Save for Cal Ripken's emotional farewell tour, the recently completed Orioles season was definitely a year to forget for hometown fans. But 35 years ago, it was truly a festive time in Baltimore.
The youthful 1966 Orioles had just breezed to their first American League
pennant by a nine-game margin, but were World Series underdogs to a veteran
Los Angeles Dodgers team that boasted baseball's finest 1-2 pitching punch in
Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
And they were pointedly reminded of this supposed mismatch on their ride to
Dodger Stadium for the opening game. The bus route carried them past a bank
that flashed the message: "Would you believe four straight by the Dodgers?"
Five days later, a Baltimore Sun headline blared: "Would You Believe It?
Four Straight!" Incredibly, the Orioles, who boasted only three players with
previous Series experience - shortstop Luis Aparicio, reliever Stu Miller and
MVP Frank Robinson - had not only completed a four-game sweep, but also held
the Dodgers scoreless for 33 consecutive innings and to a microscopic .142
team batting average.
The first shock waves hit Los Angeles in the first inning of the opening
game, when Frank and Brooks Robinson torched Drysdale for consecutive home
runs and a quick 3-0 lead. Dave McNally struggled with a high mound and
allowed five walks in less than three innings. Moe Drabowsky then set the tone
for the rest of the Series by setting a record with 11 strikeouts, including
six straight, to preserve a 5-2 victory.
But the Dodgers remained supremely confident. After all, they were
entrusting the pivotal second game to Koufax, the game's most dominant pitcher
over the previous decade. After joining Drysdale in a spring holdout alliance
that included threats to tour Japan and appear together in a movie, he was
rewarded with the then-unmatched salary of $135,000.
The 30-year-old left-hander might have sensed this would be his final year.
Frustrated by persistent tendinitis, he had made a private pact with Dodgers
team physician Robert Kerlan, asking the doctor to advise him if he ran the
risk of permanent damage by continuing to pitch.
Kerlan tried pressuring Koufax into quitting before the start of the 1966
season, but Koufax persevered. He won his third Cy Young Award by finishing
27-9 and recording 317 strikeouts, 27 complete games and a 1.73 ERA. Pitching
on only two days' rest, he beat Philadelphia to clinch the National League
"No question, he was the best pitcher I ever saw," said Orioles center
fielder Paul Blair, now the baseball coach at Coppin State. Growing up in Los
Angeles, Blair had often watched in awe when Koufax took the mound. "He could
throw close to 100 mph and still pinpoint the fastball. Plus, he had the best
curveball in baseball."
As Koufax's opponent, manager Hank Bauer chose lanky right-hander Jim
Palmer, who was still nine days shy of his 21st birthday, neither old enough
to vote nor hold the mortgage on the three-bedroom house he had purchased in
Baltimore for his bride, Susie.
Palmer, who had led the Orioles' staff with 15 victories in his second
major-league season while battling arm problems, faced an awesome assignment.
On the eve of his Series debut, he said: "It may take a shutout to win. Koufax
gives up a run, occasionally. He's human. When he first broke in with the
Dodgers, he'd either strike out or walk 18. I'd say he's progressed a bit
Brooks Robinson remembers the two pitchers posing for the cameras: "I
thought Palmer would be a little nervous. Here's Koufax, a legend, standing
next to some fuzzy-cheeked kid. But Palmer was also blessed with a great arm.
He came close to Koufax in throwing hard."
Despite his youth, Palmer always carried an air of confidence - not cocky,
but keenly aware of his natural talent. He had been tutored by some of the
best teachers in the business.
George Bamberger, who would later serve as the Orioles' pitching coach,
helped Palmer develop control in his only minor-league season in Single-A.
Recalled Palmer: "Bambi would have me stand on the mound practicing my
windup without a ball until I got it right."
His rookie year in 1965, Palmer had the good fortune of rooming with former
Philadelphia Phillies great Robin Roberts, then finishing his Hall of Fame
career in Baltimore.
"I must have driven Robin crazy picking his brain that year," Palmer said.
"I was 19, half his age. He'd tell me, `Kid, you've got the arm. Just rock
back and let it go. Now, let me get some sleep.' "
Palmer himself slept soundly in Los Angeles before facing Koufax, eating
his customary breakfast of pancakes. He had gained confidence by watching the
way Drabowsky had stymied the likes of Tommy Davis, Wes Parker, Lou Johnson,
Jim Lefebvre and Junior Gilliam in the opener on a steady diet of fastballs.
"That was my game plan," he said. "I was going to rely on my best pitch
until they proved otherwise. Late in the regular season, because of all the
innings I pitched [208 1/3 ], I was experiencing some soreness and taking
cortisone shots. Basically, against the Dodgers, I wanted to get the ball over
and not embarrass myself."
35 years later, O's still swept up in joy
World Series: The underdog kids who swept the vaunted Drysdale-Koufax Dodgers are old-timers now, but the memories, and satisfaction, from the Orioles' first crown remain fresh
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