O'Dell beat the odds as a pitcher, but biggest battle was yetto come

July 11, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

When Billy O'Dell left Clemson University after his junior year to sign with the Orioles in the spring of 1954, few expected him to pitch more than a couple of seasons in the big leagues.

He threw pretty hard, but scouts questioned whether he eventually would wear down: O'Dell was only 5 feet 10, 154 pounds.

"I used to joke that I saw everybody else leave," recalled O'Dell, who was given the nickname "Digger" after a character in a radio show. "Everybody but six people who were in the major leagues when I started were gone by the time I retired. I was pretty proud of that."

He retired prematurely at age 34, not with a sore arm or any other baseball-related injury, but with Addison's disease, a rare disorder that affects one in every 100,000 people. The adrenal gland slows down or stops producing hormones, and symptoms can range from lethargy and depression to -- in the most severe cases -- shock and complete cardiovascular collapse.

O'Dell was hospitalized and nearly died before the diagnosis was made.

"I was in pretty bad shape," said O'Dell, 60, who lives with his wife, Joan, and two of their five children in Newberry, S.C. The disease now is controlled fairly easily with hormone treatments.

O'Dell's career spanned 13 seasons: five in Baltimore, five in San Francisco, a little more than one in Atlanta and Milwaukee, a little less than two in Pittsburgh. He finished with respectable numbers and more than his share of memories.

After his career nearly didn't get off the ground -- O'Dell never made it out of the bullpen his first two months with the Orioles -- he went on to star in the 1958 All-Star Game at Memorial Stadium and was named to the 1959 American League team as well.

But he was traded to the Giants before the 1960 season.

"I certainly didn't want to leave Baltimore," said O'Dell, who was part of a five-player trade that brought Jackie Brandt to the Orioles. "I really hated to go. But I found a home in San Francisco."

After being a starter and reliever his first two years with the Giants, O'Dell was the workhorse of a rotation in 1962 that featured 24-game winner Jack Sanford and Juan Marichal. O'Dell went 19-14, pitched a career-high 280 2/3 innings and finished 20 of 39 starts.

Six of those starts came in a wild last two weeks of the season, when the Giants chased down the Los Angeles Dodgers to force a best-of-three playoff series.

Though he was rocked in relief in the middle game of the series won by San Francisco, O'Dell came back to start Game 1 of the World Series against the New York Yankees. He lost, 6-2, giving up five runs in 7 1/3 innings, then relieved in games 4 and 7.

"I was almost the winning pitcher in Game 7, because I was still in there when Willie McCovey lined to Bobby Richardson to end the game," said O'Dell, recalling that famous liner that could have won the game, and the Series, for the Giants.

Addison's disease began to affect him in 1966. By then a full-time reliever, O'Dell noticed that he was tiring easily and losing stamina. He underwent tests, but nothing turned up.

By season's end, O'Dell figured that the fatigue might be related to the total of 123 appearances he had made in 1965 and 1966, but his condition worsened during the off-season to the point where he couldn't shake what he thought was the flu.

"I had never been sick in my life except for the flu once," he said. "I had never even gotten any childhood diseases. I had it all at one time."

The family doctor persuaded O'Dell to check into a local hospital for more tests. His condition was becoming life-threatening.

"At one point, they didn't think I was going to make it through the night," O'Dell said. "But a local doctor knew that my body was without salt, so they fed a salt solution intravenously. I started getting better, so they sent me up to Augusta [the University of Georgia Medical Center], where they came up with Addison's disease."

Though hormone treatments control the disease, people with Addison's can have problems in stressful situations. O'Dell returned to the Pirates for 1967, but he had several setbacks and was released in August.

"I had a good career," said O'Dell, who won 105 games and had a 3.29 ERA. "I believed I could have stayed a lot longer, like some of these guys do today. I was always in good condition. I had a good arm. I had good control. But once it was over, it was over."

He called the Orioles before the 1968 season to see whether there was any interest, and when there wasn't, he left baseball. Although his condition had stabilized, O'Dell knew he had bigger battles ahead.

O'Dell got a job in the personnel department of a local textile mill and worked there five years. But the stress of that job aggravated his condition. He suffered episodes of "Addisonian Crisis" that resulted in dangerously low blood pressure.

"I was in and out of the hospitals five or six times during those five years," said O'Dell, who retired with his disability at age 41. "It was tough at first, really depressing. Sometimes you wonder if it's worth going on."

But O'Dell has adjusted, spending time with his family, tending his garden and following two longtime passions: hunting and fishing. O'Dell has thought only briefly about getting back into baseball, at the minor-league level.

Those thoughts pass quickly.

"I've done so well [medically] since I retired," he said, "You don't want to rock the boat."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.