Whenever the discussion gets around to baseball records, those that have stood the test of time, not the flavor-of-the-inning kind now spit out by computers on a daily basis, the talk inevitably centers around individual, rather than team, accomplishments.
And the conversation almost always concludes with the flat declaration of “the one that will never be broken.” In my lifetime, three of those “unbreakable” records (Babe Ruth’s career, 714, and single-season, 60, home run marks and Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive game streak) have gone by the board. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak has been mildly challenged a couple of times and though unlikely, it’s not inconceivable it could also fall, though you’re not likely to see posted odds on the Orioles’ pregame show anytime soon.
Cy Young’s records for career wins (511) and losses (315) were long ago determined to be unreachable and therefore not eligible for discussion.
All of which, of course, leads me to the subject of this essay — and a guarantee of a record “that will never be broken.” Rather than individual, it is a team record — and based on the way baseball is now played, the rules would almost have to be changed for it to even be challenged.
Sept. 26, 2021, is the 50th anniversary of the Orioles establishing the all-time record by having a fourth starting pitcher record 20 wins in a single season. That’s the day Jim Palmer, on his 37th and last start of the season, under some intense peer pressure to become the last member of the club, pitched a three-hit shutout to beat the Cleveland Indians, 5-0, to join Dave McNally, Pat Dobson and Mike Cuellar in the exclusive 20-win fraternity.
In doing so, the Orioles became only the second team in history to have four pitchers record at least 20 wins in a season, joining the 1920 Chicago White Sox. However, there is a technicality, maybe an asterisk, involved. One of the Sox pitchers, Dickey Kerr, recorded three of his 21 wins as a relief pitcher, a role he filled in 18 of his 45 total appearances that year.
The record of four 20-game winners lasted for 51 years before it was matched by the Orioles. Given the fact that there haven’t been four 20-game winners in either the American or National Leagues in 18 years, I think it’s safe to say the record of four starters on the same team doing it will last longer than the lifetime of anyone reading this, which is as close to “ever” as we can get.
But a half century ago, the feat was not only possible, but actually predictable, which is exactly what O’s pitching coach George Bamberger did. Fortified by the fact that Cuellar (23) and McNally (20) had reached that threshold in 1969, and that Palmer (16) was knocking on the door, Bamberger had correctly predicted there would be three 20-game winners in the world championship year of 1970 — and then doubled-down in 1971, when Pat Dobson joined the staff.
“George was the man,” Palmer said of the legendary pitching coach, who wasn’t above using a little subterfuge as motivation. “He was always preaching to us about complete games. He kept saying he wanted us to get 50 complete games. We asked him why 50 and he said he had a clause in his contract that he’d get a $5,000 bonus if we had 50 complete games. Of course, as we found out, there was no such clause.”
In reality, Bamberger figured complete games translated into wins, which prompted him to declare before the season started, “I think we’ll have four [20-game winners]” this year.
He was right, but it wasn’t easy.
McNally missed a month of the season and made only 30 starts that year, putting his personal streak in jeopardy. But the left-hander, who had a 15-game winning streak in the ’69 season, won 13 in a row along the way and was the first of the quartet to reach 20, a 5-0 shutout against the Yankees Sept. 21.
Cuellar and Dobson won both ends of a doubleheader against Cleveland Sept. 24 to reach 20 wins on the same day. It was the 37th start of the season for both, though there was an option for both to make another start in the final week if necessary. (Cuellar did, in fact, start again Sept. 28.)
That wasn’t the case for Palmer, whose last start came four days before the season would end and offered no safety net. Strangely enough, only three AL teams played the full complement of 162 games that season — with the Orioles and Washington Senators playing only 158, meaning each member of the four-man rotation had missed a start somewhere along the line because of rainouts. The games didn’t affect the standings and weren’t rescheduled.
Palmer remembers his final start as being “intense.” His mound opponent that day was Alan Foster and the game was scoreless until the top of the seventh. Palmer, who had reached base twice before on errors by third baseman Graig Nettles and center fielder Vada Pinson (“should have been 3-for-3”), opened that inning with a double and scored the first run on a sacrifice fly by Mark Belanger. Not exactly what you’d expect from that powerful lineup, but a two-run single by Brooks Robinson finished off a 5-0 win in Cleveland.
“A special day that ended well,” is how Palmer describes it today.
Looking back on the rare feat today brings back many memories for Palmer, who went on to win 20 games eight times in a Hall of Fame career.
“[McNally] was relentless, such a warrior,” Palmer said about the left-hander who had four straight 20-win seasons and ranks second to Palmer in career wins with the Orioles.
“I don’t think anybody really understood just how great Mike [Cuellar] was, he was just so consistent. When Dobber came along we knew we were getting a good pitcher and figured he’d fit right in — which he did. He was coming into a perfect situation with a great team with excellent defense, a pitching coach who could get the best out of you and a manager who was saying you were better than everybody in the bullpen so don’t be looking down there for help.”
As the season progressed, especially after McNally came off the injury list and immediately went on a roll, and Bamberger’s prediction became a definite possibility, there was the obvious, and natural, competition among the four starters.
With the division race long ago secured, the Orioles relied on competition from within and Weaver rode the regular lineup for an 11-game winning streak to end the season and finish with 101 wins. It was in the midst of that drive that Palmer took the mound Sept. 26 fifty years ago and pitched the three-hit shutout that put the 1971 pitching staff in the record book.
Now, one century and one year later, the comparisons between the pitching staff of the 1920 White Sox and 1971 Orioles are extremely interesting and in some cases surprisingly similar — especially under today’s conditions.
For the record, the White Sox used 10 pitchers the entire 1920 season, while the Orioles used 13, only nine of whom were around for the entire season. Most teams now use that many in a good weekend or a bad day, which is a more accurate sign of the times. There is a great similarity in the number of starts between the two staffs, and both had a propensity to finish what they started, which is perhaps the best reason the 1971 O’s staff won’t be matched in anybody’s lifetime.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles