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The 1965 World Series had just ended, and Tony Oliva of the losing Minnesota Twins was kneeling on the clubhouse floor winding strips of adhesive tape around a large pile of bats that were about to be stored away for the winter. There were tears on Oliva's cheeks, and the injured middle finger of his right hand was swollen to double its normal size.
"No hit!" he said. "In the Series I no hit like I should hit. Tony live to hit good."
Oliva had batted only .192 in the seven-game Series against the Dodgers and had only one home run and two runs batted in. As the ranking member of the American League's Young Turks—the extraordinary group of youthful stars that has infiltrated the starting lineups of the league's teams during the last few seasons—Oliva, sore finger notwithstanding, indeed had been a major disappointment. The resurgence of the American League had included in its timetable a victory in the 1965 World Series, and Oliva's dreary performance was probably the difference between victory and defeat. If he had hit in the manner to which he is accustomed (48 homers, 196 runs batted in and a .324 batting average in his first two seasons), the Twins probably would have won, and then there would have been no doubt at all that the American League was on its way back to the heights.
This year Oliva is again hitting at an impressive clip. Despite a June slump, he is among the leaders in home runs, runs batted in and batting percentage, has an excellent chance of becoming the first American Leaguer since Ty Cobb to win the batting title three years in succession and was second only to Frank Robinson in All-Star balloting for American League outfielders. But his Minnesota Twins are having difficulty staying in the first division. Part of the reason, of course, is a general tailing off in performance by the Twins ( Zoilo Versalles, for example, the Most Valuable Player in the league last season, had missed 16 games and was definitely not the Versalles of last year), but a more cogent reason concerns the play of the teams ahead of them in the standings: Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland and California, all of them dependent to a significant degree on young, rising players.
Baltimore has an entire phalanx of youngsters in support of its leaders—the Robinsons—who will also be the American League leaders in the All-Star game next Tuesday. Frank and Brooks are undeniably the principal reasons why the Orioles are now the team to beat, but the Robinsons could not work their magic without the assistance of half a dozen kids who give the Orioles exceptional strength and balance all down the line.
Baltimore suffered a grievous setback in spring training when Dick Brown, the regular catcher, had to undergo surgery for a brain tumor. After scratching around in a pile of retreads, castoffs and bullpen workers in an effort to come up with a pennant-winning replacement, Manager Hank Bauer announced that he was entrusting the first-string catching job to a rookie named Andy Etchebarren (see cover), whose entire major league experience embraced seven games and 12 at bats. Etchebarren's only previous claim to renown had been the thickest eyebrows and heaviest beard in the big leagues (his teammates call him Lurch, after the character in the TV series, The Addams Family), though he did have some reputation as a defensive stylist. Bauer said that as long as the rookie handled his duties adequately in the field he really didn't care what he batted.
It turned out, of course, that Etchebarren not only was the defensive catcher Bauer wanted, but a solid, useful hitter, too. He had nine homers through the first dozen weeks of the season and won several games with timely base hits. And he has gained a reputation as a tough competitor. "I don't know how many times he's been hurt," says Bauer, "because he bounces right back and goes on catching."
The rookie's blend of guts and geniality endears him to his Oriole teammates, who enjoy telling Etchebarren stories. In June, when the Orioles played in Anaheim—which is not far from Andy's home in La Puente—he went through the dressing room asking his teammates for any complimentary tickets they were not using. He needed them, he said, "for a few friends." When Etchebarren homered in the game, virtually an entire section of fans behind first base stood up and cheered ecstatically. Later, after Etchebarren had circled the bases with a huge grin on his face, he was asked how many people had come in from La Puente to see him. "I guess there were quite a few," he said. "About 10 busloads, as a matter of fact."
Along with Etchebarren, the Orioles have leaned heavily on other young players in their bid for dominance. Their bullpen is loaded with aged and great relievers ( Stu Miller, Dick Hall, Eddie Fisher), but the best work has been done by 24-year-old Eddie Watt, who had never pitched so much as one major league inning before this season. Three of Baltimore's starters are Jim Palmer, a big league sophomore at the age of 20, Wally Bunker, in his third season at 21, and Dave McNally, in his fourth full year at 23. Second Baseman Dave Johnson, another 23-year-old, proved so capable at second base that Bauer benched his established second baseman, Jerry Adair, and eventually traded him off for Eddie Fisher. John (Boog) Powell, who looks like Jack Nicklaus would if he traded in his wedge for a Louisville Slugger, won't be 25 until the middle of August, and yet this is the sixth straight season that he has worn an Oriole uniform. Powell, who is 6 feet 4� and weighs in the neighborhood of 250, started abysmally this year but then turned hot. In five weeks he jumped his average 124 points, hit 10 home runs and raised his runs batted in total to 49.
Another potent Baltimorean is Curt Blefary, just 23 this month. A long-ball hitter, he had 22 homers last year and seems likely to go beyond that this time. Blefary has gained a certain degree of attention for two related things: 1) he was originally signed by the New York Yankees, who let him go to Baltimore in 1963 when they wanted to make room on their roster for another player, and 2) he has, as if in revenge, murdered the Yankees with his bat ever since.