Sports Outside the Beltway

1970 – it was a very good year …

In Baltimore.
For sports fans.

Thirty seven years later – also 23 years since the Colts left and 22 since the Orioles ceased their run of 19 winning consecutive winning season – it’s hard to remember that there was time like this, but the Baltimore Sun’s Mike Klingaman does.

The Orioles (108-54) won their division by 15 games, then took four of five from the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Three months later, the Colts answered by defeating the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl.

On their heels came the Bullets, the city’s basketball entry, who reached the NBA Finals before losing to the Milwaukee Bucks.

“That was a magical year, though people didn’t realize it,” said Sam Havrilak, then a Colts running back. “It wasn’t such a big deal until [years later] when the media built it up.”

In 1970 Baltimore, the stars were all aligned. The Orioles had Jim Palmer, Boog Powell and Robinson; the Colts had John Unitas, John Mackey and Ted Hendricks. Even the Bullets seemed destined for success behind Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson.

I was a 10 year old, who had moved to Baltimore 2 years earlier. It was a great time to be a sports fan in Baltimore. (My children came of sports fan age during hte 90′s when their grandfather’s team, the Yankees were dominant and their father’s team stunk. Guess who they root for.)

But there was a cloud attached to that silver lining.

Yet the Orioles struggled at the turnstiles. Crowds averaged 13,000 during the season, and even the final game of the Series at Memorial Stadium fell far short of a sellout.

Players still are irked by that.

“We were a damn good team, and we knew it,” said Powell, the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1970. “We were disappointed that there weren’t more people in the ballpark.

“When we got so far in front during the season, people said, ‘We know you’re not going to lose [the pennant], so we’ll save our money for the World Series.’

“But, deep down, you knew Baltimore at that time was just not a baseball town.”

It wasn’t just that Baltimore was a football, WBAL, the one time flagship station of the Orioles saw baseball games as nothing more than programming. It wasn’t until WFBR took over the broadcasts in 1979 that rooting for the Orioles became fashionable.

The reason for this discussion, is that,with the Patriots going strong, Boston may again (repeating 2004) be a city of champions. But what the article reminded me of was a cartoon that the Sun (possibly the Evening Sun) reprinted from a New York paper at that time. (It might have been the Daily News, but I’m uncertain.) It depicted a number of individuals discussing Baltimore’s sports dominance at the time. The punchline was something like “But they don’t have a hockey team.” (Well Baltimore had a hockey team, the Clippers, but they were part of the now-defunct AHL, not the NHL.) Maybe Bill Ordine or someone around the Sun could dig up that cartoon, and republish it, if the paper has the rights to it.

One other thing I remember is that given how good the Oriole were for the first 15 years we lived in Baltimore, I never really developed a sense that it was possible that the team could deteriorate or ever be bad. I was in my mid-20′s when that realization hit. 19 years is a long run of success. To the best of my knowledge it is the second longest streak or winning seasons in North American sports history. (First place belongs to the Yankees.) But it’s long over now and the question is whether or how long it will be before the Orioles get it back.

(One final irony: we moved to Baltimore from Springfield Massachusetts. When I learned we’d be moving I wondered if I’d still be allowed to root for the Red Sox. The Orioles success from 1969 and on made that question moot very quickly.)

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.

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