The Up-And-Down Season Of The 1976 Baltimore Orioles

In 1975, the Orioles had taken a modest step back. After dominating the AL East in the first half of the decade—five division titles from 1969-74—the Birds had slipped to second place behind the Boston Red Sox in ’75. The 1976 Baltimore Orioles made some big moves to try and get back on top. But the end result was still a second-place finish.

Baltimore continued to have the strong pitching staff that had defined them during the Earl Weaver era. Jim Palmer was a horse, working over 300 innings, winning 22 games, and posting a 3.15 ERA. Palmer won his second straight Cy Young Award and the third of his Hall of Fame career. Wayne Garland made 25 starts and also pulled some relief duty, en route to winning 20 games himself.

But the rotation behind Palmer and Garland had problems with consistency. No one else made more than 21 starts, at a time when starting pitchers routinely went to the post 30 times or more. The decline of Mike Cuellar, a mainstay of the rotation in the early 1970s, was another blow. Cuellar made just 19 starts, finished with an ERA of nearly 5 and was released.

The bullpen had a decent arm in Dylan Miller and an up-and-comer in Mike Flanagan, but they needed help. Baltimore’s staff ERA was still a solid fourth in the 12-team American League, but that was a decline from what Oriole fans were used to seeing.

Baltimore’s lineup also needed some help. Lee May had a good year, with 25 homers and 109 RBIs. Ken Singleton, Mark Belanger, and Bobby Grich all had strong on-base percentages. But that was about it.

What the Orioles needed were reinforcements. And on April 2, just before the season started, they would pull the trigger on a big move.

The Oakland A’s had been an even bigger dynasty than Baltimore in the first half of the 1970s, winning three straight World Series titles and taking two of three ALCS meetings from the Birds. But the era of free agency, just now beginning, was a threat to that. Oakland was dealing off talent to try and salvage something before everyone left. And the carrot of Reggie Jackson was dangled in front of the Oriole front office.

Baltimore paid a price—they gave up a good power-hitting outfielder in Don Baylor and a decent starting pitcher in Mike Torrez. But they got Reggie, and they also got Ken Holtzman, a key part of the A’s rotation.

There was one problem—the contract situation with Reggie wasn’t entirely settled, and it took a month for everything to work out. Jackson didn’t play his first game until May 2. But once in the lineup, he made a difference. Reggie hit 27 homers, stole 28 bases, finished with an OBP of .351 and helped lift an otherwise troubled offense to sixth in in the American League for runs scored.

The Orioles opened up at home and promptly took two of three from the Red Sox. But Boston would fade this year and the New York Yankees would step up. The Orioles lost two straight to the Yanks at home and started 6-10. That’s where things stood when Reggie reported for duty.

On May 14, Baltimore was a middling 12-13, but only 3 ½ games back. They went to the Bronx for a weekend series. Reggie’s two-run blast in the top of the first keyed a four-run outburst and the Orioles won 6-2 behind Grimsley. On Saturday, outfielder Al Bumbry had three hits, but it went to waste in a 7-3 loss. But in the Sunday finale, Belanger delivered a four-hit game and third baseman Doug DeCinces added three more. Holtzman tossed a five-hitter and Baltimore cruised to a 7-0 win. In spite of the slow start, the Orioles were squarely in the race.

After winning two of three up in Boston on Memorial Day weekend, Baltimore was 22-19, and 3 ½ back of New York. Boston was six games out. And, as a reminder to younger readers, this was an era when you had to finish in first place to make the postseason, where you advanced directly to the League Championship Series. The race was on.

Or was it? The Birds collapsed at the start of June and lost 11 of 12 games to AL West opposition. The trade deadline in this era was on June 15. Baltimore made yet another big move, and this time they stayed within their own division—dealing with the team they were trying to catch.

Holtzman had made 13 starts and had a 2.86 ERA. He was traded to the Yankees. Baltimore also gave up veteran catcher Elrod Hendricks, reliever Grant Jackson and another notable starting pitcher in Doyle Alexander.

If all that seems like a tacit waving of the white flag, it probably was—but a look at the young players Baltimore got back tells you why. Rick Dempsey, Scott McGregor, and Tippy Martinez were just coming into their own and all of them would be a big part of the Orioles’ future. They also got Rudy May back to help fill the void left by Holtzman. May made 21 starts the rest of the way, winning 11 games with a 3.78 ERA.

It’s a deal that the Orioles, in the big picture, clearly got the better of. But it wasn’t going to help them catch New York in 1976.

Nonetheless, Baltimore started to play better baseball. With a record of 24-31 at the time of the Yankee trade, they won eight of nine games, including a series win over Boston. At the All-Star break, the Orioles were 40-42, 10 ½ back of New York, and running one game behind the Red Sox.

Weaver’s teams were always renowned for hitting their stride in the second half of the season, and that proved true again this year. On July 26, with a record of 46-48 and staring at a 14 ½ game deficit, Baltimore hosted New York. And the Birds started what would be a nice finish to the season.

In Monday night’s opener, the Orioles grabbed two early runs behind RBI hits from Reggie and Lee May. Grimsley outdueled the great Catfish Hunter in a 3-1 win. On Tuesday, Palmer tossed a complete-game four-hitter and won 4-1. In Wednesday night’s finale, trailing 3-0 in the sixth, Bumbry slashed an RBI triple to put Baltimore on the board. Then, in the seventh, four singles, a walk and a wild pitch plated three runs. The Orioles won 4-3 and closed the sweep.

They went on to go 22-15 leading up to Labor Day. They were still 10 ½ back, so there was no pennant race fever. But Baltimore was now 71-63 and comfortably ensconced in second place. The Birds went on to sweep the Yanks one more time, en route to a closing record of 88-74.

That final record remained 10 ½ games in New York’s rearview mirror. But it was third-best in the American League and eighth-best overall—in other words, a clear playoff season by the more relaxed standards of our modern era. And, as a point of pride, the Orioles had taken 13 of 18 from the Yanks.

Even with Reggie’s departure to New York as a free agent, Baltimore continued to get better. They won 97 games in 1977, and then posted a 90-win campaign in 1978. The Yanks were continuing to set the tone in the AL East, but the seeds the Orioles planted in this ’76 season, really began to come to life in 1979. Baltimore won the American League pennant. In 1980, they won 100 games. In 1981, they had a good team in a strange strike-marred year. In 1982, they contended to the final day of the regular season. And in 1983, it all came to complete fruition, with a World Series championship.