By the time Wild Bill Hagy died last week at 68, he was a baseball relic — an individual fan who really mattered to the ballclub he loved.
He also was a reminder of the sport’s good old days before stadiums were gimmicked up with ear-splitting rock music, high-tech video displays and manufactured mascots who resemble aliens from some nether world.
Wild Bill was a Baltimore cabdriver and — he probably would have admitted readily — a slob. A ratty straw hat perched on top of his unkempt locks, his scraggly beard reached almost to a beer belly that hung over his belt and he was lucky if he managed to chug his Bud without slopping half the suds over his tank top.
You wouldn’t have invited Bill to a society do — and he wouldn’t have cared.
Yet the guy became an icon in Section 34 — aka the cheap seats in the right-field upper deck at old Memorial Stadium — one almost as cherished as Brooksie, Frank, Earl, Pancakes and Cal by his fellow fans. The reason was simple: He loved the Orioles when they were the Orioles, meaning one of baseball’s best and proudest franchises.
This was long, long before Peter Angelos became principal owner and set about destroying that tradition and pride. They say Bill didn’t visit Camden Yards often in his final years. Probably he couldn’t stand to see what his ballclub has become.
Nowadays it’s hard to find locally lionized fans like Bill and Hilda Chester, the raucous rooter who used to ring her cowbell with deafening effect at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Instead we have weird fuzzballs like the Bird in Baltimore, Screech in Washington and the pig-snouted Phillie Phanatic in the City of Brotherly Hate.
Hagy would have plucked their feathers clean and possibly dumped a beer on their oversized heads. No, I take back the latter, because Wild Bill wasn’t inclined to waste his brew. If he had a big head of his own, it usually was the following morning.
Back when the Senators labored at RFK Stadium, the District had its own version of Wild Bill — a rotund Capitol Hill bartender named Baseball Bill (Holdforth), who actually invaded Wild Bill’s territory to achieve his most notable act. When Bob Short, the rotten guy who moved the expansion Senators to Texas, showed up at Memorial Stadium to watch his Rangers play the following season, Baseball Bill gave Short’s blond locks a beer shampoo in the stands.
Let’s hear it for guys like the two Bills who were and are real baseball fans.
In the process of becoming a Baltimore celebrity, Wild Bill also enchanted Washington-area fans who adopted the Orioles after the Senators skipped town. When the O’s won the World Series in 1983 — their dying gasp of glory for at least a quarter-century — it was easy for even supposedly sophisticated denizens of the District to feel the thrill as he twisted his body into assorted strange shapes and the paying customers chanted “O-R-I-O-L-E-S!”
Even the players loved Bill. When the Orioles needed a rally, uninhibited catcher Rick Dempsey would start waving a towel between innings, and Hagy would go into his act. Eventually, the O’s let him perform the routine from atop the home dugout, the better to be seen and cheered by the adoring multitudes.
Cornball? Sure, but nobody cared.
When’s the last time a major league star paid his respects to a working stiff who sat in the stands, as the elegant Jim Palmer did when he heard of Wild Bill’s demise?
“This was a football town when I got here [in 1965],” the Baseball Hall of Famer told the Baltimore Sun. “But he made [baseball] exciting. People could relate to him. They loved to sit up there [in Section 34]. … He loved the Orioles, and I’m all for people who are in that category.”
Dempsey, who was Wild Bill’s alter ego on the field, put it this way: “I remember how much control he had over the crowd. In an era when the Orioles were on fire, he turned the crowd on fire. He was a huge part of the Orioles Magic era.”
Now there is no more Orioles Magic and no more Wild Bill. Too bad. For long-suffering fans in Charm City, it’s another painful loss.
“There will never be another Wild Bill Hagy,” Dempsey said.
So R.I.P. — with a cold one, of course.