Those who knew Billy O’Dell called him “Digger,” after Digger O’Dell, a character on the 1940s radio show “The Life of Riley.” But his son believes the nickname really served his father, a savvy left-hander who pitched for the Orioles.
“He was determined, a fighter all his life,” Steve O’Dell said. “Dad fought to the very end.”
Billy O’Dell died Wednesday, of complications from Parkinson’s disease, at a hospital in his hometown of Newberry, S.C. He was 85.
Baltimore’s first bonus baby, O’Dell signed out of Clemson in 1954, the team’s first season back in the American League after a 51-year absence. In five years with the struggling Orioles, he went 29-34 with a 2.86 ERA. Twice, O’Dell made the All-Star team, including 1958, when he went 14-11 for a sixth-place club in an eight-team league.
It was that All-Star Game, played in Baltimore, that earned him huzzahs. Entering to start the seventh inning and nursing a 4-3 lead, O’Dell retired nine straight batters — including five future Hall of Famers — to preserve the win. Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Bill Mazeroski all returned to the bench, scratching their heads, courtesy of O’Dell’s artful mix of fastballs and sliders.
“Billy was crafty, a lot like Tommy John,” said Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame third baseman for the Orioles who played with O’Dell from 1956 through 1959. “He wouldn’t overpower you but after he got you out, you’d ask, ‘How’d he do that?’ ”
Having breezed through the National League lineup, before a home crowd and a national television audience, O’Dell received the game’s first Most Valuable Player award — and the thanks of AL manager Casey Stengel.
“You done splendid,” said Stengel, the New York Yankees’ manager. “You made all them fellers look the same size.”
O’Dell accepted the plaque, excused himself and hightailed it home to South Carolina, where he spent the next day fishing.
Robinson, his roommate on the road, marveled at O’Dell’s easygoing nature, on and off the field.
“He never got excited, no matter the situation,” Robinson said. “He talked about four times slower than I do, and he walked off the field about five times slower than me. Billy’s personality never changed.”
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Dealt to San Francisco after the 1959 season, O’Dell played nine more years, winning 19 games in 1962 for the Giants, who lost the World Series to the Yankees. Having won 105 games, he retired to his 100-acre farm in Newberry, bought a pickup truck and settled into a life of fishing, hunting and quiet anonymity with his wife, Joan, and five children.
"I'll just prop my [fishing] pole on a forked stick and lay back with a Pepsi in one hand and some peanuts in the other, like an old Huck Finn," he told The Baltimore Sun in 2008.
“Dad just wanted all of us to be happy and satisfied,” Steve O’Dell said. “He was like an angel; if anything went wrong, all of a sudden he’d pop up … and everything would be all right.
“He was not a braggart. You ’bout had to ask him about his life in baseball. I remember all of us kids sitting on the couch one day, watching TV, when the phone rang. It was the Orioles, asking if he would be their pitching coach. Daddy put his hand over the phone, turned to us and said, ‘Do you all want me to take this job up in Baltimore?’ We said, ‘No, sir!’ So he told them, ‘Not interested,’ and hung up.”
Last weekend, his son said, O’Dell called the family together.
“We all had a talk and he assured us he was ready,” Steve O’Dell said. “He had a good long life; he just wore out.”
O’Dell is survived by four sons, Jeff O’Dell, Mike O’Dell, Steve O’Dell and Jesse O’Dell, all of Newberry; a daughter, Heather O’Dell, of Newberry; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.