The 1970 Baltimore Orioles were a team in search of redemption. Yes, this was a franchise with a recent World Series title, in 1966. Yes, they had enjoyed a dominant run in 1969 under first-year manager Earl Weaver, easily winning the AL East and then the American League pennant. But as heavy favorites in the Series against the New York Mets, it had all come undone. The Orioles were out to finish the job in 1970 and that’s exactly what they did.
Baltimore was excellent in all phases of the game and in 1970, first baseman Boog Powell had a career year. A big muscular guy whose barbeque stand remains a popular fixture at Orioles’ games to this day, Powell hit 35 home runs, drove in 114 runs and won the American League MVP award.
The two great Robinsons were still going strong. Frank and Brooks (no relation, as one look at a photo will make crystal clear) were on the wrong side of 30, but they put up numbers. Frank Robinson played right field hit 25 homers and had an on-base percentage of .398. Brooks Robinson was at third base, popped 18 homers and drove in 94 runs. And he would shine in this season’s biggest moments.
Davey Johnson, known to this generation for his long managerial career, was still a 27-year-old second baseman in 1970. Davey had a solid OBP of .360. Left fielder Don Buford was even better, with patience at the plate turning a .272 batting average into a .406 OBP. Paul Blair was one of the great defensive centerfielders of his era and he was respectable with the bat, posting a stat line of .344 OBP/.438 slugging percentage.
Merv Rettenmund was a fourth outfielder that Weaver found playing time for, and Rettenmund provided depth, with a .394/.544 stat line and 18 home runs in his role. All in all, Baltimore scored more runs than anyone in the American League in 1970.
The pitching was no less outstanding and three horses at the top of the rotation were the key reason. Dave McNally won 24 games with 3.22 ERA and 296 innings pitched. Muke Cuellar tacked on 24 more wins, a 3.48 ERA and logged 297 innings. And a 24-year-old Jim Palmer worked over 300 innings, and picked up 20 wins to go along with his 2.71 ERA.
All three pitchers finished in the top five of the American League Cy Young voting, with McNally coming in a close second. Collectively, they started 118 games.
When the Big Three weren’t taking the ball, Jim Hardin and Tom Phoebus were providing solid work, combining for 40 starts and each with ERAs in the 3s. When the bullpen had to be called on, Pete Richert was the ace, saving 13 games and posting a 1.98 ERA. Eddie Watts saved 12 more with a 3.25 ERA. Dick Hall and Marcelino Lopez were effective in middle-to-long relief
Baltimore’s pitching staff led the American League in composite ERA. When you score more runs than anyone and give up fewer, I daresay that’s a pretty good formula for dominating the league.
1970 was just the second year for the existence of the AL East and divisional play. Prior to 1969, each league simply had their first-place team go directly to the World Series. The Central Division would not exist until 1994, so the alignment was a 6-team division in the East and West, with winners going to the League Championship Series.
Detroit was the prime challenger to Baltimore. The Tigers were just two years removed from winning the World Series and they ran a distant second place in ’69. After the Orioles got the season off on the right foot by sweeping Cleveland three straight, they welcomed Detroit in for an early weekend set at old Memorial Stadium.
Friday night’s opener went to extra innings tied 2-2. With two outs in the top of the 10th, Brooks Robinson lashed a two-out RBI single, his third hit of the night to get the win. On Saturday, McNally was pitching well, but the bats were quiet. Baltimore trailed 2-1 in the eighth. They promptly ripped off five hits the biggest a single from Blair for the go-ahead RBI. A four-run rally keyed the 5-2 win.
Even though the Birds dropped Sunday’s finale, with Cuellar getting roughed up in a 7-2 loss, the season was off to a good start. By Memorial Day, Baltimore was 29-13 and in first place. Detroit was nine games out. The New York Yankees were nestled in between, 5 ½ games off the pace.
The early part of the summer saw the Orioles slow down. They played mediocre baseball through June. The games were against either the AL West or non-contenders from the AL East, so they didn’t pay too heavy a price in the standings. They went into the All-Star break by going 6-4 in a ten-game stretch against the Tigers and Yankees. Baltimore was 54-33 at the break, up six on Detroit, seven on New York, with the Boston Red Sox lingering nine games back.
The Orioles lost two of three to eventual AL West champ Minnesota right out of the break, and saw their lead shrink to a little as three games. The prospect of a real pennant race was looming. But Baltimore responded by winning nine of twelve against the AL West, while their rivals stumbled. The lead was extended back to 8 ½ games.
New York was now the closest challenger. The Birds were going to the Bronx for a three-game weekend series, a doubleheader on Saturday and one game on Sunday. It was the chance for either the Yanks to make this a race, or the Orioles to drive in the dagger.
Saturday afternoon’s game was scoreless with two outs in the third. In short order, Brooks Robinson singled, Powell homered and Rettenmund homered. McNally had a 3-0 lead and he went the distance, scattering 11 hits and picking up the 4-2 win.
In the nightcap, Palmer took a 4-2 lead into the ninth. He got into trouble and handed a bases-loaded with two outs situation to Richert. The closer gave up a tying single to New York outfielder Roy White. White then won the game with a walkoff homer in the 11th. The series would come down to Sunday afternoon.
In a wild affair, Baltimore got four this from Buford and three-run homer from reserve outfielder terry Crowley. They took a 9-5 lead by the sixth inning. But the pitching was struggling and no one could stop the Yanks from pulling even 9-9 and forcing extra innings. At last, in the 11th, Frank Robinson got a rally started with a double to right. Blair and Brooks each put down bunts that they beat out for hits. The Birds got three runs and the 12-9 win closed out a needed series triumph .
That weekend in the Big Apple was the biggest part of a 22-8 run through the month of August. By Labor Day, Baltimore was soaring at 89-50. They were ten games up on New York, with Detroit and Boston even further in the rearview mirror. The Orioles would coast through September, finishing 108-54 and fifteen games clear of the field.
The only downside was a cosmetic one—their clinching with two weeks to go came by watching a Yankee loss, rather than getting a moment of on-field celebration. But the AL East clinching wasn’t the celebration anyone in Baltimore was really after.
Neither was the American League Championship Series, something else that Baltimore took care of in short order. For the second straight year, it was Orioles and Twins in the ALCS and for the second straight year, the Birds took it home with a three-game sweep (the LCS round did not go best-of-seven until 1985).
The Fall Classic was the prize Charm City was after and a big showdown with the Cincinnati Reds awaited. The Reds were another rising power with a great young manger, in Sparky Anderson. They were another team who had a dominant regular season and they had an MVP of their own, in catcher Johnny Bench. The Orioles and Reds were clearly the best two teams in baseball.
What happened is that Brooks Robinson took this Series and used it to craft his legacy. The .429 batting average and two home runs for the Series were impressive enough. What happened at third base was simply surreal. Robinson made plays that seemed to defy explanation. What’s more, he did them in the first two games at Cincinnati and they were the difference in one-run wins that set the tone for the Series. Baltimore closed out the title in five games.
The redemption run was complete. The Orioles were far from finished. They came back and won another pennant in 1971, before losing a tough seven-game World Series. They won AL East titles in 1973 and 1974. They won a pennant in 1979. They won 100 games in 1980 and narrowly missed another AL East crown in 1982. There was no more consistent contender in the AL East than Earl Weaver’s Orioles up to his retirement following the ’82 season.
In 1983, Baltimore put a stamp on an era of excellence by winning another World Series. The entire 18-year stretch from 1966 through 1983 lives in Oriole lore. And no team was better than the edition that won it all in 1970.