His name is not Robinson. He has not been favored with an exotic sobriquet like "Boog." No one would mistake him for the Vice President of the United States. For that matter, his neighborhood grocer might be better known outside the state of Maryland.
He is, plainly and simply, just that nice young man who has led the world champion Baltimore Orioles in hitting these past two seasons. He is just Merv Rettenmund.
Merv Rettenmund.... Now there is a name not to be reckoned with—polysyllabic, Germanic, Middle Western, a melting pot name from a time when melting in the pot was achieved with a low flame and a high boiling point.
But a Merv Rettenmund by any other name still would not be a household word. For call him what you will, he remains an anachronism, a spiritual relic, a throwback to one of those blue-eyed blond campus deities who shone so brightly in the green light of Scott Fitzgerald's envy.
October 3, 1971
He sighed eagerly. There at the head of the white platoon marched Allenby, the football captain, slim and defiant, as if aware that this year the hopes of the college rested on him, that his 160 pounds were expected to dodge to victory through the heavy blue and crimson lines.*
At a time when rebellion is fashionable, even at the old ball park, Merv Rettenmund is an organization man. He seldom grumbles, rarely gripes. He admires his teammates, obeys his manager, respects his owner. He is the compleat ballplayer: a hitter, a runner, a thrower. He will give you—oh Lord—nine innings of baseball.
Rettenmund is a team man on a team of stars—the Robinsons, the 20-game winners, Boog—but the fault of his obscurity lies not so much with the stars as with himself. He is doggedly uncontroversial, fiercely normal. Just when ballplayers, even the sheepishly conventional, have pretensions to libertinism, Merv Rettenmund can say something as appallingly reactionary as "I don't think I could have made it to the big leagues if I hadn't been married."
Ballplayers today prefer to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, business executives, restaurateurs, authors, revolutionaries, anything but ballplayers. So here is Merv Rettenmund answering a question about his interests outside baseball: "Outside baseball I have no interests. None whatsoever."
Does Merv Rettenmund whoop it up in those celebrated road trip bacchanals? "I think I'm human, but I'm a very poor drinker, and that's in my favor. Besides, I don't like to hang out with ballplayers too much. I see enough of them. I like to spend my time with my family."
"Merv," says teammate Boog Powell, "would never be very big in a Bouton book." And yet Rettenmund does have a reputation among his colleagues as something of a wag, even, for some, a black humorist.
"Merv," says Powell, "will say things sometimes that are really weird." "He comes up with some great lines," says Oriole Third Baseman Brooks Robinson. "He is," says Shortstop Mark Belanger, "funny as a son of a gun."
But, from the available evidence, such testimony may be more useful as an indictment of locker-room wit than as a tribute to a neo-Lenny Bruce.
"When Bobby Grich came back to the dugout after striking out one day," said Oriole Coach Billy Hunter, recalling a Rettenmundian jape, "Merv called him over and said, 'Now, Bobby, when the pitcher turns his hands like this [and Hunter described with his own hands a twist of the wrist common to any high school pitcher] that means he's going to throw a breaking pitch.' Bobby just looked at him like he was getting great advice. I think he thought Merv was really serious."
Some of Rettenmund's bon mots vary according to the interpreter. "Merv always says two things in life are certain," says Belanger. "There'll be snow in the winter and I'll get my two hits." "Merv always says three things in life are certain," says Second Baseman Dave Johnson. "Death, taxes and my three hits."
Rettenmund is asked which National League team he would prefer to play against in the World Series, providing the Orioles survive the playoffs with Oakland. He answers without hesitation: "The Philadelphia Phillies."
Merv Rettenmund comes from Flint, Mich. His father, a General Motors superintendent and frustrated baseball player, began early to groom his son as the projection of his own thwarted ambition. The son dutifully applied himself, never rebelling against the paternal imperative. "I always enjoyed playing baseball," he says. "I enjoy it even more now."
Rettenmund went to Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., where he majored in physical education—he hopes to coach college baseball someday—starred in football and baseball and married a pretty coed whose first and middle names, Susan Kay, were the same as his sister's. He never considered himself a natural athlete, but he broke school rushing records in football and home-run records in baseball. He was good enough in football to be drafted as a possible wide receiver or defensive back by the Dallas Cowboys. He was—and still is—a heavily muscled, 5'10" 187-pounder with exceptional speed.
"Mervin had tremendous natural ability," says Ray Louthen, his college football and baseball coach. "He's probably the finest all-round athlete who ever played at Ball State. He is the kind of kid you have great affection for. And I think he had great respect for me. It's not like a normal coach-player relationship. I don't think I've ever felt this way about any other player. I just marvel at the kid. He's the same now as then."
Mervin is no kid now, but, at 28, he is just approaching his potential as a professional athlete. "He will be a consistent .300 hitter," says Oriole Manager Earl Weaver. "He always makes contact, and I think he'll learn to hit with power. Now he's just trying to hit the ball. But he has the strength to hit from 30 to 35 home runs a season."
Rettenmund spent four years in the minor leagues and another two trying to break into the Baltimore outfield, so he qualifies in terms of experience as a late bloomer. There were times during that long period when he felt he might never flower. He nearly quit the game in his first season, with Stockton in the California League. "I was really down," he recalls. "I was lonely. I wasn't hitting. It all seemed like a mistake."
Typically, he persevered. He hit a mere .244 that first year, but .307 the next season at Stockton. In 1968 he hit .331 with Rochester in the International League and was named Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. In 1969, at 26, he was a big-leaguer. But faced with the solid Baltimore outfield of Don Buford, Paul Blair and Frank Robinson, he was also a bench-warmer.
"I put on 10 pounds sitting on the bench," he says. "The only problem I had was deciding where I was going to eat after the game. Finally, I got to the point where I would say to myself, 'Gee, I'm glad I'm not playing, because I would watch the pitcher and think, I can't hit that guy.' "
Merv Rettenmund was down again. And again, he persevered. Last year he got his chance to play, if only irregularly. He was the noble substitute, able to handle any of three outfield positions whenever illness, injury or slumps afflicted the regulars. He was the center-fielder for three weeks when Blair was hurt, and in that time hit hit five home runs and drove in 16 runs. He was the rightfielder when the aging Robinson required rest and the leftfielder when Buford suffered an occasional cold spell at the plate. He hit safely in 16 pf 17 games between July 26 and Aug. 15 and batted .444. He finished the 1970 season with an average of .322 for 106 games. But he was not a starter in the World Series with Cincinnati until the fifth game.
"I told him," said Weaver, "that I felt rotten about not getting him into the Series earlier. You know what he said? He said, 'Don't play me as a favor, Earl. Do what you think you should.' He's that kind of guy." Of course he is.
When Weaver finally played him in that fifth game, Rettenmund responded to the generosity with two hits, two RBIs and a home run off Cincinnati Pitcher Tony Cloninger that he still considers to be the longest he has ever hit.
He is also that kind of guy.
Then came the 1971 season, and Weaver actually needed his four outfielders. Powell first slumped, then got hurt, calamities that necessitated the shift of Robinson to first base for some of the schedule. Then Buford, enjoying a fine season along with everyone else in the outfield, pulled a groin muscle. And even the seemingly indefatigable Blair grew weary on occasion. So through accident, injury and fatigue, Rettenmund became a regular. Somehow, Weaver contrived to get more than 100 games out of each of his outfielders, but Rettenmund was the busiest among them. Playing a full season for once, he quite naturally led the Orioles in hitting and as the season ended he ranked third among all American League batters.
"He is our most consistent hitter," says the grateful Weaver. "His enthusiasm alone will eventually make him a great hitter. He is not afraid to work at his job."
Of course he isn't. He is that kind of guy.
Rettenmund is a player who is best appreciated by those who play with him and by those who must oppose him. "He does everything well," says New York Yankee Manager Ralph Houk. "To me, he is one of the better ballplayers in our league."
"He is," says teammate Johnson, "our answer to Roberto Clemente. He just doesn't hit the ball to right field when he has to, he drives it."
Still, Rettenmund is not satisfied. Bouncing along in the team bus last week, he discussed his hitting as if it were somebody else's. Self-deprecation amuses him, and the collegiate blue eyes open wide as he describes the Lardnerian oaf he sometimes sees himself to be.
"I move the head of the bat before a pitch. It's a bad habit. The bat should be ready. But I can't stop myself. If I thought about it, the count would be 0 and 2 before I realized where I was. Anyway, I don't have what you might call a picture swing. I usually end up hitting myself in the back with the bat. I can't stop that, either.
"Also, I'm hitting down on the ball. I can't get anything up in the air. That's another bad habit. Too much top hand. Oh, and I can't hit the offspeed pitchers. Take Wilbur Wood of Chicago. He throws the ball and I hit it back to him. And that's all there is to it. When Stu Miller was pitching for us, I couldn't even hit him in batting practice. I never used the middle of the bat on him. And when he threw one of his so-called fast balls, it looked 120 miles an hour to me. With Hoyt Wilhelm, I might as well not bring a bat with me. I hate having people laugh at me, but those guys do make you look funny up there."
Rettenmund frankly is awed by stronger and more graceful hitters. His open admiration for teammates like Frank Robinson and Powell is almost school-boyish. "Strength in the hands and the forearms is the most important thing for a hitter," he says. "It's a great advantage being as strong as Boog or, say, Frank Howard. For one thing, the opposition has to play them so deep a lot of balls that might be caught off me drop in for them."
Rettenmund glanced around him on the bus, delighted apparently to be in the company of so many good fellows. Team buses bring out the adolescent in baseball players. A passing pretty girl will attract howls of boyish anguish and no one speaks in a voice beneath a shout. Rettenmund talks quietly, but he is happy. He is living in the best of all possible worlds.
"You can't be unhappy on this team," he says. "We get along. You read about something like what happened in Boston—teammates accusing each other of this and that—and you find it hard to believe. Earl calls the shots here and Frank [Robinson] makes sure there are no complaints. You can talk to Frank about anything. He's just good to have around. And Earl...well, sometimes I can't figure him out, but most of the moves he makes work. He's right so often it's amazing."
Unless Weaver can amaze them with a new four-man outfield, it is just possible one of Baltimore's four starters may be traded after the season. It could be Rettenmund. He wouldn't like that, but he has had a taste of the action now and he wants to play. Anywhere. But these are for him ugly thoughts. He much prefers security, the familiar, the comfortable.
Rettenmund's wife joins him on the shorter road trips. His father watches him play in any city near Detroit. And he is never far from a telephone.
"My father thinks I should be batting .400, not .300. He'll call and ask me what I did that night. I'll say, 'Dad, I got 1 for 4 off Sam McDowell.' He'll say, "Only 1 for 4? Why, he's a lefthander. You should do better than that.' He'll never understand that when I go 1 for 4 off Sam McDowell, I've had a big night."
Rettenmund's loyalties go beyond the Orioles. After the World Series last year he and Susan drove directly to Ball State for the school's homecoming game, and it surprised no one that he found time for a kind and generous act there.
"When he arrived," Coach Louthen recalls, "I asked him if he'd take time to see an oldtime catcher who couldn't make it to the game because of a bad heart. Bob Barnet, the sports editor of The Muncie Star, had asked me to ask Mervin if he'd visit the man, Bucky Crouse, who used to catch for the White Sox. Mervin said sure. As soon as the game was over, we got a campus police car to take Mervin to Bucky's house, and he spent an hour there reminiscing with Bucky. Mervin had a million people to see and a million places to go, but he took time to see one old man. It was great."
Great, of course, for the man's capacity for homely virtue seems infinite. He is too good to be true. Furthermore, as all good guys are supposed to and seldom do, he comes through.
Weaver benched Rettenmund for two games last week because he had been in what for him was a slump. That is to say, he was not getting his two hits every day. Rettenmund, naturally, agreed with his manager that he should sit down until the slump was exorcised.
He was reinstated in the starting lineup in time for a doubleheader with Cleveland. And in those two games Merv Rettenmund got six hits, three of them doubles. He scored two runs and batted in five and raised his average to .319.
That was the day Baltimore clinched the championship of the American League's Eastern Division.
"...defiant, as if aware that this year the hopes of the college rested on him...."
*THIS SIDE OF PARADISE