The 1966 Baltimore Orioles (Part Two– The '64 Season up to '66)

[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 growing up in this era of Orioles baseball. Hope you enjoy! -- Tony]

(Note: All newspaper images are copyright Baltimore Sun/Tribune Media. All baseball card photos are copyright Topps Company. All Sporting News images are copyright Sporting News Holdings.)

The 1964 Orioles had a talented pitching staff, tremendous infield defense, and a few big bats. The team ended up third-best in the league in preventing runs, and slightly above average in scoring them. As usual, the Yankees were near the top in both categories, and the pitching-dominant White Sox team sparkled with a 2.79 team ERA.

The Orioles came out of the gate fast, and were actually in first place for 111 days, but eventually were surpassed in the final weeks, finishing third place, only two games behind the Yankees and one behind the White Sox. Finishing with a team-record 97 wins, it was an agonizing end to a most promising season. Only one more win against each of the Yankees and Chicago would have given the Orioles the pennant.

Brooks and Boog had their best years to date, with Brooks eventually being named the league MVP. Rookie pitcher Wally Bunker exploded onto the scene, winning 19 games, finishing second to Tony Oliva of the Twins for Rookie-of-the-Year.


Figure 14 – Brooks wins MVP!

One "record" generated in 1964 was an actual vinyl LP. "Pennant Fever" was an album of music and songs about the 1964 season, produced late during the season, before the final outcome was determined. Featuring such immortal songs as "Bunker Hill," about Wally Bunker on the pitcher's mound, and "(Oh Tony Oliva) Please Leave Us Alone," the album did not go on win any Grammy awards.


Figure 15 – "Pennant Fever" album cover, featuring Brooks Robinson


I bought a copy of "Pennant Fever" a few years after the 1964 season, at a used record store, while tagging along with my dad. I still recall the salesman's face when we brought the album up to the counter to pay for it.

"You want to buy that!" he implied with an incredulous look. "You know they didn't win."

But it didn't matter. I was thrilled to own a record about baseball and the Orioles. Even at that age, I could tell the songs and lyrics were extremely cheesy, but I listened to them all anyway. Many times!


Chuck Thompson called the games on radio and TV during this era, sharing duties with Frank Messer. Thompson was always our favorite announcer, with his quirky expressions such as "Go to War, Miss Agnes," and "Ain't the beer cold!" after things went well for the home team. Chuck Thompson was at the top of the class of baseball announcers for many years.


Figure 16 – Chuck Thompson with his signature hat


Not all Orioles games during this time were on TV, so I'd listen to the games broadcast on WBAL, a strong station "in the center of the dial." Chuck Thompson would generally announce half the game, and then swap places with this broadcast partner. Thompson would always let you know exactly what was going on during the game. He was known to use an egg timer in the booth to remind him to give the score every few minutes to viewers and listeners.


Speaking of beer, National Beer was the most popular beer in the Baltimore area during the 60s, selling two major beer labels, "National Premium" at the high end and "National Bohemian" for the masses, along with "Colt 45 Malt Liquor" for those with football-sized alcohol requirements.


My dad drank National Premium as his beer of choice. My mom didn't usually drink beer, but when we ate steamed crabs, she always had one, since "Beer and crabs go together." We kids only drank beer when we could sneak a sip or two when our parents weren't looking.


Oddly, enough, the scoreboards at Memorial Stadium advertised Gunther Beer from 1954-1960, then Hamm's Beer after a 1960 acquisition, then Schaefer Beer in late 1964 after yet another sale. Apparently, the scoreboard sponsorship was separate from the team ownership. Eventually, National made its way onto the scoreboard sign when a new electronic scoreboard was erected in 1970.


Figure 17 - Orioles Scoreboard Beer Sponsorship Progression


An exciting part of going to the games was the chance to see the opposing team players and stars that I had only seen on baseball cards. The visitors' uniforms were the first thing that grabbed my attention. The LA Angels wore caps and helmets with a bright halo on top, which my dad despised, but I thought was pretty neat. I also recall that the Kansas City Athletics switched uniforms between games of a doubleheader. The super bright yellow and green set for the day game was exchanged for a subdued gray and green night offering.



Figure 18 - Kansas City A's day and night uniforms, A’s star Bert Campaneris, and LA Angels Halo Cap

At the time, Kansas City was baseball Siberia. Very few players sent there ever returned, and many careers died in the plains. The KC version of the Athletics never had a winning record for their entire 13-year tenure, and usually traded away their best players for cash to the richer teams, most notably the Yankees.


The big names of the AL that I recall in this era were Mantle, Maris, and Berra of the Yankees, Al Kaline on the Tigers, Jim Fregosi of the Angels, and Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew of the Twins, and Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox. Mantle was oft-injured, something my Dad attributed to his being "muscle-bound." He was still a formidable force, however, in contrast to Maris who never seemed to live up to the expectations of his career year in 1961.

My dad, a Chemical Engineer, thought Al Kaline had the perfect baseball name. If Kaline played in today's era, he would probably have the nickname of the "Alkaline Energizer," but in the 60's he was simply called "Mr. Tiger." Kaline graduated from Baltimore's Southern High School and signed with the Tigers only a few months before the Browns move to Baltimore. Another year younger and he would have probably signed with the new hometown team, and possibly changed the Orioles' history.

There weren't many huge pitching stars in the AL in the early 60s. Whitey Ford was probably the most famous. "Sudden" Sam McDowell on the Indians was the undisputed AL strikeout king. The big National league stars were Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Koufax, Gibson, Wills, and Marichal. We seldom saw the NL players play, save for the All-Star Game or World Series appearances.

Mays was the undisputed best player in the game in the early ‘60s. Gibson gained fame for his '64 World Series heroics, and Koufax was a name that was always spoken in reverence. He was a pitching God who could almost single-handedly win a World Series, pitching seemingly on no rest. Marichal gained notoriety for his infamous bat incident with John Roseboro, which overshadowed his pitching excellence.

I don't recall specifically seeing Mantle play, but I'm sure I saw him play many times. For some odd reason, my most vivid memory in-person at the games is watching Smoky Burgess on the White Sox pinch-hit. The White Sox of this era were a pitching-dominated club that hit relatively poorly and scored mainly by "manufacturing" runs. Watching the burly Burgess stride to the plate, I was amazed that such an unathletic looking player could be on a team, much less hitting in a crucial situation.

My dad explained that the ability to hit could be retained even after other baseball skills faded away. Burgess was a tremendous career pinch-hitter, and I guess that he had a key hit in a game that we attended, thus searing him in my memories.


Coming off the near-pennant win in 1964, the Orioles added several rookies to the starting lineup, each of whom would have a major impact on future teams. Jim Palmer saw limited use during the 1965 season, primarily as a reliever, but even as a rookie, he flashed hints of his future greatness. Outfielder Curt Blefary would win 1965 Rookie-of-the-Year honors by belting 22 home runs, coupled with a robust .381 OBP (or, in the parlance of the times, he "knew how to take a walk"). Blefary would become very productive player for the Orioles over the next three seasons before his career came crashing down. Dave Johnson joined the team in 1965 but saw limited action.

Rounding out the O's rookies was a Rule 5 draft pick, a light-hitting centerfielder by the name of Paul Blair who could catch just about anything hit in his general vicinity. Blair was to become of the top Rule 5 picks ever, and one of the Orioles' all-time greats.


Figure 19 - Prominent 1965 Orioles Rookies

In this era, The Baltimore Sun newspaper at the time had two editions: the Morning Sun and the Evening Sun. Both papers featured extensive sports reporting on the Orioles in addition to the other major Baltimore sports teams, the Colts, Bullets, and Clippers. Occasionally, the Orioles game recaps, especially starting in 1966, would show up on the front page and in headlines.


Figure 20 – Orioles recap on front page

Every day the papers would print the latest stats on the Orioles players, in a table titled "Orioles Averages." These stats would be the only stats an ordinary fan would normally access. The list was ordered by batting average, quaintly labeled "Pct." It would take another few decades before batters' walks, OBP, and slugging percentage made their way into the conversation and print.


Figure 21 – Orioles Averages in the Baltimore Morning Sun, as they appeared for many years


Each day, I eagerly poured over the newspaper stats, my youthful scientific mind discovering that there was another whole side of the game that could be analyzed and evaluated in-between games. At some age, I learned enough long division to be able to compute a player's current batting average after a game, before the newspaper updates came out the next morning. Generally, this would be to see if Brooks was hitting above .300.


It was generally accepted that great players either hit .300, belted 30 or more home runs, or drove in 100 or more RBIs. Truly great players, like Mantle and Mays, managed to accomplish two, or even three of these feats. A few players, like Aparicio and Wills, were renowned for their base-stealing ability, and a select few, like Aparicio, Brooks, and Blair, were so proficient defensively that they could achieve greatness apart from their hitting.

A pitcher's success at the time was judged first by wins, and then by their ERA. Winning 20 games was the gold standard. Saves were not yet a very important statistical category, and the scoring rules at the time made saves more difficult to earn. Complete games and shutouts were the next most important stats. Most relief pitchers were thought of as failed starters, although a few, such as Hoyt Wilhelm, Stu Miller, and Dick Hall, had begun defining the role of exceptional short-inning reliever. Each team generally had a "mop-up man" who would generally come in on hopeless causes to save the arms of the better pitchers.

The Sunday edition of the Sun would include the standard statistical information for the 50-or-so leaders in both leagues. The scorecard "Oriole-gram" insert included with the program at the games included just a bit more information on the Orioles leaders, along with their current game's opponents.


Figure 22 - Oriole-gram Program Insert


At some point, I discovered "The Sporting News," and convinced my parents to buy me an annual subscription as a Christmas Present. The Sporting News had more detailed stats, and articles about players on every team. I generally read the entire issue cover-to-cover and saved all back issues for future reference (until the pile go so big I had to do a "cull"). I particularly like the issues with Orioles on the cover page.



Figure 23 – Sporting news covers featuring Brooks and Blefary

In 1966, the Morning Sun would add a cartoon bird inset on the front page, where you could quickly tell by the cartoon bird's expression the results of yesterday's game.


Figure 24 – Front page cartoon Oriole showing game results


If I hadn't stayed up to listen to or watch the Orioles game from the night before, I'd get up and fetch the paper that was delivered to our house. A glance at the front page cartoon bird would quickly tell me the results. A smiling bird started my day on a good note.


After the 1965 season, outgoing GM Lee McPhail engaged in talks with the Reds to upgrade the Orioles' outfield. The Giants had already proposed a deal to McPhail of outfielder Jesus Alou for Milt Pappas, a deal that was wisely rejected. Reds GM Bill DeWitt, needing to improve his pitching staff, decided that his star outfielder Frank Robinson was expendable. DeWitt exclaimed that "Robinson is not a young 30," which got misreported as him exclaiming "an old 30."

Thankfully, Dewitt rejected an offer from the Astros of Jimmy Wynn and Larry Dierker for Robinson. The Orioles' final offer for Robinson required a lot of advance roster shuffling. Outfield prospect Dick Simpson was acquired for Norm Siebern in a trade with the Angles, and relief pitcher Jack Baldschun was obtained for Orioles veteran Jackie Brandt and pitcher Darold Knowles.

Armed with Pappas, Simpson, and Baldschun, the Orioles offered enough talent for DeWitt to pull the trigger on the deal. The timing of the deal was interesting, as McPhail was headed to the commissioner's office at that exact moment, so newly installed GM Harry Dalton finalized the trade only two days after taking the job.

Some people saw the trade as a gamble, but the Baltimore Sun writers seemed positively giddy at getting the former National League MVP who was still producing at an extremely high level. Getting this kind of player via trade was almost unheard of at the time.


Figure 25 – Frank Robinson headlines in the Baltimore Sun

A secondary factor in the trade was the desire to boost the Orioles' lagging attendance, partially by improving the club's presence in the African-American community.

Manager Hank Bauer, never known as a master of tact, stated after the trade that "We now have four good hitters," referring to Brooks and Frank Robinson, Curt Blefary, and Boog Powell.

So much for the other players on the roster.

Trading Pappas left a big hole in the starting rotation, but Dalton was confident that one of the Orioles' young relievers, such as Dave Leonhard, Eddie Watt, Tom Phoebus, or Jim Palmer, would be able to step up in the role of starter to join ace Steve Barber and incumbents Dave McNally, Wally Bunker, and John Miller. Time would tell if any of the young pitchers would be up to the task.

Of course, the most important change going into the 1966 season was the introduction of the cartoon bird cap to replace the stylized Baltimore Oriole logo that had been used in some form in almost all years since the team's inception.


Figure 26 – Orioles ‘64/’65 cap on the left, ’66 cartoon bird cap on right

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