Matthew Taylor: When wooden foul lines factored into a wager between pitchers

Orioles pitchers Hoyt Wilhelm and Billy O’Dell each entered the 1959 season with one career home run. Wilhelm’s homer came during his rookie campaign with the New York Giants in 1952; O’Dell’s blast was in 1958 for the Orioles. The players made a bet about who would hit the most home runs in 1959. The anniversary of O’Dell winning that bet, thanks to a quirky assist from Memorial Stadium’s wooden foul lines, passed earlier this week.

O’Dell became one of the approximately 10 major league pitchers to ever hit an inside-the-park home run on May 19, 1959. He started the scoring in what would end up as a 2-1 Orioles victory over the Chicago White Sox with his second-inning clout off of Billy Pierce. The ball reportedly traveled 120 feet on the fly but became a longball after bouncing off the foul line, which at the time consisted of wood planks that were embedded in the dirt and painted white.

The homer came nearly a year to the date of O’Dell’s first career home run, also against the White Sox. That one actually made it out of the park.

Here’s a recap of the 1959 hit from an Associated Press story headlined “Billy O’Dell’s Homer Wins Game, Bet”:

“O’Dell blooped the ball over first base for an apparent scratch single. But it hit on the white-washed wooden foul line and bounced over the head of right fielder Al Smith, charging in to field the ball on the hop. The ball rolled to the auxiliary scoreboard in deep right field.”

The satisfied pitcher informed reporters afterward about his wager with Wilhelm.

“I’ve won the bet already,” he boasted.

Sure enough, he had. Wilhelm didn’t hit a home run that season. In fact, he never hit a second career home run. O’Dell didn’t add another homer to his career total either, but he didn’t need to in order to possess bragging rights over Wilhelm.

O’Dell’s bragging rights extended to the West Coast where he became teammates in the 1960s with the pitcher he victimized for his inside-the-park homer.

“When I was traded to San Francisco, O’Dell was already there with the Giants,” Pierce recalled. “And he kidded me in the clubhouse: ‘Oh, yeah, I remember the night I ripped that home run off of Billy.’ Made it sound like he’d really belted it.”

Those wooden foul lines would come into play again a decade after O’Dell’s infamous hit. Frank Robinson led of the 13th inning of an April 10, 1969, game against the Red Sox with a double that caromed off the wooden foul line. Boog Powell subsequently plated Robinson with an RBI single that ended the game.

Red Sox manager Dick Williams disagreed with umpire Emmett Ashford’s ruling that Robinson’s hit was a fair ball and compared the umpire to “a Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey clown.”

Boston first baseman Ken Harrelson reacted to the ruling while the ball was still in play. He claimed that Ashford had jumped out of the way and therefore didn’t see that the ball had landed, in his estimation, four inches foul. Williams argued the call to no avail.

Robinson and Powell, who was waiting on-deck at the time of the disputed hit, both claimed that the ball struck the outside of the wooden foul line and ricocheted into foul territory. Ashford agreed, and Powell finished the job.

Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. Follow him on Twitter: @RoarFrom34. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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