The first ever ALCS, played in 1969, pitted the Baltimore Orioles against the Minnesota Twins. The 1969 Orioles were an insanely talented team. They won 109 games during the regular season and outscored their opponents by 262 runs. Few teams in modern baseball history have had better years than that.
The Twins weren’t nearly as good. They were no slouches, though. The Twins tallied 97 regular season wins, outscoring the opposition by 172 runs. The latter total exceeded the combined run differentials of the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves, the two National League division winners.
Game One of the ALCS, played in Baltimore, matched Jim Perry of the Twins, with a record of 20-8, against Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar, 23-11. Cuellar would be named the American League’s co-Cy Young Award winner (along with Denny McLain).
The game turned out to be a post season classic, a relatively low scoring affair, in which home runs produced nearly all of the runs but in which bunting was decisive.
Frank Robinson launched the first homer, a solo shot in the fourth inning that hit the left field foul pole. The Twins got that run back immediately via a double by Tony Oliva and a sacrifice fly by Bob Allison.
The Orioles immediately regained the lead on a solo home run by Mark Belanger in the bottom of the fifth. Asked after the game what he does to pitchers who groove ones with two out to the number eight hitter in the lineup, Twins manager Billy Martin joked, “we usually shoot them.” To be fair to Perry, though, Belanger hadn’t hit a home run since April (off of McLain).
Oliva hit the next big fly, a blast to right-center in the seventh inning that brought home Harmon Killebrew, who had walked. That put the Twins up 3-2.
Perry took that lead into the bottom of the ninth. However, Boog Powell, leading off for Baltimore, hit a towering home run to right-center. This was the third home run of the game against Perry. All year, he had allowed only 18 in 261 innings.
That was it for Perry. Martin called on veteran reliever Ron Perranoski, a recurring figure in our “this day in baseball history” series, starting with the under-the-radar deal in 1960 in which the Chicago Cubs sent him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for whom he would excel.
The Orioles promptly went to work against Perranoski. Brooks Robinson, greeted him with a hit that left fielder Ted Uhlaender, a defensive replacement, played into a double. Pinch hitter Curt Motton lifted a shallow fly ball behind first base. Rod Carew dropped it for an error, but Robinson had to wait to see if the ball was caught. Thus, he was unable to advance.
With runners on first and second and no one out, Davey Johnson popped out. Belanger hit a groundball that forced Motton at second. Robinson took third on the play.
With Merv Rettenmund pinch hitting, Baltimore skipper Earl Weaver tried to pull a double steal. Johnson broke for second hoping to be caught in a rundown that would enable Robinson to score from third. But Perranoski sniffed this out. He threw home, catcher George Mitterwald threw to third, and Robinson, who was trying to get a jump on stealing home, was a dead duck.
Extra innings began as a pitching duel between relievers Perranoski and Eddie Watt, a squat fireballer whose 1.65 ERA in 1969 was not, for him, much of an outlier. Both pitchers breezed through the tenth inning and Watt set down the Twins 1-2-3 in the eleventh.
Baltimore threatened in the bottom of that inning. With one out, Powell and Brooks Robinson singled, with Powell stopping at second base. Weaver sent up Chico Salmon to bat for Watt. Perranoski retired him on a sharp liner to right field. Johnson ended the threat by grounding out.
Marcelino Lopez was Weaver’s choice to replace Watt. Lopez had struggled in 1969, but Weaver thought the southpaw was a good matchup for Oliva, Uhlaender, and Rich Reese, all left-handed batters.
But first, Lopez had to face Killebrew, whom he walked. Lopez did get Oliva, but Uhlaender followed with a single that sent Killebrew to second.
When Lopez threw a wild pitch that moved the runners up a base each, Weaver had seen enough. He ordered Lopez to walk Reese and then he brought in right-hander Dick Hall, a Swarthmore grad. The soft tossing 6 foot 6 inch Hall was 39 years old and had been pitching in the big leagues since 1955. Although a member of the Orioles’ championship 1966 team, this was Hall’s first post-season appearance.
With Leo Cardenas up, Martin called for the safety squeeze. But Cardenas committed too soon and Hall threw him an eye-high pitch. Cardenas fouled it off. He then struck out. Johnny Roseboro flied out to end the inning.
Baltimore won the game in the bottom of the twelfth. Belanger led off with a single off of Killebrew’s glove. It was ruled a hit, but a better third baseman than Harmon probably would have handled it.
Andy Etchebarren sacrificed Belanger to second. A Don Buford ground out sent Belanger to third with two out.
That left things up to Paul Blair. The ace center fielder was mired in a terrible batting slump. He decided on his own to bunt with two out.
The bunt was perfect. Belanger, alert to the possibility, got a great jump and scored easily. There was no play at first. As Billy Martin said after the game, “there’s no way to beat a perfect bunt.”
Thus, a battle of home runs was decided in the end by bunts — the one Blair laid down and the one Cardenas did not.
Game Two was another extra inning classic. Dave McNally and Dave Boswell matched scoreless innings until the bottom of the eleventh, with McNally giving up only three hits.
Boswell walked Powell to begin the bottom of the eleventh. Brooks Robinson bunted him to second base.
The Twins issued an intentional walk to Johnson. Belanger popped out.
Martin wanted a left-hander to pitch to lefty Elrod Hendricks, so he called on Perranoski, who had pitched three and two-thirds innings the day before. Weaver countered with right-handed hitting Curt Motton, who was having a great season as a pinch hitter and spot player, the only one he would ever enjoy.
Motton ended the game with an opposite field single. Baltimore now led the best of five series two games to none.
Game Three, played on this day in baseball history, was anti-climatic. The Orioles won it 11-2 behind Jim Palmer. Blair was the hitting star. He went 5-6 with five RBIs and a home run.
The Mets had won their series with the Braves earlier in the day, so the World Series was set. It would be the powerhouse Orioles against the Miracle Mets.