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."