Rebuilding the Orioles in Peabody Heights

Peabody Heights Brewery was rebuilt after disaster, and the Orioles hope to be as well. (via Maryland GovPics)

Buck Showalter is not coming back.

Zach Britton isn’t coming in from the bullpen.

Manny Machado isn’t going to range into foul territory, make a backhanded stop and launch a perfect throw while standing closer to a beer vendor in the stands than the players on the field. Adam Jones hung on for as long as he could, but even a man once referred to as “the new Mr. Oriole” at a Fan Festival is probably leaving Camden Yards behind.

Three years ago, the Orioles bucked their way into the ALCS. This year, they had lost 107 games by mid-September, on their way to the worst record in team history. Catcher Caleb Joseph put it succinctly: “Every single locker in here should be thinking, ‘You know, I should be fired, because I sucked. Period.'”

There’s not much left to do in Baltimore but rebuild—with a new GM, of course. Dan Duquette is gone, too.

This isn’t the first Baltimore team to finish in last place. This isn’t the first Baltimore team to lose 100 games. And this certainly isn’t the first time fans have looked up at a weary front office and thought, “Well, that didn’t work.”

“Rebuild” is something of a curse word in baseball; it tells people not to expect anything. Fans hate it because 162 games of development isn’t always watchable. Teams hate it because nobody buys tickets to watch a front office make phone calls.

But sometimes, when it all burns down, the only thing left to do is rebuild on the ashes.

“Hi,” says a man crossing the room, handshake already extended. “Dick O’Keefe.”

Dick O’Keefe didn’t know he had a meeting this morning. Somewhere between the emails I’ve exchanged with his son and his commute to Peabody Heights, the brewery he owns in Baltimore’s Charles Village neighborhood, some lines got crossed. A woman on the phone assures me this is quite normal.

As he strides across the bar’s unlit space, the motion-activated lights above him blink on, illuminating the room’s back wall. Suddenly, Baltimore’s deep baseball legacy is visible, as collages of Orioles, Terrapins and Elite Giants, from the International, Federal and Negro Leagues are momentarily brightened in a series of display cases. George Herman Ruth, who once manned first base in the fourth Old Oriole Park that stood across the street, is in there, too. As a member of the Yankees, Ruth played against the minor league Orioles in exhibition games New York would play on their way home from spring training every year, though Ruth never roamed right field. He’d play first base “to save his legs,” O’Keefe tells me.

O’Keefe points to a shot of Ruth standing iconically frozen, eyes skyward.

“Before Madonna invented ‘Strike a Pose,’ Babe Ruth invented it in 1915,” O’Keefe says. “Every time he hit a home run, he loved to watch ‘em land. And always in this exact same position. So there are 50 different shots of Babe Ruth hitting 50 different home runs in 50 different ballparks, but they all look exactly the same. The only difference is, his waistline got bigger as the years went on.”

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It’s but a glimpse of the history still reflected in Peabody Heights. O’Keefe’s brewery is built on the former grounds of Terrapin Park, also known as the fifth Old Oriole Park, on the northwest corner of Greenmount Avenue between 29th and 30th.

He may not have known about our meeting, but O’Keefe is never unprepared to talk about the history of baseball in Baltimore; we’re standing in, on, and around it. It becomes quickly apparent that this is a lesson he teaches often–every Saturday from 12 to 3 p.m., he gives a tour of his brewery’s baseball landmarks–and he goes seamlessly into tour guide mode, pointing at one of the images of fans watching a game from nearby rooftops.

“These are those same row houses that you see out there,” he says, pointing through a window at the residences at the edge of the block. “Dead center field is the corner of our parking lot. This park was built in 1913, the same year as Wrigley Field, for the exact same reason, which was the Federal League.”

Baseball had a home in Baltimore in 1914; Jack Dunn had seen to that. The former pitcher owned three minor league teams in the city, and unlike big league clubs at the time, his teams actually made money. But jealousy was simmering in the Charm City, as much smaller metropolises like St. Louis and Cleveland were awarded major league clubs. Baltimore was forced to stay a step behind, until the advent of the Federal League.

The Federal League was not the first attempt at a third professional baseball entity, or even the first to try to pay players what they were worth. FL franchises sprung up in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Buffalo, Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis, drawing players from the National and American Leagues with the promise of fair compensation.

“And the city with the warmest welcome,” writes prolific historian James H. Bready in Baseball in Baltimore, “the whoops of loudest joy, was surely Baltimore—after a dozen years of being snooted at by Boston, New York, and Philadelphia above it, and Washington below.”

The Terrapins, they called them. Their home field appeared on the north side of East 29th Street, where Peabody Heights now serves its flagship beer, an American lager called Old Oriole Park Bohemian; the name came with the permission of Peter Angelos and the Orioles, of course.

“At the beginning we asked [to use the Orioles’ name],” O’Keefe recalls, “and Mr. Angelos said, ‘All right, I probably won’t sue you.’”

The Terrapins spent the spring of 1914 warming up in North Carolina, then headed north for their home opener against the Buffalo Blues, which 30,000 fans attended, many of them relegated to standing room only.

“You could buy a standing room ticket, go out in center field, stand behind your favorite Oriole, watch the game, and if the ball came this way, you were expected to get out of the way, let the player make their play, and then everybody went back to their spot,” O’Keefe explains.

One of Peabody Heights’ baseball displays includes an aged, yellowed image to accompany this description, depicting fans standing around the stadium’s perimeter, blocking everything but the dugouts and somehow managing to quell their instincts to touch the ball and disrupt a live play.

“Apparently, in 1944,” O’Keefe says, “people were much better behaved, and this actually worked.”

The Terrapins’ team president was Carroll W. Rasin, a liquor merchant. Their secretary was Harry S. Goldman, a former police magistrate. Their player-manager was 30-year-old Otto Knabe, who had been poached from his job second base for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a man who John Tener, the president of the National League at the time, called a “manly little fellow.” Tener referred to him moving from the NL to the FL with casual passive aggression: “I am sorry to see him take the flop.”

Their starting pitcher was John “Jack” Picus Quinn, a spitballing 30-year-old who had already played for Boston (the Braves, not the Red Sox) and New York (the Highlanders, not the Yankees) amid a 23-year playing career that eventually would include both the Red Sox and the Yankees, and didn’t end until he was 51 years old, still pitching for the minor league Johnstown Johnnies in 1935.

The Terrapins defeated the Blues, 3-2, and as Bready pointed out, “Nowhere else had the majors’ season begun yet; so when the home team won 3-2, Baltimore was universally first in the standings.”

By the end of the season, the Terrapins had watched Jack Dunn’s Orioles–the minor league team that played across the street–pack up and leave town for Richmond. But the Terrapins themselves fell into third place behind Indianapolis and Chicago, and could only wait for next year. The Federal League bled money, just like the National and American Leagues, and begun searching for ways to stop the bleeding, including a hair-brained scheme of a three-way World Series with the NL and AL, which was soundly rejected. After a portion of the 1915 season had been played, the league predictably folded.

Even without playing an entire season in 1915, the Terrapins managed to lose 107 games. But the weak implosion of Baltimore and the Federal League brought Dunn and his Orioles back to town, reigniting a legacy that lives on in both the AL East division winners of 2015 and the last place finishers of 2018, as well as the grounds of Peabody Heights.

“Since 1883,” O’Keefe says, “the only time a Baltimore Orioles team hasn’t played in Baltimore was in 1913 and 1914.”

With the 2018 Orioles achieving the fastest mathematical elimination from the major league postseason in the divisional era, the brewery is helping to keep Baltimore baseball alive. It makes sense, because beer is what brought the Orioles to Baltimore.

If there’s any identifiable portion of the largely nondescript Baltimore skyline, it’s the electric one-eyed face of National Bohemian beer. He beckons visitors into the city limits with a knowing wink, as if he senses what you’re doing here and what you’ve come to find. While you wait for it, why not sip a Natty Boh, the beer Baltimore drinks everywhere, from Orioles Park at Camden Yards, to across the street at Pickles Pub, to any of the bars down alleys, up hills, or on the waterfront.

After sponsoring the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in 1953, O’Keefe tells me, the owner of Natty Boh, Jerry Hoffberger, had noticed something. “For the 14 weeks of football, beer sales almost doubled. And he says, ‘I gotta get me a baseball team. They play 160 games a year!’’

For this reason, Hoffberger bought the St. Louis Browns and moved them to Baltimore. “Completely as an advertising arm of National Bohemian,” O’Keefe says. “Had nothing to do with baseball, nothing to do with ‘oh, the city of the people of Baltimore deserve a major league team.’ It was all about the beer.”

At Peabody Heights, it remains that way. O’Keefe, who keeps assuring me that he’s “old and senile now,” used to own the Hopkins Deli at 39th and University Parkway. Every day, former Orioles GM Roland Hemond would come in to eat and talk baseball. He told O’Keefe he could have had a job in a front office, but O’Keefe shook him off. “I wasn’t even good enough to play on my high school team,” he says. “My father was given two minor league contracts, but at the time he made more money working in Sparrows Point and my grandmother wouldn’t let him go. So I got the right genes. Just slow as can be.”

Instead, he’s been in the beverage business his whole life. His focus used to be soft drinks, until he was contacted about Peabody Heights, where the brewers had been interested in using equipment he owned to further their output. O’Keefe, a Baltimore native, came up, viewed the place, and saw an opportunity to rebuild, but not for himself.

“I have three sons,” he says. “The oldest two had careers that had nothing to do with my business. They hated my business–when I was in the soda business. Now, dad owns a brewery–big hero, right? But I really bought the brewery for my third son, Edward.”

Edward has “thrived” at Peabody Heights, O’Keefe says. “All of the beers here are from his brain. I just want them to make this place a sound business and kick the old man to the curb, so I can go back to playing bridge and playing golf.”

Everyone is building to something.

Upon learning the intimate baseball history of his brewery’s location, O’Keefe brought in historian Bernard McKenna and writer David Stinson to view the property and suss out its historically relevant bits. With their sprawling history behind them, the Orioles of 2018 and beyond have yet to write their story. After a 100-loss season, I ask O’Keefe if it falls to businesses like his at Peabody Heights to hold up Baltimore’s baseball legacy while the local team tries to right itself.

“I would say yes to that. We certainly aren’t hurting them. They are hurting us,” he says with a chuckle. “This is history. If I don’t do it, it’s going to be lost. You’ll never lose the fact that Babe Ruth played here and hit home runs. Everybody will know they won seven pennants. But they won’t know the personal things.”

He points at a wooden circle behind the glass of a display case. “That is a dugout seat,” he says authoritatively. “It was in the stadium. Nobody can tell me—and I have tried and tried and tried, Mr. McKenna is working on it—why do you need a dugout seat? Whoever saw a seat in the dugout? It’s a bench. Nobody can tell me. And look, it folded up against the wall, so it would be completely out of the way. What was it?! Why is it in the dugout?! Who sat on that seat?!”

The fire struck on July 4, 1944.

“Legend is the fireworks guy did it,” O’Keefe says with a grin. “But that’s not true. They knew they had a tinder box here.”

It was standard protocol for stadium employees to drench the seating area with water to prevent a single spark from bringing Oriole Park to the ground. One night, they missed a spot.

“On the night of the third, someone leaving the left field stands casually flicked a cigarette back as they left, not thinking anything of it,” O’Keefe says. “Had they done it in right field or center field, it would have just hit dirt. But the clubhouses, the storage room, the Orioles’ offices, everything was under the left field stands. That cigarette sat there and smoldered. At 4 in the morning, it exploded. By 4:30 we had no more ballpark.”

When you’re sitting in Peabody Heights, drinking an Old Oriole Park lager, it’s important to remember as you watch the Orioles screw up an inning-ending double play. Or fail to stand up to the flimsiest of opposing offenses, or see Chris Davis strike out for the 1,306th time in under eight seasons (Cal Ripken needed 21 years to strike out that much):

This was all once a pile of ash, brick, and whatever the fire didn’t like.

But they rebuilt it.

O’Keefe fiddles with a pesky bolt lock and opens the brewery’s back door, flooding the hallway with sunlight. He points at a short brick barricade that extends from the building to the vehicle entrance, standing on the bones of a long-dead stadium.

“This is the original left field wall of Old Oriole Park,” he says. “When I bought the place, it was in terrible shape. I feel like I could have just [nudged it] and it would have fallen over. So we took down the wall, put a new foundation in, and put it back. Brick by brick.”

References and Resources

  • William C Kashatus, Diamonds in the Coalfields: 21 Remarkable Baseball Players, Managers, and Umpires from Northeast Pennsylvania
  • Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs: The History of an Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915


Justin is a writer and editor for The Good Phight and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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4 Comments on "Rebuilding the Orioles in Peabody Heights"

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Excellent article. I paid my first visit to Peabody Heights last December and got the grand tour as well. I was joined by baseball historian and author David Stinson (“Dead Ball”) who figured prominently in the site’s historical research. Just one comment: You mention Babe Ruth playing across the street in Old Oriole Park (International League Orioles) as a Yankee during exhibition games. But unless I’m mistaken he also played there briefly as a member of the Orioles, pitching for Jack Dunn’s team. Due to the loss in revenue because of the Terrapins playing across the street, Dunn was forced… Read more »
Eric Robinson
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Great article!

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Two more comments (at least for now): You give 2015 as the year the Orioles won the American League East. That happened in 2014. They didn’t win squat in 2015, although they did finish at .500. Also, fans inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards cannot consume Natty Boh, at least they couldn’t this past year. It made a brief comeback a few years ago, but only for the first few home stands in April. Otherwise, you did a great job of summarizing early Orioles history as well as capturing the atmosphere of the pub.

ncgostl
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ncgostl

Great article. I grew up in the DC area in the 1970s with the Orioles as my team. I didn’t know any of this history.

I think you’re underselling St Louis and Cleveland in 1914. St Louis was a top 5 city between 1900 and 1920. Both cities were in the top 10 by population from 1900 to 1950. They may seem small now but they were industrial and transportation centers then.