The Missing Statue of Satchel Paige at Camden Yards
I’m roughly 100 percent sure I’m the only one who will care about this, but maybe I can make you care as well. The Orioles are making some small changes to Camden Yards this season, among them the addition of statues of the team’s six Hall of Famers—Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Earl Weaver.
Part of a popular trend around the majors, the addition of statues is a fine idea, adding atmosphere to the ballpark while evoking a team’s history. This is not only an essential exercise in building loyalty through promoting team mythology, but for the Orioles in particular it is a needed reminder of better days that are lost and seemingly gone forever.
It’s not the better days, but the worse ones that the Orioles are neglecting. The Birds were once the Browns, second team in a two-team St. Louis. During their half-century of existence (1902-1953), the Browns were mostly miserable. There was an exciting race with the Yankees in 1922 and a surprise pennant in 1944, but also 44 second-division finishes. Mostly, though, the Browns left little mark on the game.
By my count, nine Hall of Famers played for the Browns in more than a cameo role. Of these, two were anything like career Browns.
Bobby Wallace, a turn-of-the-20th-century shortstop, is one of the most obscure players to have been memorialized in Cooperstown. Wallace was a Veterans Committee selection in 1953—perhaps his plaque was meant as a tombstone for the soon-to-be-extinct franchise. Wallace could hit a bit, but his calling card was defense, which is the hardest thing to visualize off the back of a baseball card a century later.
His plaque also cites his longevity in the game: “Over 60 years as pitcher, third-baseman, shortstop, manager, umpire and scout.” Not much to hang an image on there.
First baseman George Sisler was more special, at least for a while. He twice hit over .400, including .420 in 1922. His 257 hits in 1920 was a record that stood until Ichiro Suzuki broke it 84 years later. Sisler’s peak period ended early due to a sinus infection that spread to his eyes, hurting his vision just enough that, though he could play, he wasn’t the same guy.
From 1915 to 1922, he hit .361/.404/.510. He came back after missing a season, but he hit only .320/.354/.426 over his remaining 1,000 games. Those rates look decent, but given the offensive environment of the time, they’re not much better than Doug Mientkiewicz's numbers. In those same years, Lou Gehrig hit .342/.443/.638.
The franchise should honor its past. The Nationals do, with statues of Walter Johnson (Senators I), Frank Howard (Senators II) and Josh Gibson (Homestead Grays) outside of their ballpark. Gibson, the great Negro Leagues slugger, brings up the real point here: It’s hard to imagine deploying statues of Wallace and Sisler at Camden Yards. Wallace, in particular, has no image, and there is a commercial aspect to these unveilings that one cannot overlook.
However, there is a third Browns Hall of Famer I have not yet mentioned: Satchel Paige.
Paige was one of the greatest pitchers of all time in any league. Segregation him kept out of the majors until he was 41 years old. After spending two years with the Cleveland Indians, he joined the Browns in 1951 and stayed for three years. He made two All-Star teams, pitching as a swingman and closer.
One of the game’s most original characters, he was a dominant pitcher with incredible stuff and command, a peripatetic adventurer who was also highly quotable. He was a vastly deserving Hall of Famer when he was finally inducted in 1971. He not only deserves to be remembered for his excellent pitching and role in integrating the American League (he was the second African American on the Indians and the first African American regular with the Browns), but his charisma would enhance any ballpark—even the great Camden Yards.
The Orioles came on the scene too late to play a positive role in integration—indeed, many felt early manager/general manager Paul Richards, a Texan, was less than enthusiastic about the whole thing—but the Browns, under owner Bill Veeck, enthusiastically embraced egalitarianism through the addition of Paige and others.
In addition to remembering the Ripkens, Robinsons and the rest, the Orioles can do both their own franchise and the game a service by looking just a little further back to the great Satch.
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