Schaffer's Oriole openers span 38 years

John Steadman

April 06, 1992|By John Steadman

It was a curveball thrown by a law firm that denied Rudie Schaffer the opportunity to become the first general manager of the major-league Baltimore Orioles. He had come, or so it was believed, in the deal with the St. Louis Browns. The understanding was he'd be in charge of the new franchise.

But suddenly the attorneys representing owner Clarence Miles found a way to work their way out of what had been agreed upon. He wasn't going to be the general manager; a position that went to Arthur Ehlers, a home-grown baseball executive who left the Philadelphia A's and was named to the position that had been earlier promised to Schaffer.

The Schaffers were already settled here when the story changed. Rudie remained in Baltimore long enough to see the return of the franchise to the American League, after an absence of 51 years. He had so much passion for the game he actually mortgaged his house in St. Louis so his partner, Bill Veeck, could meet a player payroll. Now he's back today to attend the opening of a new stadium in downtown Baltimore where he'll be watching the Orioles once again. He's a special projects manager for ARA Leisurely Services, the concessionaire that dispenses ballpark refreshments. It's a pleasing coincidence -- here for two openings, 1954 and now 1992.

What does Schaffer think of the park?

"I like it because the spectators are close in and not seated up in the heavens," he answered.

LTC Is it remindful of any other park he has seen in a career that saw him start as a boy-executive with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1935?

"Not really. It's a composite. I like this for a lot of reasons. But I also am highly impressed with the stadium in Toronto, with the retractable roof and so many other amenities."

Schaffer was associated with Veeck at every stop he made in baseball -- starting in Milwaukee, then the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox. It was Schaffer, conservative and intelligent, who was the perfect complement to Veeck. "In all those years we never had a cross word, even though not always agreeing. You ask what was Veeck's formula. It was his feel for the common man. Why? Because he was a man of the people."

It's not surprising then that Rudie puts the time Veeck honored "Joe Fan" as the most memorable promotion he ever watched take shape. He explained how in Cleveland there was going to be a "night" for third baseman Ken Keltner and a man named Joe Early wrote a letter of mild complaint to a newspaper. Early contended instead of honoring players, who didn't need the money, an attempt should be made to spotlight a mere fan from the workplace.

"Bill saw the letter and said let's do it. So we honored Joe Early. We had close to 65,000 in the stands and what fun. We gave Early a lot of gag presents, a cow, a calf, a horse and an outhouse. Everybody laughed. Then Veeck got serious. Early and his family next received a new convertible, a refrigerator, luggage, a washing machine, watch and clothes. Hundreds of other fans in the stands also got surprise gifts of value."

What about recollections of the Eddie Gaedel caper in St. Louis when the midget went up to pinch-hit for the Browns in 1951? "Gaedel got scared and tried to back out. He wore the uniform of Bill DeWitt's son, who was the bat boy. Gaedel was 37 inches tall. The most amazing thing is Bill had Eddie in his office showing him how to bat. He was standing as a righthanded hitter. Then when he entered the game, he got nervous and batted lefthanded."

Schaffer says of all the managers he met in baseball, Allen Sothoron, who was at Milwaukee, was the best at teaching pitchers and implementing strategy.

"We had a team in Milwaukee that could have beaten some big-league clubs today," he said. "Sothoron was a winner. He knew all the tricks and took a lot of pitchers and showed them how to get to the majors. One of many examples would be Whitlow Wyatt."

What about players of 50 or more years ago? Were they heavy drinkers?

"Some were, yes. But they always made it to the park . . . most of the time. If not, we'd send out search parties. I think the 1930s depression produced some great players. And some truly lovable characters."

Although Schaffer never operated the Orioles, he was here for a matter of weeks. But he talked about how the transplanted Browns, who became Orioles, won the home opener in 1954, led by the likes of Bob Turley, Clint Courtney, Vern "Junior" Stephens, Bobby Young, Clint Courtney and Billy Hunter, all St. Louis alumni.

Next Rudie and his wife Betty inquired about the widows of former sports writers Lou Hatter of The Sun and Neal Eskridge of The News American. They both wondered, too, about Rita McLaughlin, who came here with Jim McLaughlin, the late Orioles farm director. How nice for him to remember.

But Rudie Schaffer, an extraordinary executive, is a caring human being -- which counts for much in a world too often taken up with mere monetary considerations, such as how many paid admissions are in the park. The game, to him, was almost a religion.

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