By Pete Kerzel
Dick Patterson was a well-connected financial services worker in 1960, serving as president of the Baltimore Junior Association of Commerce when he was contacted by spice baron Charles P. McCormick, a member of a city-run committee looking for ways to connect Baltimore’s business community with its bedraggled ballclub playing in virtual obscurity on 33rd Street.
|The Oriole Advocates celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. (Todd Olszewski/Orioles)|
The Orioles hadn’t won much since migrating from St. Louis for the 1954 season, and the gala parades welcoming that year’s flock of players to Memorial Stadium were already a distant memory. Memorial Stadium was barely one-third full for most games, and city leaders were worried about the future of both the club and the investment they had made in bringing it to Charm City.
"The Orioles wanted to have a reach into the community," said Patterson, the sole-surviving original Oriole Advocate, who’s now 85 and lives in Phoenix, Md. "But they didn’t exactly want to toot their own horn. That’s how it was done in those days. So we made it happen."
A phone tree succeeded in eliciting the support of 30 key business leaders who banded to form “an organization of volunteers joined together to promote and stimulate interest in baseball at all levels.”
What happened a half-century ago still flourishes today as the Oriole Advocates celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. Whether through a sense of civic duty or an extension of fanaticism, the organization has remained an active force in Baltimore baseball, through World Series titles and losing streaks, from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards, and connecting the eras of Jim Gentile, Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., and Nick Markakis.
"Any organization that’s been around 50 years is important," said Ann Peters, a CBS Radio worker and the group’s current president. "There are longevity and tradition and dedication that you just don’t see anymore. A lot of Orioles fans only know the Advocates because we are the faces at the gates on giveaways, but we’re so much more."
Back in 1962, the organization came up with a way to generate interest in baseball among youngsters, hopefully solidifying a fan base for generations to come. For 50 cents, kids received a decal, a button, a membership card to the Advocate Juniors and a free game ticket. Over the years, the program morphed into a variety of names -- Junior Orioles, Birdwatchers Fan Club, Fantastic Fans Club -- and still exists as the Junior Orioles Dugout Club.
One look at the T-shirt-clad kids with boundless enthusiasm cheering from the upper deck in left field on Dugout Club game days proves the idea was both enduring and ahead of its time.
"We sort of take credit for building a lot of today’s fans, because they were Junior Orioles as kids," said Don Blum, an Advocate recruited by Patterson in 1960 who serves as the group’s historical chair. "Those same people who started as Junior Orioles are still coming to the ballpark with their kids and grandkids."
The Advocates were a driving force in the 1967 acquisition of several rowhomes facing demolition on Emory Street. Baltimore City finally realized it needed to preserve the birthplace of one of its favorite sons, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, and the homes became the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, one of the rare venues where Yankees and Orioles fans can coexist with equal pride.
"Of course, that was a different time," Patterson said. "I could walk in, knock on the door and talk to the owner of the team. We had parties and picnics with the players, who were happy to come because they weren’t making a lot of money. It was a different era."
But some of the Advocates’ endeavors, especially purely baseball-related, are further reaching. Long a supporter of amateur baseball through a program that donates sports equipment to organized groups and those in need, former president Chuck Lippy established "Cardboard to Leather" in 1992. The idea came after he read a story by former columnist John Eisenberg at the Sun about Latin-American children who used whatever they had -- sticks for bats, cardboard for gloves -- to enjoy the American pastime.
Baseball equipment and monetary donations are collected annually at Camden Yards. Used equipment is repaired and new balls, gloves, uniforms and gear are purchased through the generosity of both fans and corporations like Legg Mason, which now lends its name to the unique program. Children in Baltimore benefit, as do young players in faraway lands like Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
Oriole Advocates representatives even visited foreign countries to oversee the distribution, watching children gleefully accept a new baseball and pass it around, smelling the fresh leather and marveling at the number of red stitches.
"For some, it’s the first equipment of their own they’ve ever had," said Blum, a retired general manager at Baltimore-area clubs.
The Advocates have long been committed to baseball at all levels. They award trophies to the high school all-star teams that play each summer at Camden Yards, and they established and administer the Orioles Hall of Fame. Oriole Advocates members conduct the voting each winter of a panel of area media members, and since 1984 have sponsored the luncheon honoring the inductees. Though Hall of Fame plaques remain a popular destination along the Eutaw Street corridor at Camden Yards, the permanent Hall of Fame with a crystal obelisk honoring each member is located at the Sports Legends Museum.
The group, which now numbers about 80, also organized trips to see Orioles players enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"I was with all the (Advocates) gang at Cal’s last game, and we were there in Cooperstown to see him go into the Hall of Fame," said Peters, who lives in Catonsville. "Well, we couldn’t really see because we were a long ways away, but we were still there and we let him know it.
"It was an amazing weekend. We walked around Cooperstown and it seemed like everywhere you went there were people from Baltimore, people wearing Orioles stuff. It seemed like everybody was from Baltimore."
Since its founding in 1987, the Oriole Advocates Charitable Foundation has made grants in excess of $500,000 to more than 200 organizations. Many nonprofit groups have benefited from this generosity, but those which encourage and stimulate an interest in baseball are favorite recipients. Some of the funds raised through the sale of postal caches are significant Baltimore baseball events, such as the closing of Memorial Stadium or Ripken’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown.
Like many organizations, the Advocates haven’t been immune to difficult economic times. Last year, they scrapped their biggest fundraising event, the 5K Home Run. Now, the group’s fundraising committee is exploring new ways to build the coffers, including partnerships and corporate sponsorships.
But the commitment remains as strong as ever, as does the opportunity for a diverse collection of lawyers, tax consultants, educators, government workers, city employees, computer technicians, salespeople and retirees to give back to their community and beyond. The Advocates are ramping up their sponsorship of Challenger League baseball programs for children with physical and developmental disabilities, a program they first became involved with in 1991.
"Our motto says we stimulate interest in baseball, and there’s no reason those kids can’t have the opportunity to explore, experience and be a part of the game," said Peters, who hopes she can arrange for the Challenger League to take the field at Camden Yards for a game. "We’re going to make sure they do."
The Oriole Advocates have resuscitated moribund baseball fields; assisted at events like FanFest, postseason games and the 1993 All-Star Game; promoted the Orioles through a traveling replica of Camden Yards; awarded scholarships to deserving youths; and sponsored underprivileged players at summer baseball camps -- all in the name of the game they love.
"We continue to do good volunteer work at a time when most good volunteer organizations are having great difficulty maintaining their membership," said Blum, a Towson resident. "But our membership is strong, our membership continues to grow. This is a very special group made up of very special people. It’s special because of the time and effort they put into it."
And as original member Patterson noted, the Advocates are unique. No other major league team boasts such an active partner ready to help when needed.
"The common thread is that we’re baseball fans who have a dedication for both the Orioles and for Baltimore, our community," Peters said. "It’s a good combination."
Issue 149: May 2010