[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.)
[ I've utilized Gordon Beard's book, "Birds on the Wing: The story of the Baltimore Orioles," as a resource to provide additional details on the 1966 season. I purchased the book when it came out in 1967, and still have my original copy. It's a very easy read by a fine sportswriter, and I recommend it highly for those interested in learning more about this season and some of the early history and background of the Orioles. I have an amusing story about the book that I'll include in the last installment of this series.]
Figure 26 Gordon Beard’s Birds on the Wing
Prior to the start of Spring Training for the 1966 season, incumbent catcher Dick Brown experienced severe headaches and dizziness. After a thorough evaluation, it was found that the cause was a golf ball- sized brain tumor. Surgery was performed to save his life, but his season, and his baseball career, came to a sudden end.
I recall the reading the news about Dick Brown, which caused me a great deal of confusion. These kinds of things just didn't happen to major league baseball players. The news went from "He's being evaluated," to "He's got a brain tumor," to "He's okay, but might miss time," to "He's never going to play again." It all seemed very sad.
The Orioles had traded away John Orsino, the other half of their catching pair, at the end of the '65 season. And backup Charlie Lau experienced an elbow injury that limited to pinch-hitting duties. So, two months before the start of the season. they were suddenly staring at a situation of having no starting catcher at all.
Rookie Andy Etchebarren, who had played a grand total of 7 major league games to date, was suddenly thrust into the limelight. Etchebarren had a reputation as a good defensive receiver, but serious questions remained about his bat. Nevertheless, the rookie was the only available choice at such a late date.
As kids do, I laughed when I first heard Etchebarren's name. It was just funny sounding. And seeing his picture caused another chuckle. Etchebarren looked exactly like you'd expect a catcher to look like, straight out of central casting. His large unibrow and craggy features were squarely from the Yogi Berra and Joe Torre playbook of catcher appearance.
Figure 27 – Andy Etchebarren rookie card
Etchebarren's nickname was "Lurch," for his resemblance to the Addam's Family TV character on the popular show that had aired from 1964-1965.
The Orioles traded for light-hitting catcher Vic Roznovsky just weeks prior to the season to fulfill backup catching duties. But the Orioles would rely on Etchebarren heavily during the season, especially at the start of the season where he caught in 63 of the Orioles first 68 games, including catching both games of a doubleheader on at least four occasions.
Another rookie was inserted into the lineup at second base. Davey Johnson took over starting duties, replacing nine-year veteran Jerry Adair, who had been with the club since 1958. Adair was a defense-first light-hitting infielder, fitting squarely into the current mold of AL second baseman. Johnson had also earned a good defensive reputation in the minors, and had hit well in Triple-A Rochester, and Bauer made an executive decision to promote Johnson over Adair, despite the fact that Adair had had a relatively good season in 1965. Adair complained bitterly about his demotion, which more-than-likely hastened his departure from the team, as he was traded during mid-season.
The Orioles hired a new batboy for 1966, which ordinarily wouldn't be big news, but this particular batboy was different. At age 2, Jay Mazzone had lost both of his hands in a fire. In place of his hands, he sported a pair of metal prosthetic hooks that he could open and close by flexing his arms. Now at age 12 as the Orioles batboy, he deftly carried bats, balls, and whatever equipment was needed in the course of a batboy's duties.
My brother and I were fascinated by Jay Mazzone's prowess with his prosthetic hands. Most impressively, he could use his hooks to catch balls, on the fly, that rolled back towards the field from the top of the screen behind home plate. Each catch always got a big round of applause from the crowd, and from us.
Figure 28 – Batboy Jay Mazzone
One other promising development had occurred during the ‘65 season. The Yankees had ended the season with a losing record, the first time that this had happened in forty years. Yankee icon Mickey Mantle was still a very good player, but he at age 34, and slowed by numerous injuries, he was no longer The Micky Mantle. Yogi Berra had retired, and his replacement, Elston Howard, was getting old. Maris was in decline, and Joe Pepitone was their starting first baseman. ‘Nuff said. It looked like the reign of the Yankees might finally be coming to an end, and the Orioles were poised to fill the void.
The arrival of Frank Robinson created sky-high expectations for the new season, and the fact that he shared a surname with the Orioles most famous player to-date provided fodder for articles showing the new Oriole "brothers".
Figure 29 - The Robinson boys
My dad was not the biggest sports fan in the world, but he'd read so much about Frank Robinson over the months prior to the season that he made a point to say "I'd like to see this new guy." We watched the first game on TV. Frank was hit by a pitch in his very first Oriole at bat. Brooks, immediately followed with a home run, setting the tone for the season.
We found out over the course of the season that Frank Robinson did not appreciate getting hit by a pitch, or even getting brushed back. When knocked down by an inside pitch, he got up, dusted himself off, and scowled at the pitcher, staring daggers. It seemed like he batted .800 after this happened.
In the opening game, Franke singled his next time up, then homered to tie the game in the fifth. The Orioles ended up winning a thriller in extra-innings at Fenway Park. We were satisfied that the new guy might be alright.
With Frank Robinson in right field, and Blefary in left, the centerfield spot open for Paul Blair. Blair's defensive skills were well-known, but he hadn't hit particularly well during his '65 rookie season. The fourth outfielder, Russ Snyder, was regarded as a good fielder and high-average hitter, often flirting with .300, but without much power. He was also an excellent bunter. Given the importance attached to batting-average during this time, Snyder was thought to be a superior hitter to Blair, but in truth, Blair was probably a slightly better hitter, overall.
When Snyder wasn't starting, he often came in as a defensive sub for Blefary, who wasn't the finest fielder in the league. Frank Robinson famously nicknamed Blefary "Clank," for the sound the ball made when bouncing off his iron glove. In truth, Frank wasn't a great defender either. He ran with a strangely odd, straight-legged gait, which seemed to limit his range, most likely the result of recurring leg injuries. He made some spectacular plays for the Orioles, but, in general, defense was not his specialty.
Luckily, Paul Blair in center could more than compensate for the defensive shortcomings of both Blefary and Robinson.
Frank Robinson homered in his first three games, rapidly endearing himself to the fans of the new team, and Brooks nearly matched him, blasting three homers in his first four games.
Although I was thrilled with the Orioles' new star, my favorite player by far was Brooks Robinson. In and around Baltimore, I was not the only young fan sharing this sentiment. He had been the face of the team for nearly a decade and was the player who could always be counted on in the clutch.
I did my best to emulate Brooks, asking my brother to throw grounders with me for endless hours. Backhand or glove-side, I'd field the ball and fire the throw back to him just in time to nab an imaginary runner, just like Brooks.
When no one was around to throw grounders, I found out that lacrosse ball bounced off the brick wall of our garage allowed me to practice my fielding solo. I got to be a very good fielder. But my noodle arm was nothing to write home about.
Each day in the morning paper, I'd check the box score to see how Brooks did the day before. An Orioles win was excellent. A win where Brooks collected two or three hits or a home run was even better.
For the four or five years surrounding the '66 season, Brooks was a well-above-average hitter, and this, coupled with his phenomenal defense made him one of the league's superstars. And he was one of the game's all-time nice guys.
My elementary school teacher also taught swimming at the Towson YMCA, and she mentioned that she often saw Brooks there, working out. I was very jealous.
The '66 Orioles got off to a very fast start, winning their last nine games in April to end the month with an 11-1 record. In May, with a 13-3 record, they looked like a first-place team, only... they weren't. The Cleveland Indians had started the season with a 14-1 record to secure the league lead when the two teams met for their first series of the year.
The Orioles faced off against "Sudden" Sam McDowell in the opener, and won a squeaker in 15 innings, with McDowell pitching 12 innings and facing 44 batters!
After losing the second game of the series, the two teams squared off in a Sunday doubleheader. The Orioles routed the Indians in both games with Frank Robinson homering in both games. In the second game, batting against Cleveland ace Luis Tiant, Frank cleared the left field bleachers with the only ball that has ever been hit out of Memorial stadium. A small flag was installed at the spot where the ball went out, inscribed simply with the world "Here."
Figure 30 – Evening Sun report on the Indians’ sweep and Frank’s blast, along with "Here" flag later erected.
Some of my classmates at school went to the doubleheader and boasted about seeing about the games and the home run. I was more than a little envious, but I was also happy that my team had finally made it into first place, hopefully to stay.
But the O's stay in first place was short-lived, as they proceeded to go into a 4-10 over the next weeks to fall into third place behind Cleveland and Detroit. The biggest struggles over this interval came with hitting, not the expected lack of starting pitching. Boog Powell, Dave Johnson, Andy Etchebarren, Luis Aparicio, and Paul Blair all struggled at the plate. Johnson was benched for a week in favor of Jerry Adair. The season was rapidly threatening to unravel.
But at the end of May, things began to come together. Johnson, restored to the lineup, began hitting up to his predicted levels, much to the dismay of Adair. Powell went on a tear, averaging nearly an RBI per game for the next three months. Aparicio and Etchebarren began hitting up to their expectations, and Blair improved somewhat, although his big improvement didn't occur until September. As a result, Russ Snyder began to get more playing time in the second half of the season, sharing centerfield duties with Blair.
The Orioles caught on fire in June and July, going 44-18 over the two months and finally tying for first place on June 7 in a thrilling 12-inning comeback walk-off win over the Senators. The Orioles would never relinquish first place.
Figure 31 – Orioles win puts them into a first place tie
In that same issue of the Sun, the paper reported that a young outfielder named Reggie Jackson, whose mother lived in Baltimore, and who'd played sandlot ball in Baltimore in ‘65, was drafted by the KC Athletics in the baseball's first-ever amateur draft. With the Orioles' local connection to Jackson, the Sun's writers speculated that had the draft been initiated a year later, the O's may have had a good chance to sign Jackson directly, but the new draft rules put in place probably cost them the rights to the budding superstar.
By the end of July, the Orioles had amassed 69-35 record with a nearly insurmountable 13-game lead over second place Detroit.
Frank Robinson was leading the league in home runs by a wide margin, but Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell were threatening to take the league lead in RBIs, and teammate Russ Snyder was leading the league in batting average, although with his limited playing time, he most likely would not have enough at bats to qualify for the title.
The Orioles pitching had been more than adequate over the course of the season thus far. Ace Steve Barber was having a tremendous season, with an ERA just under 2.00 runs per game in mid-July. Dave McNally was having a fine season of his own, and Bunker and rookie Jim Palmer were hovering around league-average ERAs, more than adequate when coupled with the Orioles strong offense.
Palmer had been used heavily, and in several games, he faced 40 batters, throwing an amazing 172 pitches in one outing, which in today's game would be a fireable offense for a pitching coach. It was probably not surprising that Palmer ended up with a sore arm in September, and an arm injury during the '67 season that required almost two years of recuperation and rehab.
It was in '66 that Palmer first associated his breakfast choice with his success on the mound. After a successful outing following a pancake breakfast, Palmer decided that the pancakes were a necessary part of his pre-game ritual, and he made sure to have them before every start. Frank Robinson bestowed the name "‘Cakes" on Palmer, and the name stuck. Palmer was able to parlay his superstitious habit into sponsorship deals with pancake companies.
Figure 32 – Jim "’Cakes" Palmer tackling a full stack before the game.
Fifth-starter John Miller had been below-average all year, never seeming quite able to live up to his potential. His walk rate of over five batters per game left him little chance to succeed. In fact, shortstop Aparicio touted Miller as the Orioles "stopper," as in: "He stops our winning streaks."
Two bright spots emerged in the Orioles bullpen. Journeyman reliever Moe Drabowsky, picked up in the Rule 5 draft from the Cardinals in the off-season, emerged as a reliable and effective reliever, appearing in 44 games with a 2.81 ERA. Moe, a stockbroker during the offseason, was the Orioles' prankster and kept teammates and rivals on their toes with a continuous barrage of hotfoots and other pranks. He would save his best performance for the postseason.
Veteran pitcher Eddie Fisher had been obtained in a trade with the White Sox in June in exchange for disgruntled and displaced veteran Jerry Adair. Fisher was used extensively by Manager Bauer, pitching in 44 games in two-thirds of a season, finishing with a 2.64 ERA. Fisher threw a knuckleball, keeping alive the tradition of Orioles' knuckleballer excellence, this time without the extra-large catcher's mitt.
Figure 33 – Drabowsky and Fisher bolstered the Orioles bullpen.
All good things eventually come to an end, and it was towards the end of July that the injury bug began to hit the team in a big way.
In the biggest blow to the team's efforts, pitcher Steve Barber developed tendonitis in his pitching arm. These days, such an affliction may result in Tommy John surgery. In the mid-60s, the prescription was just to rest and wait it out. Barber was never able to fully recover during the 1966 season, and it appeared that this injury lingered on for the rest of his career.
Taking his place in the rotation was rookie Eddie Watt, who managed a passable, but below average, stint on the mount as a starter, after which he was relegated to the bullpen as a very effective reliever for the remainder of his career.
Bunker and Palmer both developed intermittent stints of arm soreness, only winning a total of five games between them over the last two months of the season.
Catcher Andy Etchebarren was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken hand in July, then pulled a muscle in his hand while swinging, but the tough rookie backstop only missed parts of two weeks action.
Dave Johnson suffered a spiking injury in August that broke a toe and injured tendons in his foot, causing him to miss several weeks of play. Little used utility infielder Bob "Rocky" Johnson started four games in a row as his replacement, and immediately renamed himself "Ironman."
Figure 34 - Baltimore Sun article describes some Orioles injuries - July 26, 1966
Reliever Stu Miller developed tendonitis and saw his usage decrease dramatically in September. Newly acquired knuckleballer Eddie Fisher was able to fill in admirably.
Powell was hit by a pitch and suffered a bone chip on his finger, scuttling his power and resulting in only one home run and a slugging pct of .309 over the last month of the season, turning a superb season into one that was merely excellent.
With three starters with broken bones, it's amazing that none were out for the entire season. But the collective injuries did take their toll on the Orioles in the final months.
In fact, Manager Bauer, in speeches after the season, gave credit for the successful season to "Union Memorial Hospital, the two team doctors, and the inventor of Cortisone."
Frank Robinson continued to hit, but nagging knee and leg issues hampered his mobility, and would eventually require surgery in the off-season.
Brooks was seemingly healthy, but slumped mightily in August and September, his batting average falling from over .300 in July to a season-ending .269, ending up with exactly 100 RBIs.
Overall, the team only played .500 ball over the last two months, compiling a 27-27 record over the last third of the season to finish overall with a record of 97-63. It is safe to say that the Orioles limped into the season's end, both literally and figuratively.
Curt Blefary, Paul Blair, and Russ Snyder each enjoyed fine seasons, and each contributed greatly to the success of '66 Orioles team.
Rookies Dave Johnson and Andy Etchebarren both managed around league-average seasons even when battling through injuries, an impressive performance for rookies and a promising indicator for future success.
The Orioles clinched the pennant on Sept 22 by beating Kansas City, making the front page headlines in the Morning Sun. Jim Palmer got the victory by pitching his sixth complete game of the season.
Figure 35 – Orioles Clinch their first pennant in the modern era
On the evening of that Orioles clinching victory, the very first episode of Star Trek was broadcast. The Sun's reviewer was not impressed, writing that Star Trek was heralded as "adult science-fiction," but that it didn't "make the grade on either count," and that it sunk to the level of a "Class C horror movie."
I recall watching the first Star Trek episode broadcast, which was the one with the "salt-suckers." I liked it quite a bit more than the Sun's reviewer. For some reason, I don't recall seeing (or hearing on the radio) the pennant-clinching game, which had happened earlier that afternoon.
The Orioles had a champagne and National Beer-infused pennant winning celebration in the Kansas City visitors' locker room, after which each player kicked in $20 to the A's clubhouse staff to help pay for the extraordinary cleanup efforts required.
Figure 36 – O’s celebrate pennant clinching and announce World Series ticket sales.
Ticket sales for the World Series were also announced in the paper the day after clinching. Only mail-in requests were accepted, and tickets had to be postmarked after 12:01am on Sunday, Sept 25. Each request had to contains a certified check or money order for $17 for two tickets (about $150 today), which included the cost of sending the tickets to the winners via registered mail.
As the first World Series game at Memorial Stadium was in only two weeks, that didn't leave a lot of time for the Orioles staff to process the requests and get the tickets back to the winners. It's not clear why they didn't start processing ticket requests well in advance of the pennant clinching.
I'm reasonably certain that I pleaded with my dad to get World Series tickets, and I do recall conversations about mailing deadlines and various logistics. Since the announcement appeared on a Friday, and request needed to be mailed by Sunday to stand a chance, it appears that Friday may have been the only day that many fans had time to go to the bank to get the required certified check or money order. That made it tough for many working people.
Only two tickets per person was also problematic. If we did get tickets, I wondered how my dad was going to handle telling my brother that he wasn't going? For whatever reason, we did not get any tickets to the World Series and had to settle for watching on TV.
The Orioles ended up winning 97 games, exactly the same total as the 1964 season, and just three more than they had won the year before. Yet, in 1966, they finished nine games ahead of the second-place Twins. So, how were they able to win the pennant in 1966 with nearly the same record?
Several factors contributed to put the Orioles on top. First, the AL's two perennially terrible teams, Washington and Kansas City, were much improved in '66, leading to more parity in the league, as the top teams couldn't feast on them and build up their win totals. Secondly, the Twins, champions in '65, faded and only were able to put up 89 wins, a decline of thirteen from the prior year.
And lastly, the hated Yankees had finished in last place, a half-game behind the Red Sox. Last place! This hadn't happened since 1912 when they were still called the New York Highlanders. Virtually the entire baseball world, save for Yankee fans, basked in a prolonged, delighted, almost orgiastic period of collective Schadenfreude over the Yankee's fate.
It wasn't clear whether the Orioles' Pennant or the Yankees last-place finish was more pleasing to my dad, who, as a New York Giants fan growing up, was of course, a Yankee hater. At the time, I was too young to appreciate how dominant, and for how long, the Yankees had been winning pennants and championships. I did, nonetheless, share my dad's pleasure in their demise.
After the clinching, only a few issues remained to be settled. First and foremost: Could Frank Robinson win the triple crown? He was far ahead of Harmon Killebrew in home runs, and at least ten RBIs ahead of Killebrew, so those two categories appeared safe. Both Boog Powell and Brooks Robinson had challenged Frank for the RBI lead during the season, but Brooks' prolonged slump had faded him to fourth place, and Powell's broken finger during the last month had relegated him to third place.
On September 19, Frank had the slimmest of leads over Minnesota's Tony Oliva for the batting race, .3115 to .3113. Over his final eight games, Frank proceeded to go 11 for 27, a .407 pace, and finished at .316 to clinch the batting title by nine points over Oliva, and to capture the Triple Crown. It was a quite the season. And it wasn't over yet.
The next issue to be resolved would be which pitchers would start in the World Series. McNally and Palmer, who both had been pitching well, appeared to be locks. The third slot came down to a battle between Steve Barber and Wally Bunker. Bunker had not been terribly effective in the final months of the season, and Barber was still attempting to recover from his serious arm injury from July.
It came down to a pitch-off in the final day of the season, a doubleheader against the Twins. Barber started the opener, but only lasted one full inning before walking three Twins in a row to start the second. Bunker threw five shutout innings in the nightcap, pitching himself into the World Series rotation.
It was a sad outcome for Barber, who, until midseason injury, had been by far the '66 Orioles best pitcher, and, along with Pappas, one of the two best pitchers in the Orioles' entire tenure in Baltimore.
The last unresolved question would which team the Orioles would face in the World Series. The National League race was coming down to the wire, a three-way pennant race between the Pirates, the Giants, and the Dodgers. Unknown to the Orioles at the time, the tight NL race would work out in their favor as they headed into their very first World Series.