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The Majors of the Minors

Documentary Project Hopes To Bring Back Memories Of Baltimore's Forgotten Birds--The International League Orioles

Sam Holden
TAKING A SWING: Stephen Johnson (left) and Jimmy Keenan stand on the site of the old Oriole Park, once home of the International League Baltimore Orioles.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 4/11/2007

The Forgotten Birds

Stephen Johnson, Jimmy Keenan, directors

www.forgottenbirds.com

Jimmy Keenan sits at one of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's notoriously temperamental microfiche machines and scrolls through newspapers from 1938 seeking any mention of his grandfather Jimmy Lyston. Along with his mother and great aunt, Lyston raised Keenan; he died at the age of 80 in 1983, but not before he captured Keenan's childhood wonder with tales of playing against future baseball Hall of Famers such as Satchel Paige, Jimmie Foxx, Frank "Home Run" Baker, Red Ruffing, and Mickey Cochrane. Keenan can still recall watching his grandfather count off every finger bent from a baseball-related break and joyfully stopping at one bulbous joint, dubbing it the "Jim Thorpe" finger after the Olympian athlete who wasn't too shabby a ballplayer either.

"When I was little he would tell me all these stories," Keenan says. "And I told him one day that I was going to do a book about him and his family. And he said, `I believe you will.'"

Now 46, Keenan sports a faint broom mustache and speaks in a polite, humbled tone. He has spent the past 11 years staring into the ghost lights of microfiche machines looking for any information about the International League Baltimore Orioles. The International Orioles, with their seven back-to-back pennants from 1919 to '25, are considered one of the greatest minor league franchises in baseball, according to Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright, resident historians for MinorLeagueBaseball.com, the official stat-tracking site for minor league baseball. Weiss and Wright rank three International Orioles teams in the top 10, with the 1921 O's (119-47) second only to 1934 Los Angeles Angels. Keenan's grandfather briefly played for the 1921 Orioles, a team that won 27 consecutive games.

Keenan is going to keep his promise to his grandfather--and maybe much more. A member of the Society for American Baseball Research, Keenan has become part of a filmmaking trio behind the still-in-development documentary The Forgotten Birds, about the International Orioles, which moved to Richmond, Va., in 1953 to make way for the major league O's. He is expects to self-publish his book, The Lystons: A Story of One Baltimore Family and Our National Pastime, this fall.

Today, more than a half-century later, the International Orioles are all but wiped out of Baltimore's collective memory. "I was made to do this documentary because I had to live with trying to explain what he did," Keenan says. "It was a little frustrating [to research a forgotten team], but this documentary and this book will take care of that."

Writer/researcher Keenan, producer Stephen Johnson, and director/writer Paul Sekulich all say they get a kidlike charge out of putting this lost story together. And they do mean lost. They can't use or even look at old International O's film footage--to their knowledge none exists. Ditto any radio broadcasts, which weren't taped. So the filmmakers have had to hunt down photos from basements and private collections, chasing down relatives of deceased players and ballpark loafers with tales to tell, one snippet at a time.

 

The documentary makers hope The Forgotten Birds will be received like a lost ark of local sports history when they (hopefully) complete it this June. "Why were they forgotten?" Johnson asks rhetorically. "I'm doing this because I love the game. It's so obvious what they did for this state and brought [major league] baseball back [to Baltimore]." Johnson points out that it was the minor league Orioles' robust following that helped Baltimore convince major league baseball to sanction the move of the St. Louis Browns here to become the modern incarnation of the Baltimore Orioles.

Unfortunately, the International O's were stranded in Baltimore between the current franchise and the Champion Orioles, regarded as one of the top teams of the 19th century. The International Orioles were equally successful; apart from their seven-pennant winning streak, the team also won pennants in 1908 and '44. It took titles by 20 games in 1920 and 19 in '24. Babe Ruth, pitcher Lefty Grove, and five other future Hall of Famers wore the International Orioles uniform.

The team's owner/manager, Jack Dunn, will forever be credited for spotting an oversized kid at the St. Mary's Industrial School, the present site of Cardinal Gibbons High School. That kid, of course, turned out to be Ruth--who Dunn was forced to sell, along with Ben Egan and Ernie Shore, to the Boston Red Sox in 1914 for more than $25,000 (research produces no definitive fee, as sources list a range). Dunn had to sell those players because a new competing team, the Terrapins, opened a park across the street from the International Orioles and siphoned off ticket sales. Otherwise, Dunn exhibited amazing restraint, resisting quick cash deals and holding on to players such as Grove, who went 108 and 36 in Baltimore.

According to Keenan, Dunn was pressured by other teams into selling off some of his key players during the seven-pennant streak. "Dunn was blowing them away," Keenan says. "The owners were fed up with it."

Even after Dunn's 1928 death, the Orioles maintained an impressive roster. In 1930, first baseman Joe Hauser hit 63 homers with 175 RBIs and eventually played six seasons in the majors, mostly with the Philadelphia Athletics. But there were plenty of others who peaked in the minors and never found their stride in the majors. Buzz Arlett, who played for the 1932 Orioles, was voted the greatest minor league player of all time by the Society for American Baseball Research in 1984. He had a .341 lifetime batting average, 2,726 hits, and 432 homers in the minors--but only what Keenan calls "a brief cup of coffee" during one season with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1931.

Such consistent talent attracted a major league team at least once to minor league Oriole Park in Waverly at Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street. According to Weiss and Wright at MinorLeagueBaseball.com, the Orioles beat the New York Yankees during a 1920 exhibition game, striking out Babe Ruth twice.

And Baltimore appreciated what it had, too. Game 4 in the 1944 Junior World Series, between the O's and Louisville Colonels, drew 52,833--better numbers than the 31,630 crowd that showed up for the last game of 1944 World Series between the St. Louis Browns and St. Louis Cardinals. These numbers may be due to the large seating capacity of Baltimore's Municipal Stadium, which held more people than the St. Louis stadiums, but Keenan points out that back in those days fans knew that the players got a cut of the ticket revenues, and so packed the place to ensure a nice payday.

"They were the toast of the town--win or lose, people loved them," says Johnson, 43, who often speaks as if he's correcting a mighty wrong. Johnson, a professional baseball scout/coach who lives in Parkville, came up with the idea to make the movie after taking trips to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library fishing for documentary ideas. It took several trips to Cooperstown before he realized the best story that he could tell were the ones he heard as a local kid about the great minor league Orioles. "I feel good that I'm bringing these stories to life," Johnson says.

In 2004 he teamed up with director Paul Sekulich, who had done some web work for him in the past. Sekulich knows a good story when he sees one. "It wasn't a matter of retelling a story that has been told before or redoing a movie," says the former Cheers screenwriter and screenplay professor at Harford Community College. "Everything would be virgin territory."

But telling this story was tough because the International Orioles' records perished when their home office at Oriole Park burned down in 1943. Plus, the youngest of the International O's alumni are in their 70s today. Johnson was looking at a grand roster of mostly dead players.

So he started running classified ads asking for eyewitness accounts, old ballplayers or relatives to step up with some stories. He posted fliers at markets. He wrote blind letters to senior homes asking for information on former players or fans.

He was hungry for photographs in particular. Some photographs were retrieved from people's basements, dusting off images as they came out of the box. Johnson also tapped collectors like Blair Jett, owner of Ellicott City's Cottage Antiques, which has a large trove of International Orioles memorabilia. Johnson says the movie's makers have gathered about 300 photographs, 80 percent of which, he estimates, have never been seen by the public.

Johnson also wanted to show how accessible the players were. He was able to interview Baltimore's Susan Lynn, who remembers growing up in Waverly near the park. Her grandmother, a big fan, started inviting ballplayers home for post-game meals. Word spread fast in the dugout, and soon half of the team filled her grandmother's living room.

"The players lived in the community," Johnson says. "They drank in the corner bars. They walked home from the stadium with the fans talking with them."

And Sekulich is as interested in the characters surrounding the game as the players on the field--such as colorful radio announcer Bill Dyer, who claimed that during key game moments he needed to run around a chair to give the Orioles good luck. But with no recordings, memories of Dyer are firsthand stories destined to perish if not documented. "Everybody remembers him, but nobody knows where there is any information on him," Sekulich says.

 

Johnson realizes he's fighting time and wonders who's out there now who may be soon gone. Pitcher Gordon Mueller, who played for the International Orioles before joining the Ted Williams-era Red Sox, was interviewed for the documentary and has since died, last November. Johnson also would have loved to have interviewed Chuck Thompson, Baltimore's venerable sports broadcaster, before he died in 2005.

"I do have that feeling in the back of my head that there is a player that we don't know about or a fan that had season tickets for 25 years that has a story to tell," Johnson says. His task was made easier when he received Keenan's unsolicited letter laden with advice informed by years of research. Keenan was brought into the project a year after its 2005 inception.

"My passion alone is enough, but we got someone who is blood of a former player," Keenan says. "I wish my granddad was still alive. I have so many questions."

Up until three years ago, Keenan was happy pursuing his book project, which quickly expanded from a biography of his grandfather to include his great-grandfather and three other family members who played professional ball in the late 19th century. Lyston has one of those "I could have made it in the big leagues if only . . . " stories--in Lyston's case, if an errant pitch hadn't broken his arm right after he was called up to the International Orioles in 1921. It wasn't a bad run, though, especially for a guy who started out working on the stadium ground crew when he was a kid. He caught Dunn's eye shagging ground balls as a stadium employee during batting practice. Back then the ground crew did more than rake the dirt.

And when it comes to his grandfather, Keenan doesn't offer up the baseball fairy tale that often baits screenwriters. He instead talks in generalities about Jimmy Lyston. He was "easygoing," a "real gentleman," "a humble man," and never mentioned that he played ball unless asked. And yet Keenan's stories add up. Lyston was heavily recruited by the police force and went on to become a police captain. He would take Keenan to practice, telling him how he would cut a hole in those old ridiculously flat fielders' gloves, so that he was basically catching balls barehanded. Lyston told Keenan about playing against Satchel Paige during barnstorming 1930 tours with the Negro Leagues. "I knew all those guys as much as the current Orioles," Keenan says.

Slowly a figure of Lyston emerges from Keenan's rough sketch, a man forever young around the diamond so long as he could tell his tales--Lyston, in fact, knocked in a run during an old-timers' game during the last year of his life. He was the kind of man who doesn't exist much anymore and that the documentary makers hope to bring back to life.

But even after the documentary and book are finished, the odds are that Keenan will keep heading to the library looking for his grandfather. Even during this interview Keenan can't resist searching newspapers for his grandfather's Loyola College football stats. A good day of research yields some aggregate type, maybe a phrase. And then there are the amazing moments--those occurred less than a handful of times throughout his 11 years of research, such when he came face-to-face with a photo of his grandfather stealing third base.

"It's so weird when I'm going along and a picture jumps out like that," Keenan says. "Some days you find nothing, other days it's like you hit pay dirt."

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