No one who is 38 years old or younger has ever been alive at a time where the Baltimore Orioles won the World Series. If you are in this group, like me, all you’ve known is seasons ending in something other than ultimate victory. Fifty-six years ago, every single Orioles fan was in the same boat as me today. The team had existed for twelve previous seasons and had no championships to its name. The idea of the O’s winning was only a dream.
As our 1966 retro recap project has gone along during the MLB lockout, I’ve found myself wondering a lot: When did Orioles fans of 1966 start to think that maybe this year is the year it would happen? I’ve only had that feeling once in my lifetime, and I can tell you exactly when it happened.
In 2014, when the O’s celebrated the 60th anniversary of the franchise by introducing as many great Orioles as they could get to show up after a stomping of the Cardinals, then when the lights came back on, that year’s team came out and mingled with the legends. If you asked me right then, I’d have told you the Orioles were winning the freaking World Series. I was not correct, it turned out, although they did come closer than they’ve ever come in my adult lifetime.
Any one of the games we’ve chosen for our retro recap series must have felt like one of “those” games. I’m here today to tell you about July 19, 1966, when the record book tells us that 24,261 people went to old Memorial Stadium to watch the first place Orioles take on the then-second place Tigers. All the Orioles fans must have gone home happy. They watched their Birds roll to a 13-3 victory.
Following a stretch of six games in five days coming out of the All-Star break, the Orioles turned to 25-year-old rookie Eddie Watt to make the start. Watt had been almost exclusively used as a reliever since making his debut in extra innings on Opening Day that year, with only a spot start in the second game of a doubleheader earlier in July. This could have easily been a sacrificial lamb kind of start. Instead, Watt posted what ended up being his only career complete game, and he hit a home run along the way just for fun.
Watt’s one day brush with greatness could have gone a different way. He faced first inning trouble, giving up a run thanks to a one-out double, a passed ball, and then a sacrifice fly. It’s never fun when the Orioles trail before even having a chance to bat. Watt was in further trouble after following the sac fly by issuing a walk to Baltimore-born future Hall of Famer Al Kaline. Another double set Detroit up with a decent two-out rally chance, with men on second and third base. Watt shut the door there, though, with a ground ball that Boog Powell handled unassisted.
The 1966 Orioles, you may have heard, had the best offense in the American League. They led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and unsurprisingly also led in runs scored. Watt benefited from this plenty as a reliever; he had a 6-1 record for the season heading into his July 19 start because the team kept pulling off late-inning comebacks that put him as the winning pitcher.
The O’s batters faced off against Tigers starting pitcher Earl Wilson. The team had just seen Wilson five days earlier in Detroit and it did not go well for them. Wilson, acquired from the Red Sox in June, held the great offense to just a run in a seven inning start.
The second time around, Wilson did not fare so well. The Orioles jumped on him from the word go. Top of the lineup hitters Luis Aparicio and Russ Snyder each singled, putting two men on base for Frank Robinson. The O’s big offseason acquisition had 21 home runs at the All-Star break and had already hit two more in the team’s last six games. Wilson was on the wrong end of Robinson’s 24th of an eventual 49, a blast to deep center that gave the Orioles a 3-1 lead.
Robinson was the last batter faced by Wilson. This was almost certainly a minor injury rather than a quick hook. Wilson did not pitch again for eight days afterwards. Wilson’s emergency replacement was Dave Wickersham, who didn’t fare much better, loading the bases on a pair of singles and a hit by pitch. Six up, none down is not ideal for a pitching staff.
Wickersham stopped the bleeding there, though, inducing a 5-2 double play grounder from Davey Johnson. Catcher Vic Roznovsky drove in a fourth run with a single before the inning ended. The O’s had all the runs they’d need by the end of the first inning, leading 4-1.
Staked to that lead, the day turned much better for Watt. Though he only had two 1-2-3 innings in the game, he did a good job scattering eight hits. Past the first inning, there was only one other frame where multiple Tigers batters reached base. That’s a good way to manage a complete game win.
The offense did not stop after the first inning, piling it on against a parade of Detroit pitchers. They struck again in the bottom of the fourth inning, a rally that began when Watt hit a single. Watt proved to be that rare pitcher, then and now, who could manage genuinely good numbers over a small sample size rather than just “that’s okay, for a pitcher.” Watt batted 49 times in 1966 and picked up 14 hits. That’s over a .300 average and OBP, and with three extra-base hits, he slugged over .400. Good job!
In our game, Watt got to second base after his single thanks to a sacrifice bunt, then advanced to third on another groundout. It turned out not to matter what base Watt was standing on, because he would have scored from anywhere after Robinson went over the deep center field fence for the second time in the game, his 25th home run of the season. It’s fun when MVPs do MVP things. Maybe an Oriole will earn that award again some day.
Pitching a complete game and also getting a hit is more than you could hope to ask of just about any pitcher. What makes Watt’s day so special is he didn’t stop there. In the Orioles sixth, outfielder Curt Blefary led off with a home run. Watt eventually came up to bat with two outs, and he hit a dinger too! Watt a day for Eddie, huh?
Overall, pitchers batting sucks and baseball will be better when it’s gone forever, but even the biggest DH boosters like me have to acknowledge there are cool moments like that. Watt’s home run put the Orioles ahead, 13-2. They’d blown the game open in the fifth, plating five runs that were all unearned due to a muffed ground ball hit in the direction of Tigers first baseman Norm Cash. Watt’s home run is not any less awesome for coming after the game already hit blowout status.
Strictly judged by his own performance, this was surely the finest day of Watt’s career, though he played on through the 1975 season. Watt’s turn in the rotation only lasted through mid-September. By 1966 standards, it wasn’t great; he had a 4.27 ERA across 12 starts. Counting his relief outings, Watt’s rookie ERA was 3.83.
At the time, that was an ERA+ of only 88, so when adjusting for park and league he was 12% below average. That’s the same ERA+ as Tanner Scott on the 2021 Orioles. The O’s never had Watt start another game after the 1966 season. Over eight years with the team, he posted a 123 ERA+. That’s much better.
The Orioles already had a commanding lead over second place Detroit before knocking them off in this July affair. This ended up being the third game of a seven-game winning streak. The O’s went on to sweep the Tigers in this series.
The sweep gave them an 11.5 game lead for the American League pennant. The lead stretched even higher later that month and through August, but eventually they finished with a nine game lead over the Minnesota Twins. Check back throughout the month to read about some of the team’s great second half games, and of course the World Series itself. Paul will be writing on Thursday about an excellent day Boog had against the Red Sox.
Who was the Most Birdland Player for July 19, 1966?
This poll is closed
Eddie Watt (only career CG, 2 hits including HR)
Frank Robinson (2 HR, 5 RBI)