Gimme an O: 'Wild Bill's' back

April 20, 1994|By Milton Kent and Maureen Sack | Milton Kent and Maureen Sack,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer David Michael Ettlin contributed to this article.

It seemed like Memorial Stadium at Camden Yards last night as "Wild Bill" Hagy turned up in the right field seats, contorting his frame to lead the "Orioles" cheer.

Even "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" blared over the sound system during the seventh-inning stretch. "Country Boy" is hardly new, having been restored to the musical repertoire this season with the presence of local ownership, but Hagy's appearance in the stands was a bolt from the blue.

Hagy, he of the ample girth, balding pate and straw hat, rose from his seat in Section 12 in the sixth inning, waved his hat, as in days of old, then shaped his body into the letters O-R-I-O-L-E-S to a rousing cheer. "He woke some people up," said longtime Orioles public address announcer Rex Barney.

To be sure, the nouveaux-riches in the Oriole Park crowd hardly knew what to make of the roar that emerged as third baseman Chris Sabo came to bat, but anyone with a longer memory could only think of Section 34 at Memorial Stadium, where Hagy used to lead cheers from the upper deck.

It also was somehow fitting that Doug DeCinces, who hit a two-run, game-winning homer against Detroit on June 22, 1979, an event many believed started the Orioles Magic phenomenon in that American League championship year, also was in attendance last night.

"He symbolized a tremendous increase in fan support back then, particularly among the younger people. He symbolized the relationship between fans and the ballplayers, which continues to grow," said Bob Brown, former Orioles public relations director and current editor of the Orioles Gazette, a fan magazine

Said Barney: "He meant a lot to the fans, especially in the magic year of 1979 with Orioles Magic. The fans cared, and certain players like [former catcher] Rick Dempsey imitated him. The players liked it because the fans liked it."

Hagy had baseball and beer in his blood when he rose from obscurity to become the impassioned embodiment of Oriole fever in the cheap seats -- and beer was a factor when Hagy dramatically quit his role and walked away from all the celebrity it had brought him in July 1985.

He was arrested and fined $100 for throwing his beer cooler onto the field -- a protest over a new stadium policy banning carry-in beer coolers.

In a letter to The Sun a few days later explaining his protest, Hagy complained of the escalating costs of baseball games, from the time in 1954 when some tickets cost less than a dollar and a family "could see a game for maybe as little as $10."

Hagy said that his cooler held nine 12-ounce beers that cost him less than $5 and that "I would have to fork over $20.25" to buy the same amount of beer at the stadium.

He said he was bummed out from "paying the way for a bunch of pampered athletes" who were talking strike at the time.

Hagy declined an invitation to take part in Memorial Stadium's final weekend of Oriole baseball in October 1991, Bob Brown noted last night. Still, Hagy remained a readily recognized figure, driving his cab around the Baltimore area. Last fall, in a lengthy Washington Post article by a free-lance writer who tracked down Hagy at County Cab in Catonsville and asked for a ride to Memorial Stadium, the still-bearded legend called the new ballpark "a beautiful facility" but lamented the scarcity of tickets and far higher costs of a night of major-league baseball.

"At Memorial Stadium, you used to say, 'Ain't the beer cold?' At Camden Yards they say, 'Is the chardonnay chilled yet?' That puts the difference in perspective."

But there he was last night, waving up excitement for a fresh-look Oriole team with a narrow first-place hold on the American League East.

Is Wild Bill back for more than a cameo cheer? Is all forgiven?

When reached at his seat down the right field line after his cheerleading last night, Hagy, with a beer in his right hand, waved off any connection between the man who had led the Orioles cheer in the sixth inning and the man of a decade ago.

"I don't know what you're talking about," said Hagy, with a sly grin.

But thousands of Baltimoreans sure did.

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