Fifty years later, Jim Palmer vividly remembers his disbelief as he walked from Memorial Stadium on the evening of Oct. 9, 1966, a newly minted world champion.
Had the young, unproven Orioles really just swept the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers? Had the 20-year-old Palmer and his mates really just thrown three straight shutouts to beat the likes of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale?
All around him, Baltimore broke into what The Baltimore Sun called the zaniest celebration since the end of World War II. Revelers practically trampled moving cars on The Block, lighting firecrackers and chanting "Birds! Birds! Birds!" They couldn't believe it, either.
Palmer is the only player who participated in each of the Orioles' six World Series appearances, all crammed into a remarkable 18-year run of winning baseball.
But never did success feel quite so fresh as it did for the 1966 club, which paired a baby-faced Palmer with fellow homegrown legends Boog Powell, Dave McNally and Brooks Robinson, and the greatest of them all, Frank Robinson, acquired the previous winter in one of the most famous trades in baseball history.
Largely unknown to a wider baseball world that was used to watching the New York Yankees represent the American League in the World Series, the Orioles swept the Dodgers, another bastion of baseball royalty, to claim their first championship. "We really put Baltimore on the baseball map," says Wally Bunker, who won 10 games and pitched a shutout in the World Series.
The players had no way of knowing it when they reported to Miami for spring training on Feb. 22, but 1966 would be the pivotal year in the history of the franchise. It was both a culmination of the Orioles' rise from the dregs of the American League and a preview of the even more magnificent teams to come. It was the season when Frank Robinson won the Triple Crown and cemented his legacy as an all-time great, the season when Palmer, Paul Blair and Davey Johnson established themselves as essential characters in the story of the Orioles.
The club had first sniffed a pennant with a surprise second-place finish in 1960 and had held first place as late as Sept. 15 in 1964. But a 94-win season had earned it only a distant third place in 1965. With a precocious rotation accumulating wins, Brooks Robinson performing his maestro act at third base and Powell slugging homers in the middle of the lineup, the Orioles were very good. But were they good enough?
Frank Robinson changed the terms of that question.
It was hardly obvious to everyone that the Orioles had made their deal of the century when they traded for Robinson on Dec.9, 1965. They had shipped off their best pitcher, Milt Pappas, to get him. And critics said Robinson was an old 30 with a difficult personality — demonstrated by the fact that he'd pulled a pistol during an argument in a Cincinnati eatery.
"It was kind of a wait-and-see proposition," says Brooks Robinson, who did not know the man who shared his last name despite having played against him in All-Star games.
But as teammates watched the 1961 National League Most Valuable Player rustle the palm trees with his titanic spring training home runs, it became clear to them what a coup management had orchestrated.
Powell recalls looking at rookie catcher Andy Etchebarren during one such display and saying, "Who the hell is gonna beat us?"
The awe still creeps into teammates' voices as they reflect on the '66 version of Robinson.
"Here's the thing," Palmer says. "Frank could hit any pitch you threw at him. There aren't too many hitters in the history of the game who can say that. They could throw him a slider down and away and he'd hit it on the mezzanine, which he did in Washington that year. And he had an edge to him. When Frank went in to break up a double play, the earth trembled."
Robinson certainly believed he could be the final piece of a championship puzzle.
"I knew that the club had come close the year before," he says. "If I did my part, we'd have a chance to win."
His "part" turned out to be the greatest individual season in Orioles history — a .316 average, 49 homers, 122 RBIs, American League MVP, two more home runs in the World Series.
Power and a 'pen
The 1966 Orioles were in many respects a modern club, carried by a power-hitting offense and a multitalented bullpen that manager Hank Bauer never hesitated to use. When players reflect on the season, many harp on that relief corps as the great unsung weapon.
Future Orioles powerhouses would have overwhelming starting rotations. Not this club.
Palmer and McNally were just 20 and 23, respectively — good, but still a few years from their 20-win peaks. Bunker had won 19 games in 1964, but at age 21 he was already coping with the arm pains that would sink his career. Steve Barber, the ace of the season's first half, hardly pitched after July.
In an era when complete games were expected from top starters, the Orioles finished ninth out of 10 in the American League in the category. Their team total was 23. Koufax, whom they'd face in the World Series, pitched 27 by himself.
It didn't matter.
The bullpen could hit opponents with Stu Miller's peerless changeup, Eddie Fisher's dancing knuckleball or Gene Brabender's diving sinker. Eccentric prankster Moe Drabowsky, picked up for $25,000 after four other clubs had dumped him, went 6-0 with 98 strikeouts in 96 innings.
The relievers were a loose bunch who'd light a fire in a bucket and roast hot dogs over it as they awaited Bauer's call.
"Looking back on it, the starters got all the glory because of the World Series," Bunker says. "But the bullpen should have gotten it. Christ, they were great. They carried us all year."
Camaraderie came easily to a club that mixed five everyday starters under the age of 25 with three future Hall of Famers who remained at or near their primes — the Robinsons and shortstop Luis Aparicio.
Johnson, the 23-year-old second baseman playing his first full season, roomed with his double-play partner, the 32-year-old Aparicio.
"He'd wear these silk ties and then throw them in the wastebasket," Johnson recalls. "I took them out. I'd never worn anything that expensive in my life."
Reliever Eddie Watt remembers taking his wife to the Copacabana in Manhattan with older teammate Barber and his wife. Watt was so worried about the bill for the evening that he didn't order dinner. But as he rifled his pockets to pay the check, Barber stopped him.
"I got it," he said. "Sometime you can do something nice for a rookie when he comes up."
It was that kind of team.
Flag never in doubt
After they had waited so long for American League pre-eminence, the Orioles seized it with a relative lack of drama.
Propelled by Frank Robinson's awesome slugging (he hit .463 with five homers in his first dozen games), they jumped to a 12-1 start. Then, after a mediocre May, they went 44-18 in June and July. The Orioles held a 13-game lead at the end of that stretch, and the gap never fell below 8 1/2 the rest of the way, even as the club played middling baseball in August and September.
In those days of no divisional or league playoffs, the Orioles essentially spent two months waiting for the World Series to arrive.
Yet when they formally clinched the pennant in Kansas City on Sept. 22 — Palmer beat the Athletics, aided by a sensational diving catch by outfielder Russ Snyder — they did not take the moment for granted.
The victory touched off a celebratory food fight that lasted more than an hour. Egg salad, chocolate milk and shaving cream filled the air. Players tossed fully clothed teammates, and owner Jerry Hoffberger, into streaming showers and swirling whirlpool tubs. A champagne-addled Johnson, who'd go on to manage the Orioles 30 years later, nearly drowned in 8 inches of water.
Powell cut off announcer Bill O'Donnell's pants at the knee. An upended buffet table landed on reserve Charley Lau's head.
"Most outlandish thing I've ever seen in my life," Watt says.
Palmer swears that two and three years later, he'd still see yellow stains from the egg salad on Powell's double-knit uniform.
There were touching moments as well. Powell called former catcher Dick Brown, forced into retirement by a brain tumor, to say, "I'd give my left leg if you could be here." The Orioles would later vote to give Brown, who died of the tumor at age 35, a full share of their World Series bonus.
Fans did not exactly pack Memorial Stadium in the waning weeks of the season. Announced home crowds included 5,122 to see the Orioles lose to the California Angels on Monday, Sept. 12, and a season-worst 2,280 to watch them beat the Angels a week later.
This didn't vex the players greatly. They were used to playing a distant second fiddle to Johnny Unitas' Baltimore Colts. (At least one fan was observed watching the Colts' road game in Chicago on a 12-inch transistor television during Game 4 of the Word Series.)
"I was pretty comfortable with it," Palmer says. "Because the Colts were the Colts. They weren't just another team."
Date with destiny
Fans did, however, display a pent-up hunger for postseason baseball. Some 20,000 lined up outside the central post office on Calvert Street in the wee hours of Monday, Sept. 26, to mail their applications for postseason tickets. Allen Dial of Dundalk was first in the queue, having waited 33 hours.
The Orioles were every bit as good as the Dodgers on paper, with a more powerful lineup and a deeper bullpen. But the Dodgers had the famous starters in Koufax and Drysdale, and they were appearing in their 10th World Series in 20 years. Neither bookmakers nor leading national baseball scribes gave the upstarts from Baltimore much chance.
As the Orioles bused down Sunset Boulevard to Dodger Stadium for Game 1, they noticed a billboard, sponsored by a local real estate company, that read, "Would You Believe? Dodgers 4 Straight."
The Orioles jumped to a first-inning lead on back-to-back home runs by the Robinsons, but the Dodgers chased a wild McNally from the game in the third inning. Enter Drabowsky, who overpowered the light-hitting Los Angeles lineup with a succession of high fastballs over 6 2/3 innings.
Baltimore's 5-2 win flipped the expected script for the series, but the Dodgers still had Koufax, the greatest pitcher in the game, ready to pull them out of trouble.
Palmer was nine days short of his 21st birthday and nursing a shoulder he'd hurt painting the house for his new bride. But he was smart enough to take notes on Drabowsky's win the day before. And, wouldn't you know, the high fastball was his best pitch as well.
He shut out the Dodgers, and Koufax was undermined by three costly errors by center fielder Willie Davis. The Orioles flew home with a 2-0 lead in the Series.
They weren't champions yet but were greeted by a parade that practically screamed Baltimore, blending the Colts Marching Band, burlesque queen Blaze Starr tossing roses to the fans from an open convertible, and a churning cement mixer from the Arundel Corp.
Ready to believe
Next on the mound was Bunker, rubbing hot oil on his ailing arm between innings but throwing nary a misplaced pitch on his way to a masterful 1-0 shutout.
In Game 4, McNally returned, seeking redemption for his uncharacteristic wildness in the opener. Drysdale was plenty good that day, surrendering only a solo home run to Frank Robinson (of course). But McNally was better, thrilling the sellout crowd of 54,458 with a four-hit shutout to put the Dodgers to bed.
The headline in the next day's Sun — "WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT? FOUR STRAIGHT!" — was a direct play on the overconfident billboard from Sunset.
The Orioles of Palmer, Powell, McNally and the Robinsons would get back to the World Series in 1969 and win it again in 1970.
Those teams are widely rated among the very best in baseball history. But many of the stars cite 1966 as the high point of their careers.
"I value that more than anything else that happened to me," says Brooks Robinson, who would be named World Series MVP four years later.
"I remember thinking that even if we never won anything again, we could always say we were world champions."
None, of course, soared higher than Frank Robinson, who'd finish his career with 586 home runs and become the first black manager in major league history.
"I couldn't have scripted the first year here any better than what it was," he said in 2012. "That's Hollywood stuff — winning the pennant, sweeping the Dodgers, winning the Triple Crown, MVP. I couldn't think about that.
"That's fantasy stuff."