October 11, 1969: Cuellar, Orioles beat Mets in World Series opener
Events in 1969 changed the way people everywhere perceived the Earth and beyond. Astronauts set foot on the moon and we would never again look at the night sky in the same way. It was also the year the baseball world changed the way it viewed the New York Mets. Before this year they were a national icon for failure. They had never been anything close to good.1 Now the Mets were in the World Series to face the formidable Baltimore Orioles.
The two teams faced off for Game One on October 11. The Mets were the underdogs. Baltimore, which had won the American League pennant with a 109-53 record, clearly looked superior in almost every facet of the game. The AL East champions, they had swept the AL West-winning Minnesota Twins in three games in the American League Championship Series.2 The Mets had made it to the Series with a surprising three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves.
A full house showed up at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on a sunny afternoon to see a matchup between two of the best pitchers in the game.3 Mike Cuellar, who had finished the season with a 23-11 record, started for the Orioles, facing Mets ace Tom Seaver (25-7), who a few weeks after the Series would be the winner of the NL Cy Young Award.
Cuellar got Tommie Agee and Bud Harrelson to ground out to third in the top of first inning before allowing a single by Cleon Jones. Jones was stranded on first base when Cuellar struck out Donn Clendenon.
Orioles leadoff batter Don Buford gave the Orioles the lead in the bottom of the first with a home run to deep right field. Seaver struck out the next two batters, Paul Blair and Frank Robinson. After Boog Powell singled, Seaver got Brooks Robinson to fly out to center field for the final out of the inning. The Orioles had a lead they would never relinquish.
Cuellar pitched masterfully through six innings. He allowed just one more hit, a double by Clendenon in the fourth inning, and struck out five Mets through the six innings.
Seaver held the Orioles in check in the second and third and looked like what he was — the National League’s best pitcher that season. But things changed dramatically in the fourth inning. Powell grounded out to shortstop and Brooks Robinson popped to second before things came apart for Seaver. Elrod Hendricks singled to right field and Seaver walked Davey Johnson. This brought up Mark Belanger, who hit a single that scored Powell and sent Johnson to third. The Orioles continued to rattle Seaver when Cuellar hit another single that scored Johnson. Buford continued his mastery over Seaver by doubling to right field, and the speedy Belanger scored. By the time Seaver got Blair to ground out to third base to end the inning, the Orioles had a commanding 4-0 lead.
Cuellar kept the Mets in check until the seventh inning when he allowed the Mets’ only run of the game. Clendenon led off the inning with a single. Ron Swoboda walked and Ed Charles flied out to center field. Jerry Grote singled to shallow left field and Clendenon went to third. He scored on Al Weis’s fly. Cuellar dashed the Mets’ hopes for more, getting pinch-hitter Rod Gaspar to ground out to third, ending the inning.
Manager Gil Hodges removed Seaver after the fifth inning. Pitchers Don Cardwell and Ron Taylor kept the Orioles from scoring any more runs but the damage was done. Cuellar pitched a complete game, holding the Mets to six hits and striking out eight.
After the Orioles won the first game, most fans and sportswriters were expecting the Mets’ season to quickly come to a close. The Orioles seemed destined to win the championship under the leadership of manager Earl Weaver, who had turned the team into winners during the past two seasons using his emphasis on baseball fundamentals known as the “Oriole Way.”4 But Cuellar’s win would end up being their only victory as the Mets came alive when the two teams met again the next day.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the writer consulted the Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for box score, player, team, and season pages, pitching and batting game logs, and other pertinent material.
1 Mark Hermann, “1969 Miracle Mets Were One of a Kind,” Newsday (Long Island, New York), October 26, 2015.
2 Ed Attanasio, “1969 The Amazin’ Mets,” This Great Game.com, accessed December 8, 2016.
4 Ed Attanasio, “1969 TheAmazin’ Mets.