1969 Baltimore Orioles
109 – 53 (0.673)
While the 1927 and 1961 Yankees dominated with powerful sluggers crushing home runs and the opposition with equal abandon, the 1969 Orioles represented the pinnacle of Baltimore’s defense-oriented and pitching-rich baseball tradition. Although endowed with a strong lineup built around powerful years from Frank Robinson and Boog Powell, this team won 109 games on the strength of a dominant pitching staff and an airtight defense that featured four Gold Glove winners and made the fewest errors in the majors.
In Earl Weaver‘s first full season as manager, the Orioles began a three-year run that saw them win 318 games and reach three consecutive World Series without losing a single League Championship Series game. They were a smart, veteran team that rarely made mistakes and took pride in playing fundamentally sound baseball. Heavily favored in the World Series, they won Game One against the Miracle Mets but then dropped four in a row, falling in one of the biggest upsets in Series history.
Like all Weaver’s Oriole teams, this one eschewed the bunt and “little ball” in favor of three-run homers and big innings. The Orioles weren’t the most powerful team in the league that year, but they featured a balanced lineup lacking any major weakness. Don Buford batted .291 and drew 96 walks in the leadoff spot, while the gifted and graceful centerfielder Paul Blair slammed 26 home runs and stole 20 bases in the finest offensive season of his career.
The middle of the lineup did the heavy damage, as Powell and Robinson combined to hit 69 home runs with 221 runs batted in. Perennial Gold Glover Brooks Robinson had a sub-par season at the plate, but still managed 23 homers. Although they didn’t lead the league in any major offensive category, the Orioles’ 175 homers were third in the AL and their 779 runs placed them just eleven behind the league-leading (and AL West champion) Minnesota Twins. The team had seemingly little use for a bench; with the exception of catcher Elrod Hendricks, every starter had over 500 at bats.
Backed by their sterling defense, Baltimore’s pitchers allowed 84 fewer runs than any other team in the American League and topped the major leagues with a team ERA of 2.83. Leading the way was lefthander Mike Cuellar, whose 23 wins and 2.38 ERA would tie him with Detroit’s Denny McLain for Cy Young honors. Dave McNally won 20 games for the second of four straight seasons, while Tom Phoebus chipped in with 14 victories. Rounding out the rotation, 23-year-old Jim Palmer racked up 16 wins while leading the league in winning percentage, pitched a no-hitter against Oakland on August 13th, and finished second in ERA, shutouts, and fewest hits per nine innings. Opposing teams found no relief when Weaver pulled a starter, as relievers Eddie Watt and Dick Hall both went 5-2 with ERAs below 2.00.
The 1969 Orioles owned as good a combination of pitching and defense as baseball has ever seen. Since the start of divisional play in the American League, only the 1972 Orioles and 1972 Athletics have posted lower team ERAs than the 2.83 posted by the Orioles’ staff. Leading the major leagues in both ERA and fielding percentage, the Orioles allowed just 517 runs, or less than 3.2 a game — the lowest amongst our contenders since the dead-ball ended in 1920. But as with so many of baseball’s great teams, the Orioles couldn’t pass the final hurdle. After sweeping Minnesota in the ALCS, they fell to the “Miracle Mets” in a surprisingly quick five-game World Series.