Though status pursued, Hagy never was one to spell out celebrity

John Steadman

March 16, 1992|By John Steadman

There was "Wild Bill," full of beard, beer in hand, once again the center of attention. It was a reunion, of sorts, for some of the crowd that forged lasting friendships after congregating in Section 34 of Memorial Stadium in the late 1970s and '80s. Back then, they turned to "Wild Bill" Hagy as if he might be some kind of massive messiah, the leader of what became known as the "Roar From 34." He didn't solicit the role; it was conferred.

The gathering in a Baltimore restaurant to talk over old times and relive those laugh-filled days and nights at the ballpark included Sue Battye, known as "Sweet Sue"; her brother, Jim; Geoff Renshaw, Ronny Dorry, Craig Kirby, Marilyn Kazr, Cheryl Cox and, of course, Hagy himself. Not too numerous, but certainly representative.

"Wild Bill," it should be explained, never tried to play the role of a celebrity, even though he became one. It just happened and his type of personality couldn't be orchestrated. He drove a cab, paid his way to every game, drank a beer or two, even more, and showed those around him how to enjoy themselves in fun and frolic with baseball as the main order.

When the Orioles planned their grand finale at Memorial Stadium last October, they tried every method, short of asking help from the national guard, to entice Hagy to the stadium for a walk-on role. One last goodbye. But, no, he wouldn't comply. Bill's funny that way.

Hagy, in fact, is called "Wild Bill," not for the way he looks or acts, but because as a teen-age pitcher on the sandlots of Baltimore, he hit more batters than bats. Thus, he was ever after known as "Wild Bill." In 1954, when the Orioles played their first game in the American League after an absence of 51 years, Hagy was there with his father and brothers to be a part of history.

He later got a job stacking beer cases for the concessionaire. Since he was at the park early, catcher Clint Courtney needed someone to play catch with at 3 in the afternoon. At the time, Courtney was trying to overcome a phobia that wouldn't allow him to routinely throw the ball back to the pitcher with any degree of accuracy -- so Hagy was the target he threw to before the rest of the players arrived.

Harvey Kuenn, the late manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, said, "I have been around the game for over 40 years and no one created the kind of noise and excitement you did in a ballpark." Rick Dempsey, the Orioles catcher, once climbed atop the bullpen dugout and raised a banner that simply read "34," in tribute to Hagy and the fans in the upper rightfield section.

Hagy gained a prominence he never expected or wanted. "Once, I was home sleeping on the couch and the phone rang," he recalled. "A southern voice said, 'Wild Bill' this is 'Lefty.' Lefty who he asked? 'Driesell' came the answer. 'How about you coming down College Park when Maryland plays Duke in basketball and have you whup up on them Blue Devils?' So I did. You should have heard the reception I got in Cole Field House. Maryland beat Duke by 19 points."

But with all the accidental fame, Hagy never promoted himself as a voice-for-hire. The Orioles' organization, he felt, didn't need to have him arrested for the time he threw an empty beer cooler on the field. That ultimately reduced the fervor he showed for the team. "I was wrong," he says. "But they could have asked me to leave the park. Making a guy like me spend a night in jail and pay a $100 fine made no sense. I'm just a fun-loving cab driver."

As for the coming season, he has bought a ticket plan, six games for $16, in the downtown park. "The Orioles are going to be acontender. You heard it from the horse's mouth."

When Hagy was leading Oriole cheers, he would frequently take 200 tickets on consignment and sell them to friends. That was when he could buy a ticket for himself and fill a cooler with beer for $6 and holler away his thirst at the stadium.

It also was a time when fans he didn't know, from all over the country, even Bermuda, would approach and ask(for his autograph. Once he was driving Earl Weaver in a cab to a book-signing assignment and men and women in adjoining traffic lanes were screaming Hagy's name, while failing to realize the Orioles manager was his more famous passenger.

"Wild Bill" Hagy accomplished something that will be hard to duplicate. Maybe never. Fame just fell upon this cab driver with a huge beard and ample stomach who showed up at the ballpark and created a frenzy that gave him a special page in Baltimore's baseball memory book.

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