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35 years later, O's still swept up in joy
Save for Cal Ripken's emotional farewell tour, the recently completed Orioles season was definitely a year to forget for hometown fans. But 35 years ago, it was truly a festive time in Baltimore.
The youthful 1966 Orioles had just breezed to their first American League pennant by a nine-game margin, but were World Series underdogs to a veteran Los Angeles Dodgers team that boasted baseball's finest 1-2 pitching punch in Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
And they were pointedly reminded of this supposed mismatch on their ride to Dodger Stadium for the opening game. The bus route carried them past a bank that flashed the message: "Would you believe four straight by the Dodgers?"
Five days later, a Baltimore Sun headline blared: "Would You Believe It? Four Straight!" Incredibly, the Orioles, who boasted only three players with previous Series experience - shortstop Luis Aparicio, reliever Stu Miller and MVP Frank Robinson - had not only completed a four-game sweep, but also held the Dodgers scoreless for 33 consecutive innings and to a microscopic .142 team batting average.
The first shock waves hit Los Angeles in the first inning of the opening game, when Frank and Brooks Robinson torched Drysdale for consecutive home runs and a quick 3-0 lead. Dave McNally struggled with a high mound and allowed five walks in less than three innings. Moe Drabowsky then set the tone for the rest of the Series by setting a record with 11 strikeouts, including six straight, to preserve a 5-2 victory.
But the Dodgers remained supremely confident. After all, they were entrusting the pivotal second game to Koufax, the game's most dominant pitcher over the previous decade. After joining Drysdale in a spring holdout alliance that included threats to tour Japan and appear together in a movie, he was rewarded with the then-unmatched salary of $135,000.
The 30-year-old left-hander might have sensed this would be his final year. Frustrated by persistent tendinitis, he had made a private pact with Dodgers team physician Robert Kerlan, asking the doctor to advise him if he ran the risk of permanent damage by continuing to pitch.
Kerlan tried pressuring Koufax into quitting before the start of the 1966 season, but Koufax persevered. He won his third Cy Young Award by finishing 27-9 and recording 317 strikeouts, 27 complete games and a 1.73 ERA. Pitching on only two days' rest, he beat Philadelphia to clinch the National League pennant.
"No question, he was the best pitcher I ever saw," said Orioles center fielder Paul Blair, now the baseball coach at Coppin State. Growing up in Los Angeles, Blair had often watched in awe when Koufax took the mound. "He could throw close to 100 mph and still pinpoint the fastball. Plus, he had the best curveball in baseball."
As Koufax's opponent, manager Hank Bauer chose lanky right-hander Jim Palmer, who was still nine days shy of his 21st birthday, neither old enough to vote nor hold the mortgage on the three-bedroom house he had purchased in Baltimore for his bride, Susie.
Palmer, who had led the Orioles' staff with 15 victories in his second major-league season while battling arm problems, faced an awesome assignment. On the eve of his Series debut, he said: "It may take a shutout to win. Koufax gives up a run, occasionally. He's human. When he first broke in with the Dodgers, he'd either strike out or walk 18. I'd say he's progressed a bit since then."
Brooks Robinson remembers the two pitchers posing for the cameras: "I thought Palmer would be a little nervous. Here's Koufax, a legend, standing next to some fuzzy-cheeked kid. But Palmer was also blessed with a great arm. He came close to Koufax in throwing hard."
Despite his youth, Palmer always carried an air of confidence - not cocky, but keenly aware of his natural talent. He had been tutored by some of the best teachers in the business.
George Bamberger, who would later serve as the Orioles' pitching coach, helped Palmer develop control in his only minor-league season in Single-A.
Recalled Palmer: "Bambi would have me stand on the mound practicing my windup without a ball until I got it right."
His rookie year in 1965, Palmer had the good fortune of rooming with former Philadelphia Phillies great Robin Roberts, then finishing his Hall of Fame career in Baltimore.
"I must have driven Robin crazy picking his brain that year," Palmer said. "I was 19, half his age. He'd tell me, `Kid, you've got the arm. Just rock back and let it go. Now, let me get some sleep.' "
Palmer himself slept soundly in Los Angeles before facing Koufax, eating his customary breakfast of pancakes. He had gained confidence by watching the way Drabowsky had stymied the likes of Tommy Davis, Wes Parker, Lou Johnson, Jim Lefebvre and Junior Gilliam in the opener on a steady diet of fastballs.
"That was my game plan," he said. "I was going to rely on my best pitch until they proved otherwise. Late in the regular season, because of all the innings I pitched [208 1/3 ], I was experiencing some soreness and taking cortisone shots. Basically, against the Dodgers, I wanted to get the ball over and not embarrass myself."
Palmer hardly embarrassed himself in limiting the National League champions to four hits and becoming the youngest in World Series history to pitch a shutout.
Oddly, his biggest ally proved to be Dodgers center fielder Willie Davis, who dropped two fly balls battling the sun at Chavez Ravine, and also overthrew a base, leading to three unearned Orioles runs. In fact, only one of their six runs off Koufax was earned, as his team committed six errors behind him.
Blair had little sympathy for his outfield counterpart.
"I always tried to prepare for anything I might face in the outfield," he said. "Every inning, I checked the sun to make sure I could follow a ball hit my way.
"You know, later in his career, Palmer had a habit of moving his outfielders around to compensate for the way he was pitching a hitter. He was very headstrong. But I never moved, and I guess it worked out OK considering he wound up winning 268 games."
Palmer may have stunned Dodgers supporters by out-pitching Koufax, but Boog Powell, the Orioles' mountainous first baseman, was not surprised.
"Jim always had tremendous poise," said Powell, between signing autographs at his Camden Yards barbecue stand. "He was a great self-believer from the time he first stepped on the mound. And he was a quick learner. He'd watch how Dave McNally changed speeds on his fastball, and, pretty soon, he was doing the same thing.
"But, you know, Palmer got too much credit for beating Koufax," Powell said with a laugh. "Hey, I got two hits off Sandy on curveballs. I listened to the scouting report that said if Koufax throws a fastball that starts around your knees, don't swing, 'cause it will wind up around your ears."
The Orioles would return home to complete the improbable sweep as Wally Bunker and McNally followed Palmer's example in shutting out the Dodgers and setting off a wild celebration.
"We partied all winter," Powell said.
"It was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me," said Brooks Robinson, now an executive with Crown Petroleum. "I'd come to Baltimore in the mid-'50s, when the team was real bad. When you finally win your first Series, you wonder if you'll ever do it again."
As things developed, Koufax would never have another chance. Shortly after the '66 Series, he hired a hall in Beverly Hills to make an announcement and said soberly: "I've had it. I don't want to wind up with an arm I won't be able to use for the rest of my life."
Though Palmer would spend the next two years battling arm problems of his own before re-establishing himself in the majors in 1969, besting Koufax was the seminal event in his brilliant career.
When a writer recently kidded him about forcing Koufax's premature retirement, Palmer smiled and said: "I know I had nothing to do with it. He was just going through too much pain to continue.
"Truthfully, we never even discuss it when we happen to meet at Hall of Fame events. All we do is talk about our golf games. But sweeping the Dodgers in 1966 was almost surreal. I guess I was just too young to appreciate the enormity of it."