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Mudville: October 23, 2021 6:44 pm PDT
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The Kid Can Play

The great Baltimore Oriole teams that dominated the American League landscape from the mid-60s through the mid-80s sported so many big-name and Hall-of-Fame players that it is often easy to overlook the steady stars who never quite reached the heights of a Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray or Cal Ripken.

Yet, the success enjoyed by many of those Earl Weaver-led teams [yes, Weaver was also one of the brightest starts in that constellation] wouldn’t have been possible without the contribution of players like Al Bumbry. The long-time Baltimore outfielder and Vietnam War hero spent 13 of his 14 big-league seasons in Maryland, winning the 1973 American League Rookie of the Year while helping the O’s to a pair of Fall Classics. He experienced the heartbreak of the 1979 World Series loss to Pittsburgh but reveled in the 1983 triumph over Philadelphia.

Bumbry also helped Baltimore to East Division crowns in 1973 and ’74, using a combination of speed and an ability to get on base, serving as a table-setter for more than a decade. While Bumbry is thrilled with how his career unfolded and played out – particularly after experiencing the horrors of war – he won’t say that he was overlooked or taken for granted when the history of the Orioles during that time period is discussed.

“I don’t know,” Bumbry, 74, said. “I think it’s for you guys [in the media] to determine. My response to that is I was comfortable in my own skin so to speak. I never really pictured myself as a major star. I pictured myself as part of an organization or a particular year’s team on which I contributed to the success we had. I never saw myself as being the man because I know that I wasn’t.

“I never considered myself more than an adequate contributor to the success we had. I look at myself as being a type of player that you would have had to have seen on a regular, steady basis to appreciate the contributions I made and to see what kind of player I was. I wasn’t one of those guys who stands out every four and five days with three or four hits and seven RBIs or a lot of homers. I wasn’t one of those kind of guys. I was a person that, over the long haul, my value would be appreciated and the only way my value could be appreciated was if you saw me over the long haul.”

What Bumbry was able to do over the long haul was steal 252 bases as an Oriole, which is fourth-best in franchise history, collect 1,081 singles [seventh-best], finish with a 73.26 percentage of stolen bases [seventh-best] and 772 runs scored [10th-best]. His 738 plate appearances in 1980 are the third most in team history while his 44 stolen bases that year are eighth-best.

“We had been on strike one year early in my career and a teammate asked if I was worried about it. I said I survived Vietnam, you think I’m worried about losing some time in a strike year?”

Though Bumbry was part of a team that represented the most successful period in franchise history, growing up, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to play baseball.

THIS KID CAN PLAY

Bumbry was a basketball star at Ralph Bunche High School in King George, Va., averaging 32 points per game. He played baseball, too, but was offered a basketball scholarship to Virginia State and more than held his own on the court. Bumbry played basketball all four years and was a team captain as a senior.

When the school restarted its baseball program during Bumbry’s senior season, he tried out and wound up hitting .578 to earn the team’s Most Outstanding Player honors. There was, however, always an air of uncertainty around his future as far as athletics were concerned.

“I got a basketball scholarship and I wanted to play basketball,” Bumbry said. “I was good at that. I was a good athlete. I majored in health and physical education because there were a lot of sports involved. That was the field or profession I was going to be in when I graduated with a degree. Back then, I basically saw myself as a phys-ed instructor. It wasn’t like I had a desire to be an educator.

“I was a kid from a small town in rural Virginia. It was a little black community and I was not a visionary. My vision was not very far outside where I grew up. I didn’t know about various occupations and opportunities. My thoughts never ventured very far from the immediate surroundings. I loved playing basketball and I was pretty damn good at it. I can’t say I wanted to play professionally. I would have tried if someone offered me the opportunity, but it was not something I sought out.”

Bumbry said his approach to baseball was the same. He played on a semi-pro team during his junior and senior years in college where he was noticed by Baltimore scout Dick Bowie. He approached Bumbry and told him he was going to try and get the Orioles to draft him.

“He knew of my ability and was excited about it,” Bumbry said. “But I didn’t know anything about the draft, about how it worked and I didn’t know anything about contracts. I didn’t have a burning desire to play. In my outreaching vision, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do.

“But they drafted me [11th-round, 1968], came to my house and signed me and signed me with a Rawlings baseball glove contract. I got a set of golf clubs and $500 a month. I didn’t know anything about bonuses or what was appropriate so I was hesitant to sign. [At first] I didn’t sign because I didn’t see myself as a Major League player. Bowie said to me that he would hate for me to be sitting one day watching a Major League game and think ‘I wish I could have tried that’. So when he said that, that’s when I decided to sign and that’s how I got started.”

Al Bumbry of the Baltimore Orioles circa 1983 scores against the Milwaukee Brewers at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images)

Bumbry had the rest of 1968 to himself before the O’s sent him to Stockton of the Class-A California League for the 1969 season. He had been in the ROTC in college and had a two-year military commitment set to begin in the summer of ’69, so the Orioles wanted to see him in some game action before he went on active duty.

They may not have liked what they saw. Bumbry hit .178 in 73 at-bats while striking out 38 times in 35 games. There was some positives there, though. He drew 30 walks, stole 10 bases and had a .423 on-base percentage, giving a glimpse of what he would be able to do for Baltimore someday.

“The Cal League was a whole different world,” Bumbry said. “Anyone who knew me knew that I was quiet and shy. I was an introverted person; that’s just the way I was. I signed a contract with the Orioles and they sent me out there, so I went. I believed in fulfilling my obligations. I would have been just as happy playing in Aberdeen [, Maryland of the Low-A Northern League], which was close to home. They were going to send me to the rookie league but they didn’t start until June and they knew I had a military obligation in June.

“I was just looking forward to playing ball but it was a shock [out there] in terms of my rearing and the atmosphere I grew up in. I was terrible. Rough is an understatement. They had a converted pitcher play left field in front of me so I didn’t get much playing time. My offensive production was so bad that I think I walked two times with the bases loaded; that’s how I got my RBIs. It was an indication that I was in way over my head but they wanted to see me play before I went on active duty.”

Going on active duty and heading to Vietnam would change Bumbry’s life and his perspective.

THE WAR, COMING HOME AND JUMPSTARTING A CAREER

Bumbry went into the service as a second lieutenant and came out a first lieutenant after being deployed to Vietnam. He was a platoon leader and earned a Bronze Star, which is awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement or meritorious service in a combat zone. Bumbry earned his for the latter.

He led a unit of 45 men and distinguished himself to such a degree that the U.S. Army wanted him to re-enlist with a promotion to captain. Figuring he had already survived one tour of duty, Bumbry said “there was no way I was going to push my luck any further”. So, he came home with plans of resuming his baseball career.

Bumbry returned in 1971 and this time the Orioles did send him to Aberdeen. He was older and had a different perspective about life and baseball after coming back from Vietnam. Bumbry was also 24 years old playing against kids – and he dominated the league, finishing third in the league in hitting [.336] and RBIs [53], second in stolen bases [34] and sixth in OBP [.471].

Willie Randolph #30 of the New York Yankees puts the tag on Al Bumbry #1 of the Baltimore Orioles during an Major League Baseball game circa 1981 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

“There is no doubt about it; being in Vietnam changed my perspective,” Bumbry said. “You learn about life over there. My life was on the line being in a war zone and I had 45 kids that I was responsible for. That was a lot of responsibility thrown at me and how I handled life and death situations was important. I didn’t want to lose my life there. It was sink or swim and I thought it would be best if we swim and I matured as a person.

“When I came back, baseball wasn’t as dominating psychologically or mentally. I realized there was more to life than that. If I can survive a war I could apply the things I learned and be a productive player in baseball. Vietnam made my mental approach jump higher than it was before because I couldn’t be a passive laid back person if I was responsible for others. We had been on strike one year early in my career and a teammate asked if I was worried about it. I said I survived Vietnam, you think I’m worried about losing some time in a strike year? So yes, I did have a different outlook in general.”

Bumbry followed up his first post-war season by splitting time between Asheville of the Double-A Southern League and Rochester of the Triple-A International League. He began the season with the Asheville Orioles and was tearing up the league, hitting .347 through 26 games. Fate then intervened and he found himself in Rochester after Red Wings outfielder Richie Coggins broke his hand.

Despite playing in a much more competitive environment – Rochester was a powerful team in that era – Bumbry showed that what he had accomplished at the lower levels was no fluke. He hit .345 in 108 games to win the batting title. He also stole 22 bases, had a .397 OBP and was named the IL Rookie of the Year.

It earned Bumbry a September call-up to Baltimore during which he would remain hot. Bumbry went 4-for-11, scored five runs and stole a base. After not being sure he wanted to play baseball and surviving a war in Southeast Asia, Bumbry was now in the Major Leagues to stay.

“When it came to instruction on playing the game of baseball, once I signed that was the first time I got official instruction,” Bumbry said. “I just saw the ball and hit it and when I went to California, I was overmatched. Then I went to Aberdeen and I got some hitting advice from [then Orioles scout Ken] Squeaky Parker. He introduced me to the batting tee and I would do that a couple of times a week and he would talk to me about the fundamentals of hitting. A lot of it must have sunk in.

“Then when I went to Rochester and when Richie Coggins came off the DL, I had done so well that [manager Joe Altobelli] Alto said we’re not sending him back [to AA]. He is staying here. I just didn’t concern myself with what others were doing. I had tunnel vision and I guess I wasn’t a very good teammate because I wasn’t socializing, I was just focusing on baseball. I hated to fail. That was my motivation. I didn’t go out and drink, I didn’t do a lot of hanging around, I got my rest and that’s basically how I made it through. That’s how I roll.”

Bumbry rolled alright, right into another dozen years in Baltimore starting with one big rookie season.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

That the Orioles were a successful, veteran team with legitimate post-season aspirations every year made it a bit easier for the likes of Bumbry and Coggins to find their way in 1973. While it all worked out for Bumbry as the season progressed, his start didn’t resemble the small sample size he had provided in 1972 nor would it be representative of what he would accomplish over the final four months of the season.

Bumbry was hitting .246 as May drew to a close and several times his average dipped below .200. A six-game hitting streak near the end of May helped bump his average up and seemed to jumpstart him as he headed into June. Bumbry went on a tear in June, hitting .354 [28-for-79] to push his batting average to .307 as July began. The month featured a five-hit game in Milwaukee on June 25, which was part of a six-game hitting streak during which he went 12-for-26.

He hit safely in 18-of-23 July games and that success continued right through the end of the season. A late-season highlight also took place in Milwaukee where he connected for three triples on Sept. 22. The O’s won the East Division but lost to Oakland in the American League Championship, during which Bumbry went 0-for-7. The BBWAA votes for its awards after the season but before the post-season and they named Bumbry as the AL Rookie of the Year. He hit .337 in only 356 at-bats and led the league with 11 triples. He also stole 23 bases and had a .398 OBP.

Bumbry was a runaway winner of the ROY, outdistancing Milwaukee’s Pedro Garcia, 13 first-place votes to three. Coggins finished sixth in the voting.

“I had no concept of the significance of the Rookie of the Year and what it was all about,” Bumbry said. “I had tunnel vision. What I wanted to do was play – and play well – so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. If I wasn’t playing, it meant I didn’t play well. But, I put up the numbers that put me in a position where the writers felt I deserved it. It was great but it wasn’t something I strove for.

“Coggins and I were similar players. He could run, I could run and he had some good numbers. Around August, some of the writers said we’re thinking about entering you and Rich as a pair for the Rookie of the Year writers. I said I don’t anything about that and I don’t care. Someone decided they weren’t going to do that and it turned out I won, but it wasn’t something I planned to achieve.”

Feb 24 1998: First Base and Baserunning Coach Al Bumbry #1 of the Cleveland Indians at Spring Training at the Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Florida. (Photo: Craig Melvin /Allsport)

MOVING FORWARD

The middle of the decade saw Bumbry struggle both in terms of his performance and for playing time. His batting average dropped 104 points to .233 in 1974 and it was reflected in the fact that he only appeared in 94 games. He collected only 19 RBIs and 21 walks, which represented the lowest full-season walk total he had with Baltimore. He continued as a platoon player in 1975 though his average crept up to .269.

“After my second year I had no staying power because I was terrible,” Bumbry said. “But then I rebounded a little. Earl would scream at me and I would scream back. It took four or five years of doing that. That’s just the control Earl had. Once you understood Earl, it was easy. He just wanted to win and play the way he felt you should play and the way your contract implied you should play. You had to play right and play hard.

“He never let guys slack off. If you did or he felt you were doing what you were capable of doing, he would let you know. He’d blast you right in front of everyone. Everything he did was for a reason. Once you understood that, the screaming and hollering and the antics, you were okay with it. We all had a common goal, which was to win, and in that regard we were always on the same page. He just went about it in a different manner. He screamed at me and the more he said I couldn’t do something, my response was to say okay I will show you.”

Bumbry slowly began showing Weaver and the rest of the American League in 1976. The two down years he had were in the rearview mirror as he spent most of ’76 as Baltimore’s primary leadoff man. He stole 42 bases and recorded what was, at the time, a career-best 450 at-bats.

He would put together what was the best of his first five full seasons in the Major Leagues in 1977. He hit .317 and a .371 OBP to go along with a career-best 31 doubles. Bumbry also eventually began to transition into Baltimore’s everyday centerfielder when eight-time Gold Glover Paul Blair was dealt to the Yankees. He played 111 games in center that year.

“Right after Blair got traded, I didn’t become the guy,” Bumbry said. “Frank Robinson came as a coach [in 1978] and he said that he told Earl he wanted me to play centerfield. He would hit me fungoes and fly balls every day. I could run the ball down, I just didn’t have a strong arm. When I could flag them down, the pitchers would like having me out there. I didn’t have a strong arm but I did things to compensate.

“They [the Orioles] didn’t trade me not because they wanted to give me the centerfield job. They didn’t trade Blair to open that slot for me. I never felt any pressure, though, when Blair was there because I was playing left field.”

The following season was the most difficult of Bumbry’s career. He appeared in only 33 games after breaking his left leg and ankle on May 12 in Texas. He would make it back for some light duty in September despite the severity of the injury but needed to play winter ball to prove he was all the way back.

“I can’t say it was scary but I realized the seriousness of it,” Bumbry said. “It took a long time to heal but it was just another obstacle to overcome. When I came back I was fine. I never looked at it, though, as something I couldn’t overcome.”

If there were any lingering doubts about how Bumbry’s recovery had gone, he erased them in 1979. He appeared in 148 games and hit .285, collecting 29 doubles and stealing 37 stolen bases [fourth in the American League]. He added seven assists defensively and helped the Orioles reach the World Series.

Bumbry did experience a Spring Training scare, though, while sliding in a game at Dunedin. He feared he had reinjured his ankle but those fears were unfounded. Bumbry actually made the most of that day and the determination he showed that day led to him having a big ’79 and an even better 1980.

“I slid into second base in the second inning of my comeback and I thought I hurt myself again,” he said. “But, I was just breaking up adhesions in the ankle that were the result of the dislocation I had where all the ligaments had healed back tight. I must have loosened those adhesions because I had more flexibility.

“That was in the second inning and I went back into the clubhouse and outside the clubhouse they had one of the old-time pitching machines where you put the balls in the big basket. The machine feeds itself. I turned that machine on and for the next six innings I hit curve balls and sliders and my hands were red. I hit every damn thing and I attribute my success to me hitting in the batting cage. I learned to read the spin, see the spin. I learned how to attack them and when I saw a similar breaking ball in a game I knew what an appropriate swing was. Before then, I was fooled a lot.”

The personal success Bumbry enjoyed that season proved to be of little solace, though, after the Orioles lost the World Series to Pittsburgh. Baltimore led the series three games to one but couldn’t finish off the Willie Stargell-led Pirates, who rallied to take the crown. That Bumbry did not enjoy a particularly productive series [3-for-21] only made matters worse.

“I still haven’t gotten over ’79,” Bumbry said. “People talk about the World Series but I don’t talk about ’79. We were up 3-1 and we couldn’t finish the deal. We were up and we thought we can win one of the next three and we didn’t.

“I know for a fact that motivated us the next time we got in in 1983. When we got back in ’83 we had a different mental approach. We thought about winning one at a time as opposed to saying we can win one of the next three games. That’s how I looked at it and the players on the club looked at it the same way.”

Al Bumbry #1 of the Baltimore Orioles slides into second base against the Oakland Athletics during a Major League Baseball game circa 1975 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Bumbry played for the Orioles from 1972-84. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Bumbry was completely healed by 1980. That and the post-season disappointment of the previous season fueled him as he put together a career season. He made his only All-Star appearance and received MVP votes as he played in a career high 160 games. He also had career highs in plate appearances [738], at-bats [645], runs scored [118], hits [205], homers [nine], RBIs [53], stolen bases [44], walks [78] and total bases [279]. His 205 hits were, at the time, the most by an Oriole in the 26 years since the club had moved from St. Louis and has only been bettered four times since.

The player’s strike cost Bumbry, and everyone else, in 1981 while injuries slowed him in 1982. Though he had slowed down some and wasn’t playing as regularly as he had been – the Orioles were trying to shoehorn John Shelby into centerfield – he rebounded for a solid 1983 and hit .275 at age 36 to help the Orioles pick up their first World Series title since 1970.

“There was a lot of gratification in winning that World Series,” he said. “We had lost in ’79 and a lot of guys never get to play in one or two. I was fortunate enough to play in two and win the second one. It was very satisfying. That stands out today. You look at my resume and it says I was a member of the 1983 World Champions. That word just vibrates all through me when someone introduces me or describes me or points out that I was a member of a World Series-winning team. It was more satisfying because we lost the first one.”

Bumbry played one more season in Baltimore and had a respectable year in part-time duty, hitting .270. The Orioles released him, though, in November and he signed with San Diego for what would be the final year of his career.

It wasn’t a memorable season. Bumbry hit .200 in 95 at-bats, most of which came as a pinch-hitter, in 68 games. His last hit came on Aug. 29, a ninth-inning single against Montreal’s Tim Burke.

“It was their opinion that I had spent my last year there [Baltimore] in 1984,” Bumbry said. “I didn’t think I was finished. From a statistical standpoint I didn’t think I was washed up, but they had a young outfielder in T-Bone Shelby who was the same type of hitter with more power. He was a switch hitter with a better arm and much younger than myself. That was the last year of my contract and I think that was one of the reasons they decided to release me. I didn’t think I had that bad of a year that warranted a release.”

Bumbry’s time in baseball hadn’t come to an end, though. He coached in Boston from 1988-93, Baltimore in 1995 and with the Indians in 1998 and 2002. Bumbry also played in the Senior Professional Baseball Association for the Winter Haven Super Sox in 1989.

Additionally, he managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-female team, in 1997. Bumbry said it afforded him an opportunity to stay in the game and continue teaching. He continues to teach, offering private lessons while also working at clinics and baseball camps. He’ll also occasionally do some public relations work for the Orioles but says he doesn’t watch a lot of baseball anymore.

The memories he created and the time he spent as an unsung hero with the Orioles, however, remain etched in the minds of many Baltimore fans. He was part of the greatest era in the organization’s history and is a member of the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame.

“Like any other player, I wanted to do well,” he said. “I wanted us to win and whatever contributions I could make to help is win was where my focus was.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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