Retro Baltimore: George Earnshaw, who joined the Orioles 100 years ago, became a star pitcher and war hero

His name rarely resonates with the most rabid fans of Orioles lore. But George Earnshaw deserves note as a stellar pitcher in the team’s storied past — and a war hero, to boot.

A century ago, the minor league Orioles signed Earnshaw, a 6-foot-4 right-hander from Swarthmore College. Well-heeled and with a good job in the coal business, he’d spurned Baltimore’s offers for two years before turning pro in 1924. How could he not? These were the Orioles’ halcyon days in the International League, when the club won seven straight pennants from 1919 through 1925.

Dubbed “the Apollo of the squad” by The Sun, Earnshaw struggled early on. In his debut, he allowed six runs in three innings. Then, working in relief, he walked three straight batters and threw a wild pitch. Disappointed, the Orioles placed Earnshaw on waivers; when no team claimed him, they grudgingly took him back. Working sparingly, the pitcher his mates called “Moose” settled in and won seven games without a loss in 1924 as Baltimore went 117-48 to capture its sixth straight pennant.

That offseason, the Orioles sold their ace pitcher, Lefty Grove, to the Philadelphia Athletics, hoping Earnshaw would pick up the slack. He sparkled, going 29-11 as the team won another flag as well as the Junior World Series. There, Earnshaw won three games in the matchup of champions of the two top minor leagues. That winter, the Orioles sold another star pitcher, Tommy Thomas, this time to the Chicago White Sox.

Back then, some minor league teams, like Baltimore, owned players outright and kept them from reaching the big leagues until the club’s price was met. By all accounts, Earnshaw felt his time was nigh. He flourished again in 1926, winning 22 games. Still, he remained an Oriole.

Miffed, perhaps, by the status quo, Earnshaw slipped to a 17-18 mark in 1927. Was he holding back? The Sun questioned his temperament, reporting that “his efforts at times [are] giving every indication of being only half-hearted.”

In January 1928, still stuck in the minors, Earnshaw, 28, had had enough. He contacted Orioles owner Jack Dunn, threatening to quit unless he was sold to a major league team. Eventually, the pitcher backed down and signed his contract. Could he force the matter? That April, in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, Earnshaw mowed down the world champions. He retired future Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, struck out two and allowed one scratch single in three innings of work.

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That did it. Sniffing a pennant, the Athletics — the Yankees’ biggest rival — offered $50,000 and two players for Earnshaw. Strapped for cash, Dunn gave in. In May, the high-kicking fastballer landed in the majors where he could strut his stuff. He went 7-7 in 1928, then hit his stride, winning 24, 22 and 21 games in the next three seasons as the A’s won three American League pennants and two World Series. His postseason record was 4-3, with a 1.58 ERA — highlighted by a string of 22 consecutive scoreless innings pitched against the St, Louis Cardinals in 1930.

Together. Earnshaw and Grove, the two former Orioles, combined for 131 victories from 1929 to 1931. Grove went on to win 300 games and reach the Hall of Fame; Earnshaw tailed off as his night life of carousing took its toll. He retired in 1936 to sell insurance, but found it dull. In 1941, on the cusp of World War II, he joined the Navy at age 41.

For a time in the service he coached Naval baseball teams, then sought action. In early April 1944, as a gunnery officer aboard the USS Yorktown in the Pacific, Lt. Cmdr. Earnshaw and his crew shot down three attacking Japanese aircraft off the island formerly known as Truk. His actions earned a special citation from Adm. Chester W. Nimitz:

“With exceptional ability and judgment, and commendable calmness, [Earnshaw] controlled and directed effective anti-aircraft fire against three fast, low-flying enemy torpedo planes and contributed directly in saving his ship from serious damage.”

Hearing the news, The Sun reported, “If directing the shooting of three [enemy] planes means anything, George is better than ever and still in there pitching.”

After the war, President Harry S. Truman awarded Earnshaw the Navy Combat Bronze Star. He left the military as a full commander, returned to baseball, worked for the Philadelphia Phillies for a spell and retired to run a chicken farm in Arkansas. He died in 1976, at age 76.