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.
The Orioles got off to a poor start, with a 3-8 beginning marked by losing a pair of series to the New York Yankees and being swept by the up-and-coming Milwaukee Brewers. But the Birds quickly righted the ship and reeled off 15 wins in 16 games, including a four-game sweep of the Brewers and a road sweep of the future AL West champions, the California Angels.
By Memorial Day, the Birds were 29-16 and held a two-game lead on the Boston Red Sox, the Brewers were six back and the Yankees were five back. Between the holiday and the All-Star break, New York fell hard, and the two-time defending World Series champions were in an 11-game hole. Baltimore reached the midway point still holding a two-game margin on Boston and being plus-6 on Milwaukee.
Between the All-Star break and Labor Day, the Orioles broke it wide open. They won 13 of 16 to start the second half and the signature moment was a three-game series in Milwaukee.
Stone pitched the series opener and threw 8.2 innings of one-hit baseball against one of the game’s best offenses, a 2-1 Oriole win. They won the second game 9-5 behind four hits from Dauer and a ninth-inning grand slam from Murray that broke open a game they only led by a run. In the finale, Al Bumbry and Rich Dauer each had three hits at the top of the order, Dennis Martinez pitched a complete game and a 5-2 win completed the sweep.
By Labor Day, the lead had reached eight on Milwaukee and nine on Boston. For New York, a bad year turned tragic in early August when their captain, catcher Thurman Munson, died in a plane crash. No one challenged the Orioles in September and they clinched the AL East with over a week to go, winning 102 games.
The California 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. As of this writing in September 2014, Baltimore is the last team to lose the final two games of a World Series at home.
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.