The Baltimore Orioles had been the reigning dynasty of the American League’s Eastern Division since the MLB expansion of 1969 and the accompanying split of each league into two divisions. The Orioles won five of the first six AL East crowns, three American League pennants and the World Series in 1970. The 1975 Baltimore Orioles team were another strong team, but it was also the year the dynasty ended.
Earl Weaver held the managerial reins and his teams were built on pitching. 1975 was no different, as Baltimore had the best team ERA in the American League. Jim Palmer led the way with 23 wins, a 2.09 ERA and 323 innings pitched. That’s not a typo—Palmer pitched over three hundred innings en route to a Cy Young Award.
Palmer wasn’t the only workhorse on the staff. Mike Torrez won 20 games, worked 270 innings and finished with a 3.06 ERA. Mike Cuellar, a crafty veteran, went 256 innings, won 14 and had a 3.66 ERA. Ross Grimsley was the light worker of the staff—and he still threw 197 innings, something that makes him the horse of a modern day rotation.
The Palmer-Torrez-Cuellar trio assumed such a heavy load, because there was a lack of proven pitchers in the bullpen. Doyle Alexander put in the most work and had a nice 3.04 ERA, but Alexander was only 24-years-old. Nor could the offense carry the team—the Orioles finished eighth in the American League in runs scored.
Baltimore had traded first baseman Boog Powell in the offseason, an enormously popular player, who today runs a barbequed ribs stand outside rightfield in Camden Yards, and makes regular appearances. The Orioles got Lee May in return, and while May was a good player who had a nice career, 1975 wasn’t one of his better campaigns. While he hit 20 home runs and had 99 RBIs, the on-base percentage was poor, at .308 and the slugging percentage of .424 was mediocre.
What’s more, Weaver had three dead spots in his lineup, at least from an offensive perspective. Mark Belanger at short and Paul Blair in center were as good as it gets defensively, but neither could so much as hit .230 in 1975. Dave Duncan, the catcher who would eventually become a trusted pitching coach confidant to Tony LaRussa, couldn’t hit. And perhaps most painful for Orioles fans was that their great third baseman, Brooks Robinson, was at the end of the line. Robinson was 38-years-old and hit just .201.
It’s not that the Orioles didn’t have offensive talent. The corner outfield spots were manned by Don Baylor and Ken Singleton, each complete offensive packages and young. Second baseman Bobby Grich had a .389 on-base percentage. But there just wasn’t enough, at least by the high standards Baltimore had set for itself over the previous six years.
The AL East was getting tougher. The Boston Red Sox had knocked on the door for seven years and brought up two dynamic outfielders in Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. The New York Yankees were starting to find their footing under the relatively new ownership of George Steinbrenner and beginning to throw their financial weight around in a baseball world that saw free agency making its first baby steps.
Baltimore lost two of three against Boston early on, and a six-game losing streak towards the end of April and early May left the Orioles 5 ½ games out of first place. The good news was that both the Red Sox and Yankees were off to a slow start, and the frontrunning Milwaukee Brewers seemed unlikely to keep up the pace.
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On May 5, Palmer beat Yankee ace Catfish Hunter with a complete-game five-hitter that started a 7-2 stretch for Baltimore. But the good times didn’t last. The Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s were playing the best baseball in the American League over in the Western Davison, and the Orioles suffered back-to-back series sweeps on a road trip that went through both cites in succession.
Palmer again beat Hunter on the Fourth of July, this time in New York, and with more help from the offense. Trailing 3-2 in the ninth, Baylor hit a game-tying home run, the Orioles scratched out two more runs and Palmer hung on for a 5-4 win. The Orioles took two of three in the Bronx, and eventually nudged the lead down to 4 ½ games. But Boston had pulled even with Milwaukee, and Baltimore couldn’t sustain, dropping to 41-44 by the All-Star break and an eight-game hole.
The Red Sox were creating breathing room in the division race, and even though the Orioles started to make their move and got over .500 for good on July 25, they couldn’t make a real dent in the divisional lead. Finally, trailing by 9 ½ games in early August, Baltimore began to make the kind of late-season push that made them consistently feared in the second half by division rivals.
Boston came to Baltimore for two games, and Palmer fired a two-hit shutout to beat Sox ace Luis Tiant. It started an 11-4 run for the Orioles and they chipped the lead down to 6 ½. In early September, with the lead at an even six games, the Red Sox again arrived in old Memorial Stadium for two games.
This time, you got the sense that a late Baltimore push wouldn’t get over the top. Palmer and Torrez pitched well in each game, but the Orioles lost each time, 3-2 and 3-1 as their offense was not able to produce against a fairly mediocre Red Sox pitching staff.
Baltimore didn’t quite though, and a five-game win streak pulled them to within 4 ½, setting up two games in Fenway Park, with all of New England looking nervously at the orange-and-black car in their rearview mirror.
Tiant and Palmer went toe-to-toe in a brilliantly pitched game, and the offensive problems in Baltimore went on full display. They were shut out on five hits, and fell 2-0. It was the last stand, as the surge crested. The Orioles finished the season 90-69, with the margin still at 4 ½ games.
It would be a massive stretch to say the 1975 season ended the good times in Baltimore. Under Weaver, the Orioles continued to field contenders, they won a pennant in 1979, and in the first post-Weaver season, won the World Series in 1983. But the days of Baltimore having the AL East as its own personal property ended in 1975.