WEST IN A BIRDBATH

The Orioles, led by the torrid all-round play of Frank Robinson, almost ended the American League East-West debate as Baltimore humbled Minnesota and Oakland in the teams' first serious go-round
June 01, 1969

Should anybody ever manufacture a Major League Manager Talking Doll like Bozo or Chatty Cathy or Woody Woodpecker or Barbie, it probably will say things like "We play 'em one at a time" or "Every game is a big game." And a long yank on the rip cord in its back conceivably could elicit something like "Over the long haul the breaks tend to equal themselves out." The last would be an all-out lie of the sort children should never be told. In order to win a pennant the breaks have to be stacked heavily in favor of one doll and one team. Last week that was exactly what was happening to the Baltimore Orioles, currently the finest team in the major leagues.

On successive nights, for example, the Orioles had allowed the potential tying run to get to first base in the ninth inning only to have their pitcher promptly pick it off. How often is a runner ever picked off first in the ninth inning? In a game against the powerful Minnesota Twins the Orioles yielded two walks and three hits in the first inning. With a splurge like that, the Twins usually produce four, maybe even five, runs. They finished with two and the Orioles came back to win.

Bert Campaneris, the swift leadoff hitter for the Oakland Athletics, provided yet another case of unequal breaks. Trying to get a rally started, he dropped a beautiful bunt down the third-base line and everyone in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium knew that he would beat it out. About five strides from home plate, however, Campaneris' little white shoes began to spin, he fell down in a heap and lay watching on the ground as Brooks Robinson threw him out by 50 feet. Still down, the frustrated Campaneris slammed his batting helmet into the ground, convinced perhaps that he was the victim of voodoo. Maybe he was. Certainly the Boston Red Sox must feel that they are being spooked by something Baltimore is either doing on its own or having done for it in a higher league. After winning 15 of 19 games, they looked up to see the taillights of the Orioles disappearing in the direction of the American League East title.

The season is now a quarter over, and the Orioles, who have won more games than any other team, have played 15 different series and managed to lose only one of them. This spring the weather has been wet, cold and rainy and there have been postponements galore, but Baltimore has lost only two playing dates, which will mean a lot later on when the Orioles are playing singles while the others are forced into doubleheaders with tired pitching staffs.

It was not luck alone, however, that was keeping the Orioles far out in front. Four of their pitchers—Dave McNally, Tom Phoebus, Dave Leonhard and Dick Hall—have worked themselves into records that add up to 17-1. Two others, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer, have even been unlucky, but they have thrown six shutouts. Paul Blair, the fine centerfielder hobbled for much of last year by a broken ankle, is well up among the leaders in total hits; Dave Johnson and Don Buford are tied for second place in the league in doubles; Boog Powell, although behind Frank Robinson in runs batted in on his own team, is among the top four in the league and he finished last week still in a 15-game hitting streak.

The first serious test of the Orioles' strength—and of the East by the Western Division—was supposed to come last week when the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics arrived successively in Baltimore to play six games. The play was excellent and close but, except for a 3-2 loss to the Twins in 13 innings, all Baltimore's. Every time the Twins or the A's made a mistake, the Orioles were there to capitalize on it. By winning five of the six from the best of the West, they ran their record to 12-5 against Western Division clubs and they still had not met the Seattle Pilots or California Angels, the two weakest clubs in the federation.

Contributing the most to all this Baltimore bombast was Frank Robinson. Last year at this time he was seeing two and three balls when only one was being thrown. This season, his vision no longer impaired, he is hitting like the Robinson who three years ago won the triple crown. With the Orioles trailing the Twins 2-0 one night, he led off the sixth inning with a homer to left and crossed the plate with his arm raised as if to spur the team on. One inning later he drove a perfect hit-and-run single to right field past diving Harmon Killebrew to produce one run and then scored himself on a single by Dave Johnson.

Robinson was running, too. Against Oakland and "Blue Moon" Odom, the first pitcher in the majors to win seven games this year, Robinson reached third with one out in the sixth and Baltimore behind 3-2. Brooks Robinson, who is one of the few Orioles having a bad season at the plate, hit a lazy fly ball to short left field. Robinson tagged up at third as Mike Hershberger backed up in order to be running full steam when he caught the ball and threw to the plate. With the catch, Robinson lit out for home and Phil Roof, the 6' 3", 200-pound catcher for the A's, who had the plate blocked. Hershberger's throw and Robinson arrived simultaneously, and the force of the collision could be heard in Wilmington. The ball spilled loose, Robinson was safe and Roof rose only as high as his knees as he tried to recover from the impact. Robinson himself stayed on the ground for a long time before finally getting up with the help of four teammates. He left the game with a hurt right knee, but was back the next night.

And Robinson was fielding, crashing into right-field walls all over the league. He was stuffing potential extra-base hits into his glove and even making fine throws to the infield, these despite an arm that will never remind anyone of Carl Furillo's.

After the Orioles had beaten the Twins two games to one, Robinson, who managed Santurce in the Puerto Rican League last winter, explained why he thought he and Baltimore were off to such a good start. "We are a much looser team than we have been in the last two years," he began. "Everyone is trying to do the little things to help everyone else—things like being perfectly willing to give yourself up to help the over-all cause of the team. Once we do get something started we try to force the issue as much as we can. This is a team with a lot of power and real good defense, but we also have the speed that can cause mistakes by the other team. Sure we can steal, but picking up the extra base is often more valuable. And we have been alert. That means full concentration on the game."

An example of this awareness came one night against Minnesota. On second base against Twin Pitcher Dave Boswell, Robinson noticed that Boswell checked him only once and then threw. After he had scored, Robinson told Blair in the dugout what he had discovered. Two innings later Blair doubled. When Boswell checked him, that was all Blair needed. He took off, and Boswell looked silly as, belatedly, he spun and threw to second. Blair was going into third. Robinson singled Blair home with the winning run.

This year Robinson feels he is hitting more to right than before. "I'm getting more curves," he said, "so I'm punching the ball to right, and I hope to keep doing it." At the end of last week Robinson was hitting .339, had 12 homers, 12 other extra-base hits and 35 runs batted in and his slugging percentage was .665.

In the first weeks of interdivisional play the Eastern Division, considered far superior to the West, fell behind in head-to-head competition. It is now ahead 53-43. Only two Eastern clubs, the Washington Senators and the Cleveland Indians, have losing records against the West. The Indians, who have the worst record in the majors and may soon have to give away bats, balls and a hank of hair to lure people into Municipal Stadium, are only one game under .500 in Western competition.

The record notwithstanding, the West's two leaders are not all that bad. The Twins hustle and play daring ball for their new manager, Billy Martin, and Rod Carew has already stolen home four times. Against the Orioles the Twins left far too many runners on base, but now that Allan Worthington is coming out of retirement to help the bullpen Minnesota may be much stronger. The A's, under Hank Bauer, are a fine young team. Unfortunately, like all fine young teams, they make an awful lot of costly mistakes through inexperience.

All of which suggests that Managers Martin and Bauer are more than adequate. They also can get on the umpires a bit. But nobody is drawing the umpires' attention as much this season as Earl Weaver, Baltimore's new manager. Bauer's successor is as colorful as the species gets. He is also nobody's doll manager.

Weaver took over the Orioles following last year's All-Star break, and since then the team has won 80 games while losing only 47. During the exhibition season this year Baltimore had the best record of any major league team and the best exhibition record any Oriole team ever had. Before regular play Weaver was asked about the spring record. "One day into the regular season," he said, "about the only one who will remember that we were 19-5 will be me."

The club Weaver inherited was a very good one. In the last five seasons Baltimore compiled the best record of any team in baseball and since 1960 the Orioles have finished in the first division seven times. When they won their only pennant in 1966 they promptly pulled off one of the major upsets of modern times by beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series four straight. One year later, however, the Orioles were so off their feed that potential fans were knocking each other over retreating to the Eastern Shore from Memorial Stadium. During the pennant year 1,203,000 saw the Orioles. The average dropped 4,500 a game in the season that followed and in 1968 the figure dropped some 1,200 more a date.

One reason for the disenchantment and poor play was the inordinate number of sore arms on what was basically a young pitching staff. Wally Bunker, now with Kansas City, Palmer and McNally, who had each pitched a World Series shutout, were supposed to be the blocks on which a new American League dynasty would be built to replace the New York Yankees. By the following June, Palmer was in Rochester trying to recover from a sore shoulder, Bunker was pitching out of the bullpen and McNally, bothered by a sore elbow, was giving up homers in bunches. Instead of winning the 50 games that many thought they might, the three won only 13 while losing 15. Late in June, Frank Robinson crashed into second base attempting to break up a double play and succeeded in breaking up only his vision. Steve Barber's experience summarized the 1967 season. He pitched a no-hitter and lost.

Things had to get better in 1968, but never did. The sore arms were blamed on Pitching Coach Harry (The Cat) Brecheen and he was fired. When the team fell 10½ games behind at the All-Star break, so was Bauer. Twice during his five seasons with the Orioles he had been named the American League's Manager of the Year, yet he had never been rewarded with more than a one-year contract. When the Orioles' trust in him begrudgingly had been extended to two years, Bauer found himself surrounded in the second year by coaches not of his own choosing. One of them was Earl Weaver, soon to replace him. Bauer had tried to resist the appointment.

At 38, Weaver is the youngest manager in the American League today and he has a pixieish sense of humor that baffles some people and quickly finds the nerves of umpires. He spent 20 years playing and managing in minor league towns like West Frankfort, Ill., Fitzgerald, Ga. and Appleton, Wis. Back in 1952 he went to his first spring training, with the St. Louis Cardinals as a second baseman. He performed well, but the Cardinals had a fair second baseman named Albert Schoendienst and sent him back to the minors. Weaver, enraged by it all, sulked and fumed. Today he is still annoyed by the memory of his own behavior.

The Orioles gave him a chance to manage at the age of 27 in the low minors and he has been an organization man ever since. During his 11 years as a minor league manager his teams won three pennants and finished second five times. At one point or another he managed no fewer than 16 of the current 25 Orioles, either in the minors or during his winter managing jobs in the Puerto Rican League. Once, while working at Elmira, N.Y., he became so infuriated at an umpire that he picked up third base after being thrown out of a game and walked off the field with it.

Today there are some who wonder just how many umpires he will over-infuriate. Nobody, however, denies that he is colorful when, in his sly way, he is going for the jugular. He has a weather-beaten face, a wry smile and an ability to strike a stance during an argument that suggests that he represents all men ever wronged. Out of uniform he looks like the guy who comes every Tuesday to read the gas meter. But he is not dumb.

It was Weaver who encouraged Frank Robinson to take the job last winter as manager of Santurce. A keeper of statistics, Weaver is always trying to lift his team psychologically. He keeps a bullhorn in his dressing room and is not afraid to go out on the field during workouts and use it to instruct his players. This spring he rigged a sign in the team's Miami training headquarters that read, "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." The Orioles know an awful lot about playing baseball and they are learning a lot more with each passing game. Unless someone can catch them quickly, they and Weaver may have ail the other managing dolls in a corner talking to themselves.

PHOTONEIL LEIFERStaring into a scoreless evening, Frank Robinson got the Orioles headed in winning direction with a sixth-inning homer in third Twins game. PHOTONEIL LEIFEROrioles' Brooks Robinson settles under pop-up. PHOTONEIL LEIFERLinda Wareheim, Baltimore's midgame base sweeper, gives an Oriole the brush-off. THREE PHOTOSNEIL LEIFERBarreling in after tagging up at third on short outfield fly, Frank Robinson crashes into big Phil Roof. Roof loses ball in the furious impact. Robinson rose dazed—but with a run. PHOTONEIL LEIFERTwins' Billy Martin was glum, unconvinced. PHOTONEIL LEIFERJoe DiMaggio hopefully eyed A's batters. PHOTONEIL LEIFEREx-Oriole Manager Hank Bauer pouted. PHOTONEIL LEIFERBaltimore Manager Earl Weaver, fast becoming baseball's busiest baiter, flashes the enigmatic smile that umpires are beginning to loathe.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)