SABR

Billy O'Dell

This article was written by Nancy Snell Griffith.

Left-handed pitcher William Oliver “Billy” O’Dell, nicknamed “Digger” after a character in the radio-TV show The Life of Riley, was signed by the Baltimore Orioles as a bonus baby right out of Clemson University, and never played a day in the minors. In his 13-year major-league career, he pitched in five seasons for the mediocre Baltimore Orioles and five for the San Francisco Giants, with whom he went to a World Series. He worked as a reliever in more than half of his major-league games, and his best season was 1962, when his record was 19-14. He was known as a strikeout pitcher during his college days, and this reputation followed him into the big leagues. He also became known as somewhat of a hard-luck pitcher, and was plagued by various ailments and injuries throughout his career. This eventually gave him the reputation of not being able to finish a game, and kept him in the bullpen for much of the time.

O’Dell was born in Whitmire in Newberry County, part of upstate South Carolina, on February 10, 1933. His parents, who were living in Whitmire at the time of the 1930 Census, were retail grocery salesman Edgar S. O’Dell and his wife, Hattie. In 1930 their family included Elizabeth, 5; Jessie, 3; and Francis, 1. Later additions to the family were Billy and Martha.

Billy was a star baseball player for Whitmire High School. Once, in a game against nearby Clinton, he chalked up the most strikeouts he ever had in a game. According to Billy, “I fanned twenty-eight batters. The kid who was catching dropped the third strike that would have ended the game. So I had to strike out the next fellow, too.”[1]

O’Dell attended Clemson University and lettered on the baseball team from 1952 to 1955. In 1952 and 1953 he was named All-Southern Conference in baseball. In 1953 he pitched a no-hitter against archrival South Carolina. In 1954 he had nine complete games, including three shutouts. In 1954 he was All-Atlantic Coast Conference (Clemson changed conferences in 1953), All-District, second team All American and a member of the Third District NCAA all-star team. His career record at Clemson was 19-8, and in 2011 he still held the school records for lowest ERA in a career (1.51), strikeouts per nine innings pitched (12.29), and fewest hits given up per nine innings (5.29). He decided to leave Clemson at the end of his junior year because the team had a large number of graduating seniors, and he was already being pursued by a number of major-league scouts.

O’Dell also played some textile-league baseball during this time. In 1949 he was playing for Newberry Mills of the Mid-State League, and in 1950 he played for Mollohon. From 1951 to 1953, during summers off from Clemson, he pitched for Liberty Mill of the Greenville Textile League. In 1952 Liberty won the league championship with a record of 24-15. During this period O’Dell also married Joan Dennis, a marriage that has lasted to the present day (2011). 

He contacted all of the major-league teams about signing with them. Most were interested, but O’Dell chose the Orioles. He was the Orioles’ first “bonus baby” after the franchise moved from St. Louis. He later said that he went with the Orioles for two reasons. First, he thought they’d give him a chance to play. Second, they also offered him a bonus of $12,500, and, according to the bonus rule in effect at the time, they were obligated to keep a player getting a bonus of more than $4,000 on the team for at least two years. He signed with Baltimore on June 8, 1954.

O’Dell recalled that right after he signed with Baltimore, pitching coach Harry Brecheen took him to dinner and advised him “Billy, you’re going to be a good pitcher. … You’re going to the top. You’re going to pass a lot of players. Be nice. Because you’re going to come back down.”[2]

The pitcher made his major league debut on June 20, 1954, pitching the ninth inning of a game the Orioles lost to Washington, 7-1. Manager Jimmy Dykes sent him in to relieve three more times, then gave him a start in a game against Washington on July 29. According to O’Dell, “It was quite an experience. … Eddie Yost opened with a triple and Mickey Vernon finished me with a double. What happened in between is fuzzy, but I know that I got no one out and four runs were in.”[3] “O’Dell’s memory is indeed fuzzy. Yost’s hit was a double, Roy Sievers actually finished him off with a single, and he did manage to get one man out.”

On September 24 Dykes started O’Dell again, against the Chicago White Sox. The opposing pitcher, Virgil Trucks, was going for his 20th win of the season. O’Dell pitched a five-hitter, and went five innings without allowing any hits at all; Baltimore won the game 2-1. By the end of the season, O’Dell had appeared in seven games, two of which he had started and one of which he had completed. His record was 1-1, and his earned-run average was 2.76.

O’Dell’s whereabouts between the end of the 1954 season and August of 1956 are a bit mysterious.[4] According to published accounts, he went into the Army in November 1954 and spent the entire 1955 season and most of the 1956 season at Fort McPherson, Georgia, where he played ball with Norm Siebern, Vinegar Bend Mizell, and Frank Bolling.[5] There are some reports that he played football at Clemson University; however, former Clemson sports publicist Brent Breedin confirmed that a different Bill O'Dell was the football star.[6] 

Whatever the case, O’Dell was discharged from the Army in late August 1956. He returned to the Orioles and pitched in four games. He was back with the Orioles in 1957 and appeared in 35 games, starting 15. His record for the year was 4-10, and his ERA was 2.69. Apparently during these early years, O’Dell had severe breathing problems during the early part of each season, resulting in his having to receive treatment between innings. He was finally diagnosed with an allergy to all types of grasses, and in 1958 he began receiving allergy shots.

O’Dell’s pitching improved in 1958. On May 3 he pitched a 13-inning complete game against the Cleveland Indians, allowing only seven hits. On June 8, after a shaky start in the first inning, he allowed only two singles in a victory over the Indians, ending with a four-hitter. He was named to the 1958 All-Star Team, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game (the first time the honor was conferred) when he retired all nine National League batters he faced. Included among them were sluggers Stan Musial, who at the time had the highest batting average in the majors, Frank Thomas, Ernie Banks, Lee Walls, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. 

O’Dell later said that it was a “tremendous thrill” when manager Casey Stengel decided to put him in the game, but not his greatest thrill in baseball: “Gosh, no … that would have to be the first time I ever faced Ted Williams, in a game against Boston in 1954. I don’t remember what happened in the end, but I do remember he hit a 500-foot foul off me.” When Williams was asked about the incident, he replied “If I hit a 500-foot foul off O’Dell that was the best ball I ever hit off him.” (According to Baseball-reference.com, Williams grounded out to first base in his first at-bat against O’Dell.) After the All-Star game, Baltimore catcher Gus Triandos commented “On a day or night when Billy is right, he’s as good as any batter he faces.”[7]

On August 16 O’Dell pitched a two-hitter against the Washington Senators. He had 25 starts in 41 appearances for the Orioles that year, with 12 complete games and eight saves. He ended the season with a record of 14-11 and an ERA of 2.97. He led the American League in strikeout-to-base on balls ratio, 2.686, and was errorless in 44 fielding chances. He also gave up the most home runs per nine innings pitched in the American League and was second lowest in the league in bases on balls per nine innings pitched.

In March 1959 Orioles manager Paul Richards said of O’Dell, “He has everything – speed, curve, control, confidence, courage, and competitive fire. But he still must develop a change-of-pace pitch.” Columnist Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote, “[H]is fast ball whistles like Lefty Grove’s. His strike-out totals are high.”[8] By later in spring training, however, O’Dell was suffering from lower back spasms, and went to Baltimore for tests. He was unable to say how the injury happened, saying, “All I know … is that I felt numb from the lower part of my back on down through my legs.”[9] His back bothered him through much of the season, and he pitched with a back brace, which hampered his pitching. He wasn’t really back to full strength until August.

O’Dell did manage, however, to hit a 120-foot inside-the-park home run against the White Sox on May 19. Apparently he and pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, neither of whom was a very good hitter, had made a bet on who would hit the first home run. O’Dell’s feat was really a fluke. When he hit a blooper over first base, it bounced off the right-field foul line and over the head of outfielder Al Smith, landing in the deep right-field corner.

O’Dell made the All-Star team again in 1959. He appeared in 38 games that season, starting 24. He ended up with a 10-12 record and a 2.93 ERA. On November 30 the Orioles traded O’Dell and Billy Loes to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder Jackie Brandt, pitcher Gordon Jones, and catcher Roger McCardell.

In 1960 and 1961, the Giants used O’Dell as both a starter and a reliever, but in 1961 he was mainly a reliever. In late July 1960 he had another bit of bad luck when he was hit by a ball on his pitching wrist. He was quoted as remarking, “It doesn’t look like I’ll ever complete a game.”[10] That season he appeared in 43 games, 24 of which he started. He ended with a record of 8-13, including a three-hitter against the Chicago Cubs on September 19. In 1961 he appeared in 46 games, only 14 of which he started. He struck out 110 batters in 130 1/3 innings. On June 12 he struck out ten batters in a 7-4 victory over the Dodgers, and five days later he pitched a complete-game 9-3 victory over the Cubs, striking out seven. On July 4 he had 13 strikeouts in a game against the Cubs, and on September 23 he pitched a 6-0 shutout against the Cincinnati Reds, striking out six. His record for the season was 7-5, and he won all four of his complete games.

After the 1961 season O’Dell asked Giants manager Alvin Dark to either allow him to start more or trade him to a team that would: “I want to be a starter. … If the Giants don’t let me pitch any more than last season, I hope they let me go somewhere else,” he said. Manager Dark reportedly replied, “I think a lot of O’Dell and he definitely is a part of this ballclub. … He showed me that he really can pitch, and he’ll be doing plenty of it in 1962.”[11]

O’Dell went on to have his best season ever. By May 10, 1962, when he pitched a four-hitter against the Cardinals, he was unbeaten in five appearances. On June 29 he struck out 12 in a 12-inning game against the Phillies. On August 6 he pitched a five-hitter against the Pirates, and batted in the winning run himself. He ended the season with a record of 19-14 and a 3.53 ERA. He pitched 280 2/3 innings, leading the Giants, who won the pennant that year, in strikeouts (195) and complete games (20). He was third in the National League in games started (39), batters faced (1,178) and innings pitched. 

He pitched 12 1/3 innings in the World Series, which the Giants lost to the Yankees in seven games in a Series spread out over 13 days because of rainouts. He started and lost the first game to Whitey Ford and went three innings in relief to preserve the Giants’ victory in Game 4. O'Dell came on in relief in the eighth inning of Game 7 with the bases loaded and no outs. He got Roger Maris to ground out and Elston Howard to hit into an inning-ending double play. O'Dell also retired the side in the ninth inning, but the Giants' rally in the bottom of the ninth was for naught when Willie McCovey lined out to end the Series and give the Yankees a 1-0 win.

O'Dell's ERA for the Series was 4.39. In Game One he struck out Mickey Mantle with a curveball. As O’Dell recalled it later, Mantle said, “Digger! Where’d you get that?” and Billy replied, “Mickey, you got to learn new tricks as you get older.”[12]

O’Dell was with the Giants again in 1963, and pitched a three-hitter against Houston on April 11, a two-hitter against Milwaukee on June 22, and another three-hitter against the Phillies on September 26. He actually started the season with an eight-game winning streak, but then hard luck struck when he tore a ligament in his ankle and was sidelined for several weeks. He appeared in 36 games during the season, 33 of them starts, and ended with a record of 14-10 and an ERA of 3.16.

In 1964 O’Dell was once again relegated to the bullpen, where he joined fellow relievers Gaylord Perry and Bob Shaw, both former starters. He suffered from a sore arm during the first half of the season, and ended the year with 36 appearances, only eight of them starts.   His record for the season was 8-7. There was one memorable game, however. On July 12, in a game against the Houston Colts, umpire Lee Weyer threw Billy out of a game before he ever pitched a ball. As he warmed up after coming into the game in the seventh inning, Weyer told him he had only three more practice throws left. According to Weyer, O’Dell replied with words unbecoming of a gentleman, and he was ejected. This resulted in the unusual sight of Gaylord Perry, Billy’s replacement, having to actually change his shoes on the pitching mound.

In late January 1965 the Giants traded O’Dell to the Milwaukee Braves for catcher Ed Bailey. After joining the Braves he had some controversial comments to make about the 1964 Giants. He asserted that the Giants had the best team in the league but had failed to win the pennant because some players refused to put out for manager Dark. “There were guys who broke their backs for Dark … but there were other guys who did not hustle. They gave him only 60 percent effort. It was pitiful. … It’s really a shame the way they treated Dark. I thought he was a fine manager. … I always respected him. But he didn’t have a chance.”[13] Willie Mays responded that he didn’t know anyone who didn’t give 100 per cent but that several players, including himself, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, and Jack Sanford were injured during the season. (The Giants finished in fourth place in the ten-team league that season, and Dark was fired at the end of the season.)

O’Dell appeared in 62 games for the Braves in 1965, all but one in relief. He finished the season with a record of 10-6, 18 saves and the lowest ERA on the team, 2.16. He stayed with the team when it moved to Atlanta in 1966. He appeared in 24 games that season, all in relief, before he was traded to the Pirates for pitcher Don Schwall on June 16. While with the Braves he had six saves with an ERA of 2.40. In an interesting incident in April, he was among 18 National League players who were fined $25 for “fraternizing” with opposing players on the field – the result of a new fraternization rule passed by the league during the winter. 

Although O’Dell considered not reporting to the Pirates, he eventually joined the club. He appeared in 37 games for the Pirates, starting only two, and had four saves. His record for the season was 5-5. During the season, however, he began to feel weak and tired, and started losing weight. At first, doctors could not find the cause, but over the offseason he spent a month in the hospital and was eventually diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a defect in the adrenal glands that makes it impossible for the body to retain salt. He began cortisone treatments, and his health improved.

In 1967 the Pirates put him back in the starting rotation and Billy was happy to be there, saying, “You’ve got to work every day when you’re out there in the bullpen. … When you’re a starter you can pace yourself.”[14] He pitched in 27 games for the Pirates, 11 of them starts. He pitched one complete game, and had no saves. O’Dell ended the season with a record of 5-6 and an ERA of 5.82. He played his final game for the Pirates on September 12, 1967, and was released on October 3. He returned to Newberry County, where he had been nominated as the Republican candidate for road supervisor. Over his 13-year career in the majors he appeared in 479 games (1,817 innings) won 105 games and lost 100, and had an ERA of 3.29. He struck out 1,133 batters, and had ten games in which he struck out more than ten.

In 1968 O’Dell joined the staff of his hometown textile company, Newberry Mills, as its public relations director. He remained associated with baseball, coaching American Legion ball. In 1976 he was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. He must have been involved in some way with the baseball program at Newberry College, because 1990 Newberry graduate Casey Estridge said that O’Dell taught him a pitch called a slip pitch. According to Estridge, “I finally got some command of it and Digger would be in the dugout and would see me throw it and the next thing you know he’s yelling from the dugout …‘Throw it again.’ … Everyone in the park knew what I was going to throw, but for some reason it was nearly impossible to hit.” He credited O’Dell with molding him as a pitcher and called him “so easy going and laid-back” that he “made baseball so much fun for me.”[15]

O’Dell and his wife, Joan, settled on a farm near Newberry. They had five children, three of them adopted. O’Dell became a supporter of nearby Boys Farm, which was organized in 1960 to help troubled youth, and devoted time to fishing and bird hunting.

September 17, 2011

Sources

Ancestry.com (1930 census information)

“Billy O’Dell” Clemson Tigers website: http://clemsontigers.cstv.com/sports/m-basebl/mtt/odell_billy00.html

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.org




[1] Arthur Daley. “Sports of the Times.” New York Times, March 5, 1959, 40

[2] Leslie Moses. “Newberry Major Leaguer Looks Back.” Newberry Observer, January 6, 2010, 7

[3] Daley, 40

[4] While some online sources indicate that O'Dell played football for the Clemson Tigers, former Clemson sports publicist Brent Breedin said a different Bill O'Dell from Newnan, Georgia, was actually the football player, not the baseball-playing O'Dell.

[5] New York Times, December 30, 1956, S5; Baseball Digest, October 1958

[6] See note 4 above.

[7] Louis Effrat. “O’Dell of Orioles Is Brightest of All-Stars at Baltimore.” New York Times, July 9, 1958, 31

[8] Daley, 40

[9] “O’Dell Said Suffering Back Spasms.” Florence Morning News, March 28, 1959

[10] “O’Dell Adds Hard Luck to Reputation.” Associated Press, in Florence Morning News, July 31, 1960

[11] “Dark Assures O’Dell He’ll ‘See Action’ ” United Press International, Valley Independent, Monessen, Pennsylvania, December 23, 1961, 12

[12] Moses, 7

[13] “Players Didn’t Put Out for Dark Says Bill O’Dell.” Associated Press, in Florence Morning News, March 9, 1965

[14] “Billy Happy to Escape the Bullpen.” United Press International, in News-Dispatch, Jeanette, Pennsylvania, May 19, 1967, 8.

[15] Online comment added to Moses, Newberry Observer, January 6, 2010, 7
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