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4 x 20: Orioles’ 1971 Season Is One for the Books, Title or Not 

December 14, 2021

In the eighth inning of the seventh game of the 1971 World Series, Orioles starter Mike Cuellar was trying to hold off the Pittsburgh Pirates and give Baltimore its second straight title. The left-handed Cuellar had won 20 games during the regular season and another in the Orioles’ American League Championship Series sweep of the Oakland A’s.

As Cuellar worked through the inning, the Orioles’ bullpen got busy. But this was not the Birds’ usual relief corps. No, instead of the relievers who came in during the regular season and most of the postseason’s previous games, warming up instead as the season wound to a close with the championship on the line was a pair of pitchers who had also been 20-game winners during the regular season, right-hander Pat Dobson and lefty Dave McNally.

A fourth 20-game winner for the Orioles during the regular season, Jim Palmer, had pitched nine innings in Game 6, before Dobson and McNally had come to the rescue in the 10th inning.

Imagine – a pair of 20-game winners warming together in the bullpen, coming on in relief of another pair 20-game winning starters, in back-to-back games.

The Orioles’ 1971 season will be remembered in many ways:

* It marked the end of the club’s three-year reign as American League Champions, a stretch in which they swept the first three AL Championship Series and topped the 100-win mark each season.

* Such was the strength of the team that nine different players received votes for AL Most Valuable Player, most in the expansion era and matching the ’52 and ’53 Yankees for most ever.

* It served as a farewell to Frank Robinson, whose arrival via trade in the winter before the 1966 season served as the catalyst to four World Series appearances in a six-year stretch. Robinson was traded following the ’71 season to make room for up-and-coming Don Baylor; the trade came a year before the American League approved the designated hitter rule, which went into effect for the 1973 season and likely would have kept Robinson an Oriole for several more years.

But if there is one thing that separates the 1971 season from any others, it is that quartet of 20-game winners – Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson. The ’71 Orioles became the first team in 51 years, and only the second (and likely the last) in Major League history to have four pitchers win at least 20 games in the same season.

McNally won 21 games and Cuellar, Dobson, and Palmer each won 20, matching the record of the 1920 Chicago White Sox. Urban “Red” Faber (23), Lefty Williams (22), Ed Cicotte and Dickey Kerr (21 each) did it for the second-place White Sox, the year after Chicago won the tainted 1919 World Series.

When the Sox staff did it, four-man rotations were the practice; in fact, the fourth starter often was skipped because of off-days. Pitchers usually finished what they started, too; Chicago’s 20-game winning quartet started 139 of the team’s 154 games and completed 100 games (the Sox staff led the league with 109 CGs overall; the St. Louis Cardinals had the fewest complete games in the Majors in 1920, with 72).

It was 51 years before the Orioles matched the White Sox feat. No team has come close to duplicating it since. Nor are they likely to. For all the talk of the Atlanta Braves’ great staffs of the 1990s and early 2000s, you’ll find only one year in which they had even two pitchers rack up 20 wins (1993, when Tom Glavine won 22 games and Greg Maddux won 20; Steve Avery had 18 and John Smoltz had 15 to round out their top four starters). The Braves quartet made all but 20 of the team’s starts that year, throwing complete games in 18 of their 142 starts.

In 1971, the Orioles’ foursome started 142 of the 158 games. Cuellar made 38 starts, Dobson and Palmer 37 each and McNally made 30 (he missed five weeks with an injury). That quartet had 70 of the club’s 71 complete games. McNally had the fewest of the regulars, with 11. There were only 45 complete games pitched in the Majors in 2019; the Orioles, for the second time in club history, had none. Cleveland’s Shane Bieber and Chicago’s Lucas Giolito led the Majors with three each.

It wasn’t easy for the Orioles’ quarter, either. Despite missing five weeks in July and August with left elbow tendinitis, McNally became the first to notch his 20th win, shutting out the Yankees in New York on September 20. Four days later in Cleveland, the Orioles clinched the Eastern Division with a doubleheader sweep of the Indians that featured the 20th victories for both Cuellar and Dobson. Two days later, Palmer joined them, blanking the Indians.

While the four of them arrived at 20 wins within a week of each other, the routes they took to get there were vastly different.

McNally would go on to win another start and lead the staff with 21 wins, even though he missed 10 starts with tendinitis. Then 28 years old, it was the left-hander’s fourth straight season with 20 or more victories, the only pitcher in baseball to claim that from 1968-71. He never won the Cy Young Award, but finished in the top four in voting every year from 1968 through 1971.

“His fastball doesn’t scare a hitter, it tortures him. His curve only breaks real sharply when he has two strikes on his pigeon. His change reaches the plate just an instant too early or an instant too late for the hitter,” wrote The Sun's Seymour Smith of McNally.

Arm injuries curtailed McNally’s career, and he was largely finished by 32. In contrast, Cuellar didn’t become a regular starter until he was 29 but pitched effectively into his late 30s. He was acquired by the Orioles before the 1969 season and went on to share the Cy Young Award with Detroit’s Denny McLain that year. He won 23 and 24 games in his first two seasons with the Orioles.

In 1971, Cuellar, then 34 years old, was just 2-1 with a 4.56 ERA through his first seven starts. But he reeled off 11 straight wins and stood 13-2 with a 2.88 ERA at the All-Star break.

Wrote The Sun’s Smith: “He is a quiet, collected and brisk workman on the mound, the baffling junkie on the staff. He has a slow screwball, a medium screwball, and a fast screwball.”

Dobson, a journeyman right-hander acquired from San Diego in the offseason with reliever Tom Dukes, took the rotation spot that had been shared in 1970 by Tom Phoebus (for whom he and Dukes were traded) and Jim Hardin. His record stood at 3-5 with a 3.70 ERA on June 12, but he won his next 12 starts through the end of July, with 11 complete games and 1.77 ERA over that stretch. He pitched complete game victories in all eight of his July starts, allowing only nine earned runs with three shutouts. Still, because he spent only two years in an Orioles uniform, he is often the one “just on the tip of the tongue” when the trivia question about the four 20-game-winning Orioles is asked.

Palmer remembered the next-to-last game of Dobson’s 12-game winning streak, in which he beat Oakland, 1-0, on July 27. “He threw breaking balls and changeups the first two times around (the order) and then blew them away (with fastballs) the last time around. He could change gears. I saw that,” he recalled in John Eisenberg’s book From 33rd Street to Camden Yards.

And then, of course, there was Palmer. After missing nearly two seasons with a torn rotator cuff that threatened to end his career in 1967-68, he returned to the majors in 1969 and won 16 games. He then won 20 or more games in eight of the next nine seasons, with three Cy Young Awards and an eventual plaque in Cooperstown. Only 25 years old at the time, he won his 20th game of 1971 in his final start of regular season.

“When the other guys won their 20th, it was very important that I do it, or I would have looked mighty bad,” he said that night.

Even with all that pitching, the ’71 Orioles brought more to the table than just gaudy mound stats. They still had the same lineup that had produced MVPs and Gold Gloves, leading the league in batting average and runs scored. Aside from adding Dobson and a few tweaks to the bullpen, the Orioles tampered little with their roster from the previous two seasons, and for good reason. They had won 109 and 108 games in practically waltzing to the American League East Division titles and AL pennant in 1969 and 1970, setting the league record for most wins in back-to-back seasons. In winning the AL East for a third straight time in 1971, going 101-57, they set the league’s three-year record as well with 318 victories over that span. Only the Chicago Cubs, with 223 wins in 1906-07 and 322 wins in 1906-08, had more in a two- or-three-year stretch.

But the 1971 season did not start out as easily as the previous two seasons, when they ran away and hid from their division mates. They got off to a slow start and trailed Boston through the season’s first two months. It began to change during a doubleheader at Chicago on May 31.

Don Buford, the Orioles’ feisty leadoff hitter, had already homered twice in the second game and, after getting him by a pitch in the 8th inning he charged after White Sox pitcher Bart Johnson. There were no ejections, but when Buford came up on deck in the 9th inning, fans at Comiskey Park began throwing objects at him. The official play-by-play of the game reports:

Buford was ejected when he went to the screen to 'warn' a fan, and was jumped by another fan who had ran across the field. The Orioles bench 'responded'.

Terry Crowley, batting for Buford, responded too, with an RBI single that capped an 11-3 win. The Orioles would go on to win nine straight, moving into first place on June 5. They never vacated the top spot, methodically building their lead to 12 games by late August and finishing that far ahead of second-place Detroit.

There were other highlights along the way. Brooks Robinson smacked a game-winning home run with two outs in the bottom of the 9th to help Dobson beat the Oakland A’s, 1-0, on July 27. Proving he was human after all, the next night Brooks committed three errors – all in the same inning! – and grounded into a pair of double plays. (The Orioles won that game, 3-2, anyway.)

On September 13, in the 9th inning of the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Tigers at Memorial Stadium, Frank Robinson hit his 500th career homer, at the time only the 11th player to reach that mark.

The Orioles won their last 11 regular season games and rolled into the American League Championship Series against Oakland. The A’s were managed by Dick Williams and led by Cy Young winner Vida Blue, outfielder Reggie Jackson and reliever Rollie Fingers, all of whom would end up in the Hall of Fame. But, as they did in the World Series the year before against the Cincinnati Reds, the Orioles caught a dynastic team perhaps a year early. After spotting the A’s a 3-0 lead early in Game One, they came back behind McNally, Cuellar, and Palmer to sweep the best-of-five series, giving them a perfect 9-0 mark in ALCS play over three seasons.

The World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t start out much differently. The Orioles took the first two games in Baltimore before the series switched to Three Rivers Stadium, where the Pirates swept all three games to take a 3-2 lead. When the series returned to Memorial Stadium, the Orioles had to overcome an early 2-0 lead before winning in 10 innings, when Frank Robinson – who had walked and advanced from first to third, aching legs and all, on a single by Merv Rettenmund – scored on a shallow fly to center by Brooks Robinson to prolong the series.

In Game Seven, the Pirates’ Steve Blass shutdown the Birds for a second time in the series. Cuellar was nearly his equal, but fell behind 2-0 through eight innings. The Orioles got one back in their half of the 8th, but Blass retired the Orioles in order in the 9th for a 2-1 win and the championship. McNally, who had relieved Dobson in the top of the 9th after Cuellar was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the 8th, was prepared to work the 10th inning that never came.

The Pirates featured three future Hall of Famers – Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Bill Mazeroski – but it was the unheralded young Bucs pitchers, particularly Blass, Nelson Briles, and Bruce Kison, who combined to allow 2 runs on 10 hits in 33 1/3 innings pitched – who determined the series.

“The Pittsburgh series was like what we did to the Dodgers in ‘66 in the sense that they had these pitchers who weren’t supposed to be that good, but they pitched fantastic,” McNally said in From 33rd Street to Camden Yards. “Blass and Kison and Briles pitched far better than the year they’d had.”

So the Orioles came up short. And while they would win two more AL East titles in 1973 and ’74, they would not return to the World Series again until 1983. By then, of the ’71 team that Frank Robinson and Don Buford considered the best they ever played on, only Palmer was still playing in an Orioles uniform.

More sadly, Palmer is the only living member of the 20-game winning quartet. Cancer claimed McNally at age 60 in 2002. Dobson, who served as Orioles pitching coach in 1996, died at age 64 in 2006, a day after learning he had leukemia. Cuellar passed away from stomach cancer at age 72, days before the season opener in 2010.

In Baltimore, however, they live on as more than a trivia question. Their careers intersected and overlapped for several years, including one glorious season that no one is likely to see one again.