O'Dell still bonus though no longer Oriole baby at 60

JOHN STEADMAN

April 05, 1993|By JOHN STEADMAN

Time expires with the blink of an eye but pleasant experiences along the way count for something on the scoreboard of life. Such relates to enjoying the Opening Day homecoming for Billy O'Dell, who was the Baltimore Orioles' first "bonus baby" when the team was refranchised in the American League 40 years ago.

O'Dell was pursued by every team in the majors in 1954 while a standout at Clemson. The school's athletic director, Frank Howard, and coach Bob Smith didn't want to see the young left-handed pitcher leave while a junior but told him if the financial proposal was attractive it was in his best interests to sign.

A conservative general manager named Arthur Ehlers, who didn't believe in being careless with the Orioles' money, was impressed enough to sign him for $12,500, on the recommendations of scouts Red Norris and Fritz Maisel. The late Ehlers' granddaughter, Evelyn, works in the Orioles' executive offices, which gives O'Dell a continuing relationship to his Baltimore past.

He's here as the guest of the Babe Ruth Museum and plans to return in July, when he'll be an important part of the All-Star Game ceremonies. In 1958, the only previous occasion the event was held here, O'Dell retired nine batters in a row and earned the first most valuable player award conferred in the history of the All-Star Game. O'Dell, who lives in Newberry, S.C., is now 60, which is evidence that even baseball bonus babies grow older. He retired as a personnel director in a cotton mill and spends his time fishing and hunting, usually with bow and arrow.

"When the call came to the bullpen in the 1958 game," he recalls, "I was surprised. I thought manager Casey Stengel would bring in Billy Pierce. Everything went well. After the game I never got to talk to Stengel."

But Stengel, anytime O'Dell was pitching against the New York Yankees, would holler from the dugout, "I'm going to get you."

O'Dell took it as some kind of a threat. Then Bobby Richardson, a friend who played second base for the Yankees, explained the reason. Stengel, according to Richardson, was impressed with O'Dell and wanted to get him in a trade.

"Finally, in 1962, when I was with the San Francisco Giants, I was warming up in foul territory, adjacent to home plate, before a game with the New York Mets," said O'Dell. "Finally, Stengel, then managing the Mets, walked over.

"I had never seen anything like that before. Casey looked at me and said, 'Mr. O'Dell, I didn't have a chance to thank you for the wonderful job you gave me in that All-Star Game in Baltimore. I want you to know I appreciated it.' I just never forgot that."

O'Dell recalled some early Orioles teammates, names such as Willie Miranda, Gus Triandos, Skinny Brown, Bob Nieman, Lou Sleater and Clint Courtney. O'Dell pitched 13 years in the majors, spending additional time with the San Francisco Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves.

The toughest hitter he faced? "Without a doubt, Frank Robinson. I'd like to know his average off me. It got so I knocked him down a lot. But he never complained. He'd just get up and drive my pitches harder and farther. What a hitter."

Late in his career, Billy became suspect for throwing a spitball.

"I tried to give the impression that's what I was doing," he said. "Truthfully, it was to give the hitters something else to think about. I'd pretend to go to my mouth. To throw a spitter, you have to work developing it and I never did. I tried it, but I was mainly a 'fastball away' and a 'slider in' type pitcher."

When it came to looking for an edge, O'Dell admits he would occasionally shorten the distance to home plate by standing in front of the slab to gain a few inches. Did he get away with it?

"Once, I had two strikes on Wes Covington," he said. "When Tom Haller, the catcher, gave me the sign, I threw from a foot in front of the rubber and got Wes for strike three. Covington mentioned, 'You sure got a lot on that last pitch.' I just smiled."

LTC It's called gamesmanship, and O'Dell enjoyed it all. He says he was told by some clubs that at a mere 152 pounds he was too small but the Orioles promised him the opportunity and the $12,500 bonus would mean, under rules then in vogue, he would stay for two years in the majors. As it evolved, he never had to spend even a day in the minor leagues.

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