1971 Baltimore Orioles: A 3rd Straight American League Pennant

The 1971 Baltimore Orioles came into the season riding high. They were fresh off winning their second World Series title in five years. With a lineup in its prime, they were poised for a repeat effort. The ’71 Orioles came awfully close to doing just that. An excellent team that again rolled the rest of the American League, they fell just one game short of going back-to-back.

Baltimore’s pitching staffs of this decade live on in baseball lore and no season stands out more than 1971. The four starters—Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson—were all 20-game winners. It was only the second time in baseball history that a quartet of starters all hit the 20-win threshold and it was also the most recent. Given the way the handling of pitchers has changed in the ensuing half-century, it’s a pretty fair bet that the ’71 Oriole rotation will be the last to pull of this amazing feat.

The rotation was also perfectly balanced. Palmer’s ERA of 2.68 was the best, although McNally and Dobson were both under 3. Cuellar’s ERA clocked in at 3.08. They combined to start 142 games. And to further underscore the strength of balance over a single ace, none of the rotation finished in the top three of the American League Cy Young voting.

There wasn’t a lot of need for the bullpen, but when necessary, Eddie Watt did yeoman’s work, with a 1.82 ERA in his 39 innings. But no true reliever worked more than 45 innings. Other pitchers, from Dick Hall to Tom Dukes to Pete Richert to Grant Jackson, filled out the starts not taken up by the Big Four and did modest relief work along with it.

Baltimore’s staff ERA was the best in the American League. And it combined with an offense that was also the AL’s best. Frank Robinson led the way. The rightfielder finished with a stat line of .384 on-base percentage/.510 slugging percentage, ripped 28 homers and finished with 99 RBIs. Frank finished third in the AL MVP voting.

Brooks Robinson (no relation to Frank, as a glance at a photo will quicky confirm) was 34-years-old at third base, but coming off his dominance in the 1970 World Series, he was still going strong. Brooks hit 20 homers, drove in 92 runs and was fourth in the final MVP results. On the other side of the infield, first baseman Boog Powell followed up his 1970 MVP campaign with 22 homers and 92 RBIs of his own. Don Buford played left field and he combined his dazzling .413 OBP with a solid .477 slugging percentage.

Davey Johnson, known to a future generation as a successful manager, was still in his prime at second base and put up a solid .351/.443 stat line. Mark Belanger was known for his great defense at shortstop, but with patience at the plate, he also posted a .365 OBP. Paul Blair in centerfield and Elrod Hendricks behind the plate rounded out a defense that excelled at the key up-the-middle spots.

Merv Rettenmund wasn’t officially a starter, but manager Earl Weave got him starter’s at-bats. With a .422/.448 stat line it’s not hard to see why. And with depth like this, it’s not hard to see why Baltimore racked up runs.

The Orioles came firing out of the gates and won eight of the first ten, including taking a series from AL East hopeful Detroit. But two straight losses to the Tigers in the rematch triggered a descent into some sluggish play. Baltimore went 13-10 over their next 23 games. By Memorial Day, the Oriole record was solid, at 26-18. But they were 2 ½ games back of the Boston Red Sox, with Detroit four off the pace.

Here’s a good place to step back and remind younger readers that this was only the third year of divisional play. As recently as 1968, the World Series was simply the team with the best record in each league and no playoff rounds preceding. Even after the expansion of 1969, there were still only 24 teams in the major leagues and each league had simply an East and West division.

Thus, without a Central Division, the Orioles, Red Sox and New York Yankees shared the AL East with the Tigers, Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers (an American League team until 1998). And there was no wild-card fallback. It was finish first or go home.

Baltimore re-established their footing in the early part of summer, taking advantage of a soft part of the schedule to go 18-5 and surge into first place by a comfortable seven games. They went to Fenway Park for a four-game set that offered an opportunity to put an even firmer grasp on control of the division.

But after taking the Friday night opener 7-3, the Birds were swept in a Saturday doubleheader and lost again on Sunday. They scored just five runs in those three losses. A return home to face Detroit resulted in a 15-6 loss, before Baltimore recovered and won the next night to salvage a split of the two-game set.

The AL East lead was down to four games and then shrunk to 2 ½ by Fourth of July Weekend. The Red Sox were the prime challenger, with the Tigers six off the pace. Baltimore went to Detroit for a key series on the holiday weekend.

It didn’t start well. The Oriole bats could only muster five hits off Tiger ace Mickey Lolich and wasted a good outing from McNally in a 3-1 loss. It was Blair, known far more for his glove than his bat, who turned around the attack on Saturday. Blair doubled twice, drove in four runs and keyed an 8-1 win that stopped the bleeding.

In Sunday’s rubber match on the Fourth, Powell hit a two-run homer in the first. Cuellar grinded out a complete-game 3-2 win. Baltimore was back on their feet and closed the first half by winning six of eight. At the All-Star break, the lead was back up to 5 ½ over Boston and 8 over Detroit.

The roller-coaster continued after the break though, with the Orioles going 5-6 and seeing the Red Sox creep to within 2 ½ games. In late July, Baltimore hosted Oakland for a big series. The A’s were running away with the AL West, so for them this was a possible preview of the ALCS. For the Orioles, it was a big series in a tight pennant race.

Dobson took the ball in the opener of a Tuesday night doubleheader and was brilliant, tossing a four-hitter and outdueling Oakland’s Catfish Hunter for a 1-0 win. In the nightcap, the bats stepped up. Powell had three hits, Rettenmund drove in a couple runs and Baltimore took an early 4-0 lead. Grant Jackson, on the mound, faltered and the A’s rallied late to tie it 4-4.

Oakland had bullpen ace Rollie Fingers in the game. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Powell doubled, Brooks homered and Baltimore had the doubleheader sweep. In Wednesday night’s finale, it looked like a good night from Cuellar would be wasted. The Orioles trailed 2-0 in the ninth inning. Base hits from Buford and Rettenmund brought Fingers in. And the Birds beat the future Hall of Famer for the second straight night. This time it was Frank Robinson going deep for the 3-2 win.

Over the weekend, a good Kansas City Royals team came in. Palmer and Dobson tossed shutouts and the lead was back to 6 ½ games. Now, it was time for Baltimore to put this race to bed, right? Not quite yet. The Orioles lost four of six to Boston and New York. Baltimore was still up 4 ½ games, but there was a big series in Fenway at the end of August that could still swing the pendulum the other way.

But the heat of August favors teams with good pitching, and Baltimore never let it come to that. They took advantage of another soft schedule stretch to go 14-5. Boston slumped. By the time the Orioles went to Fenway, their division lead was soaring at 11 ½ games.

Baltimore still had a mid-September slump, primarily against Detroit, and the lead shrunk to 5 ½ games. But there were only 11 to play by that point—and the Oriole response was to close the season with eleven straight victories.

The clinching moment came in Yankee Stadium on September 22. On this Wednesday evening, Powell homered twice and Palmer won his 19th game. When New York’s Ron Hanson grounded to Belanger, who flipped it to Johnson for the force-out, the Orioles were AL East champs.

Now 3-for-3 in winning this newly created division, Baltimore had bigger fish to fry. That started with Oakland in the ALCS. The A’s would become the dynasty of the early 1970s, but this was their first appearance on the postseason stage. The Orioles were old hands at pressure games and it showed. Baltimore won what was then a best-of-five series in three straight. They were going to the Series for a third straight year.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were the last obstacle to a repeat championship. When the Orioles grabbed the first two games at home, this World Series looked all but over. But Pittsburgh, led by the great Roberto Clemente, turned things around on their homefield and won three straight. Baltimore answered with a home win in Game 6. In a Game 7 heartbreaker, the Orioles lost a 2-1 game.

Baltimore continued to enjoy tremendous success all the way through this decade and the early part of the next one. But the 1971 team was, while not the end of an era, at least the end of a chapter. For the  past three seasons, the Orioles had owned the American League. The A’s and Yankees were about to take turns as the AL’s best. Baltimore still won division titles in 1973 and 1974, but it took until 1979 to get back to the World Series. And it took until 1983, with a completely different cast of players, for the World Series trophy to return to Charm City.