Labor Day had never been celebrated as a national holiday before, but in 'ninety-four, to help regain the workingman's trust in the depths of the depression, President Cleveland signed legislation that made the first Monday in September an official day off. The unions around Baltimore competed for the biggest delegation in the parade -- the cigarmakers, the granite cutters, the glassblowers, the bakers, the blacksmiths, the Lithuanian tailors, and dozens more.
Labor's holiday, however, was as much for diversion as demonstration. The crowd was the largest ever to watch baseball in Baltimore. A seething mass of more than 24,000 cranks, not counting the unwashed who tore boards off the fence and sneaked in, overran Union Park to watch the Orioles host the Cleveland Spiders for a doubleheader. Fashion dictated that this was the last day that men might wear straw hats, and quite a few got knocked off in the mob. But their owners remained good-natured. They watched the Orioles overwhelm the Spiders, by 13 to 2 and (against the rosy-cheeked Cy Young) by 16 to 3. Willie struck six singles and a double in the two games. Joe Kelley came to bat nine times and got nine hits, five of them two-baggers. There was no stopping him. Kel was strong and swift and brimming with self-confidence. He was none too brilliant and he liked to imbibe from time to time. But scientific baseball did not really need intellectual firepower. It took quickness and competitiveness and a willingness to think and a passion for surprise. Those he had. Kel hit with power and could outrun an insult. In left field, the easiest of the outfield positions, he was deft as a unicyclist.
The Orioles went west. They had won thirteen in a row, the last twelve without Sadie McMahon, whose arm had gone lame. Still they kept winning, behind Kid Gleason and Charley Esper and now George Hemming, the former Louisville right-hander, with his thin face and his sly moustache and the unself-consciously arrogant look that Hanlon favored in his twirlers.
Everything clicked. The Orioles had speed, Willie and Kel most of all. "Why, he is so fast you can hardly follow him!" a young lady in the stands was heard to say of Willie. No one in the League could beat the left-handed batsman from home to first base. The team was running second in the League in stolen bases. In the field, they sparkled. Hughey Jennings was quickly coming to be considered the premier shortstop in the land. He got to grounders that no one else would have bothered to try for. Willie ranked second among the League's right fielders. Not since 'seventy-eight, when League ballclubs played half as many games, had a team made so few errors in a full season.
Even better was the batting. McGraw's had fallen off but Kelley's never flagged. The heaviest hitter on the ballclub, he batted .541 in the last thirty games of the season. Willie's average was climbing, too, as he often got three or four hits in a game. "Keeler had the best batting eye I have ever seen," McGraw judged many years later. "He held his bat away up in the middle with only about a foot of it extending beyond his hands and he could slap the ball to either field. It was impossible to play for him. I have seen the outfield come in behind the infield and the infielders close up till you'd think you couldn't have dropped the ball into an open spot if you had it in your hand -- but Keeler would invariably punch a base hit in there somewhere." Before the season was finished, the cranks speculated, Willie would overtake Kel as the team's top batsman.
Best of all was the Orioles' snap and ginger -- "Get at 'em!" was Robbie's cry -- and the way the ballplayers worked as one. When the season was over the same three outfielders had played side by side in all 129 games. McGraw claimed that he and Willie had practically revolutionized the style of hitting, so that advancing the runner became the new style of attack. The hit-and-run, the squeeze play, the Baltimore chop -- base by base, they went at it, patiently, relentlessly, until they succeeded.
Willie had never had so much fun. "Say, I think I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he told his teammates. "I get paid for doing what I'd rather do than anything else -- play ball."
As captain and catcher, Robbie ran the team on the field. But it was Hanlon's team. Every so often the manager called the ballplayers together and painstakingly pointed out each of their faults and offered pointers on some tactic of the game -- how to execute a double steal, how to back one another up. In his remote and understated way, he could be heavy-handed. His attention to detail could get on his ballplayers' nerves. But more often than not, he applied just the right touch. He steadied Hughey's temperament and kept Steve Brodie's high spirits aimed not at the management or at his teammates but at the Orioles' opponents. The workouts with Joe Kelley had borne fruit as well.
From Where They Ain't: The Fabled Life And Untimely Death Of The Original Baltimore Orioles Copyright © 1999 by Burt Solomon. Reprinted with permission.