him the lessons learned in Thomasville.

 

This article is adapted from The Wizard of Waxahachie: Paul Richards and the End of Baseball as We Knew It, by Warren Corbett (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2009 [forthcoming]).

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