The League Championship Series round was only in its third year of existence in 1971, but the Baltimore Orioles were already old hands at it. The Birds had swept what was then a best-of-five series the previous two years and won the World Series in 1970. The Oakland A’s were the newcomers. The difference in experience showed at the 1971 ALCS, as Baltimore made it three in a row—not just pennants, but sweeps.
You can read more about the season-long paths the Orioles and A’s took to reach this postseason and about their key players, at the links below. This article will focus exclusively on the games of the 1971 ALCS.
Homefield advantage was done on a rotation basis and it was the AL East’s turn to host. The series opened in Baltimore on a Sunday afternoon. The Orioles sent one of their four 20-game winners, Dave McNally, to face Oakland ace Vida Blue who would merely win both the Cy Young and MVP awards this season.
Oakland showed no signs of cold feet with a second inning assault. In short order, Sal Bando doubled, Angel Mangual tripled and Dave Duncan doubled. The score was 2-0 and there was nobody out. Dick Green dropped down a sac bunt to move Duncan to third. Blue came to the plate—this was two years before the advent of the DH rule in the American League.
Duncan was thrown out on the basepaths and that threat was ended. But in the top of the fourth, Mangual delivered again–a one-out RBI double that drove in Tommy Davis. The A’s were up 3-zip and had the best pitcher in baseball on the mound.
In the bottom of the fourth, Davey Johnson and Merv Rettenmund hit back-to-back doubles, the first hits Blue had given up. Boog Powell singled to right. One run was in and there were runners on the corners with one out. Brooks Robinson was at the plate, but Blue got him to ground to Bando at third and start an inning-ending double play. Oakland’s lead held at 3-1.
It stayed that way until the seventh, when Baltimore finally got to Blue. A leadoff walk issued to Frank Robinson was the original source of Blue’s troubles. Brooks Robinson singled. After a flyball out, there were runners on the corners, but Blue was on the verge of escaping against the bottom of the order. Instead, 8-hitter Mark Belanger singled, cutting the lead to 3-2. Curt Motton, batting in McNally’s spot, slashed a double. The game was tied 3-all with runners on second and third.
Paul Blair finished the job with a two-out, two-run double that gave Baltimore a 5-3 lead. Oakland had a threat in the eighth, after Bert Campaneris led off the inning with a double, with Joe Rudi and Reggie Jackson coming to the plate. But ace Oriole reliever Eddie Watt slammed the door and Baltimore took Game 1.
Prime-time baseball in LCS play was something else still a couple years off, so Monday’s Game 2 started at 1 PM. Baltimore had another 20-game winner to go to, this one being Mike Cuellar. Oakland had another rising star in Catfish Hunter.
Oakland again got a leadoff double in the second, this one from Tommy Davis. This time the rally died with no runs. In the bottom of that inning, Rettenmund singled, but was thrown out trying to stretch into a double. Brooks Robinson responded with a solo home run. Two more singles, one by Cuellar, put two on with two outs. But Catfish got Don Buford to fly out. An inning that could have been big ended with just one run.
The Birds used the long ball again, this time off the bat of Boog Powell, to take a 2-0 lead in the third. Oakland finally got on the board in the fourth. Bando doubled and scored on a two-out base hit from Duncan. The A’s threatened in the sixth when Reggie Jackson led off with a double and was bunted up to third.
Oakland was poised to tie the game…but Bando and Mangual were unable to drive in the run. Baltimore kept their 2-1 lead going into the late innings.
Hunter had been in control since the third, but the inability to keep the ball in the yard did him in again late. Elrod Hendricks homered for Baltimore. Powell went deep again in the eighth, this time a two-run blast. Cuellar went the distance. With a 5-1 win, the Orioles had held serve at home and were one win from the pennant.
The travel day had been lost when the opening of the series had to be postponed from its scheduled Saturday start date. That meant a long flight across the country and a quick turnaround with a day game on Tuesday. The difference between the rotations also started to show up. Oakland’s Diego Segui was a good arm, to be sure. But Baltimore simply trotted out another 20-game winner—the future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer.
A couple of first-inning walks put Segui in immediate trouble, the bases loaded and no outs. But he sandwiched big strikeouts of Frank and Brooks Robinson around a sac fly from Hendricks. The Orioles only got one run.
It was Palmer’s turn to get out of some trouble in the bottom of the first. With runners on first and second and one out, the Oriole starter got Mike Epstein and Bando to keep Oakland off the board.
The pattern continued in the top of the third. Baltimore had two on and one out. Frank Robinson hit a hard line drive…that went right at shortstop Campaneris who doubled off the runner and killed the threat. When Reggie Jackson homered in the bottom of the inning, we had a 1-1 tie.
Oakland had their chance to get the lead in the bottom of the fourth when Palmer issued a couple walks. But the bottom of the order was up. Green and Segui were retired. A game with a lot of action still had a tight 1-1 score.
The constant playing with fire got Segui burned in the top of the fifth though. Buford led off with a single. Powell worked a one-out walk. A Frank Robinson groundout moved both runners up, to second and third. Hendricks walked. Two outs, the bases loaded and Brooks Robinson at the plate. The hero of Baltimore’s 1970 postseason run, Brooks knocked a single to center and picked up two runs. Oakland manager Dick Williams pulled Segui and brought in Rollie Fingers, but the damage was done.
Bando homered in the bottom of the sixth to cut the lead to 3-2. But the Orioles took out some insurance in the top of the seventh. A walk to Powell was followed by an RBI double from Frank Robinson, who in turn took third on a futile throw home. That enabled another run to score on a wild pitch. It was 5-2 and the Orioles could taste the champagne.
The A’s made noise in the bottom of the eighth though. Reggie Jackson homered again to make it 5-3. Mike Epstein singled. The tying run was coming to the plate in the person of Bando, who was enjoying a good series. But his groundball to short started a double-play. Palmer locked in and struck out the final four batters. Baltimore was officially 9-0 in ALCS play over three years and going back to the World Series.
There was no ALCS MVP honor awarded until 1980. Baltimore’s balanced attack left them with several good candidates for a retroactive honor. Powell went 3-for-10 and homered twice. Davey Johnson also went 3-for-10. Buford and Blair had three hits apiece while starting just two games.
But the honor would have to go to Brooks Robinson. In going 4-for-11, he narrowly had the top batting average of any Oriole regular. He hit the home run that got Baltimore started in Game 2 and had the biggest hit of the clinching Game 3. None of the starting pitchers worked more than one game and no reliever stood out.
On Oakland’s side, Bando and Reggie Jackson, with four hits apiece stood out. The lack of great outings from Blue and Hunter is ultimately what did the A’s in.
Baltimore briefly kept their momentum going, winning the first two games of the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But then the Oriole bats fell silent and they ultimately lost a heartbreaking seven-game series.
As for Oakland, they would be back in spades. This was the first of five straight trips to the ALCS. Starting in 1972, the A’s would win three straight World Series. Two of the ALCS triumphs in that span came against the Orioles. Baltimore and Oakland were the dominant American League teams of the early 1970s and this 1971 ALCS was their first postseason showdown.