Nothing about Baltimore's Swann Park suggests that it is anything but a mistake. The baseball diamond sits between a plumbing-fixtures factory and a chemical plant, an island of grass in a sea of cement. Right field stretches free and open, running off across three Softball diamonds and down a hill that has sent scores of outfielders tumbling, and ends at the bank of the murky, tugboat-specked Patapsco River. Behind the industrial fence in left and center are railroad tracks that occasionally give hitters moving freight cars for a backdrop.
Despite the clatter of the passing trains and haze from industrial smokestacks, Swann Park is a garden spot for major league scouts. From this welter of inner-city funk have come more than 100 professional baseball players, their talents refined at ages 16 to 19 on a team sponsored, in the best sandlot tradition, by a tavern and a used-car dealer. The names of those players keep the scouts coming back. Reggie Jackson. Al Kaline. Ron Swoboda. Dave Boswell. Even that old harmonicat, Phil Linz.
It is with athletes such as these that Johnny's Used Cars or Leone's Tavern or Leone's-Johnny's, as The Team variously has been known, has won the amateur championship of Baltimore for 21 consecutive years. Johnny's is presently closing in on a 22nd title, in the process punching its ticket to Johnstown, Pa. and this week's national All-American Amateur Baseball Association tournament. The Team has won this mid-August test of pride and strength five times, including the last two years. It has come in second on four occasions, although second is a word rarely used on The Team. Winning all the time is its credo, and its record of 1,501 victories against 205 defeats comes as close to winning all the time as decency allows.
Like most good things in Baltimore, The Team started over a beer. Ray Muhl, an ex-semipro catcher built like a two-car garage, drank the beer one spring night in 1952 and filibustered on the difficulties of financing an amateur baseball team, even when it was composed of the best kids in the city. Muhl threw his pitch in what he figured would be the right place: Leone's Tavern. Dominic Leone, whose sleepy eyes disguise his shrewdness, was known to have a soft spot for seeing his tavern's name across the front of uniforms in any sport as long as the people in the uniforms won. He enticed his two brothers into joining him and they sent their first baseball team onto the field in used Brooklyn Dodger uniforms that were overpriced at a dollar apiece.
The original team was built around kids who were as much a part of South Baltimore as Leone's Tavern. They had grown up in row houses where the lawns were cement, and cinnamon from the McCormick plant spiced the air. They took nearby Fort McHenry for granted, but were never blas� about any game involving a bat and ball, even if the bat was a broom handle and the ball was made for tennis. The best of those baseball junkies was a scrawny pitcher-outfielder from Southern High named Al Kaline.
"Al was playing for United Iron and Metal the same time he was playing for us, so he'd have to change uniforms in the car while he was going from one game to another," Dominic Leone remembers. In his last game for The Team Kaline scored from first on a double, passing out as he crossed home plate. Today Kaline says it was all a kid of 17 could do after three years of trying to be perfect for an armada of major league scouts; Leone blames the swoon on the soggy, soggy phoo of a tropical Baltimore June. Whichever, Kaline was revived in time to sign with the Tigers for $30,000, and Leone's had a leg up on a legend.
The job of pushing The Team the rest of the way fell to Walter Youse, the coach of Calvert Hall High School, who once ordered Kaline walked four times in front of 35 dismayed scouts. After a season working with Muhl, Youse took over Leone's by himself in 1957. The result was The Team's first championship in Johnstown, a victory that revealed everything anybody ever needed to know about Youse. Two FBI agents let him con them into allowing Leone's best pitcher to play in the deciding game before they took him away for failing to report on time for National Guard duty.
Youse has been getting his way for most of his 59 years. World War II prevented him from becoming anything more than a semipro centerfielder from West Baltimore, but when he came out of the Navy in 1947 he immediately became manager of Seaford, Del. in the old Eastern Shore League, even though he had never played an inning in the pros. After another season managing at Welch, W. Va., Youse came home to build a kingdom in American Legion ball that cost him at least four jobs.
Not surprisingly, Youse's longest-lasting job has been in baseball. After 18 years with the Baltimore Orioles he is their East Coast and Caribbean scouting supervisor. Certainly he looks the part with his mahogany tan and broad backside; one of Johnny's stars from last season claims that Youse wears his pants so high on his squatty body that he has to reach over his left shoulder with his right hand to get his wallet.
He got his first job with the Orioles as a reward for helping them sign Barry Shetrone, a sleek centerfielder who had followed him from Legion ball to Leone's. Savvy and good taste in ballplayers quickly boosted Youse up the organizational ladder. In 1966, realizing that the more time he spent on the road searching for talent, the less time he had for The Team, Youse began looking for someone to replace him as manager. He settled on loyal Bernie Walter, who was cut twice before he made The Team as a shortstop in 1961 and later was moved to write a term paper at the University of Maryland about Leone's-Johnny's. "He's a winner," Youse says.