1971 World Series: A Fall Classic Fit For Prime-Time

The 1971 World Series was the first time the Fall Classic played even a single game at night. The Series as a whole was one worthy of prime-time. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles staged an epic seven-game battle that was decided by a single run. The Pirates prevailed in a World Series that saw the great Roberto Clemente cement his legacy.

You can read more about the season-long paths the Pirates and Orioles took to their respective division titles, their key players and their triumphs in the League Championship Series, at the links below. This article was focus squarely on the seven games of the 1971 World Series.



Homefield advantage worked on a rotation system until 2003, and 1971 was the American League’s year to host. So it was at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, on a Saturday afternoon, that this World Series began.

Clemente sought to immediately put his mark on the Series, but his two-out double in the first did not lead to any runs.  In the top of the second, Bob Robertson worked a leadoff walk against Oriole starter Dave McNally. Robertson moved up on a wild pitch. Then, on a groundball to short, the normally reliable Mark Belanger made a throwing error. The Pirates had a run and a man on second base.

Baltimore’s miscues continued when Jackie Hernandez laid down a bunt. This time it was a throwing error by catcher Elrod Hendricks. Another run was in, another runner went to second base. With two outs, Dave Cash knocked an RBI single. It was the only hit of the inning…and enough to stake Pittsburgh starter Dock Ellis to a 3-0 lead.

Frank Robinson quickly cut into that lead with a solo home run in the bottom of the second. Pittsburgh threatened again in the third when Clemente singled and Stargell walked. There was no one out.

It was at this point that McNally not only escaped the inning, but turned the entire game around. He struck out the side to keep it a 3-1 run game. In the bottom of the inning, Belanger and Don Buford singled. Merv Rettenmund went deep and the Orioles had a 4-3 lead.

McNally was now locked in. From the fourth inning through the eighth inning, he retired 15 batters in a row. Only another Belanger error in the ninth broke the streak. Buford homered in the fifth to provide an insurance run and Baltimore grabbed the opener, 5-3.

A rainout pushed Game 2 back to Monday afternoon. The Orioles went to future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer. Pirate starter Bob Johnson didn’t have the same renown, but he was fresh off outdueling another future Hall of Fame pitcher, San Francisco’s Juan Marichal, in the NLCS.

Game 2 began in a way similar to Game 1. A Clemente hit in the first inning didn’t lead to anything. The Pirates put runners on first and second with no outs in the second. This time though, the Orioles weren’t giving out any defensive gifts. Palmer struck out the side and kept the game scoreless.

Frank Robinson led of the bottom of the second with a single. Hendricks worked a walk. Brooks Robinson singled and Baltimore was on the board. Any hopes of a further rally were squelched when Davey Johnson’s line drive went right at Cash and Hendricks was doubled off second.

Clemente kept trying to rally the Pirate offense, with a third-inning double that gave Pittsburgh another opportunity with two men aboard and one out. Palmer got Al Oliver and Robertson to kill the threat.

After another Frank Robinson single in the bottom of the fourth, Bob Johnson got wild, with a walk and a hit batsman. The bases were loaded and there was no one out. Davey Johnson singled to left and scored two runs. Bruce Kison was summoned from the Pirate bullpen to try and limit the damage.

Kison was also wild, walking Belanger and then Palmer (there was no DH even in existence until 1973), scoring another run and keeping the bases load. At 4-0, Pittsburgh manager Danny Murtaugh kept going to his bullpen, this time for Bob Moose. This move worked. Don Buford flied out to left, and Davey Johnson was thrown out at home trying to tag up. The Pirates were in a hole, but they still had a shot.

But Baltimore had momentum and they kept coming in the bottom of the fifth. Five of the first six batters—Rettenmund, Boog Powell, Hendricks, Brooks Robinson and Davey Johnson—singled. It was 7-0, there were two runners on and one out. Bob Veale came out of the bullpen. Again, Belanger and Palmer were walked at  the bottom of the order. It was 8-0 and the bases were loaded. Rettenmund delivered his second single of the inning for two more runs.

At 10-0, it was all over but the shouting. The Orioles later added another run. The Pirates’ Richie Hebner hit a three-run homer in the eighth. But with an 11-3 win and a 2-0 Series lead, Baltimore was firmly in control as the World Series shifted to Pittsburgh.

Steve Blass was the Pirate ace, and the team had won both of his NLCS starts. But Blass hadn’t really pitched well in either one. Now, Pittsburgh’s fate was essentially in Blass’ hands for Tuesday afternoon’s Game 3. He faced off with Mike Cuellar.

Dave Cash started the Pirate first inning with a double down the left field line. An error set up runners on the corners with no outs. Clemente’s ground ball out picked up the run. Stargell worked a walk to keep the rally going. Robertson then hit a line drive, but it went to Brooks Robinson at third, who doubled a runner off to end the inning. It was still 1-0 Pittsburgh.

Blass settled in quickly and the first Baltimore hit didn’t come until a Brooks Robinson single in the fifth inning. Pittsburgh missed a couple chances with a runner on second and one out to add to the lead. But they didn’t miss their chance in the bottom of the sixth. Manny Sanguillen started the frame by slashing a double into the right-centerfield gap. A base hit by Jose Pagan extended the lead to 2-0.

Frank Robinson replied with a solo home run in the seventh that got Baltimore on the board. But Blass was dealing and Pittsburgh would take out insurance. A Cuellar throwing error opened the door in the seventh. Then a walk. Robertson, fresh off hitting four home runs in the NLCS, went deep again here. It was 5-1. That’s where it ended as Blass closed out a three-hitter.

So, we had a Series on our hands again as the lights went on for the first time in the Fall Classic for Wednesday night’s Game 4. The Pirates went with Luke Walker, while the Orioles countered with Pat Dobson.

Baltimore wasted no time. Paul Blair started the game with a single. Belanger and Rettenmund legged out infield hits. A passed ball scored one run. After an intentional walk to Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson picked up another run with a sac fly. The futile throw home allowed Rettenmund to take third, where he scored on a sac fly from Powell. With only one hit out of the infield, the Orioles had three runs. And, hard luck or not, Walker was taking an early shower.

Kison was now entrusted with a game the Pirates simply had to win. And the young reliever got some quick help from his own offense. With a runner on first and two outs in the bottom of the first, Stargell doubled into the gap to put Pittsburgh on the board. Oliver blooped another double. It was 3-2, and there was still a long way to go.

Oliver came through with another two-out RBI in the third, finishing a rally that began with base hits from Hebner and Clemente and tying the game up 3-all.

Pittsburgh missed chances to get the lead in the  middle innings .With the bases loaded and one out in the fourth, the speedy Cash grounded into a double play. The bases were filled with one out again in the fifth. This time, Robertson popped up and Sanguillen grounded out. With runners on the corners and one out in the sixth, Oriole manager Earl Weaver went to the bullpen for lefty Grant Jackson.

Hebner hit a line drive, but it went right at Brooks Robinson. After a walk to Clemente, Stargell grounded out. The Pirates had left the maximum of nine runners on base through the 4th-5th-6th inning. As for the Orioles, they had no such problems. Their own offense hadn’t mustered a hit off Kison since the second inning.

Pittsburgh rallied one more time in the bottom of the seventh, against Baltimore’s excellent closer Eddie Watt. Robertson and Sanguillen singled with one out. Vic Davalillo lofted a fly ball to center. Blair, one of the great defensive centerfielders of all-time, flubbed it. Amidst the mess, Robertson took third base…but Sanguillen got hung up between second and third. He was thrown out.

So, after all was said and done, there were runners on first and third, but now there were two outs. Were the Pirates about to let another chance go by the boards? Kison’s spot was due up. Milt May came in to pinch-hit. He got the biggest hit of the Series to this point, a single to center that put the Pirates ahead 4-3.

Pittsburgh closer Dave Giusti picked up where Kison left off, allowing no hits. The Pirates had to fight and scratch and claw to a win game they had dominated, but this Series was now tied two games apiece.

We were back to midweek afternoon baseball for Thursday’s Game 5. McNally was back on the hill for the Orioles. Robertson got him for a home run in the bottom of the second. Sanguillen singled, and then with two outs, the catcher stole second. It set up an RBI base hit from starting pitcher Nelson Briles.

That was all Briles would need, as Pirate pitching picked up where it left off the previous night. Briles went the distance and threw a two-hitter. Pittsburgh added a couple more runs, one of them thanks to a walk and a rare error from Brooks Robinson, another on a not-so-rare RBI hit from Clemente. The final was 4-0.

Over the final 16 innings of these games in Three Rivers Stadium, the Oriole offense had completely vanished, getting four hits total over that stretch. Baltimore undoubtedly welcomed Friday’s travel day, as they went home with their backs now to the wall.

Homefield advantage and a rotation stocked with four 20-game winners still aren’t a bad place to be. The Orioles trotted out Palmer for Game 6. The Pirates went to Moose, who swung between relief and the pen.

But Baltimore’s bats stayed silent in the early going, while Pittsburgh gave Moose a lead to work with. In the top of the second, Oliver doubled to right, Robertson singled to left and it was quickly 1-0. Sanguillen singled. There were runners on first and second and no one out.

Palmer was able to take advantage of the bottom of the order, work out of that jam and temporarily keep it a 1-0 game. But in the top of the third, Clemente homered. The score was 2-0. It stayed that way until the sixth inning. With Baltimore’s bats in a deep freeze, that two-run gap seemed massive.

Finally, Buford went the other way for an opposite field home run to cut the lead in half. An error by Hebner and a single from Powell set up the Birds with runners on the corners and no outs. Johnson came out of the Pirate bullpen. And facing the heart of the order, Johnson got it done. Frank Robinson popped up. Rettenmund struck out. Brooks Robinson grounded out.

In the bottom of the seventh, a one-out single from Belanger prompted Murtaugh to call for Giusti. With two outs, Buford came through again—this time it was with patience, drawing a walk that moved the tying run into scoring position. Davey Johnson singled. It was 2-2 and the Orioles had some fresh life.

Now it was the Pirate bats that had fallen silent, with Palmer locked in. The 2-2 tie went into extra innings. Weaver, naturally pulling out all the stops, had Dobson, another 20-game winner, come on in relief.

Cash tried to get something going for Pittsburgh, singling with one out in the tenth inning, then stealing second with two outs. Clemente and Stargell were walked. The only arm Weaver wasn’t using today was Cuellar, whom the Orioles hoped would start Game 7. So, McNally came on in relief and induced Oliver to fly to center.

Bob Miller was on in relief for Pittsburgh. With one out, the trio of Frank Robinson, Rettenmund and Brooks Robinson was due up. The group that missed on a golden opportunity in the sixth, didn’t miss here. Frank worked a walk and took third on a Rettenmund single. Brooks’ fly ball to center was deep enough to win the game, 3-2. We were going to a Game 7.

It all came down to Sunday afternoon, with Blass and Cuellar again matching up. A walk and an error gave Baltimore the first scoring opportunity in the bottom of the second. But Belanger’s ground ball to Cash turned into an inning-ending double play. In the third, Buford singled with one out. Blass promptly picked him off first.

So, we were still scoreless going into the fourth. It was time for Clemente. A solo home run to left-center gave the Pirates a 1-0 lead.

Both pitchers were dominating. A one-out double from Hendricks in the bottom of the fifth was the only thing remotely resembling a threat as the tense 1-0 game went into the eighth. That’s when Stargell led off with a single, Pagan followed with an RBI double and Pittsburgh had a huge add-on run.

The run looked even bigger when the Orioles launched a desperate rally in the bottom of the eighth. Hendricks and Belanger singled to put the tying runs aboard with no outs. Tom Shopay, batting for Cuellar, dropped a bunt that moved the runners to second and third. Buford was at the plate. His ground ball to first scored a run, but it also gave Blass room to get Davey Johnson on a grounder to third and keep the lead.

It was still 2-1 when Baltimore came to bat for the last shot in the ninth. The Birds had the muscle of the order and could tie it with one swing. Powell grounded out. Frank Robinson popped out. Rettenmund hit a grounder to short, and that was it. The Pirates were champs.

Clemente finished this Series 12-for-29, and had been the one Pittsburgh player who performed throughout, even in the first two games. He homered twice, including the big Game 7 blast. He sparkled defensively throughout the Series. It’s no surprise he was voted Series MVP.

The ultimate legacy of Clemente would come one year later when he tragically died in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission to his native Nicaragua. The 1971 World Series serves as the less-important, but still notable baseball part of his legacy.

There were other Pirate heroes. Blass, with two brilliant outings in must-win spots where Cuellar was also pitching well, would have been a worthy MVP himself. Sanguillen collected 11 hits over the seven games.

On the Baltimore side, Brooks Robinson showed he could still shine—even in defeat—on the biggest stage, going 7-for-22. The problem was that he was only the Baltimore hitter to bat over .300 for the Series. Palmer had pitched exceptionally well for the Birds, including the must-win Game 6, while McNally posted a 1.98 ERA in over 13 innings of work. Cuellar had to go into the history books as the hard-luck victim of Blass, but the Oriole lefty certainly pitched well.

Neither team were going anywhere. Each had multiple division titles in their immediate future. But it would take until 1979 for these two franchises to again reach the World Series. Again, they played each other. And again, the Pirates rallied from a two-game Series deficit to win a Game 7 in Baltimore. In our own day, these same two cities have a fierce NFL rivalry. The grudge battles between Pittsburgh and Baltimore were just getting started when they met at the 1971 World Series.