Pitching, Defense, and the Three-Run Home Run

Since 1920, 450 Major League pitchers have started at least 100 games and pitched at least 1600 innings.  Of those 450, 14 have a career ERA less than three.  The 14 represent an interesting assortment of names and stories.  The old standbys, the inner-circle Hall of Famers, are well represented:  Bob Gibson (career ERA of 2.91), Tom Seaver (2.86), Sandy Koufax (2.76), Juan Marichal (2.89) and Whitey Ford (with a 2.75 ERA, the lowest of anyone on the list) stand out, like they always do.  Another baseball god – Carl Hubbell (2.98) – represents the twenties and thirties and his inclusion in the club reinforces his mastery, for he did it in an offensive era and in a league when Hack Wilson, Mel Ott, Chuck Klein and a host of other NL sluggers were tattooing balls with a ferocity that hadn’t been since the middle 1890’s.  Like Hubbell, Pedro Martinez (2.86) has compiled an ERA below three for his career, and like that master of the screwball, Pedro shines a little brighter for this achievement; for he has accomplished this in an age where batters have swung their lumber with a decided advantage in the ever-oscillating struggle for balance between pitcher and hitter.  There are a couple of forgotten names on this list, too.  Mort Cooper (2.97) and Harry Brecheen (2.92) pitched primarily in the 1940’s and their magnificent (if short) careers seem to have been shelved in the back corners where little light ever reaches.  Three others on the list seem to be better remembered for another element of their baseball lives:  Don Drysdale  (2.95) pitched in the shadow of his teammate Sandy Koufax, and was branded by his exceptional and record-breaking run of 582/3 consecutive scoreless innings in 1968; when we think of Andy Messersmith (2.86), the first moment that bows to the audience occurred in 1975 when he challenged the reserve clause, played the season without a contract, and effectively made himself a free agent; Dean Chance (2.92) won the Cy Young  Award in 1964 when he was 23 (if not for Chance, perhaps Sandy Koufax would have won the award in four straight seasons), never reached those heights again, and never looked in on the target once he received the sign from the catcher.  The 13th member seems forgotten for another reason:  Mel Stottlemyre (2.97) had the misfortune of pitching for the Yankees during their only real World Series drought between 1921 and 1982 (although Mel did pitch in the 1964 World Series, beat Bob Gibson and the Cardinals  in Game 2 and then lost to same in Game 7).  Despite the team’s pedestrian (for them) .510 winning percentage over his 11 seasons, Stottlemyre  won at least 20 games on three separate occasions and of course, finished with an ERA below three. 

The final member of this group pitched for the Baltimore Orioles for 19 seasons.  Over the course of those 19 years in the black, orange, and white, the right-hander accumulated 268 wins (with eight 20-win seasons), won three Cy Young Awards, hurled 53 shutouts, never allowed a grand slam*, and hung ’em up with a career 2.86 ERA:  the same as Pedro (as of today), Messersmith and Seaver.  Jim Palmer connected three eras of Baltimore baseball and holds the distinction of being the only player to appear in every Orioles World Series.  In 1966, a 20-year-old Palmer – wearing gray flannels and a hat adorned with the head and face of a smiling Oriole with its own cap – faced off against Sandy Koufax (in his final season in the Majors) in Game 2 of the Fall Classic and beat the Dodgers 6-0 with a four-hit shutout.  17 years later, the uniform had changed:  from the traditional flannels to the double-knits, from a cap in black with an orange brim to a pinwheel-like black and white shell with orange brim.  But the bird was still there, and so was Palmer.  The same fluid delivery with the same high leg kick, the same concentration, the same savvy.  And if the stuff had slowed and had become less packed with voltage, the results still saw a “W’ next to Palmer’s name in an October box score.  In Game 3 of the 1983 World Series, Jim Palmer pitched two shutout innings in relief and walked away with his fourth (and final) World Series victory; in doing so, he became the only pitcher in the history of the Fall Classic to win a game in three different decades.

Jim Palmer represents an era of Orioles baseball that has grown in significance and esteem with each passing year.  He represents one third of a mantra that became synonymous with “The Oriole Way”:  pitching, defense, and three-run home run.  He offers a link between Mr. Oriole (Brooks Robinson) and The Iron Man (Cal Ripken, Jr.).  He played with a Rookie of the Year in 1965 (Curt Blefary) and another in 1977 (Eddie Murray).  He won a World Series with three different managers:  Hank Bauer in 1966, Earl Weaver (his foil) in 1970, and Joe Altobelli in 1983.  Palmer pitched alongside nine other 20-game winners, four different 30-home run hitters, three MVP’s, and seven different Gold Glove winners (and also won four straight Gold Gloves himself).  Pitching, defense, and the three-run homer.

From 1966-1983, the Baltimore Orioles adhered to a dominating philosophy that provided a secure foundation and pushed the club toward a remarkable consistency on the ballfield.  In those 18 years, they won 1668 games and posted a .588 winning percentage – both tops in the Majors during that span.  They won three World Series, six pennants, and finished first in their division (or league) eight times.  They accomplished most of this under the leadership of Earl Weaver – the diminutive, fiery, brilliant manager who acted as the master architect and choreographer in a  grand display of baseball ballet.  Pitching, defense, and the three-run home run:  the essential qualities – practiced, refined, elevated – that harvested wonderful and compelling successes and brought a litany of resonant ballplayers to the center of the stage.  

Sometimes, certain teams leap out from their era and the game to claim their own unique acreage in the baseball kingdom.  Almost seven decades before Palmer and the rest of the Orioles began their ascension, another Baltimore club captured pennants and acclaim for their unique brand of baseball.  The 1890’s Baltimore Orioles of the National League – led by brilliant baseball men such as John McGraw, Ned Hanlon, Wee Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, Hughie Jennings, and Wilbert Robinson – fought, scrapped, cheated, and innovated their way to the top of the league.  They redefined, reinterpreted and remodeled baseball in a captivating manner and still serve as symbols of all that was good and bad in the game in the final decade of the 19th century.  Four decades later, the Gashouse Gang and their cast of characters – Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, Ripper Collins, Ducky Medwick – colored Depression-Era baseball with an outlook and feistiness that, in retrospect, seems perfectly tailored to the conditions and sensibilities of a country grappling with financial devastation and a bleak outlook for improvement.  The Baltimore Orioles from 1966-1983 own a platform in this terrain.  Through a compendium of alterations in the game, through a trio of field generals, through their reliance on and dedication to a fundamental and ingrained philosophy, they won.  The cast of characters on the field changed now and then, but smooth transitions – fostered by the guiding precepts – enabled  the club to maintain their supremacy  .  When Boog Powell drifted off, Eddie Murray soon rose up and made first base his own.  After Mark Belanger retired  with eight Gold Gloves, Cal Ripken, Jr. emerged and helped revolutionize the shortstop position.  When Paul Blair could no longer roam centerfield with his poetry and grace, Al Bumbry wrote his own storylines in the outfield at Me
morial Stadium.  The two Robinsons – Frank and Brooks – although irreplaceable, were succeeded by a host of players like Ken Singleton, Bobby Grich and Doug DeCinces who could bring their own invaluable talents to the club.  From Cueller and Dobson and McNally to Martinez and Flanagan and McGregor, the pitching staffs changed faces and arsenals but maintained a degree of balance and aptitude rarely seen in the history of the game.  And through it all, Jim Palmer took in a sign, reared back on his right leg, kicked his left leg out high, and delivered pitch after pitch after pitch after pitch.

Most franchises can point to their club Hall of Fames, statues outside the ballparks, or retired numbers on or beyond outfield walls to showcase the best and most celebrated performers who wore their colors.  Ballplayers are elevated for numerous reasons:  the statistics serve as the foundation and underlie the other elements that lend vibrancy to the overall picture.  Often, these special ballplayers become synonymous with the franchise itself.  Ernie Banks and the Cubs.  George Brett and the Royals.  Tony Gwynn and the Padres.  Craig Biggio and the Astros.  Robin Yount and the Brewers.  The uniform and the player mesh characteristics and memories and create a bouillabaisse of images that speak to the fanbase in deeply personal phrases.  More than the replica pennants on a façade or banners waving in the wind, the players frame a franchise – they author the moments and memories and create the imprints.  Jim Palmer pitched 3948 innings for the Baltimore Orioles.  In addition to being one of the 14 starters since 1920 to own a career ERA less than 3.00, he stands at or near the top of virtually every important pitching category in club history.  He is more than just a brilliant pitcher who stills stands as one the greatest of his generation; he represents a team and an ideal of baseball – an ideal centered in Baltimore and summarized by the beautiful refrain, pitching, defense, and the three-run home run.

* In his career, Palmer pitched to 213 batters with the bases loaded.  In those situations, he held the opposition to a .196/.230/.234/.464 line, with a mere six extra-base hits, and of course, no home runs.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.

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