Once title contenders, Royals and Orioles return to historical heights
The Orioles and Royals have never met in the postseason, but this year’s American League Championship Series pairing — which seemed unlikely not just at the outset of the season but even as the playoffs dawned — harkens back to a period of more than a decade when the two teams were AL powerhouses. They were built by smart front offices offering distinct organizational philosophies and booming player development systems, led by future Hall of Fame managers for at least part of those stretches, and featured some of the most iconic players in each franchise's history. Baltimore and Kansas City played entertaining brands of baseball, the echoes of which can be heard in today’s editions of those two teams.
In 1969, the major leagues expanded from 20 teams to 24, adding the Royals and Seattle Pilots (who moved to Milwaukee the next year to become the Brewers) to the American League and the Padres and Expos to the National League. With the addition of those franchises, the two leagues each split into East and West divisions, thereby creating an extra round of postseason baseball via the creation of the best-of-five League Championship Series. Over the first 17 years of the format (1969-85), the O's and Royals would win a total of 13 division titles, yet they never crossed paths in October.
The Orioles captured the AL East seven times, won five AL pennants and brought home two world championships. The Royals climbed above .500 by their third season of existence, then emerged as the AL West's dominant power after the Oakland Athletics' dynasty was disassembled in the mid-1970s, winning six division titles (plus the second-half title in the 1981 split season), two pennants and one championship from 1976-85.
(To say that Bud Selig was paying attention to the expanded postseason format would be an understatement; formerly the largest public stockholder of the Milwaukee Braves, he divested when they moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season, then founded the ownership group that would purchase the Pilots and move them to Milwaukee after just one season in Seattle.)
The split into divisions arrived at the perfect time for the Orioles. The former St. Louis Browns had moved to Baltimore in 1954 after spending most of their first 53 seasons as AL doormats. The legendary Paul Richards, an ex-major league catcher who joined the franchise after four years skippering the White Sox (1951-54), became Baltimore's manager and general manager in 1955 and laid the groundwork for the "Oriole Way," an organization-wide training and instruction philosophy designed to instill a certain brand of fundamentals from the lowest ranks of the minors to the majors. Aided by the arrival of Lee MacPhail, who took over GM duties in 1958, the team began assembling a talent base that came to fruition with their 1966 World Series sweep of the defending champion Dodgers, though by then Richards had moved on, first to the expansion Astros and then the Braves.
Virtually the entire nucleus of that championship team — starting pitchers Jim Palmer and Dave McNally, first baseman Boog Powell, second baseman Davey Johnson, third baseman Brooks Robinson, centerfielder Paul Blair -- was homegrown, while one hugely important piece, outfielder Frank Robinson, arrived via trade from the Reds (Blair came to Baltimore in the Rule 5 draft after his first professional season). That core was still in place when manager Hank Bauer was fired in mid-1968. He was replaced by first base coach Earl Weaver, a career minor leaguer who had managed many of those players on their way up and — as I described him upon the occasion of his 2013 passing — a 5-foot-7 spitfire whose irascibility was exceeded only by his tactical acumen.
Weaver downplayed small ball strategies such as the bunt, the stolen base and the hit-and-run in favor of a managerial philosophy whose foundation was simple: "pitching, defense and the three-run homer." He believed a team's 27 outs were a precious commodity that shouldn't be squandered, and was particularly attuned to splits and batter-pitcher matchup data that he kept on index cards. Weaver presided over the emergence of a dynasty that claimed pennants in his first three full seasons. His 1969 squad won 109 games — the highest total in either league between the 1961 and 1998 Yankees — and swept the Twins in the inaugural ALCS before being upset by the "Miracle" Mets in the World Series. His 1970 squad rebounded to win 108 games, again swept the Twins and this time took the World Series too, in five games over the Reds. In 1971, Baltimore topped 100 victories for the third straight season, finishing with 101, and swept the A's in the ALCS before losing to the Pirates in a seven-game Fall Classic.
Powell and the two Robinsons supplied most of the power, but the 1970 team got double-digit home run totals from every position except shortstop (Mark Belanger) and even an extra 18 from fourth outfielder Merv Rettenmund. Brooks Robinson and Belanger formed a nearly impenetrable left side of the infield; via the Total Zone metric, the pair now rank first and second all-time in fielding runs above average, with Blair 13th, and the trio won a combined 32 Gold Gloves. The 1970 team had three 20-game winners in Palmer, McNally and Mike Cuellar; Pat Dobson joined that group the following year, making the 1971 Orioles the first team in 51 years to boast a quartet of 20-win hurlers.
After Frank Robinson was traded to the Dodgers in December 1971, the Orioles slipped to a third-place finish in '72. Johnson and Dobson were traded to the Braves, but Baltimore still won two more AL East titles in 1973 (97 wins) and '74 (91 wins); Bobby Grich took over second base in '72 and went on to win Gold Gloves in four straight seasons while supplying punch and patience at the plate. Speedy outfielders Al Bumbry and Don Baylor joined the cast as well, and playing to the roster's strength, the O's ran more often; the 1973 squad led the league in steals (146) and had eight players reach double digits. Alas, those two teams ran into the A's in the ALCS, losing both times.
From 1975-83, the Orioles put together the majors' highest winning percentage, topping 90 wins seven times and reaching 100 wins twice, yet they brought home only two AL East flags; six times, they finished second, depriving them of the chance to battle the Royals. Brooks Robinson retired, Powell and Grich departed for free agency and the pitching staff turned over around Palmer and included new ace Mike Flanagan. With first baseman Eddie Murray emerging as the lineup's centerpiece — supported by Ken Singleton and the great outfield platoon of Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein — Weaver's team won the East in 1979, defeated the Angels in the ALCS and went seven games before again losing to the Pirates in the World Series.
That was the last of Weaver's four pennants. He retired after his 1982 team, which featured rookie Cal Ripken at shortstop, lost the division to the Brewers on the final day of the season, with Palmer bested by rent-a-starter Don Sutton. Powered by an MVP season from Ripken, successor Joe Altobelli guided the team to 98 wins, an ALCS victory over the White Sox and a World Series triumph against the "Wheeze Kids" edition of the Phillies, who featured ex-Reds Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, all on the wrong side of 40.
Thereafter, the Orioles receded, and even the temporary return of Weaver in 1985 and '86 couldn't stop their slide. By 1988, Baltimore's pitching was in total disarray and the team lost 107 games. The O's returned to the playoffs in 1996 and 1997 — under Davey Johnson, no less — but then disappeared from the postseason scene for another decade and a half.
As for the Royals, Kansas City had been left without major league baseball with the departure of the A's for Oakland following the 1967 season, but the city was awarded a franchise that winter when the majors agreed to expand, and pharmaceutical executive Ewing Kauffman won the bidding. He hired Cedric Tallis to be the team's first GM, and Tallis soon pulled off trades that would bear fruit for over a decade: a 1969 deal that snagged centerfielder Amos Otis from the Mets, a 1970 trade that netted 5-foot-5 shortstop Freddie Patek from the Pirates and a 1972 transaction that secured outfielder Hal McRae from the Reds. Tallis also founded the Royals Baseball Academy in Florida -- a five-diamond facility for player development via which they found future eight-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman Frank White -- and in 1971, he drafted George Brett in the second round out of a California high school.
The Royals broke .500 in their third and fifth seasons of existence, but Tallis was gone by then, replaced by Joe Burke. They won 91 games in 1975, when ex-Rangers and Angels manager Whitey Herzog took over as manager at midseason from Jack McKeon. That wasn't good enough to catch the A's, but by the next year, with Oakland's dynasty days done, Kansas City — now with an infield that featured White, Patek and Brett, with Otis and McRae as two of its biggest bats, and Dennis Leonard heading the rotation — won 90 games and its first division title.
Those Royals didn't mash their way to victory in '76; indeed, they ranked 11th in the 12-team AL in homers. With Herzog crafting his lineup and strategy to Royals Stadium's cavernous outfield and artificial turf, the team featured line drive hitters who could run wild on the basepaths and ranked second in steals — sound familiar? — with seven players nabbing at least 20 bags and Patek swiping 51. Brett earned All-Star honors for the first of 13 straight seasons and won the first of his three batting titles with a .333 average, with McRae just a point behind him.
Kansas City ran into the AL East-winning Yankees in the LCS and fell short, a story that would be repeated in both '77 (when they led the majors with 102 wins, still a franchise record) and '78. That was despite stronger squads that included All-Star catcher Darrell Porter (acquired via a trade with the Brewers) and lefties Paul Splittorf and Larry Gura emerging as frontline complements to Leonard. Alas, when Kansas City slipped to second in 1979, Herzog got the axe, a move that was quite controversial at the time, and probably a mistake in the long run; Herzog emerged in St. Louis to build his brand of speed-driven baseball into an NL powerhouse with pennants in 1982, '85 and '87.
Jim Frey, who spent the '70s under Weaver as a coach with the Orioles, took the reins and piloted the 1980 Royals to 97 wins and a three-game ALCS sweep of the hated Yankees. Though supplemented by power-hitting first baseman Willie Aikens and speedster Willie Wilson (who stole 79 bases in 89 attempts as the team once again led the league in the category), Brett remained the centerpiece of the lineup. Despite being limited to 117 games due to injuries, he hit .390/.454/.664, leading the league in all three slash stats and earning MVP honors. His three-run homer off Goose Gossage into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium in Game 3 not only sealed the sweep, but also provided some amount of catharsis given the team’s previous near-misses. Alas, in the World Series, the Royals lost to the Phillies, perennial NL bridesmaids themselves, in six games.
The Royals made history of a dubious sort in 1981: They became the first team with a losing record (50-53) to make the playoffs. They were just 20-30 when the seven-week strike hit, and just 30-40 when Frey was fired, but they won 20 of their final 33 games under replacement Dick Howser — who had lost his job as Yankees manager due to that 1980 ALCS defeat — to finish the second half with a 30-23 record, good enough for first place. They were quickly swept out of the Division Series by the A's, however.
Buoyed by the emergence in 1985 of a trio of homegrown starters in 21-year-old righty Bret Saberhagen (who won the Cy Young), 22-year-old Mark Gubicza and 23-year-old Danny Jackson — with submarining relief whiz Dan Quisenberry as closer — the Royals allowed fewer runs than all but one AL team that year, helping them to 91 wins and another division title. In the first seven-game LCS, they came back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit against the Blue Jays, then did the same to beat Herzog's Cardinals in the “I-70 Series” (alternately, the "Show Me Series") between intrastate rivals. That series turned on first base umpire Don Denkinger's infamous blown call in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6, which aided a K.C. comeback. The Royals won the series the next day behind Saberhagen in an 11-0 rout that saw Herzog and starter Joaquin Andujar both ejected.
The Royals would post records above .500 more often than not over the next nine years (1986-94), but they didn't finish higher than second in their division. Sadly, Howser was forced to step down as manager in the middle of the 1986 season after being diagnosed with a brain tumor; he passed away in June 1987. Schuerholz departed for the Braves in 1990, Kauffman died in 1993 and the 1994 players' strike put the team into a cost-cutting mode that fueled an 18-year stretch during which the team broke .500 just once, joining the Orioles in baseball ignominy.
Today, Brett, Herzog, Palmer, Weaver and Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson are all in the Hall of Fame, and the dark periods for both franchises have ended. Whichever team wins the ALCS will return to the World Series for the first time in roughly three decades. While the current models carry no explicit connection to their storied pasts, the longball-reliant Orioles and speed-driven Royals — both with excellent defense and bullpens behind them — will offer reminders of that heyday.