Retro Baltimore: World Series loss to Pittsburgh still irks 1971 Orioles
Fifty years ago, the Orioles seemed a team for the ages: four 20-game winning pitchers , four Gold Glove fielders and a quartet of soon-to-be Hall of Famers, including their irascible manager.
In 1971, the Orioles topped 100 victories for the third straight year and reached the World Series for the fourth time in six seasons. There, the defending world champions won the first two contests, scoring 16 runs against the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates, raising talk of a four-game sweep.
And then … pffft. The bats fell silent; the Orioles’ offense disappeared. Pittsburgh won four of the next five and took the Series in seven games. Baltimore’s attack, which had banged out 24 hits in the first two games, mustered only 21 thereafter.
“I remember; you don’t have to remind me,” groused first baseman Boog Powell, 80. “We started off pretty good, beating [the Pirates] twice at home. Then, something happened. We went flat; our energy disappeared. I’ve thought about it a lot. Maybe we just figured we had ‘em, and took for granted that we were going to win.”
Sound familiar? Two years earlier, against the New York Mets, the favored Orioles won the Series opener before losing four straight, a collapse still fresh in their minds. So when the Pirates pulled even at two wins apiece, manager Earl Weaver’s team huddled to find a way to end the funk.
“We talked about how to get our momentum back, but — it just wasn’t there,” Powell said. “We just didn’t get the job done with our bats.”
While the Orioles’ stellar starters (Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer and Pat Dobson) pitched well, Pittsburgh’s unheralded staff was better, stopping the champs on a two-hitter, a three-hitter and two four-hitters.
The club that had led the American League in batting average (.261) sank to .205 in the Series. Powell hit .111. The league’s Most Valuable Player in 1970, he’d fractured his right wrist in July and hadn’t fully recovered.
Still, the Orioles fought back and forced a seventh game at Memorial Stadium. The first six were won by the home team, a good sign. But on Oct. 17, in a ballpark with nearly 5,000 empty seats, Pittsburgh triumphed, 2-1. Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ ballyhooed right fielder, hit a home run, and right-hander Steve Blass went the distance for his second complete-game win, holding the heart of the Orioles lineup (including Cooperstown shoo-ins Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson) hitless.
The losers appeared gracious in defeat.
“We didn’t lose. They won,” Orioles vice president Frank Cashen insisted.
Team owner Jerry Hoffberger entered the Pirates’ clubhouse to shake Clemente’s hand.
“You beat a fine ballclub. Congratulations,” Hoffberger said.
“It’s a pleasure,” said Clemente, who was from Puerto Rico. “You no have to be ashamed.”
As the Series MVP, Clemente (12 hits, two homers, .414 batting average) received a Dodge Charger. Deservedly so, the Orioles said.
“Can he play or can he play?” Dobson said. “I struck him out once, so I think I should get at least one hubcap.”
One year later, Clemente was gone, killed in a plane crash in his native land.
Now 84, Orioles outfielder Don Buford still harks back to that Series but said the team wasn’t shamed by defeat.
“The Pirates had known players and talent like Clemente, [outfielder] Willie Stargell and [pitcher] Dock Ellis,” said Buford, who homered twice in the Series. “Losing to them wasn’t a disgrace like it was to ‘the amazing Mets.’“
Nonetheless, the day after, on its editorial page, The Evening Sun published a cartoon of the Orioles’ flag at half-staff above the stadium with the words, There is, dammitall, (sic) another year.
For Powell, the memories flood back at the cruelest of times. Recently, the slugger had a routine colonoscopy near his home in Florida.
“Guess what the doctor’s name was? Blass,” he said. “I told him, ‘I’ve already had a colonoscopy by Blass.”
Following the Series, the Orioles hopped a plane for the Far East and an 18-game tour of Japan in which they let off steam, battering their hosts who won just twice.
“That took away some of the sting,” Buford said.
“We took it out on them, the poor bastards,” Powell said. “Beating them helped us forget [the World Series] — that, and about 20 bloody marys.”