Hair does it for Cal look-alike

Al Blackburn didn't have an Orioles jersey. In fact, unlike most of the contestants, he didn't wear anything in the O's trademark orange hue.

However, he did bring his baseball glove. He has fielded a ball or two at shortstop. And he does have twinkling baby-blue eyes.

Oh, and one more thing.

"I think I have the Cal Ripken hairdo under control," the 81-year-old joked of his barely-there hairline. "I owe it all to my hairdresser."

Blackburn's physical attributes -- and his "spirit," as the judges pointed out -- won him top honors in yesterday's Cal Ripken Jr. Look-Alike Contest at the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville.

With Baltimore's hometown hero just days from induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Charlestown organizers decided to get in on the fun with a competition that allowed their residents to celebrate a sport they grew up watching and to relive their younger days.

Sam Porpora, 92, who owned a chain of drive-in restaurants and worked for an advertising firm before he retired, brought to the contest a poster-sized photograph of himself when he played for the B&O Railroad Post 81 American Legion baseball team in 1931.

Don Salvucci, 74, a retired newspaper printer, spouted some of his own baseball statistics onstage from his days playing sandlot ball in Philadelphia -- along with those of Ripken and Lou Gehrig, whose streak of consecutive games played was shattered by Ripken.

Blackburn, the contest winner, seized upon his moment in the spotlight to regale folks with the highlight of his baseball career: being chosen to pitch batting practice before Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's game against the University of Rochester in the spring of 1949.

The competition featured 10 men in an auditorium decked out with posters of Ripken and paper plates decorated to resemble baseballs.

Although one woman signed up to participate, she did not show at game time.

"She must be in the dugout," joked Joe Foss, the former chief operating officer of the Baltimore Orioles and one of the judges of yesterday's contest.

Called to the stage one at a time, the contestants had 15 seconds to impress the crowd and the judges with their Ripken-like batting stances. During a second round, they had 15 seconds to imitate the two-time Gold Glove winner's fielding talents.

Henry Behringer took his time getting to the plate (a bundled-up orange Ripken jersey). He steered his motorized wheelchair to center stage, locked the brakes and planted each foot squarely on opposite sides of the makeshift plate before swinging away.

Jim Greeley, a frequent cyclist on the Charlestown campus and a retired physician, managed a little leap across stage while fielding an imaginary fly ball. That prompted Foss to ask whether the doctor played for Charlestown's softball team, adding, "You might have a new recruit for next year."

But as the audience laughed, Greeley shook his head.

"I might break something," he said on the way back to his seat.

Throughout the contest, master of ceremonies Mel Tansill offered a steady stream of play-by-play and color commentary.

When one contestant picked a spot nowhere near home plate for his turn at bat, Tansill cracked, "He's away from the plate. He's working that outside corner."

Contestant Bill Armstrong won the biggest laughs of the afternoon with his fielding routine.

Holding his lower back, he bent over oh, so slowly to get his glove to the ground. Then, pretending to get stuck, he gestured wildly to Tansill to help him back up.

The audience went wild.

Charlestown residents who packed the auditorium for yesterday's contest said they were drawn by both their love of baseball and their admiration for Ripken.

"I've been brought up with baseball. It's the American pastime, you know," said Carl Tongier, 78, who did classified work for the National Security Agency before his retirement.

His uncle, Walter Johnson, played for the now-defunct Washington Senators and is regarded by baseball historians as one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

"He was just like Cal in a lot of ways," Tongier said of his uncle. "He was a good family man and a good player. He played hard and worked hard."

Blackburn, a retired electrical engineer who spent his career at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said he also has always enjoyed baseball.

"It's a good wide-open game, where you can see the action," he said.

Noting that he recently played shortstop at a Charlestown softball game, Blackburn said, "I did not exactly distinguish myself, except by ending up on the seat of my pants when I was trying to maneuver myself under a fly ball. It was much easier up there [on stage] playing with an imaginary ball. The ball always ends up in the glove, and every pitch is a hit right off the bat."

Although Ripken did not attend the event, a Charlestown spokesman said the look-alike competition had been cleared with the baseball star to make sure that he didn't mind such a contest being held at a senior center where the youngest residents are 16 years older than he is.

John Maroon, a Ripken spokesman, said the event fit nicely with the festivities being held in honor of Sunday's Hall of Fame induction.

"It's certainly one of those things that's a lot of fun," he said. "One of Cal's greatest attributes is that he is very humble and self-effacing. He has a much better sense of humor than people give him credit for."

For their part, Charlestown staff members said they plan to send Ripken a videotape of the event. Consider it the opening pitch of their recruitment efforts.

"We're looking forward 15 years from now to Cal being a resident of Charlestown," Tansill said. "We are the only retirement community in the country with a baseball diamond on the campus."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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