In Boston these days, they’re holding their breath to see if their professional sports teams can accomplish a miracle trifecta. In Baltimore half a century ago, we almost got there. Boston reminds us now how precious and irretrievable such a moment can be.
Am I the only one who remembers?
In Boston, the ice hockey Bruins are hoping to knock off the St. Louis Blues in the next few days for a Stanley Cup title. They’ve already got baseball’s reigning champion Red Sox and football’s reigning champion Patriots.
If the Bruins win, Boston would become only the second city ever to hold three major sports titles at once. Detroit, back in 1936, was the first.
Am I the only one who remembers half a century ago with the Orioles and the Colts and the Bullets?
Each won division titles, but each flew too close to the sun and suffered burning defeat.
Those 1969 Orioles won 109 games and pulverized all American League opponents. They had Brooks and Boog and Frank Robinson all at the top of their marvelous careers. Paul Blair hit 26 homers and, inexplicably, even Mark Belanger hit .287 that year.
They had Mike Cuellar winning 23 games and Dave McNally 20. Jim Palmer went 16 and 4 and Tom Phoebus was 14 and 7.
And everybody knew they were going to crush the New York Mets in the World Series.
Then there were the Baltimore Bullets. You can have your Toronto Raptors and your Golden State Warriors. For sheer talent and raw theatrical excitement, was there ever a more entertaining team than those Bullets?
That was Wes Unseld’s rookie year. He was voted the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and its Most Valuable Player, as well. He joined a Bullets team that finished last the previous year and then, astonishingly, went all the way to a division championship.
They had Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, who averaged 26 points a game. The deadpan Unseld later said the flamboyant Monroe, with his whirling dervish moves, was the only player Unseld would actually pay money to see play.
There was Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson. He didn’t exactly break the law of gravity, but he sure seemed to bend it. And there were sharp-shooters Kevin Loughery and Jack Marin.
They were the Eastern Division champion Bullets who headed for the playoffs in the spring of 1969 against the New York Knicks.
How about that, sports fans? A baseball pennant winner, a basketball division winner…
And then we had the Baltimore Colts. All they did was enter the Jan. 12, 1969, Super Bowl with a league-leading 13-and-1 record. (In fact, the year before, they went 11-1-2. You know what that means? It means that, in two back-to-back years, those Colts lost a total of two games.)
No wonder, as they took that Super Bowl field, they were 17-point favorites to win their third world championship.
John Unitas had been injured all year, but Earl Morrall had a fabulous year quarterbacking the club. (In fact, some were calling it Baltimore’s Year of the Earl: Morrall in football, Monroe in basketball, and a first full-year manager named Earl Weaver in baseball.)
And there, but for fortune, there might have been a third world championship in a year for Baltimore.
But for the Mets pulling off the miracle win over the Orioles in the ’69 World Series. And the Bullets, minus the injured Gus Johnson in the playoffs, losing to the Knicks. And the Colts, in Super Bowl III, losing preposterously to the New York Jets.
But let’s not talk too much about that. Those losses still hurt, since it’s only been half a century.
At least Baltimore found quick consolation: A year later, the Orioles defeated Cincinnati to win the 1970 World Series. Two years after Super Bowl III, the Colts defeated Dallas to win the NFL title. And, in 1971, the Bullets made it all the way to the NBA finals before losing.
As for Boston, they’re rooting for their Bruins. They should enjoy the moment, win or lose. Around here, it’s been such a long half-century, some of us still can’t believe we came so close.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.