Sunday, July 24, 2011

Yogi Was Afraid of Being A Brownie

Yogi Berra told me a story once that summed up this Yankee attitude. In his first season, Yogi hit a soft ground ball to second base and in frustration jogged to first base. The next time at-bat, he popped up and again failed to run hard to first. During the next half inning Yogi told me three senior Yankees — Keller, Dickey and Henrich — came down the bench and stood before the rookie.

“Look, kid,” one of them growled, “we saw what you just did. But here we bust our (butt) on every play. We count on winning that World Series money, and our wives count on it. If you want to play that way, we can get you back to St. Louis in a week. Got it?”

Yogi said he was so frightened of being shipped to the lowly Browns that he ran out every ground ball or pop-up from that day forward. That was how the great Yankees enforced their culture, and it certainly was effective. Everyone hustled on those teams from the great DiMaggio down to the newest rookie.

At their start, Orioles turned the wrong Paige

On Sept. 29, 1953, American League owners voted to move the St. Louis Browns franchise to Baltimore. A group headed by Clarence Miles bought the club from Bill Veeck for roughly $2.5 million. Art Ehlers and Jimmy Dykes were brought in from the Philadelphia Athletics as GM and field manager, respectively, and Charm City was back in the big leagues.

It was not a good club. The 1953 Browns had finished dead last at 54-100, and the prognosis for 1954 was no better. Yet, in one of Ehlers' very first transactions as general manager of the Orioles, he released the one player on his roster whose ability to attract a crowd was beyond question: Satchel Paige.

Oh, sure, Paige was 46. Or was it 48? Regardless, he had been an American League All-Star for the Browns in 1953. Pitching almost exclusively out of the bullpen, he led the team in saves with 11 and sported a 3.53 ERA. He appeared in 57 games, second-most on the club. Satch clearly had something left in the tank, but local fans wouldn't see it.

It's easy to sit back and say: Well, he was an older guy, the Orioles wanted to go with kids, blah, blah, blah. But the average age of the inaugural Orioles was nearly 30, and based upon his recent history, he was still better than the other guys in the bullpen.

The truth is probably closer to this: Satchel was a name, and he knew it. He was colorful and frequently outspoken. Major League Baseball was only seven years into integration — by 1954, there were still a few teams that had never had a black player — and Baltimore’s attitude in those days, racially speaking, bore a strong resemblance to the Deep South. If the Orioles were to have African-American players, management reasoned, it would have to be someone who wouldn't make waves. Paige had to go.

The books show that a tiny (5-foot-7) left-hander named Jay Heard was the first black Oriole, making his debut April 24, 1954, in a game against the White Sox in Chicago. He sat for a month and made his final big league appearance May 28 in a home game against Chicago. He never made another big league appearance, and Oriole fans wouldn't see another African-American player in a Baltimore jersey until that September, when Joe Durham was called up for 10 games.

The ’54 Orioles reprised their dismal 54-100 mark of the previous year. The club's quota system for players of color would last a few years longer, until Lee MacPhail was named GM in November 1958.

I know it's spilled milk. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see “Baltimore” under Paige's name on his plaque in Cooperstown.