Baby Birds Versus Bronx Bombers: No Mismatch After All!

This article was written by Francis Kinlaw

This article was published in the The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)


In the six seasons following the transfer of the St. Louis Browns’ franchise to Baltimore, the pattern of losing that had been established in the Midwest was not broken. From 1954 through 1959, the Orioles attained a winning percentage as high as .500 only once (in 1957) and never finished in the first division of the American League. In 1959, the club posted a record of 74–80 that placed them 20 games behind the league-leading Chicago White Sox and in the sixth spot in the league’s standings for the third time in four years.

Baltimore’s pitching staff in ’59 was solid, but the team was unimpressive offensively and defensively. In the summer of 1960, however, the short-term and long-term prospects of baseball in Baltimore suddenly improved, and a tradition of competitiveness that would eventually produce championships was born. The drastic improvement of 1960 was unanticipated, because the contributions of several key players were considerably more significant than expected given their youth, lack of major-league experience, or past performances.

In retrospect, the swift evolution from second-division status to pennant contender can be explained by the maturation of five young pitchers within a one-year period, the simultaneous emergence of a free-swinging slugger, solid play by a rookie at the crucial position of shortstop, and the coming of age of a future Hall of Famer. Analysis aside, the team’s surprising success and the appearance of new stars created a level of excitement unprecedented in Baltimore’s modern baseball history and fostered a new attendance record for the Orioles.

Magazines on newsstands in the spring of 1960 did not lead readers to expect a reversal in the Orioles’ fortunes. Sports Illustrated predicted that the team would again finish in sixth place and commented that “the Orioles are now fully committed to their youth program It will pay off—someday.” Dan Daniel, a prominent sportswriter of the time, wrote in Street and Smith’s 1960 Baseball Yearbook that he foresaw a fifth-place finish. A panel of representatives convened by Sport Scope Magazine did the same and said that “if the Orioles could add some offensive punch to their infield, [Manager] Paul Richards would have something to look forward to.” Sports Forecast magazine also predicted a fifth-place finish while commenting that “Richards needs more surprises at the plate to crash the first division.”

Paul Richards himself predicted that his club “should be vastly improved” due in large measure to the acquisition of Jackie Brandt in center field. Brandt had been obtained in a trade with the San Francisco Giants on the previous November 30.

Whether Richards actually sensed that improvement was on the horizon or was merely expressing optimism as a “managerial duty,” his prediction was more accurate than those of the presumed experts from the world of journalism. And which players were to deliver the “vast improvement” that Richards either believed or hoped was coming?

The young pitchers: Chuck Estrada, Milt Pappas, Steve Barber, and Jack Fisher. This quartet, with all members under 23 years of age, became known as the “Kiddie Korps,” as it accounted for nearly two-thirds of the Orioles’ 89 wins. Brooks Robinson would say that “Pappas, Estrada, Barber, and Fisher . . . all came in at the same time (and) threw as hard as any four guys I ever saw on one team.”

The free-swinging slugger: “Diamond Jim” Gentile. Purchased from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization after the 1959 season, the big first baseman, who had toiled for eight years in the minor leagues, hit .292 with 21 home runs and 98 RBIs. Several of his homers were “tape-measure shots.”

The rookie shortstop: Ron Hansen not only tagged 22 home runs and drove 86 runs across the plate, but also participated in 110 of the Orioles’ 172 double plays as necessary improvement was noted in the team’s defense. He was named “Rookie of the Year” by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) on 22 of 24 ballots. (Gentile and Estrada split the other two votes.)

The future member of the Hall of Fame: Brooks Robinson. The 1960 season was Robinson’s sixth in the major leagues, but it was his “breakout year.” His offensive production (14 home runs, 88 runs batted in, and a batting average of .294) and defensive talents justified the 211 votes that he earned from members of the BBWAA for the American League’s “Most Valuable Player” award. Only Roger Maris with 225 votes and Mickey Mantle with 222 surpassed Robinson’s total.

*****

Other than finishing in first place,
Nothing is more exciting than a first pennant race.

*****

The road followed by the Orioles in 1960 featured twists, turns, and an occasional bump. But, between the conclusion of spring training in Miami and the end of the regular season, their path was generally smooth and enjoyable, until a serious roadblock was encountered late in the journey.

The regular season began in Baltimore on April 19 with a 3–2 victory over the Senators. All but one of the position players in Richards’ starting lineup on Opening Day would remain very important to the team’s success throughout the year: Gentile at first base, Marv Breeding at second, Hansen at shortstop, Robinson at third base, Gene Woodling in left field, Brandt in center, and Gus Triandos behind the plate. The only exception was Johnny Powers, the starter in right field who hit .111 in ten games before being sent to Cleveland on May 12 for the waiver price. Al Pilarcik and Gene Stephens (who would be obtained in a June 9 trade with Boston) patrolled right field for the rest of the season. Walt Dropo, Jim Busby, Clint Courtney, and Dave Nicholson came off the bench to fill utility roles. Hal “Skinny” Brown and Hoyt Wilhelm more than supplemented the “Kiddie Korps” on the pitching mound.

The Orioles came out of the gate slowly but, with five consecutive victories capped by Brown’s 2–1 win over the Yankees on April 29, their winning percentage passed the .500 mark. The month of May then brought better results and elevation in the league’s standings. Despite the loss of Triandos for five weeks following surgery on May 8 to address a pinched nerve in his throwing hand, the team moved into the first division to stay on May 14 and, with a fifth straight win on May 16 (a 2–1 victory in Kansas City in which Brandt and Hansen each hit solo homers), the Birds claimed sole possession of the top spot in the standings for the first time in franchise history.

After moving between first and second place for ten days, the Orioles returned to the top of the mountain on May 27 with a 3–2 win in Yankee Stadium, but that victory and the jump into first place were overshadowed by a headline-grabbing innovation by Paul Richards: a catcher’s mitt 50 percent larger than the standard glove that could be used to handle Hoyt Wilhelm’s dancing knuckleball. The introduction of the revolutionary concept seemed to be an act of genius, especially when Clint Courtney allowed no passed balls as Wilhelm pitched all nine innings to defeat the Bronx Bombers on that day in May.

The outlook appeared more promising the following week when the Yankees traveled to the city of Babe Ruth’s birth only to lose three games. The decisive run in the May 31 contest resulted from a sacrifice fly by Courtney; Hansen tagged a three-run home run and Brown hurled a one-hitter in a 4–1 Orioles’ victory on June 1, and Gentile, Woodling, and Robinson homered in a 6–5 win on June 2. With the three-game sweep, Baltimore led the league by two and a half games.

The lead didn’t last long. On June 9, with the third of four consecutive losses to the Detroit Tigers as the Orioles dropped out of sole possession of first place. Dependence on the combination of veterans and youngsters was still producing positive results, however, and that mixture was never more evident than in a doubleheader in Detroit on June 19. In the opener, Wilhelm pitched a two-hit shutout and rookies Gentile and Hansen each hit solo homers in a 2–0 win. In the nightcap, a ninth-inning sacrifice fly by Robinson drove in the game’s only run and rewarded Pappas for a three-hitter by enabling him to edge Don Mossi in a tight pitching duel.

Between June 8 and June 26, the team moved in and out of first place. On the latter date, Estrada fired a two-hitter in Kansas City and Gentile hit two home runs (a three-run blast in the sixth inning and a grand slam in the seventh) off the Athletics’ Dick Hall.

The Orioles’ success at midseason was reflected by Hansen’s designation as the starting shortstop on the American League’s All-Star team based upon a poll of players, managers, and coaches, and by the selections (by AL manager Al Lopez) of Estrada to the pitching staff and of Gentile and Robinson as reserve infielders. But, just prior to a break for All-Star games in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium and at Yankee Stadium, the club fell four games behind and into fourth place by losing five straight home games—two to the Yankees and three to the Washington Senators.

One month later, on August 13, the Orioles and Yankees were tied for first, but the O’s trailed the Bombers by four percentage points following an eight-game winning streak. But on the heels of that encouraging stretch, the Birds lost four in a row (including two one-run defeats in the “House that Ruth Built”) and fell to third place, two and a half games behind the Yankees.

All that came before would be merely a prelude to the pressurized circumstances and intense emotional swings that would lie ahead in September. The real drama began on September 2 with the first of three Oriole wins over the Yankees in Baltimore, as Pappas out-pitched veteran Whitey Ford to assure a 5–0 victory. Jack Fisher matched Pappas’s performance the next day, scattering seven hits and posting another shutout as Robinson drove in both runs (one with a homer) in a 2–0 victory. Then, in the finale, Estrada and Wilhelm combined to post a 6–2 win. With these victories, and with the four wins over the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians that preceded them, the Orioles again climbed into the league lead.

If the reality of the pennant race had not registered with the team previously, the Orioles were aware of the circumstances when they took the field in that key series with the Yanks. Under a bright spotlight and before a total of 114,604 fans, however, the club withstood every challenge in a very impressive manner. At the close of play on Labor Day—after a 3–1 win over the Senators at Washington’s Griffith Stadium in which Brown pitched a three-hitter and struck out 11—the Orioles led the Yankees by one game and the White Sox by four.

The success in New York was not sustained. Baltimore had fallen into second place by September 10 after losing three of four games. Tension increased as a final, four-game series with the Yankees approached. Recent results did not bode well for the Orioles: the fellows in pinstripes had won seven of 11 games since leaving Baltimore nearly two weeks before, while the Birds dropped five of nine during that time frame.

When the series began in the “Big Apple” on September 16, the two teams were separated in the standings by a percentage differential of .001. Either team would gain an obvious advantage by taking three of the four games, and a sweep would place the losing club at a considerable disadvantage for the rest of the season. At this time and in arguably baseball’s most majestic setting, the “experience factor” finally surfaced. Whitey Ford got the best of Steve Barber by a 4–2 score in the opener, and the Yankees proceeded to take the three other games by margins of 5–3, 7–3, and 2–0. A crowd of 53,876 witnessed a Sunday doubleheader that featured the final head-to-head match-ups of the teams in 1960, observing a group of Orioles who competed well but were ultimately unable to make the “big play.” Richards would admit that his players were “out-pitched, out-hit, out-fielded, and (the Yankees) got all the breaks.” And Casey Stengel was apparently linking impatience on the part of the Birds to their youth when he asked reporters at the conclusion of the series, “Did you notice they didn’t get many bases-on-balls?” Stengel went on to say that the Baltimore club “swung at anything.” (The Orioles received ten bases-on-balls in the four games, while the Yankees strolled to first base 19 times.)

The Yankees had at last taken control of the pennant race with only eleven games left on their schedule, and they locked up the flag by winning every one of those remaining contests. Nearly 50 years later, record books fail to indicate how competitive the Orioles were for most of the 1960 season, simply stating that the Yankees captured the American League flag by eight games.

The Orioles of 1960 deserve to be recalled in a more favorable light than as a team that lost a pennant by such a margin. Their winning percentages were impressive both at home (.571) and on the road (.584), and they won 64 percent of their one-run games. After suffering severe late-season disappointment from the devastating losses in New York and falling—with the loss of the second game of the September 18 doubleheader—into a tie for second place with the White Sox, they rebounded to win six of nine remaining games to snatch the runner-up spot from Chicago. (The Chisox’ record was 4–5 after September 18.)

Notable individual feats were achieved during the season by veterans and young players alike. Not to be outdone by the experienced Skinny Brown’s one-hitter against the Yankees in Memorial Stadium on June 1,

Steve Barber registered a similar result on the same field against Kansas City on July 28. (Both bids for nohitters were spoiled by current or former Yankees: Mickey Mantle’s home run was the only hit off of Brown, and Hank Bauer’s single for the Athletics marred Barber’s effort.) And, while former Yankee Gene Woodling hit .283 at the age of 38, fresh-faced Jack Fisher did not allow a run over 29 2/3 innings from late August through mid-September.

How should the Orioles’ 1960 season be summarized? The Birds won more often than they lost against every team in the league except the Yankees and the fifth-place Senators. (They compiled a record of 11–11 against the Nats.) The outcomes of games against the Yanks were actually predictable despite a reasonable division of victories: the Orioles won nine of 22 games, but their only win in Yankee Stadium was posted on the day that Courtney first used the oversized catcher’s mitt. Regardless, as significant as those games against New York were, it is important to note that, while the Yankees won four more games than the Orioles in headto-head competition, New York won the pennant by eight games. The season consisted of much more than the showdowns in Memorial Stadium and the Bronx.

Why did the Orioles fail to win the pennant after coming so close? Lack of experience was undoubtedly a factor in the crucial closing series with Yankees. So was the general lack of offensive production by outfielders, and especially a lack of power from the fly-chasers. (Brandt, Woodling, Pilarcik, and Stephens combined for only 35 home runs—a number that was surpassed by the three most active outfielders on every other team in the league except last-place Kansas City.) And, given the team’s lack of collective power and the fact that the dimensions of Memorial Stadium were not conducive to a strategy built around the long ball, one may conclude that the Birds should have been more aggressive on the base paths and that Richards should have been more faithful to tactics that might have generated runs in small batches. (Their 37 stolen bases equaled the number swiped by the hard-hitting Yankees and exceeded only the totals of the Red Sox and Athletics; their 72 sacrifice hits placed them seventh in the league in that category.)

The 1960 season remains significant to Baltimore’s baseball history not only because it produced excitement at the time and memories decades later. It also provided evidence that a franchise that had lingered in the second division for many years was finally prepared to contend for pennants. And, by an interesting coincidence, this significant period of transition to a higher competitive level occurred six years before a world championship would be celebrated along the Chesapeake Bay—in 1966!

 

Sources

Books

Aylesworth, Thomas, and Benton Minks Aylesworth. The Encyclopedia of Baseball Managers: 1901 to the Present Day. New York: Crescent Books, 1990.

Bready, James H. The Home Team. N.p.: James H. Bready, 1979.

Deane, Bill. Award Voting: A History of the Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, and Cy Young Awards. Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1988.

Dewey, Donald, and Nicholas Acocella. Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Teams. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Eisenberg, John. From 33rd Street to Camden Yards. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Contemporary Books, 2001.

Fitzgerald, Ed, ed. The American League. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1966. Hawkins, John C. This Date in Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Browns History. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.

James, Bill. The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today. New York: Scribner, 1997.

James, Bill, and Rob Neyer. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Lowry, Philip J. Green Cathedrals. Cooperstown, N.Y.: Society for American Baseball Research, 1986.

Patterson, Ted. The Baltimore Orioles: Four Decades of Magic from 33rd Street to Camden Yards. Dallas: Taylor, 1994.

Peary, Danny, ed. We Played the Game: 65 Players Remember Baseball’s Greatest Era, 1947–1964. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Reichler, Joseph L., ed. The Baseball Encyclopedia. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1985.

Rosenthal, Harold. Baseball’s Best Managers. New York: T. Nelson, 1961.

Thorn, John, and Pete Palmer, eds. Total Baseball. New York: Warner Books, 1989.

Vincent, David, Lyle Spatz, and David W. Smith. The Midsummer Classic: The Complete History of Baseball’s All-Star Game. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Zanger, Jack. Major League Baseball: 1966. New York: Pocket Books, n.d.

Periodicals and Websites

Dell Sports Magazine 1, no. 19 (April 1961).

1961 Major League Baseball Yearbook. New York: Fawcett Publications, 1961.

1966 Baseball Register (The Sporting News).

1969 Baseball Dope Book (The Sporting News)

Retrosheet

Sports Illustrated, 11 April 1960

Sports Illustrated, 10 April 1961

The Sporting News

Street and Smith’s 1960 Baseball Yearbook. Charlotte, N.C.: Street and Smith, 1960.

Street and Smith’s 1961 Baseball Yearbook. Charlotte, N.C.: Street and Smith, 1960.

NBC Complete Baseball Magazine. 1961.

Sport Scope Magazine (summer 1960)

Sports Forecast (May 1960)

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