In nest of zanies, 3 stood out

Characters: Clint Courtney, Jackie Brandt and Moe Drabowsky added a heaping portion of flakes to the O's menu.

August 31, 2004|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

A pitcher whose repertoire included smoke bombs, sneezing powder and live snakes.

A catcher who bought cattle during road trips and hauled livestock in his Cadillac.

An outfielder known to run the bases backward and spout maxims like, "This year I'm going to play with harder nonchalance."

What strange birds these Orioles can be.

Moe Drabowsky, Clint Courtney and Jackie Brandt are just three of the characters who have played for Baltimore through the years.

"Every player has a few screws loose because of the pressure of that goldfish-bowl existence," said Dick Hall, an Orioles pitcher in the 1960s and '70s. "Those [three] were just a little looser than the rest."

From the start, the club had its share of zanies. "Goony Bird" was the tag players pinned on Don Larsen, who pitched Opening Day 1954.

Larsen, 3-21 that season, would as soon have been playing pinball in a bar. "An overgrown kid" is how teammates described him.

Shelled from one game, Larsen headed for the clubhouse, where he flew into a rage.

"He was kicking lockers and throwing his glove around," said Dick Armstrong, the club's publicity director. "I said, `Don, tomorrow's another day.'"

"You don't understand," Larsen said. "Somebody stole my Flash Gordon comic book!"

Larsen's catcher, Courtney, was a hoot - a tobacco-chewing, Louisiana farm boy who was strong as an ox and who smelled like one, too. On Western swings, Courtney visited stockyards in Chicago and Kansas City, looking to beef up the herd on his 200-acre spread.

"Clint would stomp around in that cow manure, wearing his only suit, then come straight to the park," shortstop Ron Hansen said. "The stink didn't bother him."

On the road, Courtney liked to lie in bed and spit at the ceiling, to the chagrin of his peers.

"I roomed with him - once," first baseman Jim Gentile said. A dapper dresser himself, "Diamond Jim" watched in horror in a New York hotel room as Courtney unpacked a suitcase filled with dirty clothes.

"We'll only be gone six days," the catcher said.

Courtney always drove Cadillacs, into which he squeezed everything from heifers to hound dogs. "I rode with Clint once," said Hall. "It was like being in a barn."

Courtney was bowlegged, balding and absurdly myopic. The first big-league catcher to wear glasses on the field, he struggled with pop-ups, circling the ball and squinting through Coke bottle lenses. The media likened the moves to those of a waiter serving pizza on roller skates.

Fiercely combative and quick to rile, the man whom teammates called "Scrap Iron" fought often but never won a brawl, they said.

"Guys would play tricks on him just to watch him get mad," catcher Joe Ginsberg said. "Once, during a game, they put Limburger cheese inside his glove. Every time he slapped [the mitt], the umpire would sniff and ask, `What is that?'

"Clint never did catch on."

If Courtney acted like he'd been conked once too often, well, maybe he had.

"I can still see him trying to catch Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleballs, with that oversized glove the Orioles gave him," outfielder Whitey Herzog said. "Clint once bet me a fifth of booze that Wilhelm wouldn't throw one past him.

"In the second inning, a pitch comes [fluttering] in, hits Clint on the button of his cap and bounces in front of the plate. Without rubbing his head, he turns to the dugout and hollers, `See? It didn't get by.'"

For a spell in his 11-year career, Courtney forgot how to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Really.

"He had this mental block where he couldn't get the ball to the mound," pitcher Jack Fisher said. "So Clint would either throw to third base, or walk halfway to the mound and lob it back."

In 1960, Orioles infielders complained that they couldn't hold onto the catcher's pegs. Unbeknownst to Courtney, he'd been trying to cut down base runners by throwing sliders.

He served two hitches with the Orioles (1954 and 1960-61) and retired as a .268 hitter. He was managing Richmond, Atlanta's Triple-A club, when he died in 1975. It happened while he was playing pingpong.

`Call me Flakey'

Jackie Brandt was just as loopy, in a laid-back sort of way.

"My friends call me Flakey," the blue-eyed, crew-cut outfielder told his new teammates, following a trade in 1960. What Baltimore got was a player with a knack for doing and saying things that came out of left field.

Having homered, Brandt might slide into every bag - or decide to run them clockwise.

Once, caught in a rundown between third and home, he did a back flip in an effort to avoid the tag. Brandt was out, but scored a "10" with the crowd.

"Everybody in the stands just roared," Ginsberg said. "Who but Jackie would have thought of that?"

His antics kept Brandt from a breakout career, teammates said. For every basket catch and barehanded pickup, there was a fielding gaffe or base-running blunder.

Asked about his erratic play, Brandt explained that the faster he ran, the more his "eyeballs jumped up and down."

Brandt had an excuse for every occasion.

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