Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 13 – The Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles, at their best, have always been a franchise of blue-collar guys who earn their money. Never a town of glitz and glamor, it is also a town, though, that has produced its share of characters.
John Waters, perhaps the strangest American film-maker of all time, hails from Baltimore. Edgar Allen Poe also called Baltimore home while penning some of the most memorable horror tales ever told.
Babe Ruth, of course, was also born and raised in Baltimore, where he got his socio-economic start working in his father’s saloon.
It is hard to imagine Ruth ever having become a star playing in Baltimore. Boston was a better place for him to ply his trade while his personality and huge appetite for life evolved into gargantuan proportions until only New York could (barely) contain him.
Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, though, the Orioles were the American League’s version of Baseball Team as Foundry, producing from a rock-solid work ethic amidst the rough, industrial backdrop that was Baltimore, a series of competitive teams that seemingly always challenged for a title.
In most regards, 1976 was a typical Baltimore Orioles season. They finished in second place in the competitive A.L. East to the New York Yankees with a solid 88-74 record. Their defense was, as always, outstanding. Jim Palmer was their ace. Brooks Robinson, though clearly near the end of his career, was mentoring a young Doug DeCinces at third base.
Meanwhile, their assembly line lineup included no-nonsense types such as Lee May, Ken Singleton, Paul Blair, Bobby Grich, and… Reggie Jackson.
Did he say Reggie Jackson?
Yes, that Reggie Jackson.
Virtually all of you will remember Reggie as Mr. October while playing for the Yankees in the late ’70’s, or, if you go back a little further, as the cocky young black man on a team composed primarily of strange, mustachioed white guys. In his last years, he was still piling up Hall of Fame numbers, mostly as a DH for the Angels.
But for one season, 1976, Reggie Jackson was a working-class stiff plying his trade in Mr. Weaver’s factory better known as Memorial Stadium.
1976 was Reggie Jackson’s, of the Orioles, Best Forgotten Season.
At first glance, his statistics that season do not look necessarily all that impressive. Certainly, he had a couple of better seasons in Oakland, and would surpass all expectations in his Yankee years. But Reggie Jackson was a key cog in the ’76 Orioles swing-shift.
Reggie hit 27 home runs, which, although not an eye-popping number these days, was good for second place in the A.L. in 1976. He also drove in 91 runs, despite missing about 25 games with injuries.
His .277 batting average was fairly typical for him, but he led the league in slugging percentage at .502. His .853 OPS ranked third in the league, and his OPS+ of 155 was the best in the A.L.
Atypically for Reggie, he was also a heady, successful base-stealer that year, swiping 28 bases in just 35 attempts. His Power-Speed Rating, as defined by Baseball-Reference.com, was 27.5, again the best in the league.
Reggie also finished in the top ten in WAR, RBI’s and Extra Base Hits, again, despite missing nearly a month due to injury.
Interestingly, although he played in 15 All Star Games in his career, he did not make the A.L. All Star Team in ’76, quite possibly one reason why he was anxious to leave Baltimore for New York City’s Broadway atmosphere.
Finally, Reggie even led A.L. right fielders in Range Factor at 2.29.
Still, despite all that productivity, he only finished 16th in A.L. MVP voting in ’76.
Worst of all, there was no Reggie Bar, no loudly cheering fans for whom to doff a cap, and no glamorous night-life to speak of. Reggie paid his union dues, punched his time card, cleaned out his locker, and said his goodbyes to a city that, like Babe Ruth before him, just could not contain his personality indefinitely.
After the previous season, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who had played for one season without having signed a contract with their respective teams, filed suit before a three-man committee protesting Baseball’s infamous Reserve Clause, a rule which bound a player to his team for as long as that team demanded his services.
In a historic decision, the panel, voted, 2-1 to overturn the Reserve Clause, thereby creating the forerunner of baseball’s current free-agent system.
The Yankees signed free agent Reggie Jackson for a salary in excess of three million dollars.
In 1977, minus Reggie Jackson, the Orioles would improve their record to 97-64, but would again finish in second place to the New York Yankees, Reggie Jackson’s New York Yankees.
Reggie Jackson would become a very wealthy, famous man due to his success in New York City.
But in 1976 at least, Reggie Jackson labored in a working class American city called Baltimore.