It’s June 26, 1960, and the Orioles are the talk of baseball.
After six non-winning seasons in the majors, the team is in first place in the American League despite a lineup laced with youngsters. Three-fourths of the infield are rookies, and five starting pitchers are 22 years old or younger.
On this particular afternoon, the kids come through again, beating Kansas City, 9-2. Right-hander Chuck Estrada, 22, no-hits the A’s for seven innings and rookie Jim Gentile hits two home runs, in consecutive innings — one a grand slam. Afterward, club president Lee MacPhail offers this blunt assessment of his brash, upstart team:
“Ask me if the Orioles will win the pennant and ... I’d have to say no. But ask me if we CAN win the pennant and I say, we can.”
Win the flag, they did not. But the Orioles, theretofore a second-rate team, captured second place, flirted with fame and roused a city, which would rally behind the bumper-sticker slogan, “It Can Be Done In ‘61.”
A mix of hopefuls and journeymen, the Orioles rode the arms of its Kiddie Korps, a home-grown rotation barely old enough to vote. Estrada, Steve Barber (22 years old) and Milt Pappas, Jack Fisher and Jerry Walker (all 21) captured 58 of the team’s 89 victories. (Two aging knuckleballers, Hoyt Wilhelm and Hal “Skinny” Brown, won most of the rest.)
Dubbed the Baby Birds — a term of endearment — the Orioles fielded three rookies, including Gentile, a fiery first baseman with a hurricane swing; sure-handed Marv Breeding (second base); and Ron Hansen, the AL Rookie of the Year who, at 6 feet 3, set the stage for taller shortstops to come, like Cal Ripken Jr. Third base belonged to Brooks Robinson, 23, a five-year veteran who hit his stride in 1960, batting a team-high .294, placing third in Most Valuable Player voting and earning the first of 15 straight All-Star selections.
Respect from locals came slowly. Then, Baltimore bled blue and white. The Colts were coming off back-to-back NFL championships; the Orioles, a sixth-place finish in 1959. In spring training, they lost eight straight and failed to hit a home run until their 14th game. But they caught fire in May (19-9) and kept at it in June as attendance improved — helped, no doubt, by a midseason ordinance allowing vendors to sell beer directly to fans in the stands.
By early September, the Orioles sat one game off the lead as they braced for a three-game home series against the first-place New York Yankees. They won the opener, 5-0, before a thunderous crowd of 44,518 as Pappas pitched a three-hitter and Robinson knocked in the first run with a scorching double. They took Game 2 as Fisher, a native of Frostburg, blanked the Yankees, 2-0. Again, Robinson came up big with three hits — one a home run — and both RBIs.
Could the Orioles sweep? The next morning, fans lined up at 8:30 at Memorial Stadium for tickets to the afternoon finale, a 6-2 victory in which Estrada pitched a no-hitter for 6⅔ innings and Robinson, fighting a 103-degree fever, chipped in with an RBI single.
Baltimore went nuts. Orioles manager Paul Richards called the Yankees series ”the epitome of big league baseball.” The club began printing World Series tickets and fitting its ushers for spiffy new uniforms. The Sun, whose sports staff had predicted a fifth-place finish for the Orioles, offered an editorial:
“If the Orioles continue as they are going now ... the American League pennant, which last spring seemed as likely to fly over the stadium as did the flag of Siam, is within their grasp.”
It wasn’t to be. Two weeks later, the Orioles strode into New York for a four-game set ... and lost them all. The Yankees won one game when a line drive caromed off Estrada’s glove to score the winning run; in another, three Orioles collided while chasing a pop fly that fell safely and cost a run. The last two games, a doubleheader, were delayed by rain for nearly an hour, prompting a glib Sun headline: “It Should Have Snowed.”
New York won its last 15 games to take its 25th AL pennant. The Orioles would wait six more years to win their first. But they had set the table for the future and caught the fancy of their fans, and the nation, with an improbable run, given the bunch of youngsters.
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“You can’t single out any one player; they all came through,” said Richards, accepting the AL Manager of the Year award. “We had a hell of a year.”