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The Narrative of the 1971 MLB Season

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a veteran team, led by future Hall of Fame players in Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and a solid catcher in Manny Sanguillen. The Pirates were hungry, having been swept out of the NLCS in 1970. In 1971, Pittsburgh’s veterans came through, winning a World Series championship.

Pittsburgh got a challenge from the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL East. The Cardinals had a third baseman named Joe Torre, who had a spectacular season and beat out Stargell for the NL MVP award. The Cardinals went to the early lead, but by the early part of summer, the Pirates were clicking into gear.

The Chicago Cubs, with a 1-2 punch in the rotation of Fergie Jenkins and Milt Pappas still had a shot at the All-Star Break, trailing Pittsburgh by 9 ½ games. But the Cubbies faded, and while the Cardinals did make a little bit of a push, the Pirates kept the field at arm’s length and won a second straight division title.

Over in the American League, the defending World Series champion Baltimore Orioles also spotted their challengers an early lead. It was the Boston Red Sox who had a 2 ½ game edge in the AL East on Memorial Day. The Detroit Tigers, with Cy Young runner-up Mickey Lolich keying the rotation and Bill Freehan behind the plate, were in the hunt.

But Baltimore was just too good in this era. Frank and Brooks Robinson led the offense, finishing 3-4 in the AL MVP voting. And the pitching staff? How about four 20-game winners, led by the great Jim Palmer? The Orioles took first place in the early part of summer and blew the race open in August.

The Oakland A’s made a move into contention in 1970, and 1971 saw the A’s take the next step. They had a 21-year-old lefty starter in Vida Blue, who was nothing short of dominant. Blue rolled to the Cy Young Award and also captured the MVP. Third baseman Sal Bando finished #2 in the MVP vote. Reggie Jackson was coming into his own as a star in rightfield.

Oakland was never seriously challenged in the AL West. Wilbur Wood was a lonely arm for the Chicago White Sox, third in the Cy Young voting on a team that didn’t have nearly enough. Kansas City was improving, but well behind Oakland. And Minnesota, the two-time defending AL West champs fell from the race in early summer.

So far, we’ve looked at three divisional races that were promising in the early going, but stripped of all drama by September. The NL West was the exact opposite. The San Francisco Giants came blazing out of the gate and built a 10 ½ game lead by Memorial Day. They still had the great Willie Mays, now 40-years-old, but still a productive outfielder and the Giants looked ready to cruise the rest of the way.

The Cincinnati Reds, the defending NL pennant winner, had a strangely poor season, staying under .500 the entire way. Hank Aaron was still getting it done in Atlanta, but there was no help for him. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers, a long way in San Francisco’s rearview mirror, who would make a push.

L.A. made the race tight in the summer, then slipped back again. Trailing by eight games on Labor Day, they took advantage of five head-to-head games with the Giants. The Dodgers won all five and came charging down the stretch. San Francisco’s lead shrunk to as little as a single game, and the race went to the final day of the season. But the Giants hung on.

San Francisco then took the opening game of what was then a best-of-five round in the NLCS against Pittsburgh. The Giants led early in Game 2. Then Pirate first baseman Bob Robertson took over. He homered three times to key a comeback in that game, and again to help win a tight Game 3. The Pirates won all three games where the Giants sent future Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal to the mound. Pittsburgh advanced to the World Series in four games.

Baltimore had swept the ALCS each of the previous two seasons. They were coming into the playoffs on an 11-game win streak, while Oakland had played somewhat middling baseball in September. The Orioles kept on charging, getting the bats going against A’s aces Blue and Catfish Hunter. Five Baltimore regulars batted .300 in another three-game sweep.

That momentum carried the Orioles right into the World Series, where they grabbed the first two games at home over the Pirates. Clemente was the only Pittsburgh player doing much of anything. With Baltimore’s cumulative win streak now at 16 games, their repeat bid looked to be a lock.

But Clemente got some help in the form of Pirate staff ace Steve Blass. He won a big Game 3 when the Series went to Three Rivers. Game 4 was the first night game played in postseason history. Pittsburgh spotted Baltimore three early runs and then shut the Orioles down the rest of the way. Not just the rest of the way in Game 4—the rest of the way for the remainder of everyone’s time in Pittsburgh. Over the final seven innings of Game 4, and the entirety of Game 5, Baltimore mustered only four hits. The Pirates won both games and moved to the brink of a title.

The Oriole bats weren’t much better back home, but their spectacular pitching kept them in Game 6 long enough to pull out a 10-inning win. In the decisive seventh game, both Blass and Baltimore starter Mike Cuellar were brilliant. A fourth-inning home run by Clemente broke the ice and Pittsburgh hung on for a 2-1 win. The Pirates were champs.

All of the contenders from this season would be back for a lot more, with the Reds also resuming their winning ways. 1971 was one chapter in an era of baseball mostly defined by the teams you can read more about at the articles linked to within this page.