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Retro Orioles recap: The O’s 1966 championship path begins with an Opening Day win

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Frank Robinson was an instant lineup-changer in his O’s debut, as the club came back in the ninth and won in extras to kick off a memorable campaign.

Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson

This game took place on April 12, 1966. It is being recapped today as part of Camden Chat’s retro recap series while MLB is on hold due to the lockout.

It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the Baltimore Orioles went into nearly every season expecting to be contenders. And the 1966 season was a particularly anticipated one in Baltimore.

The O’s, a dozen years after taking up the roost in their new home city following the franchise’s move from St. Louis, had turned a corner in the 1960s, rattling off five winning seasons in a six-year span. Since Hank Bauer took over as manager in 1964, the Orioles had come tantalizingly close to their first postseason action, winning 97 games in 1964 and 94 the following year, only to finish in third place each time. They had the nucleus of a great team — led by an impressive young pitching staff and 1964 Most Valuable Player Brooks Robinson at third base — but they were missing that one final ingredient to push them over the top.

And then they pulled off the heist of a Frank Robinson trade, landing a six-time All-Star and former MVP from the Reds in a move that would forever alter the course of their franchise. At last, the O’s looked like a team that had all the right pieces to contend for a championship. That journey began, with much excitement, with an April 12 visit to Fenway Park for Opening Day.

Truth be told, this wasn’t exactly the type of game that baseball dreams are made of. It was a three-hour, 45-minute slog — an eternity in those days — on a frigid 44-degree afternoon in Boston. It was an occasionally sloppy contest in which the winning run scored on, of all things, a bases-loaded balk.

But it was also a gritty, never-say-die victory for the Orioles, who overcame a 1-for-13 mark with runners in scoring position to pull off a ninth-inning comeback before icing the game in extras. The Birds sent notice to the American League that they’d be a force to be reckoned with, flashing excellent defense, quality bullpen work, and a reinvigorated offense led by its new middle-of-the-order superstar.

It didn’t take long for the 1-2 punch of Robinsons to make their presence felt. In the opening inning, Frank became the Orioles’ first baserunner of the year, getting hit by an Earl Wilson pitch with two outs, and Brooks drove both of them in with a towering home run that struck “high off a left-field floodlight tower,” according to The Baltimore Sun’s Lou Hatter.

In the fifth inning, it was the other Robinson’s turn to launch one. Frank swatted his first of what would be a league-leading 49 home runs that season, a solo shot to left-center off Wilson.

The Red Sox, though, enjoyed some early offense of their own. On the hill for the Birds was Maryland-born lefty Steve Barber, the longest-tenured pitcher on the O’s staff after the club dealt Milt Pappas in the Frank Robinson trade. Making his third career Opening Day start, the 28-year-old Barber pitched well but suffered from bad luck in a three-run third, which Hatter described as a series of flares and bloop hits — four consecutive singles that brought in two runs. Barber had only himself to blame, though, for issuing two walks in the inning, including a bases-loaded free pass to George Scott that forced home a run. Still, Barber went on to throw 6.1 innings with just those three runs of damage.

The Orioles squandered a few chances to pad their run total. In the second, Paul Blair reached third base with one out, but Barber whiffed (this was the pre-designated hitter days, remember) and Luis Aparicio was out on a bunt attempt on a nice play by the third baseman Scott. The third inning saw two O’s stranded in scoring position on a Davey Johnson groundout. Blair again singled to lead off the sixth, this time getting to third base with nobody out by stealing two bases, but the Orioles came up empty once more: Andy Etchebarren and Barber were strikeout victims, and Aparicio was robbed of a hit by first baseman Tony Horton, who made a diving stop on a hard-hit grounder.

The Orioles, too, showed off some impressive leather, stifling Boston’s attempts to pad the lead after the Sox pushed across the go-ahead run in the eighth. With runners at the corners and two down, Ryan ripped a double to right field off reliever Moe Drabowsky, bringing home the lead runner. Rico Petrocelli tried to score from first, but right fielder Frank Robinson flipped to the second baseman, Johnson, who fired a strong throw to the plate. “There Etchebarren had planted himself,” Hatter wrote, “immovably blocking Petrocelli for the third-out tag.”

Cutting down that second run turned out to be crucial, as the O’s tied the game with two outs in the ninth. They got some help from porous Boston defense. Pinch-hitters Charlie Lau and Woodie Held began the inning with consecutive singles, the first of which chased the starter Wilson from the game (he apparently had cramps in his throwing hand, reported Hatter). Aparicio then attempted a sac bunt against reliever Dick Radatz. The bad news: it was a terrible bunt, which Radatz caught in the air. The good news: Radatz, trying to double off pinch-runner Russ Snyder at second, threw wildly, allowing each runner to advance anyway. So the error essentially served the purpose of a sac bunt.

A walk loaded the bases and gave Frank Robinson the chance to be a hero, but he struck out. No matter — his fellow Robinson picked him up. Down to the Orioles’ last out, Brooks roped a clutch single to left, plating Snyder with the tying run, though Carl Yastrzemski threw out Held trying to score. I guess he should’ve been Held at third. (See what I did there?)

The 4-4 tie continued for a while as O’s relief ace Stu Miller, who’d finished seventh in the AL MVP race the previous year, traded zeroes with Sox second-year righty Jim Lonborg. Neither team got a runner into scoring position until the bottom of the 12th, when the Hall of Famer Yastrzemski singled and stole second, but Miller fanned Tony Conigliaro to keep him stranded.

Finally, the Red Sox gifted the Orioles the winning run in the 13th. Lonborg got himself into a bases-loaded jam, partly because he inexplicably gave an intentional walk to backup catcher Vic Roznovsky and his career .558 OPS (not sure I understand the strategy there by Sox manager Billy Herman, but whatever). With no margin for error, Lonborg couldn’t afford to do exactly what he did next — commit a balk. Oops! Lonborg, with Aparicio at the plate, started his windup and then abruptly stopped, deciding he’d rather throw a fastball than a curve. Home plate umpire Red Flaherty immediately called the balk and Bob Johnson trotted home from third. Lonborg retired Aparicio for the final out (poor Luis was 0-for-7 on this day), but the damage was done.

Righty reliever Eddie Watt, in his major league debut, made the 5-4 lead stand up. easily setting down Scott, Horton, and Petrocelli in succession in the bottom of the 13th. And with that, the Orioles were 1-0 and off to the races for what would become a historic, celebratory 1966 season.

Poll

Who was the Most Birdland Player for April 12, 1966?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Stu Miller (four scoreless innings in relief; win)
    (17 votes)
  • 78%
    Brooks Robinson (3-for-6, HR, game-tying single in 9th)
    (102 votes)
  • 6%
    Frank Robinson (2-for-4, HR, outfield assist in O’s debut)
    (8 votes)
  • 2%
    Eddie Watt (perfect inning and save in MLB debut)
    (3 votes)
130 votes total Vote Now