Fifty years ago, baseball was more entertaining than it is now, in my opinion. Walks, strikeouts, and home runs may (or may not) be baseball’s only “true outcomes,” but they are less fun to watch than fielding gems, triples, and the hit-and-run.
Unfortunately, the analytics revolution has made the hit-and-run nearly extinct. And its emphasis on strikeouts and home runs means fewer balls in play, and thus less excitement on the bases and in the field.
Yet, as entertaining as baseball was fifty years ago, games were not that well attended — not nearly as well attended as they are today. Consider the four-game series (Monday-Thursday) between the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland A’s, played in Oakland beginning on April 26, 1971.
These were hands down the best two teams in the American League, and arguably in baseball. The Orioles were the defending world champions. During the previous two seasons, they had won a combined 217 regular season games. As the April series with the A’s began, they once again were in first place in the American League East.
The A’s were just coming into their own. In 1971, they would win the first of five consecutive American West titles, in between which would be sandwiched three consecutive world championships. They entered the series against the Orioles with a 14-6 record, best in the American League.
Nonetheless, the combined attendance for the four games was only 20,000. In 2019, only six teams averaged less than that number per game. (Oakland’s season attendance in 1971 was only 915,000; Baltimore’s was 1,023,000.)
A lot of people missed a lot of good baseball in that Orioles-A’s series of April 1971.
The first game, which drew 7,000, featured pitching sensation Vida Blue. His opposite number was Pat Dobson who would win 20 games in 1971.
Blue bested Dobson 1-0. He limited the Orioles to four hits and struck out 11. In addition, Blue’s bunt single was a key to the run Oakland scored in the sixth inning off of Dobson.
The Orioles won the second game, 6-2. This was a close contest until the Orioles scored three runs in the top of the eighth inning against the A’s star reliever, Bob Locker. A Davey Johnson double was the key hit, along with a timely sacrifice bunt by Baltimore’s pitcher Dave McNally, his third successful sacrifice of the game.
McNally went the distance to pick up the victory.
The third game, which was played on this day in baseball history, was the most glamorous pitching matchup of the series. Mike Cuellar, on his way to a second consecutive 20 win season, was on the mound for the Orioles. The A’s countered with Jim “Catfish” Hunter who would win 20 for the first of five consecutive years in 1971.
Glamorous though the pitching matchup was, the two teams combined for seven runs through the first five innings, with Baltimore taking a 4-3 lead. However, three of the four Oriole runs were unearned, the result of errors by shortstop Campy Campanaris and catcher Dave Duncan.
The A’s tied the game in the seventh, chasing Cuellar in the process. A single by Sal Bando brought home Joe Rudi and ended Cuellar’s night. Grant Jackson, who died earlier this year, replaced the Cuban lefty.
The score remained tied going into the bottom of the ninth. By this time, Dick Hall was pitching for the Orioles.
Campanaris led off with a single. Rudi bunted him to second base. Earl Weaver elected to walk Reggie Jackson intentionally.
That brought Tommy Davis, the outstanding hitter and former two-time National League batting champion, to the plate. He delivered a walk-off hit.
Hunter withstood his team’s defensive lapses and finished with a complete game victory. He allowed only six hits and one earned run.
The series finale featured two Hall of Fame pitchers, Jim Palmer and Rollie Fingers. But Fingers was still early in his career. Fans didn’t yet realize how good he would become.
Still, one might have hoped that the attendance for this game would exceed 3,300. It did, but only by 20 people.
This was another tight game, and the most dramatic of the four. The Orioles jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning. A Boog Powell home run plated Paul Blair, who had reached on yet another error by Campanaris — his tenth of the young season.
The A’s promptly tied the game in the second inning on a two-run homer by Duncan.
Fingers and Palmer then conducted a masterclass in pitching. Fingers arguably was the more impressive of the two. He pitched a complete game in which he allowed just six hits and fanned ten. Palmer also pitched a complete game, giving up eight hits and striking out six.
It was the Orioles, though, who scored the only run allowed by either pitcher after the second inning. It came in the eighth inning on a home run by Don Buford and won the game for Baltimore, 3-2.
Thus, the series ended in a 2-2 split. At the end of the four games, both teams must have felt they would meet again in October for the American League pennant. They did.