Right field at Union Park was the terror of visiting ballplayers. It was rough and weedy and sloped down to the fence. The fence itself, of uneven pine boards, was slanted on the inside at something like sixty-five degrees (so that the advertising might be seen from the grandstands). The field was often spongy, because of the stream on the other side of the fence. It was a rotten field to play.
Willie loved it. Its vastness lent him an advantage, with his speed and his unerring sense of where the ball would land. He made hard catches look easy. No longer did Steve Brodie intimidate him; they never got balled up chasing fly balls. "He knew his territory like a child its ABCs," the center fielder said of Willie.
When Willie was near the fence, the incline of the ground meant that he could not be seen from home plate. This offered opportunities. Murph had kept the distant grass thick and tangled, so that things might be concealed. Once, Willie and Brodie both went tearing after a ball into right-center field. Brodie threw it back in to Robbie just as Willie flung a planted ball in. When the umpire reproved him, Willie stood there and grinned.
On the field Willie was ordinarily quiet and serious. His voice was rarely heard, other than, "I've got it." But baseball was a rough game, and the ballplayers -- any ballplayer -- took every advantage. Willie was impish about it. His teammates were less so. Each of them had his own way at the umpires. Willie was apologetic. Robbie would smile and kid them. Hughey would try to reason with them. Joe Kelley would scream. John McGraw would tread on toes and use vile language that Harry von der Horst worried the ladies might hear, which sometimes they did.
In the eighth inning of the last game of the season between the Orioles and the Giants, Mac was easily put out as he ran to first base. Yet he managed, as he crossed the bag, to veer several feet out of his way to gash the first baseman's leg. McGraw had taken to sharpening his spikes for his opponents to see.
"It was all done for its psychologic effect on the ballgame," McGraw explained. "But to make it good we'd go tearing into a bag with flying spikes as though with murderous intent. We were a cocky, swashbuckling crew and we wanted everybody to know it -- and as a result we won a lot of our games before the first ball was ever pitched."
And win they did. They edged back into first place.
From Where They Ain't: The Fabled Life And Untimely Death Of The Original Baltimore Orioles Copyright © 1999 by Burt Solomon. Reprinted with permission.