1973 Baltimore Orioles: A Bounceback AL East Title

Baltimore was the American League’s dominant team from 1969 through 1971. Each year, they blew away the AL East and swept through the American League Championship Series. In 1970, they won the World Series. By those lofty standards, 1972 was a disappointment. The Orioles failed to win the AL East, even in a year when the division did not have a great team. The 1973 Baltimore Orioles were a bounce back team—they returned to the top of their division and set the stage for another decade of success.

Pitching is what defined this era of Baltimore baseball and 1973 was no different. The rotation was led by 27-year-old Jim Palmer. The future Hall of Famer had another vintage season, winning 22 games, posting a 2.40 ERA and capturing the Cy Young Award. Mike Cuellar was 36-years-old, but still won 18 games with a 3.27 ERA. Dave McNally added 17 wins and a 3.21 ERA.

The trio of Palmer, Cuellar, and McNally combined for 113 starts in this era of workhorses. Manager Earl Weaver filled out the rotation with good-enough work from Doyle Alexander and Jesse Jefferson. And the bullpen was lights-out. Bob Reynolds and Grant Jackson each finished with sub-2.00 ERAs and Eddie Watt was a reliable reliever. The Orioles finished with the top staff ERA in the American League.

Baltimore’s offense had slipped in 1972 and during the offseason, they traded away veteran second baseman Davey Johnson, who was starting to fade. The deal worked in two ways—the return was a promising young catcher in 24-year-old Earl Williams, who hit 22 home runs. Williams replaced another aging vet in Elrod Hendricks. And Johnson’s job at second base went to another 24-year-old, in this case Bobby Grich. With a .373 on-base percentage, Grich got what would turn into a good major league career jumpstarted.

The rise of the 24-year-olds continued in left field with Don Baylor, who posted a stat line of .357 OBP/.437 slugging percentage. Paul Blair would be mostly known for his elite defense in centerfield, and he had a good year with the bat in 1973, hitting .280. Al Bumbry was getting playing time at different outfield spots and he hit .337. Rich Coggins was another valuable reserve whose stat line ended up .363/.468.

And even though some of the old-time veterans—Boog Powell at first base, legendary third baseman Brooks Robinson, and outfielder Marv Rettenmund—no longer had their power, they still kept getting on base. Well before drawing walks were the “in thing” in baseball circles, this Baltimore team was defined by patience. They led the American League in walks, finished third in on-base percentage and, even without the power of some of their most dominant years, finished third in the AL for runs scored.

The season still started alarmingly like the previous one had gone—with a little too much mediocrity. The Birds were 18-19 on Memorial Day. But no one in the AL East was much better, with everyone packed within four games.

Here’s a good place for a reminder to younger readers that prior to 1994, each league had just two divisions, an East and a West, and only the first-place team advanced to the postseason. So, while the AL East had its usual suspects—the Orioles, the Boston Red Sox, and the New York Yankees—it also had teams from  the Midwest–the Detroit Tigers (the defending AL East champs), the Milwaukee Brewers (an American League team prior to 1998), and the Cleveland Indians.

The early part of the summer saw what proved to be the decisive trend of the season emerge. The Orioles did not play well against key rivals—they went 8-11 against the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, and the AL West frontrunner Oakland A’s. But they cleaned up against everyone else. And there were a lot more games against “everyone else”. By the All-Star break, the Birds were up to 51-41. New York had the division lead, but Baltimore was only a game and a half back. Boston was a close third, and Detroit was six games off the pace in fourth.

The Orioles continued to struggle against fellow contenders in the late summer, getting swept at home by the Tigers and dropping three of five at home to the Red Sox. But Baltimore consistency continued to shine through in late summer. In games against non-contending AL West teams from Chicago, Minnesota, Kansas City, and Texas, the Orioles ripped off 14 wins in 15 games.

In the meantime, New York was in a free-fall and none of the other contenders had Baltimore’s consistency. By the time Labor Day arrived to signal the stretch drive, the Orioles were sitting on a 78-54 record and a six-game lead on the Red Sox. Everyone else had fallen by the wayside.

A trip to Fenway out of the holiday weekend gave Baltimore a chance to drive home the dagger. That chance was missed, with three losses in four games. But the Orioles responded by taking a series in Cleveland and the lead stayed at five games. Baltimore split four with New York, and then swept lowly Milwaukee. The lead was out to seven games.  

On the penultimate Saturday, the magic number was down to two. That afternoon, Boston lost to Detroit. The opportunity to clinch was there. Baltimore was in Milwaukee that same afternoon. The Orioles pounded out 17 hits, led by four hits from Tommy Davis. Alexander tossed a complete game. With the 7-1 victory, Baltimore was back on top of the AL East.

Their final record ended up 97-65, the second-best in all of baseball. They had gone 30-36 against the quartet of Boston, Oakland, New York, and Detroit. But domination everywhere else, highlighted by a 15-3 record against Milwaukee, brought the Orioles home.

A return to the World Series wasn’t in the card. The best-of-five ALCS against Oakland went the distance, but the A’s took Game 5 and won the pennant. But the Orioles were back. They won the AL East again in 1974. They continued to contend through the rest of the decade, including winning the American League pennant in 1979. They contended in the early part of the 1980s, and by 1983, they won the World Series again.