1969 Minnesota Twins: The 1st AL West Champs

The people of Minneapolis-St. Paul got major league baseball in 1960 when the first iteration of the Washington Senators moved west and renamed themselves the Twins. It only took five years to reach the World Series, in 1965. When the franchise slipped under .500 in 1968, they made a managerial change—Billy Martin got his first job in the dugout. Martin began a career that was both successful and tempestuous. And in a year of seismic change for baseball, the 1969 Minnesota Twins won the first-ever AL West title.

Major League Baseball expanded from 20 to 24 teams in 1969. As such, they split the American League and National League into divisions for the first time. There was just an East and a West, and only the first-place teams would go to postseason play. So, it was considerably more rigorous than is the case today. But in the world of 1969, it offered considerably more opportunity for teams to play in October.

Minnesota was a big beneficiary of how the divisions broke down. The Oakland A’s were the only team in the AL West to have finished over .500 in ’68, and that was at 82-80. The defending World Series champion Detroit Tigers were in the East. As were the up-and-coming Baltimore Orioles. Contending teams in New York and Boston were in the AL East. In the blink of an eye, the Twins and A’s were realigned out of mediocrity and into contention.

The AL’s most potent offense led the way for Minnesota in ’69, and Harmon Killebrew was the biggest reason why. Playing both first base and third base, Killebrew led the American League with 49 homers and 140 RBIs, en route to the MVP award.

Killebrew’s RBI numbers point to a lot of players getting on base. As a team, the Twins had the AL’s best batting average. Second baseman Rod Carew, just 23-years-old, won the first of what would be seven career batting titles, hitting .332. Rich Reese hit .322, and also slugged .513. Rightfielder Tony Oliva hit .309 and added 24 homers and 109 RBIs.

Minnesota had traded starting pitcher Jim Merritt to Cincinnati in the offseason and got Leo Cardenas back to play shortstop. Cardenas posted an OBP of .353. Other contributors, from outfielders Bob Allison and Ted Uhlaender to catcher John Roseboro, all had OBPs over .325. There was no truly dead spot in the Twins’ lineup.

There weren’t many problems with the pitching either. Jim Perry went 20-6 with a 2.82 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young voting. Dave Boswell was another 20-game winner. Jim Kaat won 14 games. All three starters logged over 240 innings. Tom Hall and Dean Chance combined to make 33 starts and pitched well.

Closers weren’t generally a big thing in the baseball world of 1969. Minnesota was different. Ron Perranoski led the league with 31 saves, and he also logged 119 innings with a 2.11 ERA. Perranoski led up a reliable bullpen that included Bob Miller and Dick Woodson. As a staff, the Twins finished third in the American League in composite ERA.

After dropping their first four games, Minnesota found their footing and reeled off a 16-3 stretch that took them into early May. A series of ten games with the Orioles and Tigers didn’t go well—a 3-7 record. But the Twins went into the Bronx and grabbed three of four from the Yankees on Memorial Day weekend. By the holiday, they were 23-16, and 1 ½ games up on the A’s.

Minnesota played middling baseball during the early summer, They went 11-11 out of Memorial Day and into June. They visited Oakland for a four-game set and split. That started a 9-7 road trip. By the Fourth of July weekend, the Twins were 43-34 and one game back of the A’s. Oakland was coming to old Metropolitan Stadium for a three-game set.

The bats were ready to unload. The lineup’s 1-2-3 hitters—Uhlaender, Carew, and Oliva—all had three hits in the Friday night opener. Killebrew homered, and Minnesota won 10-4. On Saturday afternoon, Oliva had four more hits and Killebrew went deep two more times. The final was 13-1. Sunday’s finale looked bleak when Minnesota trailed 6-2 in the bottom of the seventh. Another Killebrew blast keyed a five-run outburst and the 7-6 win finished off a sweep.

It proved to be the tonic the Twins needed. They won 13 of their next 16. By the All-Star break, Minnesota was 59-37 and four games up on Oakland.

Playing the Tigers and Orioles was a sure way to grind a hot streak down, but the Twins still fought their way to a 7-7 split over a 14-game stretch exclusively against these two. The AL West margin dwindled to a single game. Minnesota responded with an 11-6 stretch. By Labor Day, the record was 79-52 and the margin back out to 4 ½ games.

A sweep of Cleveland at a time the A’s stumbled let the Twins push the margin out to a comfortable 6 ½ games. That set the stage for a trip to Oakland on the weekend of September 4-7. In this era, when the NFL didn’t start for another couple of weeks, the Twins-A’s series could have exclusive attention from Minnesota sports fans waiting for the Vikings—who were bound for the Super Bowl this year—to get started.

The Twins trailed Thursday night’s opener 5-1, but rallied for four runs in the eighth and forced extra innings. In the 10th, Killebrew unloaded with a grand slam. Minnesota won 10-5. Friday night saw a role reversal, as 4-2 Twins lead in the eighth turned into a 5-4 loss.

Saturday afternoon’s game would be epic. Both teams scored runs early and it was 5-5 after five. Kaat came on for the Twins and did yeoman’s relief work. But the offense couldn’t muster a run. Extra innings loomed. And more extra innings. In the top of the 16th, the Twins finally scored…the A’s got the run back. Finally, in the top of the 18th, utility man Cesar Tovar hit a two-run homer. On an afternoon/evening where Kaat threw 9 1/3 innings, Minnesota had won 8-6.

Perhaps that marathon broke Oakland’s back. The Twins jumped all over the A’s on Sunday afternoon. Killebrew hit a three-run homer in the first inning and a grand slam in the second. The final was 16-4. Minnesota had broken this race open, now leading by 8 ½ games and it would never get tight again.

A Monday night in Kansas City on September 22 was when it came to an end. The Twins won 4-3 to clinch the west. Perhaps it was fitting that it was Killebrew, taking a groundball to first base unassisted, who recorded the clinching out.

Minnesota finished 97-65, nine games clear of Oakland, with everyone else in the West at least twenty games under .500. The Twins were the third-best team in baseball

They ran into the team with the best record in the majors in the 1969 American League Championship Series. Baltimore won 109 games in blowing away a good division. The Twins were in position to win Game 1 of what was then a best-of-five series. But a late lead got away. They were ultimately ousted in three straight.

Even though Martin had a fallout with the front office in 1970 and did not return, the Twins still returned to the top of the AL West before again losing to Baltimore. Minnesota was one of the best teams in baseball as this new era began.