The Fantastic Four
Fifty years ago, Earl Weaver had something few managers ever possessed: a starting rotation with four 20-game winners.
On their way to a third consecutive pennant, the 1971 Baltimore Orioles featured a rotation of Jim Palmer (20-9, 2.68 ERA), Mike Cuellar (20-9. 3.08 ERA), Pat Dobson (20-8, 2.90 ERA) and Dave McNally (21-5, 2.89 ERA). It was the first time in 51 years a staff achieved that milestone, and with teams now using five or six starters, and free agency breaking up rotations, odds are it might never happen again.
“We knew it was special, but we were all centered on getting to the World Series,” said Weaver.
McNally missed several starts because of an elbow problem, but he pitched 224 innings that year. Cuellar hurled 292 innings while Palmer and Dobson both threw 282 frames.
They started 142 of the Orioles 158 games that season (only three other pitchers started the remaining 16 games: Grant Jackson, primarily a reliever, started nine; Dave Leonard started six and Dave Boswell started one.) The four missing games were not needed to be made up as the Orioles won the AL East by 10 games over the Detroit Tigers.
“It was nice, once we saw we had an opportunity to do it,” said Dobson. “But overall as a group and as a club, we were concerned with winning the pennant.”
“There was no competition among them,” said Weaver, “they helped each other. Jim Palmer was like a pitching coach, he knew the hitters’ weaknesses and worked with Dobson who returned to the league.”
Boasting one 20-game winner and three more pitchers with a good crack at the charmed circle, the Baltimore Orioles meet the Cleveland Indians 9/24 needing just one more win or Detroit Tigers loss to clinch the American League Eastern Divsion title. The Oriole hurlers are (LtoR) Jim Palmer (19-9), Dave McNally (20-5) standing rear, Pat Dobson (19-8), and Mike Cuellar (19-9).
From 1967 to 1969 Dobson pitched for the Detroit Tigers before moving to the San Diego Padres of the National League in 1970.
“We always shared information about hitters,” said Dobson.
Weaver credited much of their success to his pitching coach George Bamberger. “He was the greatest pitching coach in the world, a Hall of Fame pitching coach,” he noted. The hurlers, Weaver said, would rest the day after a start, throw 100 pitches to work on their control or breaking balls the next day, then rest the following day before their next start.
“The more you throw, the stronger you get, and that regimen puts less stress on the arms,” said Weaver. “That’s my theory.”
The Orioles had strong pitching staffs since the mid-1960s, using several starters through each year. McNally joined the Orioles in 1962, and Palmer made his major league debut in 1965. In 1969, the club acquired Cuellar who had pitched well for the Houston Astros.
Cuellar, McNally and Palmer combined to win 59 games in 1969 and all three won 20 or more games during the 1970 campaign, but the club could not find a reliable fourth starter until December 1, 1970 when Baltimore acquired Dobson in a trade. He broke into the major leagues with the Tigers as a reliever and was later traded for Joe Niekro to the Padres. After going 14-15 with 185 strikeouts in his first full season as a starter for the Padres, Dobson came to the Orioles with pitcher Tom Dukes for pitchers Tom Phoebus, Al Severinsen, Fred Beene and shortstop Enzo Hernandez.
At first, Dobson said he felt like the new kid on the block when joining a trio of 20-game winners. “After a month I began to feel at home, feel part of the group, it was a pretty easy team to get along with; after a while it seemed like I’d been there forever. My roomie was Boog Powell who became a good friend.”
“We all rooted for each other, all rooted harder for Dobson than anybody,” said McNally.
Each man won his 20th game in a five-day period in September, with Cuellar and Dobson winning theirs in a doubleheader on September 24 against the Cleveland Indians.
“We clinched the division in the first game,” recalled Dobson, who later became the Orioles’ pitching coach. “After the second, we had a team party.”
If winning 20 games an incentive for notoriety, it was also an incentive monetarily:
“They had to negotiate their contracts every year,” said Weaver. “All of them wanted to go nine innings, they all wanted complete games.”
Cuellar added, “I once won 18 games and they offered me a pay cut. That’s ridiculous.”
After winning 20 games for the third time in 1969, McNally was offered the same contract for the 1970 season. “It was a different era then,” he explained. “Of course, the clubs didn’t have as much money as they do now.”
And while the pitchers said winning 20 for the team was more important than their personal goals, they all gave credit to their teammates. The Orioles used primarily two catchers that season: Elrod Hendricks and Andy Etchebarren; Hendricks primarily caught Cuellar “because he spoke Spanish,” joked Cuellar, who is a Cuban native.
McNally worked with both receivers and said they “were in tune” with each other on calling games. “There’s nothing worse than a pitcher getting ready to throw a pitch he doesn’t want to make,” said McNally, who spent all but one of his 14 years in the majors with the Orioles.
There was also the vaunted Baltimore defense: everybody knows third baseman Brooks Robinson was a magnificent fielder, but shortstop Mark Belanger and second baseman Davey Johnson were superb up the middle, and Paul Blair was an outstanding center fielder. All four won Gold Gloves that season. Even the team’s sluggers, first baseman Powell and outfielder Frank Robinson were steady defensively.
“I pitched for a club in San Diego that lost 99 games. It was a second-year expansion team and they didn’t play real good defense,” said Dobson. “I won 14 games and I could have won 20 if we had played better defense.”
BALTIMORE - UNDATED: Baltimore Orioles' pitchers Mike Cuellar #35, Dave McNally #19, and Jim Palmer #22 pose for photos at Memorial Stadium circa 1970's in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)
McNally had played for Weaver on minor league teams in Appleton, WI and Elmira, N.Y., and said the skipper’s best asset “was a burning desire to win. He really prepared the players to play, and then let them play. He left the pitching to Bamberger, but they had the same mound sense.”
The last team prior to the ’71 Orioles to have four 20-game winners was the 1920 Chicago White Sox, with Red Faber, Eddie Cicotte, Claude Williams and Dickie Kerr.
In between, the Cleveland Indians quartet of right-handers of Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn and Bob Feller came close – all four won 20 games at least once from 1951-55, but they never did it together in the same year.
In 1951, Lemon won 17 games while his fellow starters won 20 or more; the following year Lemon won 22 games, but Feller won only nine. In 1954, Wynn and Lemon won 23 games, but Garcia won 19, and Feller, then 36, pitched in only 19 games, winning 13.
Wynn, Lemon and Herb Score won 20 in 1956, but Garcia could manage only wining 11.
After dominating the AL East by winning 318 games in three seasons, the 1972 Orioles fell to third place in the AL East.
The Orioles traded Frank Robinson after the ’72 season, and, coincidentally or not, the team hit 58 less homeruns than the previous year and batted only .229 compared to .269 for the ’71 season. Jim Palmer won 21 games and Cuellar won 18. Dobson went 16-18 despite a 2.65 ERA and McNally went 13-17 but had an ERA of 2.95. The quartet started 145 games that season, three more than the previous year. Then the Birds began breaking up the quartet.
Dobson was traded with Roric Harrison, Davey Johnson and Johnny Oates to the Atlanta Braves for Taylor Duncan and catcher Earl Williams, the key piece of the trade for the Orioles.
After the 1974 season, McNally was traded with Bill Kirkpatrick and Rich Coggins to the Montreal Expos for Ken Singleton and Mike Torrez. He pitched one season for one season and retired.
Cuellar from 1972 to 1975 won 72 games for the Orioles, including 22 in 1974. At the age of 39 in 1976 he went 4-13 and was released by the Orioles; he signed with the California Angels but managed to appear in only two games in 1977, his last season.
From 1972 to 1978, Jim Palmer won 20 more or games five times, and led the AL in wins for three seasons. He ended his career with 268 wins and he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Since 1976, no team has had three 20-game winners, and only three have had two 20-game winners: the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals with Joaquin Andujar and John Tudor, the 1993 Atlanta Braves with Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, and the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. From 1993 to 1997 the Braves had four pitchers win 20 or more games – Maddux, Glavine, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle – but they never did it together.
The Orioles won 318 games from 1969-71, along with three pennants, but won only one World Series. It wasn’t so much they lost two of those series, but who they lost to that has kept them from being ranked among the best ever with all the pitching, hitting and defense they had.
The 1969 squad lost to the “Miracle Mets” of New York and lost the ’71 Series to the Roberto Clemente led Pittsburgh Pirates (Clemente, whose life and death have taken on near-mythic proportions, was the MVP of the series). But no matter what, the accomplishments of the Orioles’ 1971 starting staff will be hard to match.