A few days after Ken Singleton arrived for his first Orioles spring training in 1975, manager Earl Weaver called him into his office and told him that was going to lead off.
In 1973 for the Expos, Singleton had 23 home runs and 103 RBIs, but Weaver also knew that Singleton led the National League with a .425 on-base percentage, which put Weaver ahead of his time for appreciating that statistic.
“On-base percentage was not thought of like it is today,’’ Singleton says. “I led the league on on-base percentage, but it wasn’t a negotiating point (for a contract). Earl knew what it meant.’‘
Weaver wanted Singleton and Bobby Grich to bat at the top of the order. On a cold opening day in Detroit, Singleton led off with a walk, went to third on a hit and scored the Orioles’ first run of the season when Lee May hit a home run.
In the dugout, Weaver told Singleton, “See, that’s what I meant. You need to get on base.’‘
And Singleton did. He walked 118 times, an Orioles single-season record, while Grich had 107 free passes. Singleton finished his first season in Baltimore with a .300 average, .415 on-base percentage and 15 home runs.
That season defined Singleton’s style of hitting. He was a switch-hitter with discipline, walks and power, an early version of Frank Thomas, the new Hall of Famer. Singleton understood that strikes are hard enough to hit, so there was no reason to swing at pitches out of the zone.
Singleton, 67, a Yankees analyst for the YES Network, played 10 seasons with the Orioles, hitting .284 with a .388 on-base percentage and 182 home runs. He had three seasons of at least 100 walks and another three of 90-plus.
In six of those seasons, he got MVP votes, finishing third in 1977 and second in 1979. He was a three-time All-Star.
Teammate Paul Blair warned Singleton that Weaver could be a loud and gruff. Singleton learned that first-hand.
While 1975 was good, the next season wasn’t so much. Singleton started slow and, after averaging .143 the first month and .217 the next, an angry Weaver called him into his office and asked what was wrong.
“I don’t know,’’ Singleton said.
“You sick?’’ Weaver asked.
Singleton answered no.
“You tired?’’ Weaver said.
“No,’’ Singleton said.
“Well, I’m sick and tired of you not hitting,’’ Weaver told Singleton.
Singleton got rolling after that. His monthly averages never dipped below .300 the rest of the way and he wound up leading the Orioles with a .330 on-base percentage.
“It was a hard climb, one of my toughest seasons,’’ Singleton says.
Singleton’s best power season was 1979 when he hit .295 with 35 home runs and 111 RBI. His best hitting season was 1977 when he had an on-base percentage of .438.
In 1977, Singleton finished third in the American League MVP voting behind Minnesota’s Rod Carew and Kansas City’s Al Cowens. That was the year Carew had a chance at .400 and finished at .388 with 23 steals and a .449 on-base percentage.
In 1979, Singleton finished second in the AL MVP voting to the California Angels’ Don Baylor, who hit .296 with 36 home runs, 139 RBIs and 22 stolen bases.
The Orioles won the AL East with 102 victories. They won nine of 12 against the Angels and beat them for the American League Championship Series. They lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series after taking a 3-1 lead.
“It was disappointing,’’ Singleton says. “We got overconfident. In ‘83, when we got up 3-1 (versus Philadelphia), nobody said a word.’‘
Singleton was drafted in 1967 by the New York Mets, who traded him to the Expos. In December 1974, the Expos traded Singleton to Baltimore in a deal that included pitcher Dave McNally and outfielder Rich Coggins going to Montreal. The Singleton trade came a day after the Orioles had acquired Lee May from Houston.
Singleton later learned that the Expos had a choice between Coggins and Al Bumbry, but chose Coggins because he was younger. That was good for Singleton, who became best friends with Bumbry as Orioles.
The roster for the 1979 and 1983 World Series were many of the same players, and Singleton said he developed a lifetime bond with the Orioles players.
A couple of times, Singleton had a chance to leave Baltimore via free agency, but each time, he decided to stay. He still lives in Baltimore.
“They were great days,’’ Singleton says. “We always said, ‘It was great to be young and an Oriole.’ Now it is great to be older and have those memories.’‘