The traditional but shaky premise is that the teams leading the major leagues on the Fourth of July will win the pennants. But the fact is, of course, that unless the Yankees are on top of the American League on Independence Day, this bit of folklore is as undependable a portent as a groundhog's behavior on February 2. This year, however, it was fitting that the Baltimore Orioles should be leading on the glorious Fourth. For though the Orioles may not yet have proved themselves good enough to win, they are easily the most patriotic team around.
The Orioles wear their chauvinism literally on their sleeves—neat little patches that say: "STAR-SPANGLED BANNER SESQUICENTENNIAL 1814-1964." Not only is the national anthem played before games, but so too this year is
Maryland, My Maryland
. It is played, by coincidence perhaps, precisely as the umpires move from the dugout with the visiting manager, and presumably the officials do not know that the first line of the song, the downbeat which rings out just as they step onto the field, goes: "The despot's heel is on thy shore, Maryland!"
Reaction to this patriotic exhortation is as good an explanation as any for the remarkable success of the Orioles this season. They have, for example, won 19 of 21 one-run games, which puts them only two games behind Frank Merriwell and James Bond in the all-important miracle column. The
Orioles have won 15 games from the eighth inning on, and on 12 occasions they have won in their last time at bat. This got to be too much for Manager Hank Bauer, whose cigarette consumption climbed to four packs a day until he finally gave them up at 7 p.m. E.D.T., June 27.
Consistency is a good sign of the true-blue contender, and Baltimore has had just one losing week in the last eight. Last week the Orioles won only three of six games, but stayed three games in front of the Yankees and Chicago. They meet the Yankees next week for three games in New York. "We know we have to beat the Yankees ourselves," says Brooks Robinson, the All-Star third baseman. "I want a two-team race—just the Yankees and us. If they beat us, we'll know they were better. But that's the way I like it best: the two of us knocking heads." So far, Baltimore is ahead in this year's head-knocking, 5-3.
Baltimore's record is somewhat mystifying. Pitching was supposed to be its strong point, but no Oriole had won eight games until Wally Bunker beat the A's 4-0 Friday night with a one-hitter. That made Wally Bunker the only 19-year-old ace extant. Bunker has a personal patriotic edge, however, Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin having scattered dirt from Bunker Hill over the Memorial Stadium mound a few weeks ago. The team has only one power threat, 22-year-old Boog Powell. Robinson—the team's biggest star and best hitter—is better known for his fielding.
But Baltimore has turned up a hero a week and shown surprising reserve strength. Bob Johnson filled in for Shortstop Luis Aparicio with a .306 average. Powell, the big blond slugger, and rookie Right Fielder Sam Bowens were both sidelined for a while, and Russ Snyder has been out almost all season with a broken ankle. Bauer has juggled his outfield reserves well. He has, for example, obtained the best performance ever from Jackie Brandt, the uninhibited center fielder, by leaving him alone.
The Orioles' greatest depth is in the bullpen. The team's top three relievers—Stu Miller, Dick Hall and Harvey Haddix—ran their record to 20 saves, plus an 11-4 won-lost mark and an untold number of "scares." A scare, according to the bullpen, is awarded when one of its members frightens opponents so badly by warming up that the batters gladly succumb to the pitcher already in the game. Three scares equal a save.
The defense, inspired by Robinson, remains extremely consistent. Robinson is averaging about one great play every series. Routinely, last week, this superb third baseman picked up a bunt while running at full speed toward the plate and got the runner behind him at second. He subsequently took part in a rare pitcher-to-third-to-first bunt double play. Robinson has Baltimore fans so conditioned to his excellence that in a game with Minnesota he was given credit for a catch actually made by Shortstop Bob Johnson as the two raced back, side by side, for a pop fly. ( Ex-Oriole Manager Paul Richards has said, "When it comes to a pop fly, what Brooks is is a center fielder playing third base.")
Baltimore has the look of a winner now, which was hardly the case during the last two seasons. It was not an easy team to handle, though Manager Billy Hitchcock tried valiantly, liberally apportioning fines and heart-to-heart talks in almost equal measure. When ex-Yankee and ex-Marine Hank Bauer took over his reputation for toughness fooled many into believing he would really make the brash young Orioles jump through hoops. He has done exactly the opposite, limiting his discipline, mostly, to just writing names on the lineup card, and the players have responded happily to this remarkable treatment. Still, no one expected this much success. Bauer himself stunned Oriole partisans during the normally optimistic days of spring training by saying his team probably would finish third, and not until three weeks ago did the city begin to appreciate what was happening. Since then, the Orioles have averaged 21,400 a game at home.
Baltimore's sudden romance with the whole team has done nothing to diminish its singular affection for Robinson. In a city with a heritage of booing—the Baltimore citizenry provoked the first bloodshed of the Civil War by jeering Federal troops who were just passing through and, on occasion, has even booed Johny Unitas—Robinson has never been heckled. "Anyone who might be tempted to boo him would be too scared to," Club President Lee MacPhail says.