If a pitcher wins 20 games today they’re automatically a favorite to win the Cy Young Award. They’re the ace of their staff, too. But what if your team has four 20-game winners? That happened with the Baltimore Orioles in 1971, and it’s not likely to ever occur again.
The Baltimore Orioles were the defending World Champions in 1971, so it wasn’t like they didn’t have a target on their feathered backs. But it didn’t stop them – they won 101 games – making it three consecutive seasons over the century mark. The secret to that success was no secret at all – the Orioles won with great pitching and defense. The pitching began with the talented foursome of starting pitchers Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, and Pat Dobson.
McNally, Cuellar, and Palmer were elite pitchers, each had finished in the top five in Cy Young voting in 1970 when they all won 20 games. Dobson was in his first season with the O’s, but he’d soon prove to be a valuable asset, especially after an injury felled one of the big three.
In April, McNally (the opening day starter) and Palmer got off to great starts, each posting a 4-0 record with an ERA under 2.65 for manager Earl Weaver. Yet, in an era before the designated hitter, scoring was still down in baseball and the Orioles were only 12-8 and in a five-way scrum for the division lead with the Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, and New York Yankees. McNally was a workhorse in that opening month, tossing complete games in each of his five starts, including a loss at New York.
In May, the Orioles pushed themselves ahead of the pack on the strength of a 15-11 record. Cuellar was 6-1 with a 2.62 ERA and five complete games, and Palmer was stellar again, with a 1.92 ERA in his seven outings. When McNally beat the White Sox in the second game of a doubleheader on may 31 he joined Palmer and Cuellar with seven wins.
A nine-game winning streak in early June gave Baltimore control of the AL East, with the four starters winning eight of the games. McNally was back on his game in June, going 5-0 with a 2.91 ERA, but curveball specialist Cuellar was also dominant, firing a 2.48 ERA in seven starts and going a perfect 4-0 for the month. Dobson matched McNally for top victory honors for the month, winning five against one defeat. Heading into July, McNally was 12-4, Cuellar was 11-1, Palmer was 10-3, and Dobson – the #4 starter – was 7-4 with six complete games.
In July, the workload caught up with McNally, a 28-year old lefty coming off consecutive seasons of 40 starts for the Orioles. After tossing a complete game to win his 13th game on July 6th against the Senators, McNally’s arm barked. He would miss the next five weeks with a sore shoulder. In his absence, Dobson stepped up. But first there was the matter of the All-Star Game. At the break, Weaver (the skipper of the AL squad) had a 13-game winner in McNally, Cuellar with a glimmering 13-1 mark, Palmer at 11-3 and among league leaders in K’s and ERA, and Dobson was 10-4. Since McNally was injured, he was not an option, but Cuellar and Palmer earned spots on the All-Star team. But with Oakland’s Vida Blue having a season for the ages (the 21-year old lefty was 17-3 with a 1.42 ERA at the break), neither Oriole pitcher was given the duty of starting the midsummer classic. But Weaver used his own pitchers in the game: Palmer and Cuellar each hurled two shutout innings in relief as the AL won an exciting game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
With McNally unavailable, Weaver essentially used a three-man rotation for a few weeks, utilizing the All-Star break and other off days to use Dobson more often. The right-hander started the final game before the All-Star break and was back on the mound for the first game back three days later, winning each contest. Four days later he won again, and four days after that he won once more. That pattern continued as Dobson went 8-0 in July with a 1.13 ERA while pitching every inning of every one of his starts. He blanked his opponents three times that month and leapfrogged his staffmates to earn his 15th victory on July 31 against the Royals in a shutout performance. It was a good thing Dobson pitched so well in July, because Palmer and Cuellar struggled through their most difficult stretches.
In 2011, Palmer, who rates as one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, talked to the Philadelphia Inquirer about the ’71 season. “We were all different,” Palmer said of that Orioles staff. “Dobson was a free spirit who changed speeds with the best of them. He could get you out two or three different ways. He was fun-loving.”
Dave McNally returned on August 13 and Weaver babied him, allowing him to throw just six innings in a win over the White Sox at Comiskey Park. Showing his grit, McNally would go 3-0 in his return, and when the O’s swept the Chisox at home two weeks later, Baltimore’s lead was a hefty 12 1/2 games. They would never have to worry about the pennant race again. In August, Palmer righted himself, as the lanky 25-year old went 4-1 in his seven starts with a 2.45 ERA. But it was McNally’s return that really helped the four starters coagulate.
“[McNally] was a tenacious guy and really stubborn,” Palmer remembered, “he won 20 games four times. When I was injured I would sit in the stands and watch him, and I learned how to pitch.”
At the conclusion of August the record of the Orioles’ four starters looked like this:
With 33 games left on their schedule, there was plenty of time for each of the starters to reach the 20-win mark. 20-game winners were not a novelty for the Orioles, they had produced at least one since 1968 and would have at least one 20-game winner through 1980. With Weaver, a large part of “The Oriole Way” was strong starting pitching.
When Palmer beat the Senators on September 4 all four pitchers had 17 wins. When Dobson defeated the Yankees in New York on September 20, he had 19 wins, as did Cuellar and McNally. Palmer was a game back with 18 victories. The next evening McNally threw a five-hit shutout against the Yanks and the Orioles clinched their third straight division title in his 20th win of the ’71 season. Palmer tried to match him the next night, winning in a 6-hit complete game for his 19th win as Bobby Grich and Boog Powell hit home runs in a 10-1 win in The Bronx. After a day off, the Orioles started a four-game set in Cleveland against the Indians with a doubleheader. In the opener, Cuellar joined McNally in the 20-win group, going the distance and allowing just two earned runs. The oldest of the four at age 34, Cuellar was a wily veteran.
“Cuellar had a screwball, which wasn’t used all that much in the major leagues at the time. But I was surprised how hard he threw it. He was a Crazy Horse, and that was what we called him. People forget how good Mike Cuellar was.”
Dobson won his 20th that night in the second game of the doubleheader, topping Cuellar’s outing by firing a shutout. It was one of the high points of Dobson’s nomadic career.
“He was a free spirit who changed speeds with the best of them,” Palmer told The Inquirer, “he could get you out two or three different ways. He was fun-loving.”
As if to make a statement, two days later on Sunday afternoon in the finale of the series in Cleveland, Palmer pitched the most dominant game of his season. He shutout the Tribe on three hits, allowing just five baserunners, and throwing just 101 pitches in a complete game for his 20th victory. The Orioles had their fourth 20-game winner in six days.
The last team to have four 20-game winners had been the 1920 White Sox, with Red Faber, Lefty Williams, Dickie Kerr, and Eddie Cicotte. No team since the 1971 O’s has even had as many as four pitchers win 18 games in a single season. With the four-man rotation and complete games going the way of the fax machine, it’s highly unlikely that any team will ever have four 20-game winners in the same season.
Palmer, 68 years old now, is the lone surviving member of the quartet. McNally passed away in 2002, Dobson in 2006, and Cuellar in 2010. For Palmer, being part of that rotation is one of his proudest team accomplishments.
“The way [the 1971 Orioles] went about it was that I didn’t want them to fail,” Palmer said of his pitching mates. “I wanted them to succeed. That is what winning teams are all about. I just wanted to do better than them. Not by them failing.”