Tell Billy O’Dell it has been 60 years since he won acclaim at the first All-Star Game played in Baltimore, and you can almost hear him scratch his head.
“Has it been that long?” O’Dell, 85, said from his farm in Newberry, S.C. “I remember it like yesterday.”
No wonder. That afternoon, the Orioles’ little left-hander mowed down nine straight National Leaguers, including five future Hall of Famers, in relief to save a 4-3 victory for the American League.
Who did he retire? Johnny Logan, Willie Mays and Lee Walls; Stan Musial, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks; Frank Thomas, Bill Mazeroski and Del Crandall. In three innings, O’Dell threw just 27 pitches. Two balls escaped the infield. When Crandall popped out to end the game, O’Dell was mobbed and Memorial Stadium, dolled up in red, white and blue bunting, went nuts.
“You did splendid,” AL manager Casey Stengel told him afterward. “You made all them fellers look the same size.”
“Well, I had a pretty good day,” O”Dell recalled. “Was I nervous, facing those guys? I wasn’t smart enough to be nervous. Competition was what I was after. I believed I could win every time I went out there.”
His performance capped a memorable July 8 in the city, which hosted a partisan crowd of 48,829, a national television audience, 350 reporters and Western Union operators, and Richard Nixon, who, flanked by 14 Secret Service officers (some wearing fielders’ gloves to protect the vice president from errant fouls) threw out the first ball.
In the crowd sat Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-foot basketball star of the Harlem Globetrotters. Pity those who sat behind him.
“I guess I did make quite an obstacle for those folks ... when I stood up” for the seventh-inning stretch, Chamberlain said afterward.
They might have cooled in Chamberlain’s shade. In the sultry 90-degree temperature, 20 people suffered heat exhaustion; all refused to leave.
Baltimore had prepared for weeks for the 25th All-Star Game, proclaiming itself, for a day, “The Baseball Capital of the World.” Five years earlier, the Orioles had returned to the major leagues after an absence of more than half a century. Now, the Lord Baltimore and Emerson hotels were teeming with players such as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn and Al Kaline, the Detroit Tigers slugger who’d attended Southern High.
Ticket requests topped 220,000. Scalpers asked $25 for $4 reserved seats. Three days before the contest, a home on Lyndale Avenue in northeast Baltimore was burglarized of, among other things, two All-Star tickets.
Other sports venues sought to cash in on the silver anniversary game. Baltimore Raceway held an “All-Star Baseball Night” for its harness crowd. On July 7, before a pro boxing match at the Coliseum, Frank Thomas, third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was introduced at ringside.
On game day, threatening skies greeted fans as they lined city streets, awaiting the winding motorcade of convertibles to carry players from their hotels on Baltimore Street to the ballpark. In each car sat two players, one lucky local Little Leaguer and more than 1,500 plastic baseballs, all told, signed by the athletes who threw them, en route, to the gleeful crowd.
Along the 2100 block of N. Charles St. stood Howard Krieger, 15, of Northwest Baltimore. He had left work to watch the parade, muscling his way through onlookers packed three- and four-deep along the parade route.
“I thought, ‘I’ve gotta see these guys,’ ” said Krieger, who now lives in Elkridge. “Just as I got to the front, I saw [Milwaukee Braves slugger] Hank Aaron go by in a convertible. I yelled, ‘Haaaaank!’ and he turned around and so did everyone else. They thought I was crazy.”
Three hundred extra traffic cops lined city streets that day, without incident.
“What a grand dress rehearsal for a World Series!” an editorial in The Sun read. “Given time maybe that, too, some day will come true.”
At 8 a.m., folks queued up outside Memorial Stadium, met by comely young ladies wearing white gloves, corsages and gleaming smiles as they passed out sports supplements of The Sun.
During batting practice, the sight of so much sports celebrity was, for one fan, too much to bear. He scaled a railing, eluded police and rushed Chicago White Sox pitcher Early Wynn for an autograph. Wynn shooed him away; he was busy taking pictures of other All-Stars with his box camera.
Cheers rained down on Gus Triandos, the Orioles’ beloved catcher who started and singled to center field before leaving for pinch-hitter Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees in the sixth inning. Boos greeted Berra until he popped out, to the crowd’s delight.
Moments later, after some confusion, O’Dell trotted in to protect a one-run lead.
“We had a little mix-up in the bullpen,” he recalled. “Casey called down and said, ‘Get Billy hot.’ Everybody thought he meant [the Chicago White Sox’s two-time 20-game winner] Billy Pierce, who started throwing. Then Casey called back and said, ‘No, I want O’Dell.’ ”
“That sort of woke me up,” said the Orioles southpaw, who was 8-9 at the time. “It made me realize I was more than somebody just tagging along. I was somebody who could do the job.”
Do it, O’Dell did.
“It was a great day for Baltimore, and for me,” he said.
Four years later, as O’Dell — then with the San Francisco Giants — warmed up to pitch against Stengel’s New York Mets, the manager approached him.
“Casey walked straight toward me, which was unusual for an opposing manager to do before a game,” O’Dell said. “He stopped a few steps away and removed his cap.
“ ‘Mr. O’Dell,’ he said, ‘I want to thank you for the great job you did for me in the ’58 All-Star Game.’ Then he walked off.”
All-Star Games in the Baltimore-Washington area
July 7, 1937: AL wins, 8-3; Griffith Stadium, Washington
July 10, 1956: NL wins, 7-3; Griffith Stadium, Washington
July 8, 1958: AL wins, 4-3; Memorial Stadium, Baltimore
July 10, 1962: NL wins 3-1; D.C. Stadium, Washington
July 23, 1969: NL wins, 9-3; RFK Stadium, Washington
July 13, 1993: AL wins, 9-3; Camden Yards, Baltimore