1972 Baltimore Orioles: A Step Back & A Pivot

Earl Weaver’s Orioles had dominated the American League for three consecutive seasons. From 1969 through 1971, they won an average of 106 games each year. They swept through the best-of-five ALCS with a combined 9-0 record to win the pennant each year. In 1970, they won the World Series. But some big names were getting up in years. The 1972 Baltimore Orioles were a contender, but they took a step back this season. The good news was that, with younger players on the rise, the step back was really a pivot that would result in a fast return to the top of the AL East.

Frank Robinson was an all-time great, a Hall of Famer power hitter. And at the age of 35, he still had a couple good years left in him. But the Orioles operated on the adage that it was better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. Robinson, along with pitcher Pete Richert, was moved to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for four younger players, the most notable of which was 21-year-old pitcher Doyle Alexander.

Brooks Robinson, the hero of that ’70 postseason, was also 35-years-old and his bat was fading. Brooks posted pedestrian numbers of a .303 on-base percentage/.342 slugging percentage, signifying the end was near for the great Hall of Fame third baseman.

The Robinsons—the departure of one and decline of another—were the reasons the Baltimore offense was sluggish in 1972, ranking just eighth in a 12-team American League for runs scored. Second baseman Davey Johnson had a bad year, batting just .221. Merv Rettenmund and Don Buford struggled with the bat at the corner outfield spots. Paul Blair in centerfield and Mark Belanger at shortstop were outstanding defensive players, but neither was known for their bat. Boog Powell, the slugging first baseman had a respectable stat line of .346/.434. But even that was a decline.

What kept the offensive situation from being truly hopeless—and what pointed to better days ahead—was some younger players who got a lot of at-bats. The most significant in 1972 was Bobby Grich. Playing both middle infield spots, Grich posted an on-base percentage of .358 and eventually took the second base gig from Johnson. Don Baylor, an up-and-coming power hitter, was another young name who started to get playing time. The same went for 25-year-old outfielder Terry Crowley.

Any other team would still have been completely sunk. But when you have pitching, you can compete. And did the Baltimore Orioles of this era ever have pitching.

In an era marked by workhorses, the top four starters on the Oriole staff combined to make 142 starts. Every one of them finished with an ERA under 3. Jim Palmer won 21 games with a dazzling 2.07 ERA. Mike Cuellar added 18 wins of his own. Pat Dobson and Dave McNally were the primary victims of poor run support and finished under .500. But they still added 29 combined wins.

The bullpen also delivered. Alexander paid immediate dividends, working over 100 innings, and posting a 2.45 ERA. Grant Jackson and Roric Harrison had sub-3.00 ERAs themselves. Scoring against the pitching staff was a tall order, and it’s the reason the ’72 Orioles still contended for the AL East title the entire way.

Major League Baseball as a whole got off to a poor start in 1972. A spring training lockout was the first of what would be many future disputes between management and the players. The season opener was delayed and early games would not be made up.

When play did begin in mid-April, Baltimore got off to a nice start, winning a couple of series against a Detroit Tigers team who eventually won the division. The AL East of this era was comprised of current members in the Orioles, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees. It also included the Tigers, Cleveland Indians, and Milwaukee Brewers, who didn’t join the National League until 1998. No Central Division existed prior to 1994, and only the first-place team went to the postseason.

The Birds began to struggle against the AL West, losing eight of fourteen games. They bounced back with a four-game sweep of the Indians over Memorial Day weekend. When that sweep was completed, Baltimore was 20-15, a half-game up on Detroit, with surprising Cleveland a close third.

But then a bad 2-7 string followed, including three losses in four home games with the Oakland A’s, the team Baltimore had eliminated in the 1971 ALCS, and who would start a run of three straight World Series titles this year.

When you have pitching though, slumps never last too long. Baltimore went on the road and enjoyed a successful trip, the highlight of which was the return visit to Oakland on June 12. In the series opener on Monday night, Dobson tossed a four-hitter as he battled A’s ace Vida Blue. In a scoreless game in the top of the eighth, the Orioles got three singles from Johnson, Andy Etchebarren, and Buford to scrape across the game’s only run.

Cuellar was the hero of Tuesday night. He went the distance and hit a two-run homer (the designated hitter was still a year away from existence) to lead a 5-1 win. And in the finale, it was McNally dueling with the great Catfish Hunter. A 1-1 tie went extra innings, with both starters still in the game. Grich got Catfish for a solo home run in the top of the 10th. McNally finished what he started, and the Orioles had the sweep.

It was all part of a 9-3 road trip that put Baltimore back on Detroit’s heels. Later in June, the Tigers came to old Memorial Stadium holding a one-game lead. The series opened with a Saturday doubleheader. In the opener, Etchebarren and Blair homered off the great Tiger veteran Mickey Lolich. McNally threw six solid innings and Harrison cleaned up with three innings of one-hit relief. Baltimore won 3-1.

In the nightcap, Cuellar was brilliant, but trailed 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs, Rettenmund worked a walk and Crowley picked him up with a double. Alexander pitched well in relief, but the Birds couldn’t get that extra run. Eventually, they fell 2-1 in twelve innings.

But Palmer was waiting in the finale. The Hall of Fame great went the distance. In a 1-1 game in the top of the sixth, Crowley led off with a double and Brooks Robinson added an RBI single. The 2-1 win had the Birds back tied for first.

The quality of Baltimore’s pitching always made stretches like this possible. The problems they had hitting also made things like losing four straight at home to the Texas Rangers possible. That’s what happened on the far side of this nice run. The Orioles rebounded from that to win nine of eleven going into the All-Star break, but still trailed the Tigers by a game. The Indians had faded, and the Red Sox were lurking five games off the pace.

Between the All-Star break and Labor Day, the top teams in the AL East ground to a halt. Baltimore did not play well, going 18-21. Detroit was a little bit worse. The Orioles actually nudged into first place by a half-game by the September holiday. The consequence was that the Red Sox, along with the Yankees, were squarely in the middle of what was now a four-team race, just a half-game out themselves. The AL East promised fans a torrid finish to make up for the sport’s wobbly start.

The division delivered the promised excitement, but the Orioles did not. Coming out of a Labor Day, in a week of multiple doubleheaders, Baltimore lost series to New York and Detroit before bouncing back on the weekend against lowly Milwaukee. The Birds slipped a game and a half back of Boston.

In the rematches with the Tigers and Yankees, the Orioles lost two straight to Detroit, before taking two of three from New York. The Red Sox and Tigers were tied for first, but Baltimore was still within 1 ½. But then they went to Boston and missed another opportunity, losing two of three. Having to settle for splitting two games with Milwaukee after that was a missed chance in its own right.

The Birds were 2 ½ back. There was still a week and a half to go, but they had two teams to catch, and the Red Sox and Tigers would play head-to-head in the final three games. Baltimore had to at least be in second place by that point to have a chance.

But the September fade would be consummated by losing two straight to Cleveland and dropping a home series to Boston. Over those five games, the Oriole offense mustered just seven runs. No pitching, not even the best in the American League, could cover for that.

Detroit beat Boston in a dramatic final series to win the AL East. Baltimore settled for an 80-74 finish and third place. They were fifth-best in the 12-team American League, and 12th among what were then 24 major league teams overall. In other words, while a winning season and a contending one, it was mediocrity from an organization that had become accustomed to delivering excellence.

The good news for Baltimore fans is that 1972 really was just a pivot. In 1973 and 1974, they won the AL East again. They ran a strong second in 1975, 1976, 1977, won 90 games in 1978, and by 1979, were back in the World Series.