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Introducing the 1966 Orioles retro recap project

With all of baseball on hold until the lockout is over, we’re going to look back on the first year the Orioles won a World Series.

Brooks and Frank Robinson in uniform during batting practice.
Brooks and Frank Robinson were pretty good, you guys.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Since the Baltimore Orioles team came into existence in the 1954 season, they have been World Series champions three times. There are only six teams in the league who’ve won more titles than that. The team doesn’t have the richest history of any MLB franchise, but any Orioles fan can be proud of the team’s accomplishments in Charm City.

This fact may not be much consolation to the many Orioles fans who were not alive for those glory days. If you are younger than 42 years old, you either weren’t alive for or have no functional memory of the last Orioles title in 1983. If you’re younger than 60 or so years old, then even the 1966-1971 Orioles dynasty that won two titles and appeared in and lost the World Series twice more was before your time.

Thinking about this past Orioles greatness that I missed by virtue of not being born yet, I’m often reminded of the pilot episode of The Sopranos, in which Tony Soprano, the show’s ruler of the title crime family as the 20th century turned over into the 21st, says of his part in the family’s mob history, “I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

This was a particularly strong feeling during the consecutive losing years from 1998-2011, and it feels strong again as the O’s have gone 178-368 since the start of the 2018 season. Maybe the best is over and those of us who are around now just have to wonder what it was like to get to see the Orioles win the whole shebang.

In something of this spirit, the writers of Camden Chat will be spending from now until the end of January writing a series of retro recaps of some of the greatest wins of the 1966 Orioles. It was long before our time. Some of us never even saw an O’s game at Memorial Stadium, and some of those who did (including me) barely remember doing so. The last time the Orioles played in a World Series game, my mom was pregnant with me. What it was like has always been the province of my imagination.

The 1966 Orioles were not the first Orioles team to have what we would look back on now and think of as a great record. The Orioles won 94 or more games in 1961, 1964, and 1965. In those days, that wasn’t worth much. Only the top team out of ten in the American League standings advanced to the World Series.

The 1964 O’s who won 97 games, and spent 111 days in first place, missed out by two games, finishing in third place. If that team had won just a few more games, we might tell a totally different story of Baltimore’s first title. O’s fans disappointed by ‘64 didn’t have to wait too long, at least, since two years later the team won 97 games and that was enough for them to win the American League by a nine-game margin.

The big difference between 1965 and 1966? It’s a well-established part of Baltimore sports lore that the Orioles made the bold choice to trade Milt Pappas, the best starting pitcher (most IP, lowest ERA and WHIP) from the ‘65 team, for outfielder Frank Robinson.

The Reds general manager who made the trade famously called Robinson “an old 30.” He immediately looked like one of baseball’s all-time idiots as the next six seasons with the Orioles saw Robinson bat a combined .300/.401/.543. Robinson was particularly on fire on the way to winning the AL MVP award for the ‘66 season - the first player to win it in both leagues, you may recall - with a 1.047 OPS as he hit 49 home runs.

As good as the 1965 O’s were, they were a sad hitting team. The club ended the season with a collective batting line of .238/.307/.363. That produced a below-average OPS+ of 89. You know how pathetic that is? It’s 2021 Orioles pathetic! Yes, this year’s club generated an OPS+ of 90.

Then, there was Frank. The 1966 Orioles improved to a team batting line of .258/.324/.409 - an OPS+ of 111. They went from scoring 641 runs in the 1965 season to 755 runs in 1966. If we wanted to, we could have set up this series where every single game featured something amazing Frank Robinson did. You probably know the big ones already. Frank homering outside of Memorial Stadium. Frank with a game-ending home run robbery in Yankee Stadium.

There are other fun ones, and it wasn’t all Frank, of course. Boog Powell added 149 points to his OPS. Paul Blair, in his sophomore season, had an 85 point increase. Future Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio improved from one of his worst-hitting seasons (.625 OPS) to one of his best (.676).

This was a real team effort and the offense’s arrival more than made up for the fact that the post-Pappas pitching staff did take a step back. The 1965 O’s led the AL with a team ERA of 2.98. They slipped to fourth in 1966, “only” posting an ERA of 3.32 with a starting rotation whose oldest member was 28-year-old Steve Barber. For the 2021 O’s to have had the fourth-best ERA in the AL, they would have needed a 3.79 ERA, a scant 2.06 runs better than the team’s actual ERA.

As if the regular season wasn’t fun enough, there was the World Series against a dominant Dodgers team. The previous season’s World Series champions won the National League with a starting rotation that had three future Hall of Famers, including Sandy Koufax, in what ended up being the final game of his career.

There was also Don Sutton and Don Drysdale on the team. And still the Orioles swept in four games. Not that the Orioles were lacking in future Hall of Famers themselves. Frank and Brooks were there, and Aparicio, and let’s not forget about Jim Palmer in his first full season in an MLB starting rotation at age 20.

That was a pretty good team, you guys. We hope you’ll enjoy a trip down a lane that’s older than even our memories. Until the Orioles break their championship drought, the past success is about all we’ve got.