In The Roar of the Crowd, W. R. Burnett's central character, the Old Timer, a prominent lawyer in a small California town who played for three major league teams in his younger days, remains devoted to his sport because he still finds it "a naked struggle for supremacy that goes on for hours." He feels "it does not need midgets, exploding scoreboards, fireworks, giveaway programs or any of the other rather pathetic sales gimmicks that have been tried from time to time as a substitute for a good ball team and sound baseball." When the author asks the Old Timer what it takes to make a successful team, he answers sagely, "The aim of all managers is the ideal team. It is never achieved, of course, but sometimes they come very close, as with a few Yankee teams over the years. What in theory is the ideal team? Defensive strength down the middle and offensive strength on the corners. A pitching staff with five good starters and five good relievers, all with excellent control.... And at the end of the rainbow a pot of gold."
The one team in the 1960s that comes close to Burnett's ideal is Baltimore of 1969, which this week acts as host to the American League segment of the series of champions, the new best-of-five playoff that will ultimately determine whether the Orioles or the Minnesota Twins will be in the 66th World Series, beginning a week from now.
This year, racing through their schedule with a consistency that has rarely been seen in baseball or any other sport, the Orioles chewed up what was supposed to be the best-balanced of the major leagues' four divisions, a group that included last year's world champion Detroit Tigers, among others. By winning 106 of their first 154 games for a .689 percentage, the Orioles earned a place alongside seven superb American League clubs: the great Yankee teams of 1927, 1932 and 1939 with Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey Lazzeri and DiMaggio, and 1961 with Maris and Mantle; Connie Mack's fabled Philadelphia Athletics of 1929 and 1931 with the Million Dollar Infield and enough overall strength to cause them to be broken up for the good of the league: and the Cleveland Indians of 1954, a learn that still holds the record for most victories in a season, 111.
Now, of course, the Orioles must face up to the playoffs, the most debatable part of an interesting season that, several weeks before it ended, had already drawn 25 million paying customers to big-league ball parks. Equipped with fine power hitters like Frank Robinson and Boog Powell (see cover), Brooks Robinson and Paul Blair, each of whom hit over 20 home runs, the Orioles also have the best pitching staff in the American League.
The Baltimore players have produced all sorts of impressive statistics. Robinson and Powell each knocked in more than 100 runs while batting over .300. Little Don Buford, the Oriole leadoff hitter, proved he had power to go along with his speed by staying up among the league leaders in doubles all season long. In fact, the first five hitters in the Oriole lineup—Buford, Blair, Frank Robinson, Powell and Brooks Robinson—have hit 128 home runs. On defense, the Orioles came close to equaling their own record for fewest errors in a season (95), and the left side of the infield, with Brooks Robinson at third and Mark Belanger at short, is one of the best baseball has ever seen.
Nevertheless, there are quite a few people, many of them not living in Baltimore, who believe that the Orioles enter the playoffs, somewhat disadvantaged. Why, some ask, must a team be exposed to being beaten in a short series after having won more games than any other during the 162-game regular season and thus be deprived of playing in baseball's biggest showcase, the World Series? And, realistically, haven't new Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and his staff bungled the playoff setup by not giving to the winningest team the home-field advantage? Baltimore plays the first two games in Memorial Stadium, then the remaining games in Minnesota. Not even the National Basketball Association, seldom cited for its great foresight, ever let that happen during its playoffs. Among other things, consider the Twins' astounding record at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. Since June 15 they have capitalized as well as any team ever has on the "home-court" advantage by winning 38 of the last 48 games they played there.
When the Orioles broke their spring training camp in Miami in April, Manager Earl Weaver and his team had a set plan by which they hoped to win their division. "We decided." says Weaver, "that if we could just play seven games over .500 every month that it would add up to enough victories to win." The only months in which the Orioles were as low as seven games over .500 were July and August. Those two, however, had already been amply provided for by a spectacular June when the Orioles finished 15 games above .500. It was during this period that the Orioles took flight from the rest of their division. In a span of less than two weeks they moved from three games ahead to 10, and the season was just about over for the rest of the Eastern Division.
As July came on, the Orioles developed one of those sometimes funny, sometimes testy and silly diversions that successful professional teams seem to thrive on. The Orioles' device was a kangaroo court held after every winning game. The judge of the court was Frank Robinson, who conducted his cases using a Louisville Slugger as a gavel and a mop as a periwig, for dignity. The court meted out three main awards that carried with them $1 fines plus the stigma of a memento that had to be kept by the fined player for a day. The mementos were an old spiked shoe painted red, a mail-order glove painted silver and a scuffed-up baseball with the stuffing leaking out. The shoe represented the John Mason Memorial Baserunning Award, named for a player once in the Orioles' organization who was believed to be the worst base runner anywhere. The glove, called the Chico Salmon No-Touch Award, was named after their fumble-fingered utility man and was given to the player who looked the worst on defense during the day's game. The baseball went to the pitcher who had yielded the hardest-hit ball, and was named the John O'Donoghue Line Drive Award in memory of the pitcher who in 1968 had an earned run average of 6.14.
A record of the award winners and other assorted fines was kept in a notebook by Coach Charlie Lau, who suggested the idea of fines when he saw a player walk to the food table in the clubhouse after a game without any clothing on. "That started it," said Lau. "Frank took charge of it and made it go. The thing that was good about it was that it brought everyone on the team closer together. A baseball team lives together for a long period of time and has to have things to keep it loose and lift the tensions."
Some fines noted by Lau in his little book: Pitching Coach George Bamberger, after being observed yawning on the bench; Centerfielder Paul Blair, for posting a large poster above his locker which said, WORLD'S GREATEST CENTERFIELDER and was signed by an artist named Evelyn Blair; Lau himself and Boog Powell, "for cleaning fish in the shower"; Dave McNally, the 20-game winner, "for taking too long to pitch a game and thus shortening the cocktail hour"; Reliever Dave Leonhard, fined several times for arriving at the ball park without socks; Utility Man Bobby Floyd, for wearing "great popsicle-colored pants"; Manager Weaver, for putting Belanger into a game in a late inning for defensive purposes only to have Belanger make two consecutive errors.