On Baseball

To even the youngest O's fans, Hagy was part of the magic

On Baseball

'Wild Bill' Hagy

Orioles fan 'Wild Bill' Hagy pumps up the crowd at Memorial Stadium in 1978.

If you went to any youth baseball game in or around Baltimore in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, there were certain things you were sure to see.

There'd be about a half-dozen kids on each team with the same batting stance: their back elbows cocked and their weight shifted hard onto their rear foot in homage to Eddie Murray.

At least one pitcher per game would attempt the high leg kick, a la Jim Palmer. If an infielder made a great stab, his excited coach would inevitably call him "Brooksie."

And, several times each evening, a restless player would stand up on the concrete or wooden bench, and with his arms waving and back bending, would spell out his team's name - it was especially effective if the kid played on the O-R-I-O-L-E-S.

That one was inspired by William G. "Wild Bill" Hagy, the Dundalk cab driver and Memorial Stadium super fan who, to us Baltimore kids, was as synonymous with the Orioles as Palmer, Brooks Robinson and Murray.

Hagy, 68, died yesterday.

And, today, a generation of Orioles fans mourns their crazy uncle.

You didn't have to know Hagy personally to appreciate him. He was the living, breathing, cowboy hat-waving embodiment of Baltimore that will always make you smile no matter where the world has taken you.

He was blue-collar, pot-bellied and, indeed, wild. He had scraggly hair and matching beard, and a can of beer permanently attached to his hand. And he loved Dem Oreos - especially those of Eddie and Singy, Flanny and Scotty Mac, Demper, The Earl and, eventually, Cal.

If Orioles baseball was his religion, his pulpit was Section 34 - a perch in the upper deck of his church, Memorial Stadium. It's where he and his disciples stood and cheered nightly and drank in, not just soaked in, Oriole Magic.

It's where he first contorted his oversized body into the alphabet - with that awesome, stretched-out "S" - while his old buddies and ones he just met cheered along. He eventually moved that act onto the top of the Orioles dugout, and persuaded an entire stadium to chant along.

But it was the metal slabs of Section 34 where he was most at home. And, as its legend grew, it became the place to be on weekend nights in the thick Baltimore summer. For preteens, it held the ultimate mystique, the one place your parents wouldn't let you sit when you went to the ballpark.

Luckily, I had older sisters who, on occasion, would be forced to take me to games and then would abandon Mom's wishes and dart up to Section 34 as soon as we went through the 33rd Street turnstiles.

Under punishment of severe sibling-initiated pain, I wasn't allowed to tell my parents what I saw, heard or, yes, smelled. For it wasn't just hot dogs and baseball wafting along the night air way up there.

The excitement was on the field during innings, and then in the stands in between, especially if obnoxious Yankees fans were within shouting - and occasionally roundhouse punch - distance of Section 34. It was two great shows for the price of one.

In fact, Hagy's ill-advised cooler-tossing incident in protest of no longer being able to bring beer into the stadium stands neck-and-neck in late 1970s-1980s Orioles lore with Doug DeCinces' homer in 1979 that started Oriole Magic.

That he never played the game but will forever be fondly remembered by fans says something about Hagy - who signed more autographs than many of those who wore the uniform.

That, for years, he felt chased away by the higher prices and stuffiness of Camden Yards also says something about the corporate nature of today's Major League Baseball. Some would even say that the exodus of Hagy symbolized the end of the true beloved Orioles teams that had become such a fabric of this region and its fans.

Eventually, though, Hagy returned to Camden Yards as a season-ticket holder, albeit a much more reserved one. The old "Wild Bill" persona was packed away with the cartoon bird hats and Memorial Stadium memorabilia, to be dusted off for special occasions.

His unforgettable chant, however, remains part of the Orioles' holy trinity of fan traditions along with the "O" during the national anthem and John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" during the seventh-inning stretch.

It's one of those weird but lovable things that are uniquely Baltimore. It's hard to explain why certain random acts or people become so endearing here, except that they inspire nostalgia and remind us of a simpler, perhaps even better, time.

That's the legacy "Wild Bill" leaves behind. One that his fellow Orioles fans, his fellow Section 34 ruffians, admirers and wannabes, will never forget.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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