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Retro World Series preview: The daunting Dodgers await the upstart Orioles

After cruising to the American League pennant in 1966, the O’s faced their toughest test: a Fall Classic matchup against the defending champions.

Los Angeles Dodgers
The Hall of Fame 1-2 punch of Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax led a Dodgers dynasty.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

For the past two months, Camden Chat has been reliving the Orioles’ glorious 1966 season through our retro recap project. It’s not hard to see why that team was so dominant. A powerful offense, pristine defense, stellar bullpen, and up-and-coming rotation — and, oh year, Frank Robinson’s Triple Crown and MVP season — led the O’s to an American League pennant that was anything but suspenseful. By the 50th game of the season, the Orioles were in first place to stay. By July 1, they were five games ahead, and only extended their lead from there. It was a cakewalk to the World Series.

But for the first time in months, October presented a major challenge to the Birds. The Fall Classic pitted them against the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers, veterans of the World Series stage. The O’s, as postseason novices, were considered the underdogs in the series.

The Dodgers, unlike the Orioles, had to scrape and claw their way to the NL pennant. They held sole possession of first place for just one day in the first five months of the season, but a mid-September surge ultimately pushed them 1.5 games ahead of the Giants to finish the year.

The Dodgers had once been a tough-luck franchise — losing the first seven World Series they played in the modern era — before 1955, their third-to-last season in Brooklyn, when they finally brought a championship to the city. Once they got over that hump, the Dodgers were off to the races, especially after the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1958. The Dodgers won the World Series in their second year in California, then rattled off two more in 1963 and 1965. Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston presided over all four championships.

What was the key to their dominance? Pitching, pitching, pitching. The ’66 Dodgers comfortably led the NL in ERA (2.62), ERA+ (126), and strikeouts (1,084), among other notable stats. Their rotation boasted the best 1-2 punch in baseball in Hall of Famers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, who by 1966 had combined for four Cy Young awards and 12 All-Star selections. If that weren’t enough, that year they were joined by rookie right-hander Don Sutton, another future Hall of Famer, who posted a 2.99 ERA in 37 games (though he wouldn’t end up pitching in this World Series). The Dodgers also boasted an excellent bullpen led by relief ace — and future Orioles manager — Phil Regan, who went 14-1 with a 1.62 ERA while throwing 116.2 innings.

L.A.’s pitching prowess helped overcome a fairly anemic offense, which scored the third-fewest runs and tied for the second-fewest homers in the NL in 1966. Their lineup didn’t feature any star sluggers like the Orioles’ Frank Robinson or Boog Powell, instead getting good-but-not-great production from the likes of second baseman Jim Lefebvre and outfielder Ron Fairly. Lefebvre’s 74 RBIs led the club, a stark contrast to the Orioles’ three 100-RBI guys. Aging infielders Maury Wills and Jim Gilliam, who’d been key parts of previous Dodgers championship clubs, were past their prime and contributed little in ’66.

Still, with that pitching staff, the Dodgers had every chance to repeat as world champs. The matchups, as listed below, seemed stacked in L.A.’s favor.

Game 1: Wednesday, October 5, 1966 at Dodger Stadium

Matchup: LHP Dave McNally (13-6, 3.17 in regular season) vs. RHP Don Drysdale (13-16, 3.42)

The workhorse Drysdale, who’d rattled off four straight seasons of 40 or more starts and 300 or more innings pitched — beginning with his 1962 Cy Young season — had somewhat of a down year in ’66, with a below-average ERA+ of 96. He posted the worst H/9 rate of his career and his lowest K/9 in eight years. But don’t be fooled; the 29-year-old was still a stellar pitcher, particularly in the postseason, where he’d posted a 1.95 ERA in his previous four World Series starts.

The 23-year-old McNally was much more untested — he, like all of his Orioles rotation mates, was making his Fall Classic debut — but was clearly a pitcher on the rise, having posted career highs in starts (33), innings (213), and wins (13) during the ’66 regular season. The southpaw figured to match up well against the Dodgers lineup, which was even worse against lefties (.245/.301/.330) than righties that season.

Camden Chat’s Game 1 recap will be posted on Thursday.

Game 2: Thursday, October 6, 1966 at Dodger Stadium

Matchup: RHP Jim Palmer (15-10, 3.46) vs. LHP Sandy Koufax (27-9, 1.73)

What a showdown this promised to be, pitting two Hall of Famers at very different stages of their careers. Palmer was the fresh-faced youngster, a 20-year-old in his first full season in the bigs who showed glimpses of the dominance that was to come. He’d tossed his finest performance on Sept. 22, the Orioles’ pennant clincher, with an eight-strikeout complete game.

But at that point he didn’t hold a candle to Koufax, the best pitcher in baseball. The lefty had just posted an impeccable 1.73 ERA during the regular season, winning his fifth straight NL ERA title, while tossing an eye-popping 27 complete games for the second year in a row. He also led the majors in wins (27), ERA+ (190), innings (323), strikeouts (317), and K/9 (8.8), unanimously earning his third NL Cy Young award in four seasons.

And at just age 30, Koufax should have had plenty more productive years ahead of him, but his arthritic left arm forced him into an abrupt retirement after the season. This game — little did anyone know at the time — would be the final one of his major league career.

Camden Chat’s Game 2 recap will be posted next Monday.

Game 3: Saturday, October 8, 1966 at Memorial Stadium

Matchup: RHP Wally Bunker (10-6, 4.29) vs. LHP Claude Osteen (17-14, 2.85)

Osteen may have been the only non-Hall of Famer in the Dodgers’ regular rotation, but he had a stellar career himself, ultimately pitching 18 seasons after debuting as a 17-year-old for the 1957 Reds. In ’66 he was in just his second year in Los Angeles but had already made his postseason mark by tossing a shutout in Game 3 of the 1965 World Series, helping the Dodgers eke out a victory over the Twins in seven.

Opposing him was Bunker, who hadn’t lived up to the promise of his sensational rookie campaign in 1964. when the then-19-year-old set a modern record for most wins in a season by a teenager (19). Battling blisters and elbow tendinitis, Bunker became a back-end starter/swing man for the Orioles by 1966. But — spoiler! — he would pitch the game of his life in this World Series.

Camden Chat’s Game 3 recap will be posted next Wednesday.

Game 4: Sunday, October 9, 1966 at Memorial Stadium

Matchup: McNally vs. Drysdale

Camden Chat’s Game 4 recap will be posted next Friday.

Stay tuned for the full breakdown of how the Orioles thwarted the prognosticators to take down the mighty Dodgers.