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The Orioles, the Browns, Branch Rickey and a Billings pastor

When Dave McNally signed with the Baltimore Orioles, it had only been six years since the Monumental City (one of Baltimore's nicknames) had regained a major league baseball team.

The modern Orioles date to 1954 when the American League approved moving the hapless St. Louis Browns to the Maryland city. But it was not as if Baltimore had no major league history, One of the best accounts of this colorful past can be found in a book originally published in 1955. In The Baltimore Orioles: The History of a Colorful Team in Baltimore and St. Louis, famed sportswriters Frederick G. Lieb and Bob Boerg collaborated on a story of more than 80 years of baseball in the two cities. The story started in 1872 when the Lord Baltimores took the field in the formative years of Major League Baseball. By 1894, the Baltimore Orioles were kings of the National League, winning their first of three straight pennants; the string continued in 1895 and 1896. Orioles rosters then included legendary players such as Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, Kid Gleason, Joe McGinty, and John McGraw.

Baltimore became part of the new American League for the 1901 and 1902 season. That association ended when American League President Ban Johnson pressured Baltimore interests into transferring the franchise to New York City. There, the Orioles became the New York Americans, then the New York Highlanders and finally the New York Yankees.

Meanwhile, Baltimore became a power in what was then the top minor league circuit, the International League. Team owner Jack Dunn was credited with developing several major league famous stars, the most famous being Lefty Grove and hometown product Babe Ruth. The Orioles parade of managers during the International League days included Branch Rickey, who later achieved fame for developing the modern farm system that funneled talent, to the “bigs.” Rickey was a manager and front office executive for the St. Louis Browns, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. He's famed for breaking the major league color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson and bringing him up from Montreal to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

The Lieb-Broeg book mentions a lesser-known facet of Rickey's long life (he died in 1963 at age 85). We're told that Rickey came to the early Yankees as a catcher in 1906. He batted, 284 in his only season with the Yankees and then became baseball coach at the University of Michigan studied law where he studied law.

“His health broke down from overstudy and over work, and he went to Montana and briefly put out his law shingle,” according to Lieb and Broeg. That's inaccurate. Actually, Ricky ended up in Idaho. He practiced law in Boise and managed a “dry” campaign in Idaho County, according to the Idaho County Free Press (September 18, 1913). This was a decade before nationwide prohibition took effect, and many states, including Idaho and Montana, were passing laws to shut down saloons in their jurisdictions.

Rickey's leadership of the “dry” forces encountered controversy. In 1911, the Idaho County Attorney asked a local judge to arrest Rickey for, of all things, violating a section of the local option law. It seems, according to court testimony, that Rickey paid a witness for the state $2.25 (by one account, $2.50 by another) per day plus expenses. In return, the witness was allegedly expected to induce a defendant in the case to violate the liquor law. (Free Press, November 16, 1911).

In other words, Rickey was charged with entrapment.

A day later (November 17, 1911), the Cottonwood Chronicle reported that Rickey had been arrested at the direction of Justice Woodward on the charge of a liquor-law violation. Whether Rickey was ever found guilty and, if so, is unclear from available digital newspaper archives for Idaho from that time.

Mention of Rickey triggered personal memories. As a Billings Gazette sportswriter, I wrote an article headlined, “If Leo won’t talk baseball, the minister will” that appeared on February 9, 1982. It all started when Leo Durocher flew into Billings. Pioneer League President Ralph Nelles had invited the feisty former player and manager to town to speak at the annual Sportsmen’s Banquet at the Elks club. Durocher refused to be interviewed by media representatives who saw him at the airport. He said people could hear what he had to say at the banquet.

I was working the sports “desk” that Sunday, laying out the Monday sports section. I was the only sports guy on duty that day, and I needed to get material for and write a story about Durocher's visit. Fortunately, Gazette photographer Bob' Zellar snapped a picture of Durocher chatting with someone that almost everyone in Billings knew then. That was the Rev. Paul Freiburger, longtime pastor, retired by then, of Trinity Lutheran Church on Grand Avenue. You didn't have to be a congregant to know about Freiburger because he was one of the most prolific of the Gazette's galley of letter-to-the- editor writers.

I phoned Freiburger and learned, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story. It turned out that Freiburger, a Chicago native and then 82, entered the seminary in St. Louis in 1920. While preparing for the ministers, he continued playing baseball and got to know Rickey, then general manager of the Cardinals.

As Freiburger told me, his coach at the seminary “prevailed upon me that I should try to get signed up with Branch Rickey in their farm system. Branch Rickey at that time was a very religious man in some ways. He was interested in getting students, especially ministry students, into professional baseball. He thought it would help morale.“

Soon, Freiburger faced a choice: should concentrate on the ministry or try to fulfill his baseball potential. He usually played catcher and could play most other positions except first base because he was considered too short. He hit about 350, stole bases, often got on base on walks, and, thought to be a student of baseball, often was captain of his team.

But in 1920, Freiburger had an experience that shaped his life. Playing basketball for exercise, “I became deathly sick. Evidently, I zigged when I should have zagged.”

He underwent 2-1/2 hours of surgery for an intestinal constriction.

“When they finished, the doctors said, ‘We’re through. If you live, it's because the Lord wants you to. And You'll be living on borrowed time.’ ”

Freiburger recovered, played more baseball, and graduated from the seminary in 1923. He told seminary himself “that the Lord had something else in mind for me than an athletic Career.”

That was the start of Freiburger's 53-year career as a minister, 43 of them at Trinity Lutheran.

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Jamie Larson