The Oakland A’s and the Baltimore Orioles were the great powers of the American League in the first half of the 1970s, and they met three times in the playoffs. The 1973 ALCS was the second of those times, and what was then a best-of-five series went the distance. Oakland prevailed, en route to a second straight World Series title.
You can read more about the paths the A’s and Orioles took to their respective division titles, and about their key players, at the links below. This article will focus squarely on the games of the 1973 American League Championship Series.
Homefield worked on a rotating basis, and it was the AL East’s turn to open this year. This series would see the first two games played at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, and the balance of the series would be played at Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum.
The Orioles sent Cy Young Award winner and future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer to the mound to face the A’s lefty, Vida Blue in Saturday afternoon’s Game 1. Palmer started a little wild, walking the first two batters he faced, before recovering to strike out the side. And then Baltimore quickly got after Blue.
Merv Rettenmund started the home half of the first by beating out an infield hit. Paul Blair drew a one-out walk. Tommy Davis doubled to score one run and put runners on second and third. Don Baylor worked a walk. With the bases loaded, Blue struck out Brooks Robinson and was on the verge of escaping. But the young catcher, Earl Williams, tagged Blue for a two-run double that made it 3-0 and sent the Oakland start to an early shower. Mark Belanger tacked on an RBI base hit before it was over.
Staked to a 4-0 lead, Palmer settled in and delivered a vintage complete-game five-hitter, striking out 12 along the way. The Oakland bullpen kept Baltimore at bay until late in the game when the Orioles got add-on runs in the seventh and eighth. The final was 6-0.
The defending champs were in a hole, but they only needed to get a split in Baltimore to shift homefield advantage their way, and the great Catfish Hunter got the ball for the A’s in Game 2. Dave McNally was on the hill for the Orioles on Sunday afternoon.
Oakland needed momentum and shortstop Bert Campaneris wasted little time in giving it to them. “Campy” opened the game with a solo home run. But Baltimore struck again in the first inning. Al Bumbry got it started with a leadoff walk. Rich Coggins singled to put runners on the corners and Davis picked up the run with an RBI groundball. We were tied 1-1. Catfish and McNally both locked in and that scored held until the sixth inning.
The A’s again used the long ball. Joe Rudi and Sal Bando hit back-to-back homers to open the stop of the sixth. The Orioles again moved to answer right back. Trailing 3-1, Coggins and Davis opened the bottom of the sixth with base hits. A one-out double from Williams cut the lead to 3-2. There were runners on second and third. Catfish needed a big out and he got out when Blair popped up. Oakland’s lead had been halved, but it was intact.
Campaneris beat out an infield hit with one out in the top of the eighth, and then stole second. The stolen base proved superfluous, as Bando homered again. The A’s had breathing room at 5-2, but the trend of the Orioles bouncing back right away continued. Davis and Williams both singled. With one out, the great Rollie Fingers came out of the A’s bullpen. Fingers got Terry Crowley to fly out, but Brooks Robinson came up with a two-out single to cut the lead to 5-3. The lead run was at the plate. When Bobby Grich drew a walk, the bases were loaded. Power-hitting Don Baylor came up. Rollie got him on a groundball to short.
A single, a bunt, a passed ball, and an RBI knock from Campaneris gave Oakland some insurance they could use in the ninth. This time, there was no Baltimore bounceback. Rollie closed out the 6-3 win and this series was heading west tied at a game apiece.
After a day for travel, play resumed on Tuesday. Prime-time games in the postseason were still reserved for the World Series, so this Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday run would all be during the afternoon. And it began with an epic pitcher’s duel between Oakland’s Ken Holtzman and Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar.
Earl Williams put the Birds on the board when he homered in the second inning. It wasn’t until the fourth that the A’s got their first hit of the game. It wasn’t until the seventh that anyone even threatened again. That came when a walk and an error gave Baltimore some chance for insurance. But Holtzman pitched around it, keyed by a double play ball off the bat of Baylor. And the 1-0 score held to the bottom of the eighth.
Jesus Alou came off the Oakland bench to pinch-hit and blooped a double to get things started. Mike Andrews put down a sacrifice bunt. With the tying run on third and one out, Cuellar struck out Campaneris. It was up to Rudi. In one of the most significant at-bats in the great Oakland Dynasty of this decade, Rudi singled to left-center. We were tied.
Extra innings came. One thing that didn’t come was a relief pitcher. Holtzman and Cuellar kept at it. In the bottom of the 11th, Cuellar finally blinked. Campaneris homered and the A’s had a 2-1 win for the game and a 2-1 lead in the series.
Oakland would send Blue back to the mound for Game 4 to get the pennant. Baltimore went back to Palmer to try and live another day. The Oriole ace didn’t have it. Gene Tenace led off the bottom of the second with a double. Vic Davalillo to left. With one out, Ray Fosse’s double picked up both runs. Dick Green doubled, and it was 3-0. With no room for error, Baltimore manager Earl Weaver came out to get the ball from Palmer. Bob Reynolds now held the Oriole season in his hands.
Reynolds settled everything down, but Blue was dealing. He didn’t allow a hit until the fourth. He didn’t allow so much as a threat through six. He got an extra run to work with in the bottom of the sixth when Tenace walked, took third on a Davalillo single and scored on a sac fly from Fosse. It was 4-0 and Oakland was nine outs from going back to the World Series.
In the blink of an eye, it all changed. With one out in the seventh, Earl Williams walked, Baylor singled, Brooks Robinson singled, and it was 4-1. Andy Etchebarren homered. In a stunning development, we were tied 4-4. Fingers came on for Blue.
Oakland threatened in their own half of the seventh, with runners on first and second and one out. Grant Jackson came out of the Oriole bullpen and got both Reggie Jackson and Tenace. In the top of the eighth, Grich homered. It was 5-4 and Grant Jackson closed the game without further incident. The Orioles had a 5-4 win fueled by unlikely heroes in Reynolds, Jackson, and Etchebarren. And Palmer, having barely broken a sweat, was available for the decisive Game 5.
But another future Hall of Fame arm was also available for Game 5 and that was Catfish. Baltimore would hope that young Doyle Alexander could weather any storms early on.
After two scoreless innings, the Orioles made the game’s first mistake—an error by Brooks Robinson at third. A subsequent bunt set up a two-out RBI single from Rudi for the game’s first run. In the fourth, the A’s struck with two outs. A Davalillo triple was sandwiched by singles from Tenace and Alou. It was 3-0 and Palmer came out of the bullpen.
The Oriole ace redeemed himself well, pitching two-hit ball the rest of the way and keeping Oakland locked on “3”. But Catfish was too good. He took a no-hitter into the fifth. He allowed just five hits overall. Baltimore never seriously threatened. When Grich grounded out to Campaneris in the ninth, the 3-0 score was a final and the party was on in the Bay Area.
There was no series MVP award given out in ALCS play prior to 1980. Had there been one in 1973, it’s hard to imagine it going to anyone other than Catfish. He won Game 2 when his team’s back was close to the wall. He won Game 5 when his team was literally against the wall. He worked 16 innings in those two games with a 1.65 ERA.
Honorable mention would go to Campaneris, who went 7-for-21 and homered twice, including the big momentum-turning blast to open Game 2. The speedy Campy also stole three bases. And there has to a hat-tip to Holtzman for his magnificent 11-inning gem to win Game 3.
On the Baltimore side, Cueller would deserve a similar hat tip. Palmer had the Game 1 shutout and the strong Game 5 relief outing, while his Game 4 travails didn’t end up hurting. Earl Williams was the best everyday player for the Birds, going 5-for-18 with four RBIs, while Davis ended up with six hits for the series.
Oakland was on their way back to the World Series, where they would again go the distance. The A’s won a seven-game series with the New York Mets. And neither the A’s nor the Orioles were going anywhere. They would both be back on this ALCS stage in 1974.