In nest of zanies, 3 stood out

Sun Staff

A pitcher whose repertoire included smoke bombs, sneezing powder and live snakes.

A catcher who bought cattle during road trips and hauled livestock in his Cadillac.

An outfielder known to run the bases backward and spout maxims like, "This year I'm going to play with harder nonchalance."

What strange birds these Orioles can be.

Moe Drabowsky, Clint Courtney and Jackie Brandt are just three of the characters who have played for Baltimore through the years.

"Every player has a few screws loose because of the pressure of that goldfish-bowl existence," said Dick Hall, an Orioles pitcher in the 1960s and '70s. "Those [three] were just a little looser than the rest."

From the start, the club had its share of zanies. "Goony Bird" was the tag players pinned on Don Larsen, who pitched Opening Day 1954.

Larsen, 3-21 that season, would as soon have been playing pinball in a bar. "An overgrown kid" is how teammates described him.

Shelled from one game, Larsen headed for the clubhouse, where he flew into a rage.

"He was kicking lockers and throwing his glove around," said Dick Armstrong, the club's publicity director. "I said, 'Don, tomorrow's another day.'"

"You don't understand," Larsen said. "Somebody stole my Flash Gordon comic book!"

Larsen's catcher, Courtney, was a hoot - a tobacco-chewing, Louisiana farm boy who was strong as an ox and who smelled like one, too. On Western swings, Courtney visited stockyards in Chicago and Kansas City, looking to beef up the herd on his 200-acre spread.

"Clint would stomp around in that cow manure, wearing his only suit, then come straight to the park," shortstop Ron Hansen said. "The stink didn't bother him."

On the road, Courtney liked to lie in bed and spit at the ceiling, to the chagrin of his peers.

"I roomed with him - once," first baseman Jim Gentile said. A dapper dresser himself, "Diamond Jim" watched in horror in a New York hotel room as Courtney unpacked a suitcase filled with dirty clothes.

"We'll only be gone six days," the catcher said.

Courtney always drove Cadillacs, into which he squeezed everything from heifers to hound dogs. "I rode with Clint once," said Hall. "It was like being in a barn."

Courtney was bowlegged, balding and absurdly myopic. The first big-league catcher to wear glasses on the field, he struggled with pop-ups, circling the ball and squinting through Coke bottle lenses. The media likened the moves to those of a waiter serving pizza on roller skates.

Fiercely combative and quick to rile, the man whom teammates called "Scrap Iron" fought often but never won a brawl, they said.

"Guys would play tricks on him just to watch him get mad," catcher Joe Ginsberg said. "Once, during a game, they put Limburger cheese inside his glove. Every time he slapped [the mitt], the umpire would sniff and ask, 'What is that?'

"Clint never did catch on."

If Courtney acted like he'd been conked once too often, well, maybe he had.

"I can still see him trying to catch Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleballs, with that oversized glove the Orioles gave him," outfielder Whitey Herzog said. "Clint once bet me a fifth of booze that Wilhelm wouldn't throw one past him.

"In the second inning, a pitch comes [fluttering] in, hits Clint on the button of his cap and bounces in front of the plate. Without rubbing his head, he turns to the dugout and hollers, 'See? It didn't get by.'"

For a spell in his 11-year career, Courtney forgot how to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Really.

"He had this mental block where he couldn't get the ball to the mound," pitcher Jack Fisher said. "So Clint would either throw to third base, or walk halfway to the mound and lob it back."

In 1960, Orioles infielders complained that they couldn't hold onto the catcher's pegs. Unbeknownst to Courtney, he'd been trying to cut down base runners by throwing sliders.

He served two hitches with the Orioles (1954 and 1960-61) and retired as a .268 hitter. He was managing Richmond, Atlanta's Triple-A club, when he died in 1975. It happened while he was playing pingpong.

'Call me Flakey'

Jackie Brandt was just as loopy, in a laid-back sort of way.

"My friends call me Flakey," the blue-eyed, crew-cut outfielder told his new teammates, following a trade in 1960. What Baltimore got was a player with a knack for doing and saying things that came out of left field.

Having homered, Brandt might slide into every bag - or decide to run them clockwise.

Once, caught in a rundown between third and home, he did a back flip in an effort to avoid the tag. Brandt was out, but scored a "10" with the crowd.

"Everybody in the stands just roared," Ginsberg said. "Who but Jackie would have thought of that?"

His antics kept Brandt from a breakout career, teammates said. For every basket catch and barehanded pickup, there was a fielding gaffe or base-running blunder.

Asked about his erratic play, Brandt explained that the faster he ran, the more his "eyeballs jumped up and down."

Brandt had an excuse for every occasion.

"One time, he struck out on a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded to end the game," Hansen said. "[Manager] Paul Richards asked, 'What pitch were you guessing? Fastball or curve?'

"Jackie said, 'Neither. I was guessing ball.'"

A regular for six seasons, Brandt drove four Orioles managers batty.

"I once asked him how he'd managed to misplay a fly," said Hank Bauer, who ran the Orioles in the mid-'60s. "He said, 'I lost it in the jet stream.'"

He even had an excuse for making nutty excuses.

"I said that?" Brandt would tell reporters, shaking his head. "My lips must have been sunburned."

Some called him lackadaisical, a .262 lifetime hitter with boundless potential.

"He was as loosey-goosey as they come," outfielder Al Pilarcik said. "Jackie was so carefree, I'm surprised he didn't fall asleep out there."

"I'm trying to make myself think I'm trying harder," Brandt told The Evening Sun in 1962. "When you bust a gut and make things look easy, it's hard to do the same things and make them look hard."

Off the field, Brandt was much the same. He once played 36 holes of golf before a doubleheader. Nuts over ice hockey, he talked the Baltimore Clippers into letting him drop the puck for faceoffs during practice.

After games, Brandt would drop in - unannounced - on a convalescing friend and Orioles fan. He'd let himself in at John Wilbanks' house on Old Harford Road, make himself at home and chat. Several peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches - and a nap - later, Brandt would excuse himself and head home.

"Jackie would do that, two or three times a week, while my husband was recuperating from a heart attack," Katherine Wilbanks remembered. "Jackie was ... different."

Brandt, who did not return phone calls for this article, played his last game in 1967. He lives in Nebraska, where he is retired from a job with UPS.

Prince of Pranks

When the Orioles bought pitcher Moe Drabowsky for $25,000 in 1965, they got more than a bullpen savant. They got a master of comic relief.

Who put the garter snake in shortstop Luis Aparicio's pocket? Gotta be Drabowsky. Who gave that hot foot to a howling Boog Powell? Just say Moe. The Prince of Pranks, they dubbed him.

In 1966, Drabowsky went 6-0 and emerged from the bullpen to win a World Series game. But it was his practical jokes, as much as his prowess, that drove the Orioles down the stretch.

"We had a pretty loose team, because Moe took the pressure off in the clubhouse," pitcher Eddie Fisher said.

He placed live mice in teammates' shoes and lit firecrackers when the spirit moved. "Rolling a cherry bomb under the door, while you're in the bathroom, is real bad," said Powell, whose ears rang for days afterward.

Most stoppers are expected to put out fires. Drabowsky was a good bet to start them. He torched newspapers while players were reading them. A whiz at giving a hot foot, he delighted in igniting a match - or a book of them - that he had attached to someone's shoe.

"It became his obsession," said Powell, the first baseman. "If there were 20 guys sitting on the bench, Moe would crawl on his belly under 19 of them to give the last guy a hot foot."

Everyone was fair game. Coaches. Reporters. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Once, in Cleveland, Drabowsky lit the instep of an Indians fan.

He burned The Sun's Jim Elliott so often, the scribe took to staring at his shoes during interviews. Bemused, the pitcher struck a match to the notebook in Elliott's hand.

Other Drabowsky shenanigans: He put goldfish in the visitors' water coolers and sprayed their quarters with sneezing powder. In Kansas City, he telephoned the A's bullpen, pretending to be the manager ordering a reliever to warm up.

Snakes were a regular prop. During a sports luncheon in Baltimore, Drabowsky snuck a small python into the bread basket at the head table. When Brooks Robinson reached for a roll, he nearly fell off the dais.

Drabowsky retired after 17 years, four of them in Baltimore. Now 69, he is pitching coach at the Orioles' Sarasota training complex. A four-year fight with cancer has not dulled his sense of humor.

"During a bone marrow biopsy, the doctor had to pound a needle into my back with a hammer," he said. "Afterward, I went to the hardware store, bought this huge rubber mallet, the kind you see in cartoons, and took it with me on my next appointment.

"I told the doctor, 'Use this instead.'"

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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