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Gesker's Orioles Encyclopedia Recalls Golden Days Of Past

June 9, 2009

By Krystina Lucido

Orioles fans certainly have strong opinions about the franchise's current position in the American League, and they are outspoken about their feelings concerning the team's poor performance and decade-long malaise. But do these embittered fans remember where this team came from and the legacy that began long before the Orioles reached Baltimore in 1954?

Michael Gesker worked hard to make sure Orioles fans and others appreciate the Baltimore's Birds from beginning to end with his new book, "The Orioles Encyclopedia: A Half Century of History and Highlights," (JHU Press, $55).

Gesker got started on the project after picking up Orioles knowledge while writing for the team's program.

"[The Orioles Encyclopedia] has been a monster and a mistress for six and a half years," Gesker said. "I had written articles for the Orioles program off and on for about 10 seasons, from roughly '92 to 2002 or so. Jessica Fisher was the editor the last several years I worked on it, and she called me one day and asked if I could work on a timeline for the Orioles history.

"I was working on the timeline and there's a stack of 10 or 12 team encyclopedias from the Yankees, Indians, Padres, whatever and I thought, 'Jeez, there's never been one done on the Orioles.' There has been really nice work done on the Orioles before, but as far as an encyclopedia, nothing had been done."

Gesker took it upon himself to propose his idea to a publishing company and then spent two years researching the Birds' history. On President's Day 2005, he sent an update to the company on his progress and received an e-mail back saying it had decided to drop his project.

"They said, 'Well, we thought someone told you, but we decided not to do it because the only ones that sell are the Yankees and Notre Dame,'" Gesker said. "So I was really scrambling. I invested a lot of time and effort into this already and thanks to making some phone calls and talking to Jim Bready, he recommended contacting Johns Hopkins Press. That was one of the best things I ever did."

James H. Bready, a longtime Baltimore newsman and author, had himself written an early history of the Orioles in 1998.

Gesker began his writing career doing freelance pieces for the Baltimore Sun and the now-defunct Sport magazine before moving on to Maryland Public Television, where he wrote, produced and directed the Emmy award winner "Baseball, the Birds on 33rd." Following MPT, Gesker wrote pieces for just about every Orioles program throughout his 10 years with the team.

Besides all of the above, Gesker has a very personal history with baseball that helped in his cataloguing of the Orioles' past.

Collecting photos and re-reading old issues of Sport and the Baltimore News-American were not only good research tools, but jogged memories for Gesker of days gone by, of player-fan relationships back when he was just a kid who loved baseball.

"When I was a kid growing up in Catonsville, around the corner from where I lived, there was a house two ball players lived," Gesker said. "In 1960, Hoyt Wilhelm, who was in the Hall of Fame as a pitcher, lived there. He moved out and Clint Courtney moved in during the course of the summer. It's hard to imagine, but we played catch with them and Clint Courtney, I can still see him sitting under a tree with his shoes off.

"Another time, two friends and I took a bus from Catonsville. Clint Courtney was catching, and we waited around until after the game, and we went up to Clint Courtney and we said, 'Clint, we live in your neighborhood. Can you give us a ride home?' He said, 'Yeah, sure get in,' and he gave us a ride home. … I just can't imagine that happening today."

The 896-page "Orioles Encyclopedia" will remind any longtime fan of their own personal memories on 33rd Street with its exhaustive list of nearly 400 player profiles, the results of every game since 1954 and short features on managers and coaches. Gesker also managed to get the rights to more than 350 never-before-seen photographs, including shots of Larry Doby, Clint Courtney, Eddie Murray, Frank Robinson and Boog Powell.

No matter what state the current franchise is in, everyone can appreciate where the Orioles have come from. The "Orioles Encyclopedia" might even give Baltimoreans a new sense of pride in their team.

Issue 138: June 2009