The all-star game has come and gone, and the hot humid days of midsummer are turning baseball diamonds into sweltering outdoor ovens. Now is the time for second-division teams to turn in their springtime hopes and play out the rest of the season in leisurely fashion. Not so, though, in sixth-place Baltimore, where every game is fought as if the Orioles had been hurled into the broiling National League pennant race.
Unnoticed everywhere, except of course in Baltimore, has been the Orioles' unheralded success since Memorial Day. In those two months, only the Yankees have played better ball in the American League. Baltimore has not only ceased to be another breather on the schedule of the pennant contenders, but also has become a particularly obnoxious thorn in their paths. The White Sox found this out when they lost five out of seven games to the Orioles in June, just when their pennant hopes were starting to rise, and then dropped two out of three to the Orioles in July, when Chicago was trying vainly to get back into contention.
For one glorious day, right after the All-Star break, the Orioles sat giddily in the first division, above such established names as Detroit and Cleveland. Less than 48 hours later they had lost two bitter games to the Indians and were back in the frustrating confines of sixth place.
Manager Paul Richards dressed quickly after the second loss and was the first one out of the locker room. He strode quickly from Municipal Stadium, his lean, loose-jointed figure tense with the bitterness of losing. The players were going directly to Detroit by bus for a double-header the next day. Richards and his coaches were going on a luxury liner that made the trip across Lake Erie in a leisurely six hours.
Stretched out in a reclining chair on the deck of the S.S. Aquarama as it steamed along, Richards tried to unwind his taut nerves.
"We have come to where we are so damned close to the kind of ball club I'm trying to build," he said quietly while lighting a cigaret. "What kind of team is it I'm trying to build? I'm going by the old maxim developed by John McGraw and used to good advantage by Bill Terry after him. I want a team that can get somebody out. A ball club that can play defensively and let the other team beat itself. I'll continue along these lines until somebody comes along with a bat big enough to displace the defensive player. In my opinion, it will be that way forever."
Richards leaned forward and flipped his cigaret over the rail. He lit another and flopped back in his chair. "It's rumored that I'm a magician in taking pitchers nobody else wants and making winners out of them. Nonsense. I saw a good arm on every one of those pitchers. You've got to have a good arm and be able to take criticism.
"There's no magic formula. We don't try to teach anyone a mysterious pitch. We try to win his confidence. Try to find out what can help him. Then we try to get the best from him. The main thing is to establish a routine for his throwing, his conditioning, his running—his entire life between starts. A lot of pitchers don't know how to bring themselves up to that first pitch in a ball game."
Richards paused and stared out over the water. "A pitcher may need just one more pitch to be a winner. You can teach him if he has a good arm and wants to learn. He has to learn rhythm—that is, an ability to throw all his pitches with the same motion.
"You must not teach a pitcher according to the same way someone else did it. Each one is a different person, and the technique changes with each. Harry Brecheen, our pitching coach, is a keen student of pitchers and their personalities. He's very good with young kids and has a good approach with the older guys. We both have the same attitude toward pitching."
NO PENNANT THIS YEAR
As Richards was delivering his shipboard soliloquy, nobody afloat or ashore had any illusions that the Orioles were going to win the pennant this year or the next. They may not even improve on their sixth-place finish of 1956. But they are definitely a better team than last year and are one step nearer Manager Richards' seemingly unattainable ambition: pennant contention.
"They're a tough bunch to beat," said Detroit Manager Jack Tighe recently, after winning a close extra-inning game from the Orioles. "Their defense is outstanding and they hustle like hell. There's a good degree of intelligence on that club. Their pitching is not overpowering, but it's good. They all get the ball over the plate and are always in the game."
"They were real rough even when they weren't going so well at the beginning of the season," added Indian Manager Kerby Farrell after a hard scramble to split a four-game series with the Orioles. "We'd beat them but every game was close and tough."
Although it may never appear in the standings at the end of the year, the improvement of the Orioles does show up, clearly and sharply, in a few revealing statistics. In 1956 Baltimore tied with the Indians as the worst-hitting team in the league. It was all by itself in making the fewest hits and scoring the fewest runs. Today the Orioles are third in batting and hits and sixth in runs scored.
Third in American League fielding last year, the Orioles have the best fielding percentage in the majors today. Although fielding averages can be deceptive, they show that Baltimore has made the fewest errors in the majors.
Five other clubs in the American League stole more bases than the Orioles last year. Today the team is second only to the perennially fleet-footed Chicago White Sox (Right Fielder Al Pilarcik leads the club with 11, one behind the two league leaders).
The pitching staff was sixth-best in the league last year and had only one man with an earned run average below 4.00. Today, with essentially the same pitching staff, Oriole pitching is third-best in the league and four are better than 3.00.
The team Richards has fashioned after 114 player transactions is featured by a tight defense, speed and strong pitching. It is a team that rarely beats itself. There are no big power hitters (Gus Triandos leads the club with nine home runs), and only First Baseman Bob Boyd is batting over .300. But there are six players clustered around .280.
The Orioles don't score many runs, but then again, neither does their opposition. Oriole pitchers have allowed more than five runs in just 16 games and won four of those games.
The names of the pitchers on the team are not ones that should inspire awe in opposing batters. Except for the Orioles' original bonus baby, Billy O'Dell, the average fan has the feeling he has heard these names somewhere else, on some other roster. He'd be right. They all have kicked around the various major league cities and were found lacking in one respect or another. Yet, gathered together under Paul Richards' wing, they have become one of the strongest pitching staffs in the league.
George Zuverink could win only nine games with Detroit in 1955 as a starter, but has already equaled that total this year as a reliever on the Orioles. "When Hoot Evers came to Baltimore from Detroit," says Zuverink, "he told Richards I had a good arm. The first day I was with the club he started working with me. He'd watch me throw and then change little things that have all added up big. He had me bring my arm back further when I threw my sinker. Now I get better leverage. He changed my slider into a quick-breaking pitch. Richards doesn't slap you on the back when you do well. But you know he's pleased. I've gained confidence in myself here because I know darn well he wouldn't be sending me out all the time if he didn't think I could do the job."
"Some pitchers get in a rut," adds Hal Brown, who won only one game in his last full season with Boston before coming to the Orioles. "Paul is watching all the time. You might not see him but he's watching. You may just be doing some little thing wrong and not even realize it. He'll send one of his coaches to tell you or tell you himself. He may even show you by throwing the pitch himself. Heck, outside of a fast ball, he can throw as well as anyone on this club."
Perhaps Richards' most satisfying job has been his handling of Billy Loes. Noted as a pitcher with everything but the right temperament while with the Dodgers, Loes has developed, under Richards' patient handling, into one of the best pitchers in the league.
Ken Lehman, another ex-Dodger who could never make the team, has won three games in relief and shows a solid 2.70 ERA in the month he has been with Baltimore. Ray Moore kicked around the Dodger farm system for eight years before coming to Baltimore. In his 2½ seasons under Richards, Moore has become the work horse of the staff and has won a total of 28 games.
The few hits and runs Richards' pitchers need to win have been supplied, as expected, in varying degrees by Catcher Gus Triandos, Left Fielder Bob Nieman, Bob Boyd and the veteran George Kell. The big surprise for the Orioles has been the all-round play of their second baseman, Billy Gardner. A .213 hitter in two part-time seasons with the Giants, Gardner could only increase that mark to .231 as a Baltimore regular last year. In spring training Richards said that Gardner was his second baseman right from the start. Playing in every game so far, Gardner leads the team in runs scored, hits, doubles, is third in RBIs even though batting leadoff and is hitting .278. Not a fancy fielder like smooth-wheeling shortstop Willie Miranda, he nevertheless makes all the plays at second and is always hustling.
"Richards gave me confidence by playing me every day," says Gardner, "even when I wasn't hitting. He's helped me a lot with my hitting and has taught me a lot. That's the amazing thing about playing under Richards. He doesn't assume you know everything just because you're in the big leagues. You're playing here in the majors but at the same time you're learning more about your job from him. He sees everything and helps in so many ways."
Jim Busby, a .300 hitter just a few seasons ago, was an in-and-out .189 hitter this year with the Indians. Since he came to Baltimore in mid-June, Busby has been playing a solid center field and hitting nearly 100 points higher. "I'm a guy who has to play regularly. Of course, I played regular last year and batted only .235. I can't explain what's happened to me. It's like you wake up one morning and suddenly everything changes. I will say, it's sure nice to be back with Richards."
Former batting champ Billy Goodman sat on the Boston bench most of this season nursing a lifetime .300 average. When Richards added him to his motley collection of castoffs, Goodman forced George Kell into part-time duty at third and is batting over .300 as in years past.
NEW LIFE IN BALTIMORE
It is no accident that seemingly washed-up major leaguers catch a second wind in Baltimore. From the first day of spring training, the Oriole squad works hard at the trade of baseball. Fundamentals, such as bunting, are worked on, over and over again. During intrasquad games Richards has a protective screen placed directly behind the catcher. While the game goes on, he and his coaches sit behind the screen on campstools and closely watch everything that is going on before them.
"If Paul sees a batter doing something wrong while he's at the plate," Harry Brecheen said, "he can tell him right away. It keeps these guys thinking all the time."
A familiar sight now in Baltimore is that of a pitcher leaving a game for one reason or another and then spending a good 15 minutes throwing in the bullpen under the watchful eye of Brecheen while the game is still in progress. Chances are that Richards had spotted something the pitcher was doing wrong while he was in the game and wanted him to work on it immediately.
"If you play under Richards, you'd better be prepared to work," says George Kell. "And you'd better be serious about playing ball. There's no joking in his clubhouse after a loss. The spirit is good here and we know we are a better team than last year."
Or, as Paul Richards himself put it, in the unfamiliar setting of a ship cruising between Cleveland and Detroit: "The only thing a baseball man can go by is: What was the over-all picture when he came? What was it when he left? If I left now, I'd have to say we have a little better ball club. I think we should do even better. We in Baltimore are trying desperately to build a ball club. Anytime you're desperate about something, you have to make mistakes.
"As you improve, it gets harder and harder to get the players you need. Our farm system will be the ultimate test of how high we can go. At this point we are merely a little better prepared for the .350 hitter who may develop in our system. But when he shows up, we'll give him the royal welcome.
"Someday," Richards reflected as he thought of the stream of players he has seen come and go in Baltimore, "I'll have a team that will be set for four or five years. Then I'll sit back in the dugout during a game and just wink, and the players will know exactly what I want them to do."
Early last week the Philadelphia Phillies, led by their excellent pitching staff, emerged from the sweaty broil of struggling National League contenders and sniffed the cool fragrance of first place. They lingered there only 48 hours, barely long enough to enjoy the view. And then they fell.
The descent began July 16 when the Milwaukee Braves came to town. In the ninth inning of the first game, with the Braves leading 6-2, the Phillies loaded the bases with two out. Richie Ashburn came to bat and cracked a wicked line drive to right center. It looked like a sure double. But, even as the runners streaked around the bases, 36-year-old Andy Pafko, racing far to his right, hurled himself through the air to make the catch and end the game. Said the disappointed Ashburn afterwards: "He's been taking hits away from me ever since I came into this league. I have to rate him as the best outfielder in the league, at least when I'm batting." Philadelphia managed to hold its slim lead, however, when second-place St. Louis also lost.
The next night, Robin Roberts, whose strong arm for years has kept mediocre Philadelphia teams out of proximity to the cellar, pitched a scoreless first inning. When a close decision went against the Phils in the bottom of the first, thus squelching a potential rally, Roberts protested so vigorously that Umpire Jocko Conlan ejected him from the game. The normally placid Roberts erupted (left), and had to be restrained from tangling with Conlan. (For his action, the National League players' representative was later fined $50 and suspended for three days.) Roberts' replacement on the mound was bombarded, and the Phillies lost again, 10-3. This dropped them to third.
Nothing spectacular happened the next night. No fights, no great catches...just a good solid game. But the Phils lost it 4-2, and sank to fourth.
Milwaukee left and Cincinnati arrived, but little else changed at first. The Phillies tried their best pitcher, Rookie Jack San-ford, but the Redlegs hit him freely and won 7-2. And the Phils slid to fifth.
So it was...four places in four days. It was typical of the 1957 National League pennant race, where no position is secure, no lead commanding. One solace for poor Philadelphia: the drop to sixth is long and improbable. And, as a matter of fact, when on the fifth day the Phillies finally won, they returned to fourth. Philadelphia fans hoped the road up would be as short as the road down.—W.B.