Retro Baltimore: 70 years ago, Orioles stirred up desert stardust at their first spring training

The fledgling Orioles who reported to spring training in 1954 were a far cry from their polished heirs who began practice in Sarasota, Florida, last week. Seventy years ago, the Orioles were a hodgepodge of journeymen, has-beens and youngsters bent on escaping the cellar of the eight-team American League, where the franchise had finished in two of the previous three years. Then, they were the lowly St. Louis Browns, who, in ’54, moved to Baltimore, a city starved for big league baseball.

Those Orioles trained in Yuma, Arizona, a dusty desert town 8 miles from the Mexican border in a ballpark fraught with swirling winds and flying grit. From the start, it was clear the team was in no rush to report: Just a handful of pitchers and catchers checked in by the Feb. 21 starting date, vexing manager Jimmie Dykes.

“This will be the first time in my baseball career that we have postponed spring training because of a lack of players,” Dykes groused. Instead, he asked reporters to take part in practice until the team trickled in.

Players dressed on the cheap, in hand-me-down jerseys with “Orioles” replacing “Browns” on the fronts. A shortage of batting helmets meant some hitters went without.

Understandably, gallows humor prevailed in the team’s statements to reporters. Dykes bemoaned the lack of Orioles pitching, saying, “We’re gonna have to concentrate on getting them ready, so we can get somebody out.”

Players grumbled publicly about the grueling exhibition schedule of 34 games in 37 days.

“I’ll be ready for the morgue,” said third baseman Vern Stephens, 33.

Nonetheless, the players’ new fans worshipped them from afar, 2,500 miles away.

“Baltimoreans will be scanning the sports pages between now and April,” read a Feb. 23 editorial in The Evening Sun. “The name, age, batting or pitching record, marital status and, no doubt, even the color of the eyes of the men who ultimately make up the Orioles’ 1954 roster will be memorized by thousands of persons who haven’t even glimpsed this city’s genuine major league team.”

What folks read exceeded their wildest dreams. The Orioles won their exhibition opener, 13-5, over the Chicago Cubs. Then they topped the Cubs again, 8-6, as “Bullet” Bob Turley, a barrel-chested young right-hander, struck out seven in a three-inning stint.

The Orioles won their third straight, 13-8, over the New York Giants, collecting 18 hits, three by pitcher Don Larsen, who hit a three-run home run. Center fielder Gil Coan made a stellar play, a one-handed running catch of a line drive. Coan then whirled and threw to second base to double off the runner, Giants star Willie Mays.

Back home, Baltimore was agog. This was the team that lost 100 games the year before? Season ticket numbers climbed past 500,000 sold at the club’s downtown office.

Next, the Orioles defeated the Giants again, 10-9, on home runs by outfielders Jim Fridley and Sam Mele. They made it five straight, edging the Cleveland Indians, 2-1, on Fridley’s ninth-inning clout, his fourth homer of spring.

Again, fans rejoiced. In less than a week, the Orioles had won three in a row over New York and Cleveland, the eventual National and American League champs who would play in the World Series at season’s end. In five games, they’d scored 46 runs and made just two errors. Sure, these were preseason games, but the Orioles had raised hopes and won hearts with their stellar start out west.

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Elated, club president Clarence Miles took the team to dinner and proclaimed, “Your entry into Baltimore is being anticipated far more than the advent of any group of men who ever entered that town.”

Cooler heads urged caution.

“[Five] games do not a season make,” an Evening Sun editorial read. “Save some of that fire, ol’ Orioles. And some of those homers. It’s back home to Baltimore next month and, for many months after that, your fans want you to look good.”

The Orioles leveled off but finished the “Grapefruit League” with 18 victories, third most of any major league team. Their final tuneup was a 5-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, as Turley bested Vic Raschi, a three-time 20-game winner.

Buoyed by its success, Dykes’ team opened the regular season by splitting two games in Detroit before arriving in Baltimore for a historic parade and debut at Memorial Stadium. There, the home team turned back the Chicago White Sox, 3-1. It was the last time the Orioles would top .500 all year.

For all of the hoopla, they ended with the same record (54-100) as their predecessors. One consolation: The Orioles managed to climb out of the basement, finishing seventh. But the cornerstone had been laid for what would be, in time, one of the most successful teams of its era.