O'Dell proudly saves All-Star memories

July 13, 2008|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun reporter

Billy O'Dell might be feeding the cows, or fishing for bass, or hunting the wild turkeys that scuttle about on the edge of his farm in South Carolina.

Then it hits him.

"I'll think, 'Did I really pitch against [Stan] Musial and [Willie] Mays and that crowd?' " O'Dell said. "'Was I really good enough to play with those guys?'

"Sometimes it feels like a dream."

The bronze plaque hanging on the wall of his den says otherwise:

"Billy O'Dell, Baltimore Orioles, 1958 Major League All-Star Game Most Valuable Player."

Fifty years ago, O'Dell - a lithe young left-hander with a Southern drawl and a dang good slider - made baseball history. He pitched three perfect innings to preserve the American League's 4-3 victory. He retired nine straight National League batters, including five future Hall of Famers.

Moreover, he ran the table at home, in Memorial Stadium, in front of 49,000 jubilant fans and a national television audience. The performance earned O'Dell a save, newfound respect and the game's MVP award.

O'Dell set down Musial, Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Bill Mazeroski - all bound for Cooperstown - plus Frank Thomas, Lee Walls, Del Crandall and Johnny Logan. Nine hitters. Twenty-seven pitches. Only one ball reached the outfield.

"You done splendid," AL Manager Casey Stengel of the New York Yankees told O'Dell afterward. "You made all them fellers look the same size."

O'Dell smiled sheepishly, shook hands, met reporters. Then, plaque in hand, he lit out for South Carolina and spent the next day fishing in a rowboat on Lake Murray.

"A country boy has to come home when he can," he said.

O'Dell would pitch 13 years in the big leagues, and for four teams, but never again in a groove the likes of which he found himself in on that hot, sticky afternoon of July 8, 1958. A half-century later, he can still tick off the names of those NL hitters - and, in some cases, the stuff with which he fooled them.

"Musial hit a slider, off the end of the bat, to the shortstop," he said. "Mays hit a slider, off his fists, also to short. I can still see him shaking his hands while running to first base."

Nor have fans forgotten. The mail keeps coming, about 60 pieces a month these days, asking for autographs and recollections. How did you strike out Mazeroski? Fastball, down the pipe. What about Banks? Back-door slider.

O'Dell answers each letter, signs each card. Gratis.

"If I charged money, people would stop sending 'em," he said. "I'm just glad to be remembered."

At 76, O'Dell remains a man of simple pleasures: a pickup truck, some fried bologna and a good woman (Joan, his wife of 55 years).

"I just piddle around here now," he said.

His idea of heaven? Catfishing on the banks of the Saluda River, down the road a piece from O'Dell's 100-acre spread in Newberry (pop. 10,500).

"I'll just prop my [fishing] pole on a forked stick and lay back with a Pepsi in one hand and some peanuts in the other, like an old Huck Finn," he said.

Anonymity suits O'Dell, who won 105 games in the majors and who pitched for San Francisco in the 1962 World Series. Most mornings, you'll find him having breakfast with a group of geezers at Bill and Fran's Restaurant on Route 34. There, come 7 a.m., the old-timers eat the country ham and chew the fat.

"We talk about everything from weather to sports to world problems that we can't solve," said Reggie Brigman, a retired septic tank repairman and one of O'Dell's closest friends. "You never hear Billy brag about his baseball career. He's proud of it, and he don't mind talkin' about it, but he'll talk about the bad times as quick as he will the good ones."

Several weeks ago, said Brigman, O'Dell told them of his recent return to the mound.

"He'd gone to some [stadium] where they'd asked him to throw out the first ball," Brigman said. "Billy did it, but he said the ball only got halfway to the plate before it bounced.

" 'Boys,' he told us, 'that's what's left of an 85 mph fastball.' "

Savvy, not speed, forged O'Dell's success with the 1958 Orioles. Buoyed, perhaps, by his All-Star effort, he finished 14-11 with a 2.97 ERA for the seventh-place club in an eight-team league.

"Billy was a crafty little pitcher," said Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, who played with him from 1956-1959. "Like Tommy John, he was a battler - not overpowering but, once you'd gone 0-for-4, you wondered how he'd gotten you out."

Though selected for the team by Stengel, O'Dell seemed an unlikely All-Star hero. In 3 1/2 years with the Orioles, he had won all of 13 games. Yet there he was on the big day, riding to Memorial Stadium in a 50-car motorcade beside Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, waving to crowds and throwing plastic baseballs their way.

It was Baltimore's first All-Star game, and the city dressed to the nines. Red, white and blue bunting trimmed the ballpark. Vice President Richard Nixon threw out the first pitch to the Orioles' Gus Triandos, the starting catcher and a darling of hometown fans.

In the sixth inning, Triandos was lifted to a chorus of boos that echoed until O'Dell was summoned in the seventh.

The rest is history.

Of O'Dell's stint, The Sun wrote, "Against the southpaw's sliders and fastballs, the Nationals swung bamboo bats."

Even now, O'Dell can see AL second baseman Nellie Fox squeeze his glove around Crandall's pop fly to end the game.

"You never get over it," O'Dell said. "Sometimes I think, 'Wouldn't it be great to walk out there one more time and pitch?' But that's somethin' you can't do.

"I tell young ballplayers, 'You only get one trip around, so make the best of it.' "

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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