It took Al Bumbry’s baseball career a little while to get started.
Once it began, however, Bumbry quickly started showing the Orioles what they had been missing.
The Orioles of the mid- to late-1970s and early 1980s were annual pennant contenders, and a big part of their success was the player they had leading off year-in and year-out. Bumbry joined the O’s in 1972 and quickly proved himself adept at the speed-and-contact hitting game that was the style then and would continue to be into the 1980s. He finished with a .283 career average over his 13 seasons in Baltimore, with a .345 on-base percentage in that time.
Bumbry had little to no power, never cracking double digits in home runs, but he was good at putting the bat on the ball, hitting over .300 three times, over .270 seven times and finishing in the top 10 in batting average twice. His stats look pedestrian by today’s standards, but in an era of diminished offense, Bumbry had an OPS+ over 100 seven times, and he’s in the top 10 in franchise history in games played, hits and triples.
And those stats don’t include his ability on the bases, where Bumbry provided the Orioles with their best base-stealing threat since Luis Aparicio. He swiped 252 bags in his Baltimore career, an average of 19 a season, but he stole over 30 bases three times and over 40 twice. His presence gave the Orioles a new dimension to their offense; from 1964 to 1972, the O’s never stole more than 84 bases in a season. In 1973, Bumbry’s first full year with the team, they stole 146.
Fast as he was, however, Bumbry took a little while to get going. He was drafted by the Orioles in the 11th round out of Virginia State University in 1968, but he was in the ROTC while enrolled, meaning he had to serve two years in the military. The days he could have spent getting his start with the Orioles were spent instead in Vietnam, and Bumbry didn’t make his major league debut until 1972, when he was 25 years old.
Bumbry picked up four hits in 11 at-bats, but he had his real breakthrough in 1973, when he batted .337 in 110 games and won the American League Rookie of the Year award. Bumbry had a .398 on-base percentage and a .898 OPS, and hit 15 doubles and 11 triples while stealing 23 bases on 33 attempts. His WAR that season was 4.0, which translates to 5.9 over the course of a full season.
Bumbry slumped in 1974, ’75 and ’76, even though he stole 42 bases in 1976, but he bounced back in 1977 with a .317 average, 31 doubles and 74 runs scored. He only stole 19 bases, but he had a .371 on-base percentage for an Orioles team that missed the playoffs despite going 97-64.
The up-and-down nature of Bumbry’s performance continued as he fell to .237 in 1978, but he began a more consistent stretch of his career at 32 years old in 1979. Bumbry hit .285 with 29 doubles for the American League champions, stealing 37 bases and scoring 80 runs.
The next year, 1980, was the finest of his career. Bumbry made his lone All-Star team and finished 13th in the MVP voting after hitting .318 with a .392 on-base percentage and a team-high 110 runs. Bumbry continued to run wild, stealing 44 bases in 55 attempts, and his 6.1 WAR led a strong Orioles team that went 100-62 but was once again a hard-luck runner-up in the AL East.
Bumbry was 34 entering 1981, but he continued to produce even as his role on a potent Baltimore team began to shrink. He batted .273 in ’81 and then .262 in 150 games in ’82, but saw his at-bats go from 562 to 378 in 1983. Nevertheless, he batted .275 with a .328 on-base percentage, and helped the Orioles to the World Series championship before playing a final year in Baltimore in 1984 and a final year in the bigs with San Diego in 1985.
Bumbry’s steady presence at the top of the lineup and ability to create offense on the basepaths for strong Orioles teams are the reason he ranks where he does on this list. He did have drawbacks; he played over 135 games only three times, and with a .141 average and three extra-base hits in 64 playoff at-bats, he struggled in the postseason.
He wasn’t a superstar, by any stretch. But the Orioles of the 1970s weren’t a team of flash. They were rooted in pitching, defense, fundamentals and the well-timed home run, and with the arrival of Bumbry, some base stealing as well.
He wasn’t a superstar. He was just barely an All-Star. But at a good time in the Orioles’ history, he helped give the Birds something they hadn’t had.