More than half a century later, 1969 in Baltimore remains one of the most heart-wrenching years ever experienced by one city’s sports teams.
In January, the NFL’s Colts began the pain with a 16-7 loss to the AFL’s New York Jets in Super Bowl III, which still stands as one of the greatest upsets in football history.
In April, the NBA’s Bullets followed up a league-best 57-25 regular season record with a choke job in the opening round of the playoffs, being swept away by the New York Knicks in four straight games.
All eyes in Charm City turned to the MLB’s Orioles. The club was thriving under manager Earl Weaver, who was in the midst of his first full season in control of the squad after taking the reins from Hank Bauer halfway through the 1968 campaign. Their 109 regular season wins were nine more than the next closest team that year.
On their way to the World Series, the O’s had won the AL East by 19 games and then made quick work of the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS in three straight games. All that was left to conquer were the “loveable loser” New York Mets, who were coming off of their first winning season in franchise history.
It will shock no one reading this that those Orioles, just like the Colts and Bullets before them, were unable to overcome their New York foes. After scoring four runs in a victorious game one performance, the Orioles bats went silent, scoring just five times in four consecutive losses to end yet another Baltimore team’s season on a sour note.
Despite not taking home the ultimate prize, and being sandwiched between two other World Series-winning Orioles teams (1966 and 1970), the 1969 squad remains one of the most revered in franchise history.
It’s not hard to see why.
No other Orioles team has ever topped their 109 regular season wins or their .673 winning percentage. Based on the current condition of the Orioles major league roster in 2020, that seems to be a record that will stay put for quite a while longer.
As mentioned before, this was also the unofficial introductory season for legendary manager Earl Weaver. The Earl of Baltimore was just 39 years old at the conclusion of 1969. He would go on to manage the Orioles until 1982 and then again from 1985-86. His work as the team’s skipper got his number four jersey retired by the club and earned him a plaque in Cooperstown.
Plus, the roster was packed with icons: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer and Dave McNally, to name a few. Boog and Frank finished second and third, respectively, in the AL MVP voting that year. Southpaw Mike Cuellar took home the AL Cy Young award thanks to his 23 wins and 2.38 ERA over 290.2 innings while McNally finished fourth. Brooks, shortstop Mark Belanger and center fielder Paul Blair each won a Gold Glove.
It is this brilliance on the field that also makes the fact that this team did not win the World Series that much harder to swallow. Perhaps NBC broadcaster Curt Gowdy said it best in the run up to the series:
I think you can just about sum up this 1969 World Series as saying ‘If you pick it on paper, it’s the Orioles.’ They have the best statistics in hitting, in power, lowest stat in earned run average, they have made the fewest errors. But the Mets didn’t win the National League on paper.
That’s not all entirely true. Both the Reds and the Twins scored more runs than the Orioles in 1969, and the Red Sox and Tigers each had more home runs. But the overall sentiment that the O’s were the consensus “best” team in baseball that year is difficult to deny.
The vaunted Orioles pitching staff came to play in the World Series. Cuellar was especially brilliant, allowing just two runs over 16 innings. McNally also did well, posting a 2.81 ERA for the series. As a unit, the O’s hurlers gave up just 15 runs (13 earned) over 43 innings. That is a group ERA of 2.72. The only Mets hitter who really did any damage was the eventual World Series MVP Donn Clendenon, who hit three home runs.
As good as the Baltimore hurlers were, New York’s were better. They held the O’s to a .146/.220/.210 combined batting line. Brooks and Frank combined to go 4-for-35. Boog managed five hits in the series, but they were all singles. It was a complete power outage from a squad that had been electric all summer.
That said, there is some tranquility in knowing that your team was simply beaten rather than observing obvious instances where one slight change could have altered the entire outcome. There is no logical way you can bend the stats or order of events in this series to say that the Orioles “deserved” to win over the Mets.
If we are really trying, perhaps one could squint at Game 4 and see an opening.
Down 1-0 in the top of the ninth inning with Brooks Robinson at the plate and runners on the corners, Brooks roped a line drive into right-center field. Mets right fielder Ron Swoboda made a nice diving catch in the gap, which allowed the tying run to score but prevented any further damage. Had the ball gotten based him, it is likely that the runner on first would have scored and it could have even been possible for Brooks to make his way all around the bases. Instead, the catch kept it to a tied game.
Then, in the bottom of the 10th, the O’s got into trouble with a lead off double from Jerry Grote and then walked Al Weis. The next batter, J.C. Martin, put down a sacrifice bunt. Pete Richert, the Orioles pitcher, fielded the bunt but threw it into Martin in the first base line. The ball then bounded away from any Orioles fielders, allowing the winning run to score from third. Had Swoboda not caught that ball, it’s possible momentum would have swung back in the Orioles favor.
But he did catch it, and the Orioles were unable to keep their cool in extra innings.
Another thing that eases the pain of 1969 is the presence of 1966 and 1970. Just about any player who missed out on their shot at a championship against the Mets in ‘69 likely earned their ring in ‘66 against the Dodgers or in ‘70 against the Reds or both.
Despite the fact that this particular season ended in disappointment, the performance by the Orioles during the 1969 regular season may still represent the pinnacle of the franchise. They were world beaters, featuring a roster of Hall of Famers, with an all-time manager just getting his career started.