Baltimore is a city rich in history. Some of the best of it happened only last fall:
Oct. 5, 1966. In the opening game of the World Series, Polish-born Moe Drabowsky pitches six and two-thirds innings in relief of Dave McNally and allows the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers one hit and no runs. The Orioles win 5-2, and the citizens of Baltimore celebrate.
Oct. 6, 1966. Jim Palmer, not yet eligible to vote, outpitches Sandy Koufax and gives up just four hits (Jim explains he eats pancakes on days he is scheduled to pitch, a sort of Popeye-spinach relationship). The Orioles win 6-0. Aunt Jemima sales go up 30%, and the people of Baltimore act a bit daffy.
Oct. 8, 1966. A California-reared right-hander, Wally Bunker, 21, beats the Dodgers 1-0 on a six-hitter. Baltimoreans go crazy.
July 16, 1967
Oct. 9, 1966. It is hard to believe, but McNally, 23, redeems himself with a four-hit shutout, and the Orioles again win 1-0. End of Series. Happily each player goes home for the winter with more than $11,000 in his hip pocket. The entire population of Baltimore is declared legally insane.
It was a glorious victory, all right, the whole Series taking less time than your average Andy Warhol movie. The four straight wins topped off a season in which Baltimore won the American League championship by nine games and left the impression that one flagpole would not be sufficient to hold all the pennants to come. Third Baseman Brooks Robinson had 100 RBIs and earned his seventh straight Golden Glove award. Boog Powell hit .287 and drove in 109 runs. Drabowsky won six, lost zero—just a sample of the stingy men in Manager Hank Bauer's bullpen. Frank Robinson hit everything he swung at and became the first Triple Crown winner in 10 years.
But all this was in 1966—the Pleistocene Age. Last Sunday, just about midway through this season, Baltimore was in seventh place. On some days the Orioles played so poorly it seemed they would soon drop right through the bottom of the league—like coffee grounds in a wet paper sack—and land somewhere in the Arizona Instructional League. Baltimore fans have sobered up. The souvenir stands in Memorial Stadium are sold out of a book called Birds on the Wing—all about the spirit of '66—and may well start offering Rebecca West's novel, Birds Fall Down. In fact things have gotten so bad that the club's telephone operator has stopped greeting callers with her customary cheery "World Champions, Baltimore Orioles."
"I was taking too much guff from the fans," she said. "They'd say, 'What do you mean, world champions? Have you looked at the standings lately?' So I had to cut it out."
What or who has brought this embarrassing situation to pass? Well, let's begin with Pancake Palmer. For a 20-year-old, Jim had a remarkable season (15-10 plus that World Series win), although good relief pitching helped him considerably. Palmer was bothered even then by a sore right shoulder—specifically, the long head of the biceps tendon—and missed some starts in September, but when he was right he had one of the best fastballs in the league.
His shoulder continued to hamper him in spring training, but when the regular season began he was able to put in impressive appearances against the Minnesota Twins (a complete-game, four-hit victory) and New York Yankees (a one-hitter). Then he was hit hard in one inning by the Boston Red Sox and gave up four earned runs in three innings to the California Angels. Soon after, he was optioned to the Rochester Red Wings.
At Rochester, Palmer started two games and could not make it halfway through either one, giving up 12 hits and nine earned runs in just seven innings. Palmer was put on Rochester's disabled list and returned to Baltimore to rest his arm and run in the Memorial Stadium outfield. So much for pancakes.
Wally Bunker? He has had elbow problems in the past (he got back to good health last year just in time to work in the Series) and has not been as effective as a starter this season, although he is doing a good job from the bullpen. Dave McNally has had his headaches and arm aches, too. He was inconsistent in his starts and finally admitted his elbow was bothering him (there must be bad-arm germs loose in Maryland). He was given a literal shot in the arm three weeks ago. Last Thursday he beat the league-leading Chicago White Sox on a five-hitter.
"The last few innings I was sharp," McNally said. "At first I couldn't get my curve over, but I'll take it. The way I'm going I'll take anything. The elbow is getting better. Now I can let out. Before, I thought I was throwing hard, but I was holding back without knowing it."
Even if McNally is healthy again, the pitching staff has other problems besides Palmer's shoulder. Marcelino Lopez, obtained from the Angels, is disabled. Off-speed relief specialist Stu Miller has a 1-8 record. And if it is not sore limbs or plain ineffectiveness, it is something else unpleasant, i.e. Knuckleballer Eddie Fisher is being sued for an alleged early-morning altercation with a house detective at a Chicago hotel.
The Orioles finally gave up on one pitcher, Steve Barber, who for several years was regarded as the ace of the staff. Barber, a native of Maryland, had long thought, and said, that Baltimore was no place to make big money. As the team's player representative, he was the leader in hatching a little plan in Florida to charge fees for radio and TV interviews. It lasted less than one day. Barber had tendonitis in his left elbow—that bug again—and missed the World Series, but there were times early this season when he looked like the man who had won 18 games in 1961 and 20 in 1963. He pitched a one-hit game early this season and later combined with Stu Miller on an unusual losing no-hitter, but he also was wild and inconsistent. He went AWOL after a bad start against Washington and was fined. After a loss to Cleveland he got his wish and was traded to New York, where the dollar bills supposedly grow thicker and higher. In return Baltimore got the equivalent of two pairs of sweat socks and a used fungo bat. At 28, Barber has plenty of potential left, but the Orioles obviously just wanted to get rid of him.
"We had twelve pitchers and wanted to get down to eleven," explained Vice-President Harry Dalton. "Steve should be a starter, and Hank had a rotation of five set up without him. He hadn't been effective."
It is common for a player to punish his old club after a trade. There is a certain joy in beating your old teammates, something akin to having Miss America on your arm when you happen to meet the ex-girl friend who jilted you. Twice this season Baltimore has been the ex-girl friend. Woodie Held, less than so-so with the Orioles, was traded to the Angels and immediately hit two home runs to beat the Orioles in a double-header. Mike Epstein, the former Cal fullback who refused to be farmed out and was traded to Washington, hit a grand-slam homer in his first at bat against the Birds.
Last Saturday night could have been Barber's turn. His first appearance as a Yankee was in Memorial Stadium. Vengeance was not his that night, however. He made two wild pitches and was knocked out in the fourth inning. Perhaps it was an indication that the Orioles' luck had changed, and they certainly needed a break or two. Besides the sore arms and hostile ex-teammates, they lost 19 of 29 one-run games up to the All-Star break and were not hitting up to past form.
"Our pitching has been better than most people give it credit for," says Harry Dalton. "It's our hitting that's been letting us down lately. Boog Powell's been down. At this time last season he was the hottest hitter in the league—.300, 19 homers, 67 RBIs. He's hitting .251 right now and has eight homers and 38 RBIs."
Another hitting disappointment has been Brooks Robinson, the B. Robby half of the act that led Baltimore to the championship last year. No one really expected Brooks to match last year's robust figures—100 RBIs, for instance—but at the All-Star break this year, he had an anemic 32.
As for F. Robby, he was still hitting everything in sight and appeared to be on his way to a second straight Triple Crown, something no one has ever done. Then on June 27 he barreled into second base to break up a double play and bashed his head into the left knee of White Sox Second Baseman Al Weis. Weis was put out for the season with a torn cartilage, and F. Robby was knocked unconscious. When he came to, it was found he had suffered a brain concussion. Worse, he had double vision in his right eye. The images were not side by side like television ghosts, but one on top of the other, so that Boog Powell, say, had another Boog Powell floating over him like a guardian angel whenever Frank looked at him. F. Robby is still waiting for the angel to leave.
He tried a bit of batting practice last week as Coach Bill Hunter used an easy-does-it, beanbag-toss delivery. In order to avoid seeing things in duplicate Robinson had to tuck his chin into his chest and cock his head at a peculiar angle. He took careful half-swings, just trying to meet the ball. He stepped into the cage for a second session, but left when the regular batting-practice pitcher, George Thomas, took the mound. "I can't hit George with two eyes," he said good-naturedly.
Since the Orioles have not fallen out of the bottom of the league, something must be going right, something must be giving hope. Yes, there are some cheering aspects. Paul Blair, who shared center field last season, has sole ownership now and is second only to Frank Robinson in club batting. In one game against the Yankees last week he got two hits and a walk, knocked in two runs, stole two bases, went from first to third on a ground-ball single to left and zipped from second to home on another ground single to left.
"I know I'm going to hit three hundred," he says.
Moe Drabowsky is the only one of the four World Series pitching stars who has had no troubles in 1967. His record is 6-0, meaning he has not lost a game in two seasons, and he has allowed only nine runs in more than 56 innings. Starters Tom Phoebus and Pete Richert have been doing pretty well, and a 19-year-old bonus baby named Mike Adamson, in his first professional start last week, held the White Sox to three hits in six innings.
"I'm quite optimistic," says Dalton. "We haven't had one good stretch yet. We've had some problems with our pitching, our hitting and our fielding, but gradually we can see these things straightening out. We're in a position where one good hot streak, say 15 out of 20 games, would put us back into it."
"And we are the type of team that can put together a hot streak," adds Hank Bauer. "We've done it before. We expect to do it again."
If by any chance it does happen, no one will be any happier than the Orioles' telephone operator.