Calling the Pen: To be Frank - 1966 was my favorite season as an Orioles fan - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Baseball Essays

Calling the Pen: To be Frank — 1966 was my favorite season as an Orioles fan

Photo Illustration: Joy R. Absalon

It was a sunny afternoon in early October, the kind that connects the fading of summer with the emergence of fall and its bold colors. I was about to make a bold prediction, with my dad as a witness. We had stopped at a diner after going to the grocery store, and I was seated on a stool next to a man who loved to talk baseball. The year was 1966, and the Orioles were about to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series — the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, the Dodgers no one thought could lose.

No one except, perhaps, those blinded by the light of their loyalty. Baseball was an equalizer for me when it came to talking with adults. I studied it more closely than I did my subjects in school. And that year I bonded with the Orioles because of the trade that changed the perception and direction of the team — Milt Pappas for Frank Robinson. Until then, I loved the game more than the Orioles. I appreciated the power and athleticism of Mickey Mantle; the grace and dominance of Bob Gibson; the elegance and brilliance of Koufax. I was drawn more to the stars, and one was coming to Baltimore.

I remember Frank’s first at-bat in spring training when he ripped a double, a sign of things to come. He had a powerful upper body and forearms that were almost disproportionate to his thin legs. He was one of the National League’s most feared hitters, but the Cincinnati Reds considered him an “old” 30 when they traded him for Pappas. He was the missing piece to a team that had another great Robinson, Brooks, and a lot of talent but needed the leadership and confidence that Frank brought.

He turned the trade into motivation, leading the Orioles to 97 wins while capturing the Triple Crown with a .316 batting average, 49 home runs and 122 RBIs. He was the American League’s Most Valuable Player; a superstar who hit a home run on the pitch that followed one that had knocked him down; had fallen into the right field stands at Yankee Stadium to prevent an 11th-inning home run and preserve a 6-5 victory; and intimidated middle infielders with his hard slides into second base. He added to his legend by becoming the only player to ever hit a home run completely out of Memorial Stadium.

Now, it was the eve of the World Series, and I was sitting in a diner, talking about the World Series with the man next to me. There was nothing I didn’t think Frank, Brooks, Boog and their strong supporting cast couldn’t do. The man sitting next to me, who was also an Orioles fan, thought more analytically. He started with Koufax, who won 27 games that season and struck out 317. Then there was Drysdale and third starter Claude Osteen, not to mention a pedigree the Orioles lacked; the Dodgers were one of baseball’s best franchises and defending champions.

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I told the man the Orioles would win. And then, for some reason, I added: they would win in four straight. We made a gentlemen’s bet — I would buy him a coffee, and he would buy me a hot chocolate.

I was a sophomore at Milford Mill High School, and I ran home after the final bell on Wednesday, October 5th, arriving just in time to see Frank and Brooks hit back-to-back home runs off Drysdale in the top of the first inning. The Dodgers scored a couple to chase Dave McNally, but Moe Drabowsky struck out 11 in 6 2/3 innings in a 5-2 Game 1 victory. So far, so good.

However, it was Koufax against 20-year-old Jim Palmer on Thursday, a matchup that highly favored the Dodgers and had me scrambling to stay connected because of an untimely dentist appointment. I remember sitting in the dentist’s chair when Dodgers center fielder Willie Davis made three errors in the same inning, undermining Koufax, who lost, 6-0. I don’t recall what the dentist did that day, but there was no pain.

On Saturday, the Series shifted from Los Angeles to Baltimore, but the momentum didn’t change. Wally Bunker, bothered by a sore arm throughout the season, pitched a second consecutive shutout, Paul Blair hit a home run, and the Orioles won, 1-0. I couldn’t wait until Sunday’s game.

Except my dad said we were going to his mom’s for Sunday afternoon dinner, a family tradition competing with possible history. It reminded me of the game in which Frank took a Luis Tiant pitch out of Memorial Stadium, which I was fortunate to hear on the radio while sneaking away from a family cookout. Sunday demanded similar evasive action, because I wasn’t going to miss Game 4. And I didn’t, getting permission to stay tuned to the game instead of joining the family for the meal.

It was a rematch of McNally vs. Drysdale, and both pitchers atoned for their first start. The separation was a fourth-inning home run by Frank that led to a second straight 1-0 triumph and a third straight shutout. The iconic image is of Brooks jumping to a height he never imagined as McNally and catcher Andy Etchebarren rush toward him in celebration.

The celebration at grandmom’s house was more subdued, but I was bursting with joy, and a little pride. The Sun headline on Monday said, “Would You Believe It? Four Straight!”

It was a turning point for the Orioles and Dodgers. Baltimore was baseball’s best team in 1969, ’70 and ’71, winning more than 100 games and reaching the World Series all three seasons. It won in 1970 and again in 1983, its last title. Etchebarren became a footnote in history. He was the last player Koufax faced before retiring after the 1966 season because of an arthritic elbow. It took years for the Dodgers to recover.

It took me until the following Friday to collect on my bet. The hot chocolate tasted sweet. It was a lucky bet on my part, one made with my heart instead of my head. But that childlike belief led to a joy that has never been recaptured by another team. I have Frank Robinson to thank for that, and the 1966 Baltimore Orioles.

Editor’s Note: Sometimes it’s helpful to revisit the past, especially when it reminds us that the Orioles were once the best team in baseball. Today is the second of three personal essays related to the championship teams of 1966, 1970 and 1983, the franchise’s last title. There might be another season that inspires you to write about the Orioles’ glory days.

Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] and [email protected] for consideration.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Dean Jones

    May 19, 2018 at 8:08 am

    Jack, I love this story. I’m forever envious that my Dad grew up in that era, too. He was 9 in 1966, but saw all the glory years. My greatest baseball memories so far were being in middle school with the 1996-1997 teams playing well and then, of course, serving as Orioles editor at The Sun during the march to the ALCS in 2014. I really thought they might finally make a World Series in my lifetime while I was planning coverage. But it wasn’t to be. I hope my boys will get to see some glory years growing up, too. Looking forward already to your next entry. Keep ’em coming!

  2. Jack Gibbons

    May 19, 2018 at 9:43 am

    Thanks, Dean. Your words of encouragement mean a lot. I remember in 1996 there was talk of starting to rebuild an underperforming and aging team, but owner Peter Angelos vetoed it. The Orioles brought back Eddie Murray, traded for Todd Zeile and Pete Incaviglia and powered their way to the playoffs before Jeffrey Maier interfered with their progress. In 1997, they led wire-to-wire, but were eliminated by the Indians. And then the drought began.

  3. TxBirdFan

    May 19, 2018 at 9:50 am

    Thanks for the memories Jack! I was 10 yrs old in 1966 and remember these times well and continue to be an Orioles fan as a result. I’ve taught my kids to favor the Orioles, but they were raised during this long drought and I fear they may turn against me some day. The O’s could do their part by turning into winners ….. some day. Thanks again.

    • Jack Gibbons

      May 19, 2018 at 10:04 am

      Fans who stick with their team through the ups and downs are to be admired, if not necessarily rewarded. It’s like the bittersweet taste of watching Manny Machado’s performance while thinking it’s his last season as an Oriole. Have to enjoy it while it lasts. Always appreciate the kind words, and the memories the Orioles produced when I was a kid.

  4. Orial

    May 19, 2018 at 11:28 am

    Great and well written story. When does your first book come out? 1966 was a special year for me too. In Feb of 66 my family moved from NJ to Towson,my father being transferred from his NY office to Baltimore. As a serious baseball fan at 15(fell in love with the original Mets) I couldn’t wait to check out my new environs. Frank Robinson was just acquired and the Orioles switched back to their more colorful orange and black uniforms with a cartoonrd cap(O’s had basic black trim a la the Giants for a couple if prior years). After constant urging Mom drove me down Loch Raven Blvd to check out Memorial Stadium for first time. We got there,parked and walked around a bit. Opening day was near so I figured the players may be inside. To my utter amazement we stumbled upon a small group with microphones and cameras in the parking lot outside of third base talking to two Orioles in full uniform. We stopped,looked.and I bashfully said hi and waved. The two players looked at me,smiled,and waved.

  5. Orial

    May 19, 2018 at 11:31 am

    Jack those two,players were Brooks and Frank. The Robinson boys. No lie. I fell in love with the team and have been,ever since. Btw,to my chagrin, I’m back in NJ.

    • Jack Gibbons

      May 19, 2018 at 11:48 am

      Orial, Thank you for your kindness and encouragement. That is a great memory, and story. Yesterday was Brooks’ 81st birthday, and Manny Machado expressed his love for Brooks at the end of his postgame interview, a classy acknowledgement. It made me think how gracious Brooks was when Frank joined the team. There didn’t appear to be any jealously, only an immediate bond. I think that was a key to the team’s chemistry in 1966. How cool it must have been for you to say hello to the Robinson brothers before the first game. Thanks for sharing that moment.

  6. Mau

    May 19, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    Thanks for that 1966 recap. I was about to turn 2 years old when they won that fabled World Series. My Dad and a man named Bob Tarter took me to Senators games in the 60’s. Then Short conned everybody and moved them to Arlington, TX. My Dad and I became O’s fans shortly before that and never wavered. I claim to be an O’s fan since 1970 although I still carry a little bit of Frank Howard and the boys in my heart also.

  7. Jack Gibbons

    May 19, 2018 at 3:03 pm

    Mau, I remember when Tom Cheney struck out 21 Orioles in a 16-inning, 2-1 victory for the Senators. I also remember 6-foot-7 Frank Howard, who didn’t quite make Boog Powell look small, but smaller. Thanks for sharing your memories.

    • Mau

      May 20, 2018 at 9:18 am

      Pretty sure I was in the stadium when Frank hit one out of the stadium and smashed someone’s windshield. Too late to ask my Dad or Bob. Both passed on many years ago.

      • Jack Gibbons

        May 20, 2018 at 9:38 am

        It was a moment I was glad I heard when it happened. There was so much I pictured based on the description, and astonishment, on the radio. The Sun’s wonderful Mike Klingman provided a fuller picture years later, https://bsun.md/1rz4yPK

  8. OsFanStuckInNY

    May 20, 2018 at 9:30 am

    I watched that amazing catch on TV, when Frank fell into the stands. (Take THAT, Jeffrey Maier!), and I was in the left field bleachers for that doubleheader when Frank walloped that out-of-the Park homer off Tiant — yes, THOSE were the days!

    Pick up an old copy of “Birds on the Wing” by Gordon Beard — one of the best baseball books, about that season.

    • Jack Gibbons

      May 20, 2018 at 9:44 am

      I think Roy White hit the ball that Frank caught as he fell into the right-field stands. You’re among the fortunate few who witnessed Frank’s blast in person. Gordon Beard was a friend, and a master of one-liners. He brought joy to the press box for years while working for the Associated Press.

  9. OsFanStuckInNY

    May 20, 2018 at 9:34 am

    And my favorite trivia question: Who was the last player to get a hit off Sandy Koufax?
    Davey Johnson
    Especially when he managed the Mets, and I could add: and he currently wears a Ny Mets uniform.

  10. Jack Gibbons

    May 20, 2018 at 9:53 am

    Johnson and Frank Robinson each hit .286 in that Series, topped only by Boog Powell’s .357, which included getting robbed of a home run by Willie Davis. The Orioles batted .200, and the Dodgers hit .142, not scoring a run after the third inning of Game 1. Johnson was an outstanding second baseman and hitter, and a manager the Orioles shouldn’t have lost.

  11. Grand Strand Bird Fan

    May 20, 2018 at 8:58 pm

    Enjoyable story about the first WS champion Orioles. I remember Moe Drabowsky’s game one relief performance. Three straight shutouts – one of the most dominating WS performances by any pitching staff in history.

    I still have my 66 Orioles yearbook with one of coolest covers ever. Frank, Brooks, Boog, and Curt Blefary holding their bats. Great memories.

    • Dan Connolly

      May 21, 2018 at 9:44 am

      I know it is obvious when you do the math, but the most amazing part about that is the number of pitchers the Orioles used in that four game series: four. Drabowsky was the only reliever. And McNally started two games. The Dodgers used four different pitchers in Game 1. These days, it’s not that unusual for four pitchers to be used in a half inning. And the Orioles used four in an entire World Series. Incredible.

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