The 1966 Orioles Had Attendance Issues and a “Grave Pitching Problem”

1966-orioles-serving-tray-natty-bohIt would be simplistic to suggest that in this, the 50th anniversary season of the Orioles’ first World Series team, the current model of Baltimore’s beloved baseball machine resembles the model from five decades ago that became a classic.

Sure, our beer still winks at us, though now it peeks around corners to do so rather than swaggering down the sidewalk. There will be no repeat of the 1966 National Beer serving tray featuring the O’s team photo.

On the field, our strike zone is different – shoulders to knees kept batters on their toes until baseball changed its umpiring ways in 1969 – our mound is lower, and the complete game is an accomplishment rather than an expectation. The early O’s had only a league title to chase, meaning that any talk of a wild card would have centered on eccentric reliever Moe Drabowksy.

Regardless, it’s fun, in hindsight, to read about the perceived shortcomings of the city and the team in October of 1966, which ring familiar today. In the stands, Orioles fans took their knocks. On the field, the Orioles were defined by their knocks.

On attendance (from “A Wink at a Homely Girl,” Mark Kram, Sports Illustrated, Oct.10, 1966) :

Town with too much past and too little present, town with a big-league club in a boarded-up pub—all of this has been claimed since the St. Louis Browns metamorphosed into the Orioles in 1954. Say it isn’t so, but nobody knows. Baseball attendance in the sixth largest city in the nation, where the Colts often draw 35,000 for a scrimmage in August? From 1954 through 1965 the Orioles averaged 13,685 a game. Last year, third place: 781,649. This year, a pennant: 1.2 million—maybe.

True, the club and the city can build a two-pronged rebuttal: baseball competes with the dubious summer wonders of Chesapeake Bay and the population’s lust for “shore” living, and the Orioles, unlike other big-league teams, do not have a large hinterland from which to draw. The Eastern Shore, an antediluvian settlement of oyster shuckers, does not help much; it has long wanted to secede from the state and, in particular, Baltimore. Western Maryland thinks that it is in Pennsylvania, and hence throws its support behind the Pirates. Rap the gate figures, if you want, but don’t expect to be rapped back by an Oriole fan.

If there is such a thing, the solid Oriole fan is a subterranean creature, the antithesis of the Colt fan. He has no identity. Noiseless and spiritless, he reminds one of a guy who might apologize for not buying a vacuum cleaner from a salesman at the door. No insult can inflame him, and no losing streak can distract him. He just goes to the games, and he is hardly ashamed that restaurant, bar and department-store windows are not covered with imbecilic slogans and other displays of pennant fever. The only noise he makes is directed at the absentee Oriole fans, who talk a lot but never go to the ball park.

The attendance excuses change – competing with the summer wonders of the Chesapeake Bay rather than poor weather conditions and late school nights – but the Orioles fan is still the lesser of the local sports loyalists as football is king.

On the lack of pitching (From “The Orioles: A Good Team Gone on Relief,” William Leggett, Sports Illustrated, Oct. 3, 1966):

But maybe you don’t recall the criticism of April and the knocks that lasted until June—but only until June. “The Orioles,” nearly everyone said back then in the spring, “don’t have enough pitching to win a pennant.” Yet here it is autumn and, as the dialogue goes around the racetracks, “Who win it?” “Baltimore win it.” “How?” “Laughin’.”

The Orioles enter the Series as solid underdogs because they do indeed appear to have a grave pitching problem, but a team simply cannot win a major league pennant by 10 games with bad pitching. It is just that Baltimore has strange pitching, a pitching staff that can function effectively only when it is used the way it has been used this season.

It is a fascinating phenomenon to observe. As you watch this Series you will see it happen before your very eyes, but even then maybe you won’t believe it. You see, Baltimore has no Sandy Koufax or Juan Marichal, no Sam McDowell or Jim Kaat. What the Orioles do have is a marvelous bullpen that gets lots of work and works very well. When other teams send a starting pitcher to the mound in the first inning they are expecting or hoping that he will be around in the ninth. Not the Orioles.

Oh to have such a “grave pitching problem.” The ’66 O’s had a 3.32 team ERA, which was .12 better than league average. The 2016 O’s 4.40 team ERA is .15 worse than league average.

On the team’s second-half struggles:

Baltimore’s season can be neatly divided into halves—the first half splendid and the second bewildering. The Orioles arrived at the All-Star break in July eight games ahead of second-place Detroit. For one half of a season they were a fine baseball team, capable of winning either offensively or defensively. But after they opened that big lead the hitters cooled off (notably Brooks Robinson, who was the big runs-batted-in leader during the early-season pennant drive), and in the second half the Orioles not only were not a fine team, they were not even one-two in the league.

Hitters cooling off, a second half that pales in comparison to the first ….

And finally, on the powerful lineup:

For most of the season the Orioles won attention by their hitting: they lead the American League in team batting average, have the most home runs and have scored the most runs. Their hitting comes in explosive clumps and is able to destroy a game in the time it takes to wind your watch. The Orioles have won a lot of games in the very first inning; over the season they have scored 116 runs in their first time at bat as against 65 for their opposition. Repeatedly, they have won games in their last or next-to-last times at bat, too. That is genuine hitting.

Okay, so “genuine hitting” and winning in the last at-bats is a stretch in 2016.

The 2016 Orioles are not the 1966 Orioles. Nevertheless, the narrative around the latter team is worthy of at least a nod, and perhaps even a wink, from current fans.



About Matthew Taylor

Roar from 34, a Baltimore Orioles Blog. Humor. History. Homerism. Since 2006.
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