1979 Baltimore Orioles: Earl Returns To The October Stage

The Baltimore Orioles were the AL East’s dominant team, starting with the expansion of 1969 and each league’s split into two divisions. The Orioles won five of the first six AL East titles. The Birds then finished out of the money from 1975-78, though the team remained competitive each year. But “competitive” wasn’t good enough for manager Earl Weaver, and the 1979 Baltimore Orioles put the team back on top of the division and back in the World Series.

Weaver’s great teams had been built on pitching, and this team was no different. To say the Orioles led the league in ERA is accurate, but also understates the case. The ERA differential between the Baltimore staff and the second-best team was the same as the gap from #2 to #10.

Mike Flanagan won 23 games and the Cy Young Award. Dennis Martinez, Steve Stone, Scott McGregor were all effective, with ERAs in the 3s. The veteran Jim Palmer no longer had the same arm that won him three Cy Youngs, but he was still good enough to post a 10-6 record and 3.30 ERA.

And the rotation was just the beginning. The bullpen was deep and versatile. Sammy Steward worked 117 innings and posted a 3.52 ERA. Tippy Martinez won ten games with a 2.88 ERA. Tim Stoddard didn’t have the same workload, but his 1.71 ERA spoke volumes, while Don Stanhouse saved 21 games with a 2.85 ERA.

This staff carried an offense that only ranked eighth in the American League. The production at catcher, second base, third base, centerfield and DH was fairly mediocre. But big years from two players provided enough punch.

Eddie Murray was only 23-years-old and getting started on what would be a Hall of Fame career at first base. Murray hit 25 home runs, finished with 99 RBIs and had an on-base percentage of .369. And Ken Singleton in rightfield was even better—a .405 OBP, 35 home runs and 111 RBIs. And while Gary Roenicke wasn’t one of the big names on this team, he was popular locally and for good reason–in 1979, he finished with an on-base percentage of .378 while hitting 25 home runs.

The Orioles got off to a poor start, with a 4-8 beginning. That included losing five of the six to the two-time defending World Series champion New York Yankees. It also included taking four straight losses in Milwaukee, where the Brewers had emerged as a contender in the AL East in 1978.

Here’s a good point to remind younger readers that not only were the Brewers an American League team until 2002, there was also no Central Division. Each league was simply an East and a West until 1994. Thus, the Brewers, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers joined Baltimore, New York, the Boston Red Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East—and only the first-place team went to the playoffs, moving directly into the League Championship Series.

Thus, slow starts were always at least a little more concerning than is the case today, and certainly when it comes at the hands of key division rivals. Milwaukee was making a return visit to Baltimore for a four-game weekend series on April 20. It was as good a time as any to right the ship.

In Friday night’s opener, Roenicke and second baseman Rich Dauer stepped up with three hits apiece. Singleton homered. Stone tossed seven good innings and produced a 6-3 win. On Saturday, veteran DH Lee May homered twice, drove in four runs, and provided all the offense for Stewart. The versatile pitcher started, went seven strong and won 4-2.

Sunday would be an old-fashioned doubleheader, with just twenty minutes in between games. Third baseman Doug DeCinces and outfielder John Lowenstein both homered in the opener, Dennis Martinez went the distance and Baltimore secured a series win, 6-2. And in the nightcap, they nailed down the sweep—three hits and four RBIs from Murray, home runs from DeCinces and Singleton and eight sharp innings from Flanagan. The final was 7-3 and the Birds were off and running.

This four-game sweep triggered a 14-1 run that included sweeping the eventual AL West champion California Angels. By Memorial Day, Baltimore was 29-16. They were two games up on Boston, plus-five on New York, and Milwaukee was six games off the pace.

The Orioles ripped off a dominating June, going 23-6. The surge put the Brewers and Yankees in a considerable hole—nine games and eleven games back respectively. But the Red Sox were hanging tough, still within 4 ½. And when Baltimore cooled just a bit—a 5-7 West Coast road trip leading into the All-Star break, Boston pulled to within two games. The Orioles and Red Sox were the two best teams in all of baseball midway through.

Baltimore took their revenge on the West Coast—the Angels, Oakland A’s, and Seattle Mariners—when those same teams came East, and the Orioles won eight of ten. They had pushed their lead back out to five games when they went to Milwaukee on July 30, where the Brewers were still on the fringes of the race.

Stone was brilliant in Monday night’s opener and a two-run blast from centerfielder Al Bumbry was all that was needed in a 2-1 win. On Tuesday night, home runs from catcher Rick Dempsey, along with Murray, had the Birds up 5-4 in the ninth. Murray unloaded with an insurance grand slam and the final was 9-5. And on Wednesday night, three first-inning runs staked Dennis Martinez and he rolled to a 5-2 win.

Baltimore’s AL East lead was now 7 ½ games. They flew to New York. For the Yankees, it was the day a tough season turned tragic—catcher Thurman Munson died in a crash while flying his private plane. A pall was cast over all of baseball.

The Oriole surge slowed in the first part of August when they went 7-8. Boston was within four games and Milwaukee was still in striking distance at 7 ½ out. But this stretch of late summer leading into Labor Day was decisive. Baltimore went 9-4. The Red Sox hit the skids and fell into third place. The Brewers moved into second, but were still eight games off the pace.

Already in a comfortable position, the Orioles all but put this race to bed with a 7-3 road trip that included taking three of four up in Fenway Park. They were 11 games up. The clinching moment came on the regular season’s penultimate Saturday. Baltimore, their magic number down to 1, was waiting to play Cleveland in a night game. When word came from Milwaukee that the Brewers had lost in the afternoon, Saturday night could be one long party in old Memorial Stadium.

Baltimore’s final record was 102-57. They had comfortably won  a division where Boston and Milwaukee  also won 90-plus games and New York, even in a tragic year, won 89 games. The Orioles were heading into October as the team to beat.

The Angels were the opponent in the American League Championship Series. The ALCS would produce some breathtaking excitement–extra-innings and ninth-inning dramatics–through the first three games. Baltimore won two of those games and then closed out a pennant with a Game 4 blowout.

The World Series had a result that was unfortunately like 1971, at least if you were an Oriole fan. Just as they had that year, they met the Pittsburgh Pirates. In ’71, the Orioles had won the first two games at home before losing a seven-game series. In ’79, they took three of the first four before losing a seven-game series.

Murray couldn’t keep his ALCS hot streak going—he struggled to a 4-for-26 performance in the Series, including flying out in the eighth inning of Game 7 when the bases were loaded with two outs and his team trailed 2-1. Baltimore lost a heartbreaker. 

The ending shouldn’t detract from the season as a whole though. The Orioles saw Murray emerge as a star, they blew away the best division in baseball and they returned to the World Series.