1974 Baltimore Orioles: A Sizzling Stretch Drive Wins Another AL East

The 1974 Baltimore Orioles were looking for the franchise’s fifth division title in the last six years. They were hoping to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1971, and to win it for the first time since 1970. They came up short on the latter two goals, but a sizzling September established that these ’74 Orioles were still the kings of the AL East.

Baltimore’s greatness in this era was built on pitching, while the hitting had slipped a bit in the last couple of years. Given that, it seems surprising that the most significant offseason move was to deal a productive everyday player in Merv Rettenmund, for another starting pitcher, in Ross Grimsley. Those two players were the centerpiece of a five-player trade with the Cincinnati Reds. But the move still worked out. Even though the lineup continued to have problems, Grimsley’s strong year was instrumental to winning the division.

Grimsley, at the age of 22, made 39 starts, worked nearly 300 innings, won 18 games and posted a rotation-best 3.07 ERA. Mike Cuellar was a 22-game winner with a 3.11 ERA. Dave McNally racked up 16 wins and finished with a 3.58 ERA. This trio combined to make 114 starts.

Their success and durability was essential, because Baltimore got a bad break when staff ace Jim Palmer—the reigning Cy Young Award winner and a future Hall of Famer—lost seven games in a row in the first half of the season, was diagnosed with a bad elbow and then spent a couple months on the disabled list. Palmer would return for the stretch drive and be a big part of it, but his season-ending numbers were a 7-12 record and 3.27 ERA in just 26 starts.

Manager Earl Weaver had a deep and balanced bullpen. Grant Jackson, Wayne Garland, and Bob Reynolds all finished with ERAs in the high 2s. Dan Hood was respectable and Doyle Alexander was versatile, making twelve starts. All of it added up to the Orioles having the second-best staff ERA in the American League.

But would they hit? Boog Powell, once a power-hitting MVP first baseman, could still get on base, with a .358 on-base percentage. But the power was gone. Brooks Robinson, the great third baseman had an OBP of .353. But age 37, his power was also shot. Earl Wlliams, the young catcher, who had been so promising in 1973, slipped to mediocrity. Don Baylor, a talented young leftfielder, had a .341 OBP, but his power mysteriously took a year off. Tommy Davis was unproductive in the designated hitter spot.

Bobby Grich had a nice year at second base, with a .376 OBP, but the fact his 19 home runs led the team tells you the difficulties with power. Perhaps even more telling is that Paul Blair was second on the team in dingers. Blair was a terrific centerfielder, one of the best of his time. He had a surprisingly good year with the bat, hitting 17 home runs. But if he’s your #2 muscle guy, you’ve got problems. And the Birds did.

Weaver compensated for some of the lack of punch with the running game. Baylor, Blair, and rightfielder Rich Coggins combine to steal 82 bases. Baltimore finished third in the American League in steals. But they still ended up ninth in what was then a 12-team American League for runs scored.

Baltimore was up and down in the early part of the season. The highlight was winning two of three at home over the Oakland A’s in late April, and then going out west and doing it again in early May. The A’s were the two-time defending World Series champion and headed for a third crown in 1974. The lowlight of the early going for the Orioles was losing four of six to the lowly Milwaukee Brewers, who would bedevil them throughout the year, and dropping three of four to the Boston Red Sox at home in mid-May.

By Memorial Day, Baltimore was playing .500 ball. The good news is that the entire division—in fact the entire American League—was all hovering around mediocrity. The AL’s best record was 24-20 and its worst was 18-24.

The Orioles continued to slog along and were 38-36 when they got on a little hot spurt. They went to Boston and took three straight, and then went to Oakland and won another series in early July. By the All-Star break, Baltimore was 49-45, only a half-game off the pace being set by the Red Sox, and with the entire division still within five games of each other.

It bears noting that this was still the era where there were no wild-cards and there were only two divisions per league. So even though the race was tight, it was winner-take-all to go directly into the League Championship Series.

The Birds stumbled out of the break, losing series to Cleveland and Milwaukee, and then went 15-15 through August and up to Labor Day. As the holiday weekend signaled the stretch drive was here, Baltimore’s record was only 67-65. They were five games back of Boston. The New York Yankees were nestled in between, just two games out.

The Orioles, Red Sox, and Yankees had gotten some separation, but there was work to do. And a home series with Boston that started with a Labor Day doubleheader was a necessary place to start.

Grimsley took the ball for the first game on Monday against Boston ace Luis Tiant. Grich hit a solo home run in the bottom of the fourth. That was all Grimsley got. It was all he needed, allowing just three singles in a complete-game 1-0 shutout.

In the nightcap, Cueller faced crafty Red Sox lefty Bill Lee. In the bottom of the third, Brooks Robinson and Enos Cabell singled. A bunt from shortstop Mark Belanger set up Blair to drive in a run with a sac fly. That was all Cuellar got. It was all he needed, allowing just two singles in a complete-game 1-0 shutout.

Palmer went for the sweep on Wednesday. He got a little more to work with. Baltimore erupted for four runs in the fourth inning, and then added a couple more. It was all more than Palmer needed. He allowed just three singles in a complete-game 6-0 shutout.

It was one of the most stunning displays of pitching dominance ever seen. A first-place team with a stacked lineup had managed just eight singles in three games and been held scoreless. It’s a series that lives in Red Sox infamy. And when the Orioles followed it up by taking three of four from Cleveland on the weekend, they closed to within a game of the lead.

The Yankees were now tied with the Red Sox for first. After Baltimore split a pair with Milwaukee, they lost a home series against New York, to briefly cool the surge. In a busy nine-game week with two doubleheaders, the Birds again took three of four from the Indians. With the record now 78-70, Baltimore had moved past Boston, but still trailed New York by 2 ½ games on September 15.

With Yankee Stadium under renovation in 1974, the Yanks were playing their home games at crosstown Shea Stadium, sharing with the Mets. So, for the crucial September 17-19 series, the Orioles would go to Queens.

Palmer took the mound in Tuesday night’s opener and came up big again. He allowed just seven singles. In a scoreless tie in the eighth, Blair delivered a two-out, three-run blast against New York closer Sparky Lyle. Baltimore won 4-0.

Wednesday night’s game was tied 2-2 in the top of the sixth. The Orioles got three singles, hit two doubles, and drew four walks, while sending twelve batters to the plate. The seven-run eruption blew it open and Cuellar won this game 10-4.

Thursday night was McNally’s turn to shine under pennant race pressure. He went the distance with a shutout of his own. A lead that was just 1-0 after seven was broken open late, and the Orioles won 7-0. They had another big sweep of a divisional rival.

Baltimore followed it up by traveling to Fenway and taking two of three on the weekend from the Red Sox. But the Yankees countered by sweeping four straight from the Indians. With ten days to go, New York was 84-70 and Baltimore was 83-71. Boston had completely collapsed.

The last full week was a thrilling one at old Memorial Stadium. Baltimore hosted the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee. The Birds won all five games. Three of those wins came in walkoff fashion. One was a game they trailed 4-2 in the ninth, and another took 17 innings to seal. When the week was over and there were three days left, Baltimore was in first place at 88-71. New York was nipping at their heels, 88-72.

The Yankees were idle on Monday, when the Orioles would decide which way that dangling half-game would swing. They were in Detroit and won 12-6. The lead was a full game with two to play.

Tuesday was a tension-filled night. The Orioles and Tigers were tied 6-6 going into the ninth. The Yankees led the Brewers 2-0 in Milwaukee. This race looked certain to go to the final day and perhaps even be tied.

Baltimore got a big RBI double from backup catcher Andy Etchebarren in the top of the ninth, and they won 7-6. They were able to go to the clubhouse and get word that Milwaukee had rallied with two runs in the eighth, and then won 3-2 in the ten innings. The AL East race was over.

For the third time in four years, it would be Baltimore and Oakland in the American League Championship Series. The Orioles got the 1974 ALCS off to a good start, going out west and taking a Game 1 win. But Oakland’s pitching was the one staff that could match, and even exceed Baltimore’s great arms. The Oriole bats got a taste of what Red Sox and Yankee hitters went through in September. Over the next three games in the best-of-five series, Baltimore managed just a single run and lost the ALCS in four games.

The Orioles’ September pennant push was still one of baseball’s great stretch drives, as they went 25-6 to close the year. But that push would be the last hurrah, at least for a little while. Make no mistake, Baltimore continued to field good teams over the next four years. But Boston in 1975, followed by New York from 1976-78, reached a higher level and kept the Orioles out of the money. It was 1979 when Baltimore returned to the postseason. And it was 1983 when the Orioles would win it all again.