Fifty years ago, the Orioles pitching staff was one for the ages.
Twenty-game winners are a rare breed and, in 1971, Baltimore had four of them. Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer and Pat Dobson rang up win after win as the team took the American League East title with the best rotation in baseball. McNally finished 21-5, followed by Dobson (20-8) and Cuellar and Palmer (both 20-9).
How unique was the Orioles’ pitching feat?
“For the first time since man learned to walk on his hind legs, an honest team has four 20-game winners,” New York sports columnist Red Smith wrote at the time. (In 1920, the Chicago White Sox did it, after having thrown the World Series the year before. But baseball purists dismiss that accomplishment, as the eight players involved in the scandal continued to play until 1921, when they were banned from the game.)
No other team has has matched the Orioles’ achievement; in fact, since 2002, none has produced more than one 20-game winner in a season, given the coddling of pitchers’ arms today.
“It’s hard to win 20 now when you have a [maximum] pitch count of 120,” said Don Buford, 84, an All-Star outfielder for Baltimore in 1971. The last Orioles pitcher to reach that milestone was Mike Boddicker (20-11) in 1984.
“What our guys did [in 1971] will never happen again,” said Boog Powell, 79, a slugger on that team. “Back then, we knew [the pitching] was special, but we never dwelled on it; it was always, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ Losing the World Series that year [in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates] took a little of the glamour off of those guys all winning 20. But as time goes on, you realize that, hey, it would be impossible today.”
Moreover, that Orioles quartet routinely went the distance, pitching 70 complete games that year — 25 more than in all of big league baseball in 2019, the majors’ last full season. Cuellar was a toiler: In one nine-day span in June, the Cuban-born left-hander nicknamed “Crazy Horse” won three games, allowing two runs over 28 innings.
“Mike was awesome,” said Powell, the first baseman. “I loved playing behind him. He threw that really good screwball that made hitters look funny when they swung. He didn’t want to laugh at them, so he’d turn his back, look out to center field and smile.”
McNally, Powell said, was “a technician with great control and a curve that was, at times, as good as you ever saw. Jimmy [Palmer] had that high fastball, and ‘Dobber’ had excellent breaking stuff.”
McNally won 13 in a row but was sidelined with a sore arm for six weeks. In his absence, Dobson went on a tear and won eight straight. Each wanted to outdo the others.
“There really was a competition between them,” Buford said. “They may have been betting each other about who’d get the most wins.”
McNally was the first to reach 20 victories. On Sept. 21, eight days before season’s end, he threw a five-hitter to beat the New York Yankees, 5-0.
“I don’t think I’ve thrown better at any time this year,” he said afterward. His teammates weren’t alone in rooting him on. When Yankees pitcher Fritz Peterson left the game after eight innings, he placed a lucky penny, inside a horseshoe charm, on the mound for McNally.
Three days later, in a twinight doubleheader in Cleveland, both Cuellar and Dobson won No. 20.
“I got it! I got it! I got it!” Cuellar shouted in the clubhouse after a 9-2 victory in the opener. Two hours later, Dobson blanked the Indians, 7-0. History seemed nigh, but time was running out. In his last start of the regular season, could Palmer follow suit?
“We all got on Jimmy’s ass, teasing him,” said Powell, who’d homered to help both McNally and Cuellar win their 20th games. On Sept. 26, Palmer prevailed, defeating Cleveland, 5-0. It wasn’t easy. Cleveland’s Alan Foster carried a no-hit bid into the seventh inning, when the Orioles scored three runs, including one on a double by Palmer. Then he struck out four of the last six batters to seal the win.
“Mac, Mike and Pat told me not to choke,” the Hall of Famer-to-be said afterward. “It was very important that I [win 20] too, or I would have looked mighty bad.”