BALTIMORE (AP) — Mike Cuellar, a crafty left-hander from Cuba whose darting screwball made him a World Series champion and Cy Young winner with the Baltimore Orioles, died Friday. He was 72.
The Orioles confirmed Cuellar's death, but did not release other details.
Cuellar made his major league debut in 1959 and bounced around Cincinnati, St. Louis and Houston for almost a decade before a trade brought him to Baltimore. Wearing the black-and-orange bird logo, he blossomed on one of the most imposing pitching staffs in baseball history — in 1971, he was among the Orioles' four 20-game winners.
A four-time All-Star, Cuellar was 185-130 overall with a 3.14 ERA. He was voted into the Orioles' Hall of Fame.
"He sure was an ace," Hall of Fame teammate Brooks Robinson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday night. "He had a way of making good hitters look bad, making them take funny swings."
Cuellar joined the Orioles for the 1969 season and that year became the first Baltimore pitcher to win the AL Cy Young Award, sharing the honor with Detroit's Denny McLain. Cuellar went 23-11 with five shutouts, including a game in which he held Minnesota hitless until Cesar Tovar's soft, leadoff single in the ninth inning.
Cuellar helped pitch Baltimore to three straight World Series from 1969-71. He finished off that run by teaming with Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson to become the only staff other than the 1920 Chicago White Sox with a quartet of 20-game winners.
Though often overshadowed in the rotation by Palmer, a future Hall of Famer, and McNally, another great lefty, Cuellar pitched more than his share of big games.
"I think when he got to Baltimore, he wanted to be like those other guys," Robinson said. "He wanted to win as many games as Palmer and McNally. He wanted the ball."
Cuellar started the first AL championship series game ever, in 1969 against Minnesota. He then outdueled Tom Seaver in Game 1 of the World Series — it was the Orioles' only win while getting upset by the New York Mets.
Cuellar won a career-high 24 games in 1970 and again excelled in the postseason, this time with his arm and bat. A career .115 hitter, Cuellar highlighted Game 1 of the ALCS with a grand slam.
He then closed out the World Series by beating Cincinnati in Game 5 at old Memorial Stadium. After giving up three runs in the first inning, he shut out the Reds on two hits the rest of the way. Cuellar raised both arms after the final out and skipped toward third base for an embrace with Robinson — the picture is among the most popular in Orioles lore.
"I can still see it, his arms up in the air," Robinson said.
Cuellar pitched a gem in his final World Series appearance, but lost Game 7 in 1971 to Pittsburgh 2-1.
Cuellar finished up 143-88 with the Orioles and ended his career in 1977 with the Angels.
Robinson said he first saw Cuellar while playing against him in Cuba in the winter leagues.
"He and I were the same age. I used to kid him all the time that he'd already been pitching in Cuba for five years. That used to get him going," Robinson said.
Cuellar had been living in Orlando, in recent times and last year was a volunteer pitching instructor for the Orioles at spring training.
Last May, he returned to Baltimore for an Orioles reunion weekend and threw out the first ball at Camden Yards before a game against the New York Yankees. His ceremonial duties done, he then sat in the stands with family members and friends in the back row of the lower deck, enjoying the evening and hardly recognized by nearby fans.
"He was a humble man," Robinson said. "He didn't brag about himself."