This is a story—much of it in the first person, by a distinguished author named Paul Richards—about how to build a major league baseball team. It isn't one of those complete-in-this-issue stories, since, so far at least, it really has no end. You see, it is about the Baltimore Orioles, who aren't complete yet either.
Otherwise, it has all the ingredients: a beginning (the hiring of Richards in 1954), a middle (the climb to fifth place halfway through the 1956 season), a hero (Richards), a supporting cast (four score more or less transient ballplayers), assorted villains (named Yankees and Indians and Red Sox), a lovely lady to be wooed and won (the Baltimore fan) and a plot (the first division or bust). Sometime the story also hopes to have a happy ending.
"We are well pleased," says Paul Richards, "with the progress to date."
But first, a brief preface:
At the end of the 1953 season, the franchise of the perennial American League doormats, the St. Louis Browns, was transferred to Baltimore, and the tab was picked up by a host of civic-minded and well-heeled businessmen. They hired the old Philadelphia Athletic, Jimmy Dykes, to manage the club, and sat back to watch the crowds pour in and the Orioles soar toward the top of the American League.
The crowds did, indeed, pour in—an attendance of 1,060,910 for the 1954 season, compared to the embarrassing total of 297,238 that watched virtually the same ball club perform the year before in St. Louis uniforms. But the flight of the Orioles was more of a flutter. At the end of the season Dykes had them out of the cellar, true, but Baltimore had lost exactly the same number of games as the Browns of the year before (an even 100), and occupation of seventh place was due less to the efforts of the Orioles themselves than to those of the Philadelphia A's, who somehow managed to lose 103.
So the directors of the Baltimore Baseball Club junked Dykes and hired away from the Chicago White Sox, to serve in the dual capacity of field manager and general manager, the square-jawed, businesslike Wizard of Waxahachie, Texas, Paul Rapier Richards.
MAKE HASTE QUICKLY
"My goal," said the new head man, "is to build the Orioles into a pennant contender as quickly as possible."
"The building job," says Richards now in retrospect, "has worked out pretty much as we expected—although nothing ever goes quite according to schedule. The unexpected always comes up. So you are kind of like a shortstop; you live on your instinct."
Richards' instinct was to move fast—and in all directions at once. He signed every young ballplayer of promise that he could find to breathe life into the dilapidated old Brownie farm system. To five alone he paid bonuses totaling $200,000 and only shrugged when one was such a failure that he was released outright after only two months. And as a result, according to Farm Director Jim McLaughlin, the Orioles now have as many good-looking young prospects down on the farm as any team in baseball. Yet, still the search goes on.
"I have seen more kids brought in here for tryouts in the last two months," says the Orioles' veteran third baseman, George Kell, "than I saw in two years at Chicago."
"The most important thing for the future," says Richards, "is to have something come out of the farm system. So you can never afford to ease up in the hunt for young ballplayers. And anyone that looks good, you try to sign. You try to be careful and get the best, but you can't take a chance on missing even one.
"We realized, of course," continues Richards, "that you couldn't man a ball club with all kids. Today we have young players like Ferrarese and Francona and the bonus kids. We have the slightly more established players like Miranda and Triandos and Williams. And we have those with solid experience like Kell and Nieman and Evers."
But that is today, some 20 months and some 84 ballplayers after Richards took over in the fall of 1954. In between there have been players bought by the handfuls and sold by the handfuls and traded by the handfuls, and today there isn't a single one left of the crew which was there in Baltimore to greet their new manager that October day.
Some were obtained in straight cash deals, and Richards belongs to the school which believes it is sometimes possible to buy a ball club. He is also appreciative of the fact that the directors of the Baltimore club have been willing to spend money.
"You always hope to pay your own way through attendance," Paul says, "but we are fortunate in having enough money to step up and buy almost anybody at any time if the opportunity presents itself. And sometimes, if you're smart, it is still possible to buy a good ballplayer.
"However," he warns, "you can never buy a good one high. But if you work it just right, sometimes you can buy one cheap. You offer $100,000 and you scare them off. You offer $10,000 and you might get the same man."
But most of Richards' transactions have been trades—and what trades! In November of 1954, for example, he engineered a famous 17-player deal with the Yankees. A month later he was in the middle of another big trade—this one involving seven men—with the White Sox. And throughout the 1955 season players marched, in company front, on and off the Oriole roster, until a total of 54 different players had appeared in Oriole box scores that year.
"What do you think of your pitching staff?" a reporter asked Richards one day during the middle of that season.
"You mean the one coming," asked Paul, "or the one going?"
And even now, midway through 1956, who has made the year's biggest trade in the American League? Why Richards, of course. This one gave the White Sox Jim Wilson and Dave Philley in exchange for George Kell, Bob Nieman, Mike Fornieles and Connie Johnson.
"When you have nothing," Richards says now, explaining the early mass migrations, "any kind of a deal is a good one. Sometimes you may end up with four shortstops, but so what? You can always trade a couple of them off a little later for something else. And if you're careful, eventually you wind up with something resembling a ball club.
"A deal, especially a big one, is very involved, and sometimes, even long after it is over, it is almost impossible to say whether it was a good one or not. The 1954 trade with the Yankees, for example. It is the one around which all our later trades have revolved, so it must have been a good one. Yet you might say that there are a couple of those players I'd like to have back—so maybe it was a bad one too.
"The No. 1 goal," says Paul, "is always a solid pitching staff. You look for the good dependable veterans—like Wight and Zuverink. Then you try to get a couple of young ones to bring along and develop—like Ferrarese and Fornieles. And maybe you can pick up an older pitcher who has been around for quite a while but never really had too much of a chance—like Moore. Then you mix them up and, if you're lucky, you wind up with good pitching.
"The higher you go, the harder it becomes to make a deal for good players who can help you. At first you trade for quantity, and you're bound to improve. But as you get up toward the first division, you have to be specific; you have to trade to fill particular needs. It gets pretty rough.
"At this point, you begin to look toward your farm system."
Richards is notoriously averse to pointing a finger at what others might consider a sure thing. But even he admits some of the farm hands look good, while McLaughlin will go quite a bit further than that. "We have at least half a dozen," he says, "who can't miss."
"Once in a while," Richards muses, "you get a DiMaggio or a Williams or a Mantle out of your farm system. But then, when the big guy comes, you have to be ready. You have to be ready with a solid club to back him up or even the .350 hitter won't help you too much. So, while you're waiting, you keep right on making deals and signing the youngsters.
"We are a definitely improved club," he says, looking around at the team he has patched together through almost two hard years of never-ceasing effort. "We have good pitching," he says, "adequate fielding and some guys who can hit in the clutch. All we really need to move up is maybe one more pitcher, another infielder who can hit and a couple of our younger players living up to their promise."
In the meantime he looks at the averages which show the Orioles last in the league in both hitting and fielding, then wryly over at the standings which show the Orioles in fifth place.
"This shows you," he says, "what figures are worth. It doesn't make a damn if a player is hitting only .200 if he hits at the right time.
"It is all important for a winning team to surround itself with five or six ballplayers who can do as good a job when it comes time to win the game as they do at other times. These are intangibles, and don't ask me how you know whether a ballplayer has them. Sometimes everyone in the league knows a guy has it; sometimes you don't know at all until he is on your team helping you win. Kell and Nieman, for example, are both this type.
"We have been fortunate in finding ballplayers who still like to win. And a .200 hitter who likes to win can be more valuable to you than all the .300 hitters in the world who are only interested in getting out there every day and getting their own two hits."
So Paul Rapier Richards keeps dealing (for the .200 hitter who likes to win) and keeps waiting (for the farm clubs to produce that big guy everyone is always looking for) and keeps on signing the youngsters by the dozens just so someday he will have a good chance to get that big guy he wants.
And in the meantime the pore little old Baltimore Orioles aren't doing bad at all. Not at all. As they say in Waxahachie, I reckon not.
The inside-the-park home run is the most exciting play in baseball," former Yankee manager Joe McCarthy once said. Last week at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, the seventh inside-the-park home run of the season was hit in the most lurid circumstances imaginable.
The Chicago Cubs, on the strength of a seven-run eighth inning, were ahead of Pittsburgh 8-5. The first man up for the Pirates in the last of the ninth walked and moved to second on a single. Another walk was issued, and the bases were loaded. Up stepped Roberto Clemente, and fresh in everyone's mind was the ninth-inning homer the little Puerto Rican had hit only four days before to win a game.
Clemente ended all speculation on the first pitch. He swung hard and drove a tremendous fly to the right of the light tower in left field. The ball hit halfway up the wall as the left fielder made a futile leap for it and then bounded along the cinder path to left center field.
The three Pirate base runners bounced across home plate in quick succession. The Pirate team erupted from the dugout shouting, "Arriba! Arriba! [Forward!]."
Clemente, running as fast as a scared Ruben Gomez, took a quick look at the ball still deep in the outfield as he headed toward third. Manager Bobby Bragan frantically signaled him to stop, shouted in Spanish and English and all but tackled Clemente as he came roaring past third with his head down. "The score was tied and I can tell there will be a close play at the plate. I was willing to settle for the tie with none out and a good chance to get Clemente home later," explained Bragan.
But Clemente kept running and flung himself at home plate as the ball arrived with him. The plate was blocked, but Clemente slid around the catcher as he dropped the ball. The game was over, and the Pirates had won 9-8.
The Pirates happily assaulted Clemente and pulled him to his feet. Most of the 11,000 fans in the stands poured onto the field. "The Arriba Kid" tore himself from his enthusiastic teammates and scooted into the locker room.
As the Pirates celebrated in the dressing room later, Clemente went up to Bragan and asked innocently, "You gave me stop sign?"
"Yeah," replied the shaken Bragan.
Clemente grinned. "Nothing would have stopped me. I theenk I have chance to make home. Score now tie and I have nothing to lose. So I just run and run and I know I will score, I theenk." Clemente grinned again and added, "Besides—my father—he say would like that I make grand slam."