1969 Baltimore Orioles: A Dominant Season Comes Up Short

The 1969 Baltimore Orioles came into the season just three years removed from winning the franchise’s first World Series title in 1966, but still in the midst of change. Hank Bauer had managed the ’66 champs. But after slipping under .500 in 1967, then being a middling 43-37 halfway through 1968, Bauer had been replaced by a young feisty skipper named Earl Weaver. Under Earl, the Orioles went 48-34 down the stretch in ’68. Even though they didn’t come close to first place, they had momentum back. And excitement was alive again in Baltimore for Earl’s first full year in 1969.

Major League Baseball was going through its own change. For the sport’s entire existence, there had been no postseason rounds prior to the World Series. In 1969, as both the American and National Leagues expanded to 12 teams each, that would change. Each league would now have an East and a West Division. Only the first-place teams would advance to the playoffs, so it was still a considerably more stringent format than we see today. But in the world of 1969, it was a drastic change.

Baltimore, along with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, would take their now-traditional place in the AL East. They would be joined by the Washington Senators (who eventually became the Texas Rangers and moved to the AL West). And two teams that are in today’s AL Central—the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers—were aligned in the East under this format. Detroit, as the defending World Series champions who had outpaced Baltimore by 12 games in 1968, was the team to beat.

Pitching would be the foundation of Oriole success throughout Weaver’s tenure. This inaugural 1969 edition set the tone by posting the best staff ERA in the American League. Dave McNally started 40 games, went 20-7 and finished with a 3.22 ERA. Jim Palmer was a 16-game winner with a 2.34 ERA. Tom Phoebus was a steady horse, making 33 starts, going 14-7 and an ERA that clocked in at 3.60.

In an era where starting pitchers logged a lot of innings, Weaver still had a deep bullpen to rely on. Eddie Watt saved 16 games, and his ERA was a dazzling 1.65. Dick Hall also had a sub-.2.00 ERA in his nearly sixty innings of work. Dave Leonhard gave Earl 94 innings and an ERA of 2.49. And Pete Richert saved 12 games, posting a 2.20 ERA.

All of this is excellent. But there was one more surprise piece to the puzzle. Baltimore made a five-player trade with the Houston Astros in the offseason. The players were generally non-descript. That includes a 31-year-old starting pitcher, Mike Cuellar, who had never really been noteworthy. Until he became an Oriole. In his new surroundings, all Cuellar did was rip off 23 wins, work 290 innings, finish with a 2.38 ERA and win the Cy Young Award.

A young everyday lineup had plenty of star talent. Boog Powell, the big first baseman, batted .304, hit 37 home runs and drove in 121 runs. Frank Robinson was in right field. He hit .308 and cleared the 30 HR/100 RBI thresholds himself. Boog and Frank finished 2-3 in the 1969 AL MVP voting.

Don Buford was consistently on base, and the left fielder finished with an OBP of .397. The middle infield tandem of Davey Johnson at second and Mark Belanger at short each had OBPs of .351 themselves. Elrod Hendrick’s OBP was .333. Key reserves, Andy Etchebarren, who backed up Hendricks behind the plate, and Merv Rettenmund, who got time in the outfield, also got on base consistently.

Brooks Robinson (no relation to Frank, as a casual glance at a photograph will make plain) didn’t have a vintage year, but the 32-year-old third baseman was still good for 23 home runs and solid defense. And speaking of defense, no one played it in the outfield like centerfielder Paul Blair. Baltimore was a complete team and they finished second in the American League for runs scored.

The Red Sox would emerge as a challenger in the AL East, and after a 4-2 start, Baltimore went up to Fenway for a four-game series. Monday afternoon’s game started well enough, with Hendricks hitting an early three-run blast. But Cuellar didn’t have his good stuff, was knocked out by the fourth, and the Orioles lost 5-3.

Tuesday afternoon saw a 5-5 tie going into the eighth inning. Richert was pitching brilliantly in relief, giving 3 1/3 innings of shutout ball, stabilizing a game where both offenses were hitting. In the top of the eighth, it paid off. Buford lashed a two-run single to get the lead, and Frank Robinson ripped a three-run bomb to blow it open. The game ended 10-5.

The bats on both sides kept hitting on Wednesday. Baltimore held a 7-6 lead in the top of the seventh. Five singles and two walks later, they were ahead 11-6 and won 11-8. Buford finished with three hits, four RBIs and a home run. Davey Johnson had a four-hit afternoon.

More of the same came in Thursday afternoon’s finale. Three more hits for Buford. Four more for Davey. And a 9-5 win. After dropping the opener, and never really seeing their pitching get settled in, the Orioles had simply rolled up thirty runs in three games.

They kept right on winning. A four-game sweep at Yankee Stadium in early May, along with pair of series wins over Minnesota, the eventual AL West champs. By Memorial Day, Baltimore’s record was soaring at 32-13. But Boston was playing well themselves, hanging within 3 ½ games. And no one was going to overlook Detroit, 7 ½ games off the pace with plenty of time to turn it around.

The Orioles had a big 10-2 road trip from June 13 to 22 and expanded their lead to nine games. By June 27, their margin on the Tigers was out to 11 ½ games. Detroit was coming into Baltimore for a four-game weekend set.

Blair wasn’t known for his power, but his two-run blast set an early tone in Friday night’s opener. McNally went the distance and won 4-1. On Saturday afternoon, trailing 4-2 in the sixth, a three-run homer from Hendricks keyed the rally to a 6-4 win.

Cuellar started the first game of an old-school Sunday doubleheader, where there would only be twenty minutes between games. He was brilliant and took a 2-0 lead in the ninth. But then it got away. Neither Cuellar, nor Watts, could prevent a three-run Tiger rally and a 3-2 loss. The second game was tied 3-3 after three innings. Earl called on Leonhard for some long relief. The result was 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball. The game stayed 3-3 into the bottom of the ninth. With two on and two out, Frank Robinson’s RBI single won the game, and gave Baltimore three of four in the series.

The Orioles then took three of five in a home series with the Red Sox. Baltimore was in complete command of the race. Even though they lost three straight in Fenway to close the first half, the Orioles still reached the All-Star break with a  record of 65-31 and an 11-game margin on both Boston and Detroit.

Any thoughts of a second half letdown were quickly dispelled when the Birds ripped off seven straight wins out of the break, and their lead grew to as many as 15 games. They would finally start to cool down on a West Coast road trip that saw five losses in seven games. But when Labor Day arrived, the Orioles were still 91-43. They were a comfortable 12 ½ games ahead of the Tigers. The Red Sox had finally fallen completely off the radar and were 19 ½ back.

It was a stress-free September and Baltimore got their magic number down to 1 by September 13, with 2 ½ weeks still left in the season. They were hosting Cleveland on a Saturday night with a chance to clinch. But they didn’t even have to wait. An hour south, down in Washington D.C., the Senators handed the Tigers a loss in the afternoon. The party could start early in Baltimore.

The Orioles concluded the season with a record of 109-53, 19 games clear of the rest of the AL East, and nine games better than anyone else in the major leagues. They were going into the postseason as the favorite to bring home a second World Series title in four years.

Minnesota was waiting in the first-ever American League Championship Series. The Twins had a feisty young manager of their own, one with whom Weaver would become forever linked—a guy named Billy Martin. The Twins also had the AL MVP in Harmon Killebrew. The first two games of what was then a best-of-five series were extra-inning nail-biters, but the Orioles won both, then closed out the sweep.


The New York Mets had won 100 games and had an outstanding pitching staff of their own, led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Even so, this looked like Baltimore’s year, and after they took the Series opener, there was no reason to doubt that the Orioles would do what the football Colts, then in Baltimore, had failed to do back in January—put away a championship they were heavily favored to win.

But, as it turned out, the Mets would do what Joe Namath’s Jets had done in the Super Bowl—pull a big upset of a Baltimore team. New York won the next four games. Three of them were tight pitcher’s duels, but the Oriole bats shut down and they lost the World Series in five games.


It was a bitter pill to swallow after such an exceptional season. But Earl and the Birds simply came back stronger. In 1970, they again blew away the AL East, and again swept the ALCS. And in 1970, they finished the job and won the World Series. A great era of success was underway in Charm City.