The traditional but shaky premise is that the teams leading the major leagues on the Fourth of July will win the pennants. But the fact is, of course, that unless the Yankees are on top of the American League on Independence Day, this bit of folklore is as undependable a portent as a groundhog's behavior on February 2. This year, however, it was fitting that the Baltimore Orioles should be leading on the glorious Fourth. For though the Orioles may not yet have proved themselves good enough to win, they are easily the most patriotic team around.
The Orioles wear their chauvinism literally on their sleeves—neat little patches that say: "STAR-SPANGLED BANNER SESQUICENTENNIAL 1814-1964." Not only is the national anthem played before games, but so too this year is Maryland, My Maryland. It is played, by coincidence perhaps, precisely as the umpires move from the dugout with the visiting manager, and presumably the officials do not know that the first line of the song, the downbeat which rings out just as they step onto the field, goes: "The despot's heel is on thy shore, Maryland!"
Reaction to this patriotic exhortation is as good an explanation as any for the remarkable success of the Orioles this season. They have, for example, won 19 of 21 one-run games, which puts them only two games behind Frank Merriwell and James Bond in the all-important miracle column. The Orioles have won 15 games from the eighth inning on, and on 12 occasions they have won in their last time at bat. This got to be too much for Manager Hank Bauer, whose cigarette consumption climbed to four packs a day until he finally gave them up at 7 p.m. E.D.T., June 27.
Consistency is a good sign of the true-blue contender, and Baltimore has had just one losing week in the last eight. Last week the Orioles won only three of six games, but stayed three games in front of the Yankees and Chicago. They meet the Yankees next week for three games in New York. "We know we have to beat the Yankees ourselves," says Brooks Robinson, the All-Star third baseman. "I want a two-team race—just the Yankees and us. If they beat us, we'll know they were better. But that's the way I like it best: the two of us knocking heads." So far, Baltimore is ahead in this year's head-knocking, 5-3.
Baltimore's record is somewhat mystifying. Pitching was supposed to be its strong point, but no Oriole had won eight games until Wally Bunker beat the A's 4-0 Friday night with a one-hitter. That made Wally Bunker the only 19-year-old ace extant. Bunker has a personal patriotic edge, however, Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin having scattered dirt from Bunker Hill over the Memorial Stadium mound a few weeks ago. The team has only one power threat, 22-year-old Boog Powell. Robinson—the team's biggest star and best hitter—is better known for his fielding.
But Baltimore has turned up a hero a week and shown surprising reserve strength. Bob Johnson filled in for Shortstop Luis Aparicio with a .306 average. Powell, the big blond slugger, and rookie Right Fielder Sam Bowens were both sidelined for a while, and Russ Snyder has been out almost all season with a broken ankle. Bauer has juggled his outfield reserves well. He has, for example, obtained the best performance ever from Jackie Brandt, the uninhibited center fielder, by leaving him alone.
The Orioles' greatest depth is in the bullpen. The team's top three relievers—Stu Miller, Dick Hall and Harvey Haddix—ran their record to 20 saves, plus an 11-4 won-lost mark and an untold number of "scares." A scare, according to the bullpen, is awarded when one of its members frightens opponents so badly by warming up that the batters gladly succumb to the pitcher already in the game. Three scares equal a save.
The defense, inspired by Robinson, remains extremely consistent. Robinson is averaging about one great play every series. Routinely, last week, this superb third baseman picked up a bunt while running at full speed toward the plate and got the runner behind him at second. He subsequently took part in a rare pitcher-to-third-to-first bunt double play. Robinson has Baltimore fans so conditioned to his excellence that in a game with Minnesota he was given credit for a catch actually made by Shortstop Bob Johnson as the two raced back, side by side, for a pop fly. (Ex-Oriole Manager Paul Richards has said, "When it comes to a pop fly, what Brooks is is a center fielder playing third base.")
Baltimore has the look of a winner now, which was hardly the case during the last two seasons. It was not an easy team to handle, though Manager Billy Hitchcock tried valiantly, liberally apportioning fines and heart-to-heart talks in almost equal measure. When ex-Yankee and ex-Marine Hank Bauer took over his reputation for toughness fooled many into believing he would really make the brash young Orioles jump through hoops. He has done exactly the opposite, limiting his discipline, mostly, to just writing names on the lineup card, and the players have responded happily to this remarkable treatment. Still, no one expected this much success. Bauer himself stunned Oriole partisans during the normally optimistic days of spring training by saying his team probably would finish third, and not until three weeks ago did the city begin to appreciate what was happening. Since then, the Orioles have averaged 21,400 a game at home.
Baltimore's sudden romance with the whole team has done nothing to diminish its singular affection for Robinson. In a city with a heritage of booing—the Baltimore citizenry provoked the first bloodshed of the Civil War by jeering Federal troops who were just passing through and, on occasion, has even booed Johny Unitas—Robinson has never been heckled. "Anyone who might be tempted to boo him would be too scared to," Club President Lee MacPhail says.
Robinson's warm personality wins him as much respect as his competitiveness and courage. He does nothing for effect. Bill Tanton, columnist for the Evening Sun, recalls the time he was on hand when Brooks went on a bowling party with some multiple sclerosis patients. "I've seen athletes in such situations before," Tanton says, "and the atmosphere is usually strained or even maudlin. But this time, everyone was at ease. You could tell Brooks was genuinely enjoying himself and, of course, they all adored him. He kidded them, and they kidded him right back—especially about his getting bald."
Brooks and Connie Robinson met when he had more hair and she was a stewardess on an Oriole flight from Kansas City to Boston. Typically shy, he did not ask her for a date until prodded by teammates and, later, found the courage to propose by suggesting that a trip he had to make to Nevada would be nice for a honeymoon. Now they have three small sons.
Connie Robinson is constantly amazed by her husband's even temper. He walked into the house one day last week after Minnesota had beaten the Orioles and Brooks had gone hitless for the second straight time, but he hardly mentioned the game. Instead, he and Connie talked about the shade of blue they had chosen for the living room of the new home they are building in suburban Lutherville.
Besides this new ranch house, Robinson is also part owner of the Gorsuch House—a restaurant that draws a good percentage of every Oriole crowd—and Brooks Robinson's Sporting Goods Store. He lets his associates run both enterprises, refusing to worry about them himself. His serenity is so complete that a radio commercial he does for the Central Savings Bank is a parody of the real Brooks Robinson:
Announcer: Tell me, Brooks, anything ever get you mad?
Brooks: No, not me. You can't lose your temper and play in this game. No, I never get mad.
Announcer: How about when you come to bat in the ninth inning, with the bases loaded, and then strike out?
Brooks: Well, you can't hit every time. No, that doesn't make me mad.
Announcer: How about when you play back for a power hitter like Roger Maris, and he lays down a bunt you can't handle?
Brooks: Well, that's the way the ball bounces. No, that doesn't make me mad.
Announcer: Well, how about if you buy a home and then find out you could have gotten a better rate on your mortgage loan with no appraisal fee and no prepayment penalties?
Brooks: Oohh, that makes me mad!
Robinson's looseness seems to help him snap back quickly after injuries. Although he has suffered many accidents, he has not missed a game because of injury since 1959. He has been seriously beaned twice, has impaled his throwing arm on a fence, has suffered five split teeth—and lost two others outright—and had eight stitches in his face as the result of three other accidents. "This will keep me out of action," he told anxious visitors after a freak pregame batting-cage mishap. The time was 6:15. "It will keep me out of action an hour and 45 minutes," he added, and he played that night. (Robinson's speech is sprinkled with sports clichés like "out of action," "phenom" and "nightcap." When he signed this year—for $35,000—he told reporters, "I'm in the fold.")
Robinson is the heart of the Baltimore team, and his name is almost synonymous with it now, though he is just 27. He came out of Little Rock (Ark.) Central High to play with the Orioles as early as 1955, and there were no major league Orioles before 1954. He has played in 1,019 of the team's 1,638 games; nobody remembers those he did not play in. Nobody in Baltimore really wants to remember.
Always a superb fielder, Robinson has somehow managed to be even better this year. There is nothing more exciting in sports than watching him make a tough play at third base. Lee MacPhail insists no one has ever handled any position as well, and many qualified observers at least agree that Robinson is the best third baseman in history. Before any oldtimers in the barbershops of Pittsburgh start muttering "Pie Traynor," they should know that Traynor is already on record as saying: "Robinson's just the best there is."
After four seasons of .300 or near .300 hitting, Robinson slumped last year to .251 when he suddenly developed trouble hitting high fast balls. But a heavier bat, modeled after one he borrowed from the Dodgers' Tommy Davis in spring training, seems to have solved that problem. He is hitting .317 now, fourth best in the league, with nine homers—second to Powell's 21 on the Orioles—and 48 RBIs, ninth best in the league. Robinson, however, is a streak hitter and the Orioles cannot win if he goes into a long slump. Although he is not the team leader—not the type, he insists—he means far more to Baltimore than any ordinary leader could. And the Orioles need the best of him—both his bat and his glove—if they expect to win.
With the season half over, there is no particular reason why the Orioles should not continue to play well. If Powell keeps slugging and the bullpen holds up, if Bauer can find ways to relax without smoking, if the old hands like Miller and the young ones like Bunker maintain their early pace—then the old town celebrating the anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner may have another flag in October to wave o'er the land of the free and the home of Brooks Robinson.