Eager young Birds

Barely old enough to vote, the kids from Baltimore are the surprise of the 1960 season
June 12, 1960

In Baltimore this spring the natives were knocking themselves out by referring to the Orioles as summer replacements for the Colts, a bit of humorous prophecy that failed to amuse Paul Richards. It was even less funny after the first week of the season, in which the Orioles lost five straight games, descending into eighth place and sending the less faithful off to watch lacrosse or take up needlepoint until the football season began.

But last week, after the Orioles humiliated the Yankees three straight times to sweep into the American League lead by two full games, Johnny Unitas and Ray Berry could have run pass patterns down Charles Street, with Big Daddy Lipscomb furnishing the protection, and not drawn a crowd. Baltimore was on its way to Memorial Stadium, en masse, to scream itself silly over the beloved Birds.

The objects of all this affection had little resemblance to the Orioles of 1959 and almost none to the teams which played for Baltimore in the years before that. There are two groups of Oriole players. One is the residue of all the countless athletes who have filtered across the Oriole roster since Richards took over in 1955: Gene Woodling, Hoyt Wilhelm, Hal Brown, Gus Triandos, Arnold Portocarrero. The other is the large, noisy crowd which assembles each day in the Oriole clubhouse to watch Woodling, Wilhelm, Brown, Triandos and Portocarrero shave. Five years ago, when the Oriole roster was graced—or disgraced—by people with names like Marsh and Leppert and Hale, Diering and Causey and Miranda, Pope and Pyburn and Palica, Richards would insist that "When the kids come up, we'll be tough." Today Whitey Diskin, the Baltimore clubhouse custodian, dispenses more bubble gum than beer—and the Orioles are tough. The Baby Birds have hatched.

Leading the way is a curly-haired, barrel-chested 21-year-old left-hander named Steve Barber, who couldn't win last year in Class D (no control) but who has been knocking the bats out of hitters' hands with a murderous, sinking fast ball and a slider that breaks quick, like that. Barber was signed as a freshman off the University of Maryland campus three years ago for $500 by one of the Oriole bird dogs ("At first," says Barber, "I told him 'no.' But then spring came around, and I said 'what the heck,' and called him up.") Today, Barber has five victories and stands high in the American League earned run averages with 2.43.

Close behind is Ron Hansen, 22, a big, angular shortstop who has been making like a steam shovel in the field, which was expected, and driving in runs in large clusters, which was not expected at all. "I agree with those who say he is a fine shortstop," says Al Lopez of the White Sox, "but I don't agree at all with those who say he can't hit. He looks like a hell of a hitter to me."

"Already," says Hal Brown, "he has more RBIs than the three guys who played out there last year."

Sometimes, instead of Barber and Hansen, Baltimore's heroes are Chuck Estrada, also a rookie, also 22 and also capable of throwing a baseball through a brick wall, and Brooks Robinson, now a veteran of 23 who can make plays at third base that most people wouldn't believe. "Who do you think you are?" began a recent letter to Ron Hansen from "The Willy Miranda Fan Club." "Let's see you go in the hole and make the plays Willy used to do. You never could. If it wasn't for Brooks Robinson at third, you couldn't stay up here a week." Hansen laughed as hard at the letter as did Brooks Robinson, who is his roommate. He also admitted it was partly true. He also accused Robinson of writing the letter.

Dodgers could use him now

There are others. First Baseman Jim Gentile, 26, who hit 200 home runs for half a dozen Dodger farm clubs while waiting for Gil Hodges to wear out, has been hitting home runs for the Orioles as if he thought Baltimore was still in Triple-A. Jackie Brandt, 26, came over from the Giants to plug the old Oriole gap in center field. Marv Breeding, 26, played in the same infield with Hansen and Robinson at Vancouver last year; his hits have been timely and despite a reputation as a clumsy fielder, he wins most of his battles with ground balls. And, finally, there are the other young pitchers: Milt Pappas, 21, Jerry Walker, 21, Jack Fisher, 21. Richards calls them his veterans because they were with the club last year.

The Orioles have surprised no one so much as themselves. "A month ago," says Woodling, "I didn't think we would be as good as last year." Triandos, who holds the club home-run record of 30, had to be put on the disabled list for an operation on an aching thumb. Pappas, co-holder of the club pitching record (15 wins), had a sore elbow. Walker, winning pitcher in the second All-Star Game last summer, hurt a finger in spring training and was slow getting into shape to pitch. Wilhelm, as usual, was having trouble finding someone who could hold his knuckle ball.

But everyone helped take up the slack. Woodling, whom the kids call Gramps, hit over .300. Brown, who is 35, pitched beautifully and last week beat the Yankees on a one-hitter. With Triandos out of order, Richards traded for old Clint Courtney, outfitted him with a monstrosity of a glove and sent him behind the plate to catch Wilhelm. Courtney or the glove or something worked; for once there wasn't a single passed ball, and Wilhelm beat the Yankees. And every day, there were the kids, winning ball games with their pitching, making impossible plays afield, delivering clutch hits. Although the team batting average was only .240, sixth best in the league, the Orioles were out ahead of everyone in runs scored.

Vive la différence

"That's the big difference," said Brown, before he went out to tantalize the Yankees. "It used to be that we got behind by two runs, and we knew we were beat. Now you hang in there and somebody hits one out of the park for you." An hour later, with the Orioles trailing 1-0 thanks to the only hit Brown gave up all night (a home run in the first inning to Mickey Mantle), Ron Hansen hit a ball over the left-field fence off Duke Maas with two on, and the Orioles won 4-1. The next night the Orioles fell behind 2-0, and Robinson hit a two-run homer. They fell behind again 4-2, and Gentile hit a three-run homer. The Yankees tied it up at 5-5—and Woodling led off the bottom of the eighth with a homer. "See?" said Brown. "It's easy."

It is only June, and there are almost 100 games left to play, a fact which makes Richards wish it were September, but the fans of Baltimore have gone pennant crazy already. Truthfully, there is quite a bit to sustain them. Triandos is ready to return, and his right-hand power may end some of the trouble the Orioles have been having against left-hand pitching. (With Gentile, Woodling, Courtney and two of the four right fielders batting from the left side, the Orioles have lost more than they've won against left-handers, last weekend lost two games to Washington lefthanders after the Yankees left town.) Walker is finally in shape, and he is a marvelous young pitcher, perhaps the best on the entire staff. Pappas' elbow no longer hurts. Richards counts most of all upon steady improvement from his young pitching staff. "They should get better," he says, "instead of worse."

Plus a few problems

On the other hand, the remarkable ratio of runs produced per hit simply cannot last. There is weakness in right field. "Our right fielders," says Richards, who drools every time he sees Bob Allison of the Senators or Roger Maris of the Yanks, "have driven in 10 runs—and six of those came in a game we lost 15-9." And the Orioles have only one relief pitcher. Of the nine men on the staff, all but Gordon Jones are starters. Jones, who came from the Giants along with Brandt, has pitched well, but he is not the tough, everyday guy a team needs to win a pennant. So to fill the gap, Richards has been using his starters in relief, keeping them busy between their somewhat irregular turns. Everyone has pitched in relief, Fisher a dozen times, Barber and Estrada five, Portocarrero four, all the others at least once.

"I might make a relief pitcher out of one of the older fellows," says Richards, "but they're not the right type. I could take one of the young pitchers and put him in the bullpen permanently, but I hesitate to do that. Maybe we can go along like this all year. I don't know that it's ever been tried. Who ever had eight starters before?"

In a league which has leveled off at last—and apparently at a modest level—the Oriole chances appear to be about as good as those of anyone else. Pitching and defense, keys to the pennant last year, have let the White Sox down. The Indians, with every chance to go out ahead, have managed only to remain a close second. The Yankees—and most of the old pros in the league, perhaps influenced by past memories, think this is still the team to beat—look only like a team which can be beaten, with regularity. The Orioles, so far, have been at least as good as anyone else.

"They've changed," says Whitey Ford. "Two years ago, when Hansen was up here, I could throw nine curve balls and strike him out three times. Not now. It used to be fun to go into Baltimore, when they had hitters like Willy Miranda playing shortstop. It's not fun any more."