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The 1966 Baltimore Orioles (Part One – The Early Years)

[This post is part of a four-part series on the early Orioles from inception up to the '66 World Series victory. The first segment deals with the Orioles from the Browns' move in '54 up to the '64 season. The second deals with the '64 season up to the '66 season. The third deals with the happenings during the 1966 pennant season, and the fourth with the '66 World Series and aftermath. I've interspersed facts, pictures and details with my personal recollections as one growing up in this era of Orioles baseball. Hope you enjoy! -- Tony ]

(Note: All newpaper images are copyright Baltimore Sun/Tribune Media. All baseball card photos are copyright Topps Company)

Having been born in Baltimore in 1957, my growth years coincided almost perfectly with that of the newly arrived Orioles Baseball Team. The team, having moved from St Louis to Baltimore in 1954, was only a few years older than I was. The Browns of St. Louis were perennial doormats of the American League, having reached the World Series only once in their 52 years, in 1944, a war year.

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"The only reason the Browns won the pennant," my dad would tell me, "was that players on all the other teams were drafted into the military, and the Browns players were so bad that they failed the physicals."

Even at a young age, this explanation seemed a little suspect to me. How could anyone playing major league baseball not qualify for the Army? But still, it was possible, and it did make for a good story.

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The Browns possible move to Baltimore wasn't immediately approved, as Yankees owner Del Webb preferred the team to move to Los Angeles.

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Figure 1 – Browns move to Baltimore initially rejected.

But only two days after being turned down, the AL owners voted again, and this time voted unanimously to a approve the transfer. The news reported that Webb agreed with the proviso that the AL expand in the "near future" to include Los Angeles and San Francisco. That didn't quite work out the way he intended.

A deeper look revealed that Webb hesitation had roots in making sure that the new owners would guarantee to buy out Browns' majority owner Bill Veeck's interest in the team. With that agreement in place, he voted yes. Veeck was definitely not liked by Webb, or by the other team owners.

The Baltimore Sun brought out the big front page headline font for the news. At the time, Baltimore was the sixth largest city in the country. It was due for an MLB franchise.

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Figure 2 – Baseball’s back in Balto!

The Orioles played at newly renovated Memorial Stadium, an updated version of the existing Municipal/Venable/Babe Ruth Stadium, with an added upper deck. Although only 309' down the foul lines, the cavernous outfield dimensions reached 445' in center field, where a row of hedges served as the center field fence for a time. The Orioles only hit 15 home runs at home in 1955, vs 39 at away games. A few years later, and inner fence would be put in to make the outfield dimensions quite a bit more manageable.

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Figure 3 – Original stadium dimensions showing hedge outfield wall

The city welcomed the new team with a parade attended by 350,000 people, nearly 40% of its population, and had a packed house for the first home game against the White Sox.

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Figure 2 – First home game report in the Baltimore Sun

The team's majority owner was Jerry Hoffberger, President of National Brewery. National Beer was the chief sponsor of the new Baltimore Orioles. The nearby Washington Senators had objected to moving a team so close to their franchise, but when Hoffberger offered to have National Beer also sponsor the Senators, Senator owner Clark Griffith relented. One look at the first year Orioles scorecard emphasized the Orioles/National Beer connection.

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Figure 4 – 1954 Scorecard/National Boh Advertisement

Under GM and manager Paul Richards, the team began a rapid turnover of the original Browns lineup, and the team reached a .500 record by their fourth year. By 1960, they managed the franchise's first winning record in 16 years, finishing in second place, eight games behind the hated Yankees.

My dad wasn’t a huge baseball fan, but growing up in Queens, New York, he did have a rooting interest for his hometown team. In New York in the 1930s that meant choosing between the Giants, Yankees, and Dodgers. He picked the New York Giants, whose big stars at the time were Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell. He told us stories about Ott’s famous leg kick, and Hubbell’s screwball. Of course, we immediately tried to emulate both in our backyard.

When my Dad moved his family to Baltimore in 1955, he transferred his allegiance to the brand new team in town. It didn’t hurt that the Giants moved to San Francisco only a few years later. It wouldn’t be long before he would discover his youngest son was much more of a baseball fan than he was.

These first years of the franchise also coincided with the early years of a young third baseman from Little Rock, Arkansas. Signed by the Orioles before the 1955 season, 18 year old Brooks Robinson proceeded to tear up the Piedmont league for the York White Roses, earning a brief callup to the major league club for six games at the end of the season.

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Figure 5 - Brooks’ cookie card

Brooks struggled mightily at the plate for his first few years, even getting sent back to the minors at the start of the 1959 season after having been a regular in 1958. But with his return to the Orioles club that season, he began to find his hitting stroke, and by 1960 he'd begun to hit well enough, that, when combined with his other-worldly defense, he was selected to the AL all-star team and finished third in the league MVP voting.

Thirty-seven-year old knuckleballer, and future hall-of-famer Hoyt Wilhelm was acquired off waivers from the Indians in 1958. In 1959, despite having been used almost exclusively as a reliever in his career, Manager Richards put in him the rotation as a starter, and he responded with a tremendous season, managing 15 wins with a league-leading 2.19 ERA. Despite his success as a starter in both 1959 and 1960, no one in the Orioles' management seemed confident that a 38-year-old could continue to handle the load of a starting pitcher, so the O's moved him back to relief, a role in which he remained for another 11 years on various clubs.

Paul Richards pioneered the development of an oversized 45" circumference catcher's mitt for catching Wilhelm during the 1960 season. Whether it served it's intended purpose or not was debatable, but in 1963, the league banned use of the mitt after the 1964 season.

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Figure 6 – Catcher Gus Triandos contrasts the Wilhelm knuckleball mitt with the regular mitt

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Some of my earliest memories of the Orioles involved seeing those photos in the Baltimore Sun about the difficulty of catching Wilhelm's knuckleball. It seemed that the giant-sized glove developed for Wilhelm's catchers was always good for a photo-op every Spring.

My dad tried to teach us how to throw the knuckleball, with limited success. Occasionally, he'd manage to throw a really good one, and we'd weave back and forth in exaggerated fashion as the ball danced towards us in the air, excitedly trying to catch (and usually missing) this unusual pitch.

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1960 also saw the beginnings of youth movement for Orioles pitching staff. The so called "Kiddie Korps" of Milt Pappas, Chuck Estrada, Steve Barber, and Jack Fisher combined to propel the team to an 89-65 record, still far behind the hated Yankees, but headed in the right direction.

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Figure 7 – Orioles Kiddie Korps pitchers.

Pappas and Barber, in particular, would anchor the Orioles rotation together for another five seasons, becoming the go-to starters for an ever-improving team.

Another star emerged for the 1960 Orioles -€” first baseman "Diamond" Jim Gentile. Gentile was the first Orioles' big power threat. In 1961, Diamond Jim had the season of a lifetime, hitting .303 with 46 home runs. Thirty of his 46 home runs were hit on the road, nearly equally Roger Maris' road mark of 31 that year. Gentile was apparently a larger-than-life character both on and off the field. Gentile played on the Orioles through the 1963 season.

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My older brother swears that he once saw Gentile catch a foul popup behind his back during a game. I don't remember seeing it, but even as 5 or 6 year old, it seemed unlikely to me that a major league would showboat to that extent during an actual game. Perhaps it happened in the pre-game warmups. Regardless, we both spent a good chunk of time in the next few weeks attempting to perfect our own behind-the-back popup catching technique.

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1960 Orioles' rookie shortstop Ron Hansen hit 22 home runs, and along with Kiddie Corps pitcher Chuck Estrada and Gentile, the Orioles grabbed 1-2-3 in the Rookie-of-the-Year voting, the only time one team has accomplished the feat.

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Figure 8 - Orioles 1960 Rookie Stars Gentile and Hansen

Upgraded with their star rookie players, the Orioles had great success in 1961, winning 95 games and finishing third behind the Yankees' powerhouse and a surprising Tigers team. Gentile's monstrous season saw him finish third in the MVP race behind Maris and Mantle. Hoyt Wilhem dazzled in his new relief role.

After the 1961 season, Manager Paul Richards left to become the GM for the new Houston Astros team, and was replaced by Billy Hitchcock. Lee MacPhail continued in the role of General Manager, which he had been serving since the 1959 season.

In 1962, a twenty-year-old strapping outfielder with a funny nickname belted his way on to the starting lineup. Boog Powell was a big man with prodigious power. In June of his first season, Boog became the first Oriole to hit a homerun over the center field hedges, a booming 469 foot shot.

It's difficult now to visualize Boog roaming around the huge outfield, but the stats for his early years seem to indicate that he wasn't a terrible outfielder.

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Figure 9 – John "Boog" Powell rookie card. This would be the first and last baseball card that called him John.

It didn't take a genius to predict that it was only a matter of time before Boog would be planted firmly on first base, but that wouldn't happen until several years later when Frank Robinson was acquired.

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I was only 5 or 6 years old during the early 60s, and much of my baseball recollections are from the general impressions I had during this era, rather than specific moments.

The excitement of going to a game was what I recall the most. When it had been decided that we were going to a game, we'd pile in the station wagon and drive to the stadium, which was only ten or fifteen minutes from our house, via either Loch Raven Boulevard or The Alameda.

My dad wouldn't park in the stadium lot. Not only did they charge for parking, but they packed the cars in like sardines, so you couldn't get out until long after the game was over and every single car around you in had left.

Thus, we drove around until he found a space on the residential streets around the park. We had a favorite side street that almost always had a space. Exiting the car for a night game, it wasn't hard to see which direction to go—the glow from the stadium lights beckoned us towards the stadium.

Reaching the stadium, we'd buy our tickets at the ticket booth—general admission, upper deck, on the first base side. Good view of the whole field. Tickets were around a dollar-fifty or less, and there were always plenty of seats available. The Orioles always struggled to reach a million paid in attendance.

After we entered, we immediately headed "up." This meant traversing a series of back and forth ramps that allowed crowds to move between levels. To a five or six year old, it seemed like it took an hour to make it all the way to the top, with nearly a hundred turns back and forth. It most likely took only a few minutes.

Exiting the ramp at the upper level, we ended up in the dark interior of the concourse, where we were immediately greeted with a vendor hawking programs. "You can't tell the players without a scorecard!"

I could tell the Orioles players, but not the opponents, so we always pestered my dad to buy one, and then we hopefully stopped to buy some food and drinks before heading out to our seats. I almost always got the caramel popcorn, a solid and dense rectangular block of sugary goodness, more caramel than popcorn. That block lasted for most of the game, and probably caused me more cavities than I care to admit.

There was a bright light at the end of the tunnels leading into the seats. We found our chosen section and simply followed the light. The first glimpse of the field, illuminated by the stadium lights, was a little like the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the movie first turns from black and white into color. The brilliant manicured green grass and infield dirt seemed too colorful to be real when contrasted against the dark background around the stadium. It was magic.

We scouted out our seats along the benches in the general admission section. We almost always found a spot where no large adults were in front of us, blocking our view, and where we could stretch our legs out as far as possible. One caveat—the wooden bench seats often had splinters. We learned the hard way never to slide along the seats. Always lift and shift.

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Before the 1963 season, the Orioles made a big trade with White Sox, trading shortstops by swapping 1960 rookie-of-the-year Ron Hansen, along with third baseman Pete Ward, and Hoyt Wilhelm for slick-fielding and base-stealing-machine Luis Aparicio along with outfielder Al Smith. Soft-tossing Stu Miller replaced Wilhelm in the Orioles roster as the de facto closer.

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Figure 10 – Luis "Little Louie" Aparicio

Aparicio had become disgruntled with White Sox management after they cut his salary after the 1962 season. The Orioles were more than happy to make up the difference, getting a player who President and General Manager Lee MacPhail stated was "The best shortstop in the league." Aparicio would end up playing five years for the Orioles, starting the tradition of superb Oriole defensive shortstops that would last for over three decades. Little Louie was always a crowd favorite during his time with the team and combined with Brooks to make the left side of the Orioles infield almost impenetrable.

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My brother and I loved Aparicio, primarily for his base stealing aptitude. Every time he got on first, the crowd, and both of us, would be yelling for him to take off towards second. And it usually worked! In hindsight, I do have to admit that it's possible that our cheering wasn't the sole reason for base-stealing success.

One of our favorite activities at home was to play "rundown" in the back yard. Two players would throw the ball back and forth from two bases spaced apart. The third player, the runner, would try to time his takeoff to steal to the other bag before the return tag. As runners, we'd pretend to be Louie, and we'd have to get a great jump and make a tough slide to beat the throw. More often than not, we'd get caught in a rundown, which required mad skills to beat, but we'd seen Louie do it on several occasions.

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With Aparicio, Orioles improved on a losing 1962 season, and finished with 86 wins in 1963. Unfortunately, the Yankees won again. The Yankees had won every AL pennant so far in the 1960s, and at least as far as anyone could see, they seemed like they were going to be nearly as unbeatable in the 1960s as they were in the 1950s.

On September 26, 1962, the Orioles battery consisted of a pair of rookies making their MLB debuts. Dave McNally pitched a 2 hit shutout to battery-mate Andy Etchebarren. McNally would join the Orioles rotation in 1963. Etchebarren would have to wait another four seasons before the making big league roster as a starter.

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Figure 11 - Dave McNally rookie card

In 1964, the Orioles replaced manager Billy Hitchcock with former Yankee outfielder Hank Bauer. Bauer was an ex-marine whose gruff appearance belied his easy-going nature. Bauer brought in more ex-Yankees (and ex-Orioles), Gene, and Billy Hunter, as coaches. Hunter would stay with the team for another 13 years. Orioles stars' Brooks Robinson, Jim Gentile, and Milt Pappas greeted the crewcut Bauer in a photo-op picture from The Sun.

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Figure 12- Hank Bauer’s Hiring Headline in the Sun

Gentile would be traded to Kansas City only a week after his picture in the Sun, for Bauer's former Yankee roommate, Norm Siebern, a slick-fielding first baseman with a great eye at the plate, but not much power.

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My dad explained to me that Siebern had something called "warning track power," which I soon learned was not exactly a compliment. I quickly assimilated this information, although it wasn't clear to me how he had the skills to hit the ball exactly to the warning track, but no farther.

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In 1964, two more rookies made the team. Sam Bowens hit 22 home runs to pace an excellent season, and 19-year-old pitcher Wally Bunker took the baseball world by storm by winnings 19 games with a 2.69 ERA. It would turn out to be the best year of both players careers, although Bunker would pitch effectively for two more years, and contribute greatly to the team's 1966 season.

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Figure 13 - Sam Bowens and Wally Bunker Rookie Card

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Exiting Memorial stadium at the end of the game meant going back down the ramps, now time packed together with hordes of other spectators. As a child, it felt like we were just being swept downward in a human wave of fans, changing directions at the turns without effortlessly. The human wave was happy and jubilant after a win, not so much after a loss.

In 1964, escalators were added to enable fans to get up or down from the upper deck without having to traverse the ramps. The escalators were extremely long, the longest we'd ever seen, and we looked forward each time to taking this sweet new ride.

That same year, a freak accident occurred where a limiting gate, intended to limit exiting throughput, was accidentally put in place before the game during Safety Patrol night. Due to presence of the gate, the young patrolees headed up couldn't exit fast enough at the top, and the ensuing backup resulted in many falling backwards down the escalator, with dozens of injuries and one death. At the time, I couldn't understand how this could happen, and I was always a little wary of the escalator after that.

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The 1964 season was looking to be a promising one for the Orioles. The young Orioles staff, with Pappas, Barber, and McNally, had been augmented in 1962 with veteran and future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts, who had excelled in his 1963 season with the team. Adding rookie Bunker to the mix looked to give the Orioles one of the top pitching staffs in the league. Closer Stu Miller, and veteran relievers Harvey Haddix and Dick Hall shored up a solid relief corps. Time would tell if this group of youngsters and veterans would gel into pennant contenders.

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