One night last week Baltimore Oriole Second Baseman Dave Johnson was standing around in the locker room, wreathed in mock disgust. "Nobody's talking to me," he said. "I was the only one in the lineup who didn't get two hits. Even the pitcher got two hits." But if Johnson had a for-cripe's-sake tone in his voice it was nothing to what the opposition was feeling as the Orioles used an old-fashioned display of batting power to open up the widest July lead seen in the American League since the Yankees yawned their way to the pennant eight years ago.
Not since the Red Sox of Williams, Stephens, Doerr long before that, and the Yankees of Gehrig, Dickey, DiMaggio, has such a destructive offense been loosed upon the league. The measure of it is in simple statistics, and in the confused remnants of the Detroit Tigers, who two weeks ago moved to within six games of the Orioles and were poised for a rush to the top. But by last Sunday the Tigers must have been glad to be 12 games behind, or just far enough back not to arouse aggressive tendencies in people named things like Robinson and Robinson. Reading American League batting statistics has become a bore if you don't happen to be an Oriole backer. Of the six men hitting over .300, four are Orioles. Never before in modern baseball have the top three runs-batted-in men been from the same team, but they are all Orioles now. The top three men in runs scored are Orioles. And three of the four players with the most hits in the league also are Orioles.
All this has been enough to cause a furor of excitement in Baltimore, a town that has never had a winner Johnny Unitas didn't pitch for. Already three hotels are sold out for those certain days in October, photographs of Oriole players are appearing in store windows where such things have not been seen in years and the National Brewing Company is wondering if its "Home Run Derby" was such a good idea after all. So far National, which broadcasts the Oriole game, has had to pay off $8,700 to listeners because of Oriole home runs, compared with $6,400 all last year. Everybody is talking pennant in Baltimore—almost everybody. "Listen," said Hank Bauer, the not-really-mean ex-marine who drills the happy Orioles, "I'm not superstitious. I don't believe in jinxes. And I won't talk about winning the pennant."
If you were a pessimistic Oriole fan—and 10 years of frustration has bred a city of them—the past week was one to view with foreboding. The Orioles came into a series with Chicago having just lost four of six games, including two out of three to the second-place Tigers, and then they lost one to the White Sox. It looked like time for the regular July cry—after all, the Orioles have been ahead on July 4 before. What was more, the team's hitting had eased off just a little, and small slumps into big slumps grow.
But the Orioles beat Chicago 3-2 in the second game on Sunday, and then Monday night they began their week of vengeance. With the score tied 2-2 in the top of the second inning, Boog Powell hit a Juan Pizarro slider on top of the roof that covers the double-decked stand in Comiskey Park's right center field, which is 500 feet as the Oriole flies. The next batter up was Frank Robinson, who hit one into the Baltimore bullpen, which is 425 feet as the pitcher walks, and the rout was on. As it progressed, Baltimore did things like getting at least one base hit in 23 straight innings and scoring at least one run and as many as four in the first inning of five straight games. The brunt of this was borne by Detroit, which arrived in Baltimore for a three-game series on Tuesday.
Consider the carnage.
Game One. Detroit scores a run in the top of the first. Despite a tender elbow, Earl Wilson, who has beaten the Orioles twice this year, is pitching for the Tigers. Luis Aparicio singles, Russ Snyder singles and Frank Robinson homers. Wilson and his elbow leave, and Dave Wickersham relieves. Brooks Robinson singles. So does Boog Powell. Curt Blefary gets hit by a pitch to load the bases. Johnson grounds into a double play, but Vic Roznovsky, a second-string catcher, singles home a run, and Baltimore leads 4-1. Final score: Orioles 13, Tigers 3.
Game Two. The Tigers score three runs in the first inning, and they are pitching Denny McLain, the American League's best. The Orioles, with Blefary singling home two runs and Johnson one, tie the score at 3-3 in the bottom of the first. The Orioles lead 4-3 after the second inning but trail 6-5 after the third. In the fifth Frank Robinson doubles and scores the tying run on Brooks Robinson's single. Powell then hits a home run into the bushes in front of the scoreboard in right center, and the Orioles lead 8-7. Exit McLain. Final score: Orioles 10, Tigers 7.
Game Three. Brooks Robinson doubles home two runs in the first inning, and Blefary homers in the fourth for a 3-0 lead. In the fifth Frank Robinson hits a home run, and Blefary singles in another run. In the seventh Frank Robinson homers again, his fourth hit of the game, and the Orioles lead 6-0. Robinson now has 12 hits in his last 17 at bats. Final score: Orioles 6, Tigers 4.
During the series the Orioles scored 29 runs and had 47 hits. "I wish," said a disgusted Detroit player, "that pitchers would bear down on me like that." When Detroit fled north, the White Sox came into Baltimore with their good pitching and lost two of three as the Orioles finished up their crucial week with six victories and a single loss.
The Detroit player's attitude, since he is not a pitcher, was understandable, but pitching to the Orioles presents some complications when you consider their lineup. Russ Snyder is the league's leading hitter. In seven years of being a good journeyman outfielder this Snyder has never been compared with the Duke. Baltimore has had him for five years, and there was nothing about him that made the Oriole front office stop wishing it could find a big hitter to replace him. Even now he plays only against right-handed pitchers. "I have become a thinker rather than a guesser," says Snyder, trying to explain how he happens to be located at .330, a full 50 points over his lifetime average.
Frank Robinson can hardly be expected ever to hit 50 points over his lifetime average, which is a solid .303, and why Cincinnati, which traded him to Baltimore for Milt Pappas, decided that pitching might win a pennant but Robinson couldn't will remain one of the mysteries of the game. He leads the American league in home runs with 28, six of them coming last week. When Robinson began to weaken at the plate two weeks ago, up stepped nonhitter Dave Johnson to suggest that slugger Robinson move his front foot back six inches. "It made a tremendous difference," Frank says. That's how things go in Baltimore these days. Meanwhile Brooks Robinson has played and hit just as he always does—like the best third baseman in baseball.
"We pay the Robinsons a lot of money to perform well," says Bauer, "and that's what we expect them to do." But no Oriole, or for that matter anybody in baseball, has played as well as Boog Powell in the last two months. On May 21 this Baltimore mound of muscle was hitting .180, with five home runs and 13 runs batted in, and everybody who had been calling him a young Johnny Mize was hoping old Johnny Mize wouldn't hear about it. Since that day Powell has hit .356, with 17 home runs and 61 runs batted in. He now has more home runs and more RBIs than he had all last season.
"I didn't expect Powell to hit this well," says Bauer. "I think of what he did last year and I see what he's doing this year, and there's only one difference: confidence. Last year he felt there was great pressure on him to hit home runs and drive in runs. This year he knows that if he doesn't do it, then someone else will, so he's going up there nice and relaxed and not worrying about anything." What Bauer says points up one of the primary things Frank Robinson has done for Baltimore. The young Orioles know he will hit, so the pressure is off them.
Then there is 23-year-old Curt Blefary, who has 14 home runs and 45 RBIs; and Luis Aparicio, the shortstop, who is having his best season in four or five years; and there are the two rookies, Second Baseman Johnson and Catcher Andy Etchebarren. Johnson covers ground that Jerry Adair, whose job he took away in the spring, couldn't reach, while Etchebarren has his pitchers, including the old knuckleballers, Eddie Fisher and Stu Miller, believing he will come up with every ball they throw into the dirt. Also, both Johnson and Etchebarren have driven in at least 40 runs, an extremely productive total for seventh-and eighth-place batters in a lineup.
If the Orioles have a weakness, it is with their starting pitchers. There are stretches when it seems you can always find the Oriole starter by going down to the shower room along about the fifth inning or so. With the exception of Steve Barber, who can be very good and can be 9-13, as he was in 1964, the basic Oriole starters—Dave McNally, Jim Palmer and Wally Bunker—are not Koufax, Drysdale and Osteen. But one of the reasons this young group—their average age is 22—spends so much time under water is that Bauer knows he can send them to the showers at the first hint of trouble, for behind them is a remarkable bullpen. "All I want from my starters is six good innings," says Bauer.
Teams pride themselves on having a good relief pitcher, but Sergeant Bauer has a squad of them. Stu Miller has a record of 7-2. Eddie Fisher was obtained from Chicago in June and gave up only one run in his first 20 innings. Rookie Eddie Watt has a record of 7 and 2. When Bauer needed to find another starter for the Detroit series he called on Watt, who not only won but hit a home run just because he saw everybody else doing it. There are also Dick Hall, a sound Oriole reliever for four years, and Moe Drabowsky, who was released outright by Kansas City and was picked up by Baltimore last winter. When Detroit kept regaining the lead in last week's 10-7 game Drabowsky settled things by facing 12 men in four innings and striking out eight of them.
If the Orioles stopped hitting completely, which is unlikely, and if their pitching happened to go to pieces, which young starters and big bullpens have on occasion done, would there be an American League pennant race again? Maybe. The question is who would be capable of moving up as the Orioles fell. The logical contender is Detroit, which had four players in the All-Star starting lineup. But Detroit left Baltimore last week unsettled by its managerial situation and with its pitching staff in ruins. Inability to handle the team's excellent young pitchers has bothered the Tigers since Charlie Dressen was sidelined by a heart attack in May. Then two weeks ago Coach Bob Swift, who took over from Dressen, was hospitalized and found to have lung cancer. Now Frank Skaff, another coach, is running the team. The troubled Tigers suddenly seem harmless. Cleveland has played worse than .500 ball since it opened the season with a startling 10-0 start, and California is too young a team to make a giant move (such as the Giants made in 1951, to be specific).
There may be a long way to go in the 1966 season, but the going looks good for the one team that is young, strong, hot and hungry—the Orioles. So, all together now. Let's sneak up behind Hank Bauer and shout, "Pennant!"
HOW BALTIMORE RULES THE LEAGUE
TONY OLIVA Twins
AL KALINE Detroit
RUNS BATTED IN
HARMON KILLEBREW Twins
TOMMIE AGEE Chicago
TONY OLIVA Twins