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Retro Orioles recap: Frank Robinson’s two grand slams power win over Senators

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On June 25, 1970, Frank Robinson robbed a home run and cracked a rib. The next day, he hit two grand slams. What a legend.

Pirates v Orioles Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

This game took place on June 26, 1970. It is being recapped today as part of Camden Chat’s retro recap series while the 2020 season is delayed due to coronavirus.

What’s a baseball player supposed to do for a follow-up act the day after cracking a rib while making a game-saving home run robbery in extra innings? For most of us, the answer would probably involve a lot of crying. For most players, a day or two off would probably be the minimum. Hall of Famers are not like us and they’re not like most players either. Frank Robinson’s day after a cracked rib involved hitting grand slams in consecutive innings.

The feat was not widely witnessed, with only 13,194 drawn to RFK Stadium on a Friday night to see the neighboring Orioles and Senators open up a series. Since it was a road game for the O’s, the feat probably wasn’t appreciated much in any case, though any Orioles fans who made the trip were surely pleased. Fifty years later, all of us who weren’t alive for that great era can only look at the box scores like this one, where the O’s thrashed the Senators 12-2, with envy.

As the game got under way, there was no sign of how great it would get later on. In the top of the first, Don Buford led off the game with a single, the first of five times he reached base. Buford ended up being thrown out at home as he tried to score on Paul Blair’s double one batter later. Blair was left stranded at third as the inning ended, with Robinson missing out on a chance to bring him in with one out by lining out to second base.

The bottom of the inning saw the first two Senators pick up singles against Dave McNally. For 21st century O’s fans, particularly the last three years or so, this is a familiar script. To be fair, probably even the 1970 Orioles had their share of stupid losses - even they lost 54 games, after all. But they were good and so they must have avoided a lot of the bad moments just by having good players do good things.

The third Senators batter was Frank Howard, a former Rookie of the Year who would go on to hit 44 home runs and drive in 126 over the 1970 season. Even more reason this scenario would inspire dread today. The other team’s big slugger is up? Here comes a three-run homer! Except what happened instead was that Howard hit a line drive to Mark Belanger, who threw to Davey Johnson for a double play.

Things only got better for the Orioles from there. They took the lead in the third inning as Buford hit a solo home run, and never relinquished that lead for the rest of the game.

Perhaps Senators starting pitcher Joe Coleman thought he had it easy in the top of the fifth inning. Belanger was leading off, followed by McNally. Should have been two easy outs. He retired Belanger and then walked McNally. Don’t walk the pitcher who was hitting .179! From there, it was Jake Arrieta (Orioles vintage) territory, as Coleman gave up a single to Buford and walked Blair to load the bases.

Then came Frank Robinson, the veteran slugger who by then was closing in on the 500 home run club. Coleman, who had a career that spanned 15 years, was not a complete nobody, but on that day and in that spot he was sure not any better than Robinson. Frank walloped a pitch over the fence in left-center and after circling the bases, the Orioles led, 5-0.

The very next inning, things played out almost the same way. The Senators sent a different guy named Joe, in this case Joe Grzenda, out in relief. Grzenda’s inning begin by giving up a single to catcher Elrod Hendricks, who was erased when Belanger hit into a fielder’s choice. Grzenda also committed the cardinal sin of walking the pitcher McNally and was punished for it. Buford singled in a run, Blair walked, and there the bases were loaded for Frank again.

There wasn’t really a good answer for Grzenda, was there? The bases were loaded and the next guy up was Boog Powell, on his way to being the American League MVP. So he pitched to Frank, with his team already trailing 6-0, and then Frank hit another home run to left-center and the Orioles were up 10-0.

Grzenda retired five batters in this game, and two of them were named Robinson. Seven years later, Meat Loaf would sing about how two out of three ain’t bad, although when the third one is a grand slam, that’s not so great, either.

McNally went the distance, one of a whopping 16 complete games he turned in over the 1970 season. That’s the same number of complete games as the Orioles accumulated in the whole of the 2010s. McNally drew three walks as a batter in the game and only issued two as a pitcher.

The win bumped McNally’s record up to 11-5 and kept him well on the way to his runner-up Cy Young finish - and he might have won if there hadn’t been a split of first place votes among three different O’s starters, with Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer also getting top votes.

For the team as a whole, the win improved their record to 46-25. Through the same number of games, the 2019 Orioles were 21-50, and that record found them five games into a ten-game losing streak. The O’s of ‘70 never trailed in the AL East after this game, though things were still close with the trailing Yankees only three games back.

At this point, the Orioles were already on pace to win 105 games. They finished off even better than that, winning 108. I’m fairly sure I will never see an Orioles team so good. At least I got to hear about them from my dad. Fans of teams who’ve won fewer than three World Series titles can’t even say that much.

Box score from Baseball Reference.

Poll

Who was the Most Birdland Player on June 26, 1970?

This poll is closed

  • 97%
    Frank Robinson (two grand slams, man)
    (95 votes)
  • 2%
    Dave McNally (complete game, awesome)
    (2 votes)
97 votes total Vote Now