By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun When Paul Blair squeezed the fly ball for the final out in the 1966 World Series, Brooks Robinson leaped toward heaven and the home crowd of 54,458 rose as one and roared. Downtown, car horns blared and revelers raced through the streets, throwing confetti and firecrackers amid shouts of "Birds! Birds! Birds!" The Orioles had come of age. When the 1960s began, the Orioles had never had a winning season. Ten years, two pennants and a world championship later, they'd emerged as the American League's winningest team of the decade (911 victories, 698 defeats). "It was a time of transformation," said slugger Boog Powell, who signed with the Orioles in 1959 and stayed for 16 years. "We began [the decade] searching for an identity." The club found it, reaching contention with a core of homegrown players and taking the final step with the famed trade for 1961 National League Most Valuable Player Frank Robinson, whom the Cincinnati Reds general manager termed "an old 30." The outfielder put the Orioles on top with his bat (.316, 49 home runs and 122 RBIs, good for the Triple Crown in 1966) and an us-versus-them demeanor that galvanized teammates who took his mantra to heart. "In years past, our guys would yakety-yak with other teams' players before the game. Or they'd get on base, stand there and blah-blah-blah with the infielders," Powell said. "Frank saw that and said, 'What's all this socializing crap with the other team? Screw that. We're out there to beat their ass.' "With Frank, it was, 'No more Mr. Nice Guy. Play hard.' Not that we hadn't been. But I think we went the extra mile after he got there." The Orioles had challenged before. In 1960, they won 89 games, spent more than a month in first place and, in September, swept three games from New York to wrest the lead from the Yankees before falling to second. Bumper stickers trumpeted, "It Can Be Done In '61!" But their 95 victories that season landed the Orioles in third place. After two futile seasons, they surged to 97 wins in 1964 and, buoyed by an MVP season from Brooks Robinson, finished two games back under new manager Hank Bauer, a cigar-smoking ex-Marine and former Yankee whose mien rattled the Orioles' cage, much as Frank Robinson would do later. "Hank was a big difference-maker. He was gruff, and what he said wasn't always pretty, but it was right on the money," said Powell, whose 39 home runs led the team that year. "He brought that Yankee mystique and winning attitude. 'Ain't no singing [on the bus] if we lose,' he'd say. "He made us wear coats and ties on the road, which nobody liked. But he treated us like men and expected us to act like men. He told us: 'If you walk into a bar and I'm there, don't leave. Buy me a drink and then leave.'" In 1965, the Orioles won 94 games and came close, but -- despite Bauer's presence -- no cigar. Robinson's offseason arrival from the Reds changed that. He homered on Opening Day, became in May the first player to hit a ball completely out of Memorial Stadium, and twice that summer fell into the stands at Yankee Stadium while making game-saving catches. But Robinson also lightened the mood, introducing the "kangaroo court" after games in the clubhouse. "Frank was the judge and wore a mop on his head. He'd fine guys a dollar for stuff like stranding a runner on third base with less than two outs," Powell said. "We only held court if we won, and it seemed like one reason we wanted to win was because we wanted to go to kangaroo court." The Orioles were 58-29 at the All-Star break and clinched the pennant Sept. 22. Down the stretch, Powell slammed three home runs in a 4-2 victory at Boston, cheered on by his wife, Jan, who'd made the trip eight months pregnant. "Frank took the pressure off of everybody, on the field and off. We started having fun," said Powell, who, with 34 homers and 109 RBIs, finished third in MVP voting behind teammates the media had dubbed the "Swish Family Robinson," Frank and Brooks. In their World Series sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Orioles played error-free ball -- becoming the second team to do so in the Series -- and shut out the Dodgers for the last 33 innings. A slump in 1967 and slow start the next year led new manager Earl Weaver to come in midseason. "Nobody could outmanage Earl," Powell said. The 1969 Orioles won 109 games and finished 19 games on top -- the most since the 1936 Yankees -- before being upset in the World Series by the New York Mets. "We were flat, but the Mets [who'd won 100 games] weren't exactly chopped liver," Powell said. "Back home, there were probably 5,000 people waiting for us at the airport, holding up signs and crying. We stayed there for half an hour, shaking their hands through the fence and crying, too. That's the closest I ever felt to the city of Baltimore." But it's memories of the 1966 Orioles that he holds most dear. Of those 25 players, 17 survive. "I look at the team picture, and the guys who are gone, and my heart just aches," Powell said. "They were part of something really special." email@example.com For year-by-year capsules from the 1960s, click here.
Baltimore Sun file photo