O's first opener ranks high among Hunter's parade of memories

John Steadman

April 05, 1991|By John Steadman

Reaching back to Opening Day of the Baltimore Orioles' return to the major leagues creates a special kind of sentimental journey for Billy Hunter. He remembers the welcome parade, riding in open cars and having spectators literally throw orchids at the players.

Where they had come from, St. Louis, was a two-team city and the Cardinals were the preferred choice. Now Baltimore would be different. For over half a century, the Orioles had been confined to the minor leagues.

Enthusiasm was rampant on April 15, 1954. Baltimore was back in the American League. And, poetically, the Orioles went out to beat the Chicago White Sox behind a momentous pitching performance by Bob Turley and line-drive home runs by Vern "Junior" Stephens and Clint Courtney. The city was ecstatic and so were Hunter and the rest of the team.

"After that opening win," Hunter recalls, "Junior Stephens coming over to me and with a serious put-on expression, said, 'I hope we don't have to ride in another parade tomorrow.' "

Hunter had visited Baltimore the year before when the Browns played the Orioles, then their International League farm club, in an exhibition game. "I remember going with Vic Wertz to Channel 13 for a TV interview. We went across Ellerslie Avenue, to 39th Street, and through Guilford. The homes were impressive. Flowers seemed to be blooming everywhere and I thought to myself, 'Hey, this is some place.' "

The next season, Hunter was in Baltimore as a transplanted Brown. The team posted 54 wins and 100 losses in St. Louis and, despite attempts to improve the club, the Orioles finished with the identical record in 1954. Obviously, they were caught in a bad groove.

Hunter enjoyed playing for manager Jimmy Dykes -- up to a point. There was a game in Philadelphia, where the A's then held forth, before migrating to Kansas City and then Oakland, when Dykes put Jim Brideweser at shortstop. In the ninth inning, Hunter went in for defense.

"All three balls were hit to me and I 'howdy-doed' each one of them. In the clubhouse, Dykes said he didn't know what he was going to do, maybe farm me to San Antonio. But I told him I had already been the most valuable player in that league and there was no reason to go back. I said I felt I should be starting and right after that I was back as a regular."

When Hunter was in St. Louis, the Browns were in a bad way financially. They dealt Virgil "Fire" Trucks and Bob Elliott to the Chicago White Sox for Lou Kretlow, Darrell Johnson and, what they needed most, $75,000. The Browns' business manager, Rudie Schaffer, mortgaged his own house so the club could meet a payroll. Now that's love of the game.

After coming to the Orioles, Hunter met one of the fairest men he encountered in baseball, one Art Ehlers, the general manager. For the 1954 season, Hunter was sent a contract for $7,500. But he had a previous agreement with Bill Veeck, the Browns' owner, that he would make $10,000. "Ehlers asked what I thought it should be," recalled Hunter. "And I told him the figure of $10,000. He gave it to me without a word of dispute."

The era of farm system baseball was still in vogue. Hunter had played his way through the Brooklyn Dodgers' organization when it operated 21 minor-league affiliates, before being sold to the Browns. There were only 16 major-league clubs; a limit of 23 players per roster. "A lot of people were playing baseball then," he says. "Talent was piled up at Double A and Triple A. Many of them never got a chance. They'd be playing in the majors today. Believe me."

Hunter vividly recalls how much the opener in Baltimore meant to second baseman Bobby Young, who was one of his roommates. Young, a graduate of Catonsville High School, was the first Oriole, a hometown product at that, to bat for the new Baltimore club, which provided him a lasting niche in history.

When the Orioles open their final season Monday in Memorial Stadium, which is in better condition now than the day it was constructed, Hunter, now athletic director at Towson State University, and his wife Beverly, will be enjoying a visit to Williamsburg, Va.

They won't be at the game but the Hunters will be there in spirit, remembering how it was to help pioneer a franchise that for 37 years has exceeded its fondest ambitions in performance and acceptability.

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