Friday, May 25, 2012
Vintage Fridays: Paul Richards, 1961 Topps #131
Anyway, I did a little hunting to find out whether the Orioles had ever won exactly 28 out of their first 45 games before, and how they fared for the duration of those seasons. On four previous occasions, the Birds were right where they are today. The results at season's end for those four clubs were a mixed bag, but there are reasons for hope.
The most recent 28-17 O's team was the 1986 edition, but that was only good enough for third place, 1.5 games behind the Red Sox. This one isn't that encouraging, as they ultimately finished last in the A.L. East at 73-89; it was their first losing season since an injury-plagued 1967 campaign. Earl Weaver retired at year's end for the second and final time. The farm system had dried up after Cal Ripken's ascent to stardom, and the Orioles were plugging too many holes with older free agents like Lee Lacy and Fred Lynn. The pitching staff was on the wrong side of mediocre, with Mike Boddicker, Scott McGregor, and Mike Flanagan all having disappointing years and Dennis Martinez finally earning a ticket out of town. The '86 team kept their heads above water into mid-August; a 12-2 rout of the Indians on August 14 boosted them to third place at 62-53, 5.5 games behind Boston and 1.5 back of the Yankees. The next day they lost and headed into a tailspin that saw them finish up with an 11-36 record in the season's final month and a half. Let's not dwell on this one.
In 1981, the "Oriole Way" was still getting the job done. Two years removed from their last World Series appearance and two years away from the next, this 28-17 club was up a game and a half on the Brewers. They had some ups and downs and found themselves two games out of first place on June 11, when the players went on strike and stayed away for two months. Ultimately, play resumed in August with a split-season format that put a wrench in the Birds' postseason hopes. The Yankees went to the "Division Series" (a best-of-five format that predated the wild card by 14 years) as first-half champions, and the Brewers took the second half East crown with a 31-22 record. Post-strike, the O's were 28-23, two games behind Milwaukee and a half game back of Boston and Detroit. The Brewers had the best overall record at 62-47, but the Orioles were only a game worse at 59-46. If the top two finishers in aggregate were allowed into the playoffs, it would've been Baltimore duking it out with the Brew Crew. Stupid labor relations.
You'll like this one: the Orioles were also 28-17 in 1966, one game off the pace of the front-running Indians. After enduring a losing May (14-16), the O's turned on the afterburners with a 25-8 June and a 19-10 July. They breezed to 97 wins and captured the American League pennant before shutting down the Dodgers for Charm City's first-ever World Series triumph. From July 17 to the end of the regular season, the Birds' first-place margin was never less than 8 games.
The first of Baltimore's 28-17 teams was Paul Richards' 1960 group, and they most closely parallel the 2012 edition. The O's had yet to post a winning record in their first six seasons after moving from St. Louis; when you include the misadventures of the Browns, the franchise hadn't been a contender since the end of World War II. Paul Richards had come aboard as manager in 1955 and had stockpiled younger talents and veteran role players, but the Birds didn't get over the hump until 1960. They spent 51 total days in first place, though a mid-September four-game series sweep by the Yankees swung the pennant to New York. Still, Baltimore finished in second place at 89-65. First baseman Jim Gentile, rescued from the deep Dodgers farm system, led the offense with a .903 OPS and 98 RBI, foreshadowing his monster effort in 1961. 22-year-old shortstop Ronnie Hansen won the Rookie of the Year voting on the strength of his team-leading 22 home runs. Brooks Robinson batted .294 and drove in 88 runs, and I'm going to guess that he was pretty spiffy at third base as well. A half-dozen pitchers started at least 18 games each, and only 35-year-old Hal Brown was above the age of 22. None of those aforementioned starters posted an ERA higher than 3.74. Though those 1960 Orioles didn't finish the job, they made it clear that they wouldn't be doormats any longer.