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ARMAGEDDON FOR A PENNANT RACE

Aug. 05, 1968
Aug. 05, 1968

Table of Contents
Aug. 5, 1968

Table of Content
Armageddon
Nevele Pride
Playground Ball
Cale Yarborough
Dave Davis
Tennis
Bear Facts
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

ARMAGEDDON FOR A PENNANT RACE

A dreary season, full of zeroes on the scoreboard and ciphers on the field, finally came alive when Baltimore got a new manager and a shot at the Tigers. But when it was over, the Orioles had failed again

Summer, it seemed, always crawled in from the bay, floating out of the open hearths of all the offshore steel mills, or maybe, you guessed, it came by a freighter from some white-heat place like Ceylon or Sumatra. No matter, the cool pale sunlight of spring was gone, and now the water of the bay was a sickly brown and the smell of it drifted through the cathedral quiet of afternoon streets and blended with a certain staleness coming from corner saloons with their doors open. There, inside, working men sat silently under ceiling fans and in front of fat, beaded glasses of beer.

This is an article from the Aug. 5, 1968 issue Original Layout

If you were a kid in Baltimore then, summer with all its oppressions was a special time. A time for swimming off a pier a few blocks away and then splitting a watermelon against a fire hydrant; or just a time to sit in the cool dark of a dirt cellar and watch a spider work across a dusty window, or maybe ponder the strange language of box scores under white steps. Then as night fell, a time for just lying in a dark bedroom, listening to the clang of streetcars and exploring the neighborhood news.

"Who was that guy on the corner today?" asked a younger brother, his eyes watching welding torches flicker in a shipyard across the harbor.

"He was a baseball player, a professional."

"He said he was released."

"That means he woke up one day and they told him to go home, and that they didn't want him."

"Is he still a player?"

"No, he'll have to work in a factory now."

This July in Baltimore summer was still summer. Desert quiet hung over the neighborhood streets in the afternoon. The painted screens of the row houses, with their dreams of running brooks and country green, were still there; people sat on their front steps supremely content with the order of their lives, and attendance at Oriole games, an ageless civic embarrassment, again revealed apathy and disinterest in this old, old baseball town. The Orioles, in second place, were third from the bottom in league attendance. This fact disturbed the Mayor. It disturbed the Orioles even more.

During the All-Star break, the club fired Hank Bauer and replaced him with Earl Weaver. Who the hell was Earl Weaver? The name sounded as if it belonged on a record jacket with Flatt and Scruggs or maybe playing third guitar in some Alabama roadhouse. Forget the name. A faceless fungo-hitting coach for the Orioles with a politician's mind. Weaver was doing what he said he would do: "Make things happen." The club won 11 of 15 games under Weaver (including three of four from Detroit and two of three from Cleveland) and chopped Detroit's 9½-game lead to 5½ games. Last weekend the Orioles and the American League, shrouded in dreariness and mediocrity, prepared for a series with the Tigers at Memorial Stadium.

The history of the Tigers portended a dramatic change in the league standings. Sprint and then fold, that had long been a part of the Tigers' pattern. Detroit had dropped four of seven games the previous week and collapse was imminent. Could the Tiger pitching, with its front line inconsistent and its bullpen sorely burdened, remain unshaken? Could the Tiger attack continue to produce in the late innings? The defense usually kept Detroit in striking position. And what about Manager Mayo Smith, who had been handling the team with such painful bookishness?

Baltimore, for which Redskin Owner George Marshall long ago predicted baseball failure because it was just a town full of $2 horseplayers, leaped out of its catatonic state. What was Weaver doing with the club? Certainly, he was not boldly improvising, nor was he arriving at mysterious or esoteric deductions that win games. "No great changes," said Weaver, completing his change into uniform before the first Tiger game. Outside his office, a song on the radio lamented: "I had the last waltz with you...." Curt Blefary shouted across the room: "Hell, I'd rather look for a Mongolian ant than a ticket for tonight in this town." Weaver fingered his lineup card, checked a statistic and said: "No, nothin' great. You just got to accept a player's incapabilities."

His attitude was politic, an attitude that never puts you in a position of having to haunt winter meetings for a job. Weaver did not wish to detract, neither with chisel nor ax, from Bauer's performance, but the facts did it for him. Don Buford, the kind of player who always gives a club an edge because of his speed and approach to the game, never played much under Bauer. Though a fielder who occasionally seems to wear handcuffs, Buford is a respectable hitter, but Bauer insisted he could not find room for him in the lineup; with a quick flourish of a pencil, Weaver found a vacancy. He deleted Paul Blair, who had been a good hitter, but who had suddenly become so obsessed with pulling the ball that his average had fallen to .196. The move ignited the Orioles; Buford's bat and base running, besides bringing results, altered the club visually.

Bauer had waited all season for Baltimore's big bats—Blefary, Blair, Boog Powell, Frank and Brooks Robinson—to erupt, but they remained silent. Indeed they had been silent since June of last season. Bauer had appeared to be protecting himself, his job, at that point. Frank Robinson openly accused the team of complacency. "How about that?" Bauer was asked then. "That's his prerogative," replied Bauer. What if all 25 players said the same thing? "That's their prerogative," said Bauer. "But I'll tell you this. If they use my name I'll have a comeback."

Unfortunately, Bauer had not thought of any comeback as to why the club was not moving. Oriole hitting, this season, has ranged from sporadic to none at all, but Bauer, in a precarious position after the management did not renew the contracts of three of his coaches last year, remained static. Finally when he did bend it was not in the direction of dramatic solutions. For instance, he was in one particular groove concerning the bunt. When the man in front of Powell would get on base (no outs), Powell would often be ordered to bunt, thus taking the bat out of the hands of the one man who can make a sizable difference in any game.

Bauer just never could adjust to the fact that he no longer had the firepower that allowed him to win the 1966 pennant by nine games. Aloof and incommunicative, he was never on solid ground with the Oriole writers and such a relationship can be acutely damaging to a club with a gate problem. The writers scrutinized every Bauer move. He was, some ultimately decided, alternately a "give-up artist," no manager at all, or a manager with a depressing lack of imagination.

Weaver, who had never been close to Bauer and may even have been resented by the manager because it was obvious he was not just there to hit fun-goes and listen to the complaints of players, stepped into the job as if he had been waiting for it for half a century. He had been quiet and anonymous as a coach, but now he unmasked himself. The star fundamentalist and judge of baseball talent in the Oriole farm system suddenly became quite loquacious—with a proper amount of ego. "Nobody knows any more about ballplayers in the minors than I do," he says. "Give me the expansion list and I would finish no lower than third." And, "People use only 2% of their minds. Can't you imagine how exciting it would be if we could get that up to 5%?"

The Orioles may or may not have expanded their concentration, but the club suddenly came alive, running and thinking of 19 ways to beat you. It was the kind of baseball Baltimore has always enshrined and has romantically professed to embrace, the kind of baseball that began with the Orioles of the '90s: two balls, for faster relays, hidden in the long grass; a finger inside a runner's belt to destroy his stride; the raised third-base line to help the other team's bunts roll foul; players somberly silent just sitting in the dugout filing their spikes. "Hooliganism and muckerism," critics contended.

Hellfire baseball, muttonchopped historians called it then, but Weaver seemed intent on applying its esprit, its ambitiousness to the limitations of a more contemporary, decorous time. He has imagination and flexibility, and maybe that is because he has had to employ both, first as an undistinguished minor league vagrant and then as the brilliant, frustrated figure in the Oriole brain trust. Weaver, of course, denies like a good company man that he had ever dreamed, ever thought of anything but the job he was doing. One listens to him and wonders: "Can't anybody here in this game be something other than a card fed into an IBM machine, be human, be bigger than the game's petty politics?"

But this is the ambivalence of Weaver, and, on a larger screen, of baseball itself. He has the technical talent and personal presence to be a major and successful figure in baseball, but his mental reflexes, so long honed for survival, suffocate his freshness and sometimes make him just another body in the game's overpopulated mausoleum. His background, from kid to player to manager, still promises a reformation in Baltimore baseball and its box office. It too often had been retarded by its managers: the high priest of country drummers, Jimmie Dykes; the weekend barbecue host, Billy Hitchcock; and finally the insecure Bauer. Only Paul Richards, pragmatic and glacial, inspired attention, most of which was beautiful contentiousness.

Weaver spent 10 years as a player in the minor leagues, during a time when some ball yard lights were hardly candles, and when the bus trips were long and lonely and you woke up in the morning (just as that half-light fell on some speck of a farm town that quickly faded into a gray blur) and tasted bus fumes for breakfast. He knew what it was, how it felt to walk through the heavy air of a dugout and see his name not in the lineup and feel emptiness move from the head down to his legs and then back up through the mouth: "Christ, they'll be sending me home, I know that." Earl Weaver had always been that kind of player, the kind who ended up on a street corner groping for a new way to say, "I was released."

So here was the scene and the man who had created—much because of the torpor of the season and a league without a folk hero—an excellent, small Armageddon in July. Detroit came to Baltimore 5½ games in front, but, according to many, running scared. The night was still, the saloons and outdoor barbecues both deserted.

Entreating billboards, prodding the burghers to respond, were erected, and because of the rush of box-office business window bureaucrats had a chance to be surly for a change. Buses motored about town with signs reading: SEE THE BEST PLAYS IN TOWN. Sadly, such plays were outside of the stadium, like in a backyard nearby, where a guy caught growing marihuana claimed he was nurturing poppies for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Or on the street where the cops came barreling down to bust a place, only to be blocked by a gin rummy game in the middle of the street.

Detroit just simply blew the Orioles out of the park. The Orioles got pitching in the first game, but no effective hitting. Nobody did any hitting or pitching for Baltimore in the second game as the Tigers, behind Denny McLain, all but obliterated the American League race. "I don't mind losing," said Weaver, following the game, "but after building up all this interest and then to lose 9-0 in front of 45,000 people?" The Orioles did win the third game, but it was hardly placating.

Weaver's concern was not difficult to understand. Baltimore is a "chalk player" of a town, and its fans are not particularly "baseball bright." A team, challenging and respectable, only means problems, makes them wonder if they will be missing something while they sit on their steps or in their backyards and on their lawns inhaling the fragrance of the bay and the spiciness of the Callinectes sapidus, the blue crab. Yet now, in one week, it has become a dreary summer all over again in Baltimore. The crab harvest is down, the Gayety—Baltimore's national monument to burlesque—is padlocked until autumn, and suddenly you feel that there never was a time when you watched welding torches flicker across the harbor and felt sad over .195 hitters who never made it. The Orioles tried to make it a special Baltimore summer, but working like Hollywood producers on the edge of excellence, "they caught themselves just in time."

PHOTOHERB SCHARFMANBaltimore's challenge thrown back again, the Tigers march off behind Manager Mayo Smith, the happy order disrupted only by congratulations for Denny McLain (17), who won his 20th game.PHOTOHERB SCHARFMANMost symbolic play in the Oriole losses came when their great fielding third baseman. Brooks Robinson, threw wild to let Dick McAuliffe score.PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONHERB SCHARFMANA sign read: "Get Behind the Birds!" but an arty front man made Weaver face defeat.