Most years, the most famous horse in Baltimore is whichever wins the Preakness. But in the summer of 1969, there was a new speedster in town. Mike “Crazy Horse” Cuellar arrived and immediately helped the Orioles transition from a club on the rise to an American League dynasty.
Baltimore sent former Rookie of the Year Curt Blefary and John Mason to Houston in exchange for Cuellar and two prospects in December 1968. Cuellar had posted an 8-11 record in ‘68, but his ERA and WHIP were even lower than his All-Star campaign with the Astros in 1967.
Cuellar would go on to lose 11 games for the second consecutive season in 1969, but his win total jumped from 8 to an outlandish 23 after the change of scenery. His ERA and WHIP dipped again to 2.38 and 1.005 respectively, and the lefty struck out 182 batters over 290.2 innings.
Cuellar gained national attention on a dominant Orioles team that finished 109-53. Cuellar shared the American League Cy Young with Tigers starter Denny McLain. McLain, who had won the Cy Young and AL MVP award the year prior, posted a higher ERA and WHIP, but won one more game with two more starts. The close vote sparked a change to the voting system and marked the final tie in Cy Young history.
The Orioles won the American League but were eventually upset by the Amazing Mets in the 1969 World Series. Cuellar posted a shutout in the American League Championship series against Minnesota, and delivered two quality starts against New York. Fortunately, Cuellar did not have to wait long to return to the game’s biggest stage.
The Las Villas, Cuba, native followed his successful debut in Baltimore with an All Star campaign that helped keep the Birds atop the American League. Cuellar led the league with 24 wins and a ridiculous 21 complete games. Cuellar silenced the Twins in ‘69, but his bat did the damage in the 1970 ALCS. Cuellar became the first pitcher to hit a grand slam in the Championship series or later in a 10-6 victory.
Cuellar struggled in his first start against the Reds, but went the distance in a World-Series clinching victory over Cincinnati in game five. Cuellar finished fourth in Cy Young voting that year, but settled for the ring.
Cuellar posted a third consecutive 20-win season in 1971 for a historically great pitching staff. Cuellar, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson became the second, and most recent, staff to hold four 20-game winners in the same season. There is one Baltimore record that immediately comes to mind when hearing the word “unbreakable,” but it is extremely difficult to imagine four starters all winning 20 games again.
Cuellar took an extremely difficult loss in game seven of the ‘71 World Series against Pittsburgh. The lefty allowed only two runs over eight strong innings but was outdueled by Pirates’ hurler Steve Blass. The series marked the first of two eventual World Series defeats to Pittsburgh that decade, and is the reason my father raised me to hate the Pirates while growing up in central Pennsylvania.
Cuellar won 18 games in ‘72 and ‘73 before returning to the 20-win club with a 22-10 record in 1974. Cuellar notched his fourth and final All Star appearance that season. He represented Houston at the Midsummer Classic in 1967, and won a World Series with the 1964 Cardinals.
After an average season in 1975, Cuellar struggled mightily in his final season with the Orioles. He made two appearances with the California Angels in ‘77 before retiring.
Cuellar finished his baseball career with a 185-130 record, 3.14 ERA, 1.197 WHIP and 1632 strikeouts over 2808 innings pitched. He sits comfortably in the Orioles top five for innings pitched, strikeouts and complete games. An Orioles Hall of Famer, Cuellar contributed to some of the best teams that ever wore the orange and black.
Cuellar found a home in Baltimore after a bit of a rocky stretch early in his career. He earned the nickname Crazy Horse for his numerous superstitions and out-of-the-box antics. He notoriously pitched better in warm weather, and gave the Birds a chance to win anytime he stepped onto the mound.
If they still make pitchers like Cuellar, the Orioles would love to have one someday. While there will likely never be four 20-game winners again, Cuellar embodied the qualities that make for a great starting pitcher. He was a gamer that grinded through the heat and rose to the occasion.
Cuellar was a workhorse— a Crazy Horse.