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All You Need to Know About Bill Buckner

June 2, 2019

Hugh Atkins

I was saddened to see the news of the passing of Bill Buckner on Memorial Day. Buckner played 22 seasons of Major League Baseball, beginning with one at-bat at the end of the season in 1969 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and ending in 1990 with his second tour of duty with the Boston Red Sox. Along the way Buckner also made stops with the Chicago Cubs, California Angels, and Kansas City Royals.

Buckner was not a slugger, but he was a good, steady hitter. His biggest season for home runs was 1986 when he hit 18 for the Red Sox; he finished his career with 174. Buckner drove in more than 100 runs three times, and he won a batting title, hitting .324 with the Cubs in 1980. Contact was Buckner’s game. He never struck out more than 39 times in a season and never walked more than 40.

© T.C.G.

Buckner was a part-time player for the Dodgers in 1970 and ‘71 but became a regular during the 1972 season. He hit .319 that year, .275 in 1973, and .314 in 1974, helping the Dodgers to the World Series. Buckner makes a cameo appearance in baseball history hanging atop the left-field fence in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as home run number 715 by Henry Aaron sailed into the Braves’ bullpen.

Buckner’s career took a turn for the worse in April of 1975. He hung his spikes on the second-base bag on a steal attempt and shredded his right ankle. Buckner was out of action for almost a month, came back and hobbled through the rest of the season, and finished the year with a .243 batting average. From that point on, Buckner was known for his limp and his high-top cleats.

Buckner bounced back and hit .301 in 1976, but the Dodgers traded him to the Cubs during the offseason for Rick Monday. Buckner had seven good years for the Cubs but was off to a slow start in 1984 when they traded him to the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley.

Buckner’s first two seasons in Boston were the most productive of his career. In 1985, he hit .299 with 16 home runs and 110 RBIs. The following season, Buckner’s average dropped to .267, but he hit 18 homers and drove in 102 runs. He played in his second World Series that fall, but the team fell one game short, losing to the New York Mets.

The Red Sox traded Buckner to the Angels midway through the 1987 season. He hit .306 for his new team and finished the year with a .286 average with five homes and 74 RBIs. It would be Buckner’s last decent year.

© 2001 FLEER/SKYBOX

The Angels sent Buckner to the Royals during the 1988 season, and by 1990 he was back in Boston for an encore with the Red Sox.

I’m not sure how Buckner’s career stacks up using today’s modern metrics. Since he hit mostly line drives, his launch angle probably wasn’t much to write home about, and his highest WAR (wins above replacement) was 3.7 in 1982. His WAR for 1986, the year he helped the Red Sox make it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, was -0.3–that’s negative 0.3. How can that be? That makes it look as if the Red Sox would have been better off with Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, playing first base for them.

Bill Buckner was a joy to watch. He wrapped up his career with a .289 batting average and 2,715 hits. And at 69 years old, he died way too young.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com.)

The Life of Riley

May 19, 2019

Hugh Atkins

This past Wednesday Austin Riley became the latest Atlanta Braves player to hit a home run in his first game in the Major Leagues. On his second trip to the plate, Riley homered off right-hander Michael Wacha of the St. Louis Cardinals in the bottom of the fourth inning. With that long ball, at the ripe old age of 22 Riley joined a not-so-exclusive club of Braves who hit home runs in their first game.

I could not find a list of Braves who hit home runs in their first game, but I seemed to remember quite a few, so I checked retrosheet.org for verification.

© T.C.G.

Bob Horner is the first Braves player I remember hitting a home run in his first game. Horner never played in the Minor Leagues; he came to the Braves straight from Arizona State University, joined the Braves on June 16, 1978, and hit a home run in his third at-bat off Bert Blyleven of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Horner hit 23 home runs that season and was the National League Rookie of the Year.

On May 17, 1993, Jermaine Dye hit a home run in his first big-league at-bat off Marcus Moore of the Cincinnati Reds. Dye hit 12 homers that season and looked as if he had a promising career ahead of him, yet the Braves traded him to the Kanas City Royals where he became one of the most feared hitters in the American League before retiring after the 2009 season with 325 career homers.

On July 7, 2005, Jeff Francoeur hit a home run in his second at-bat, a three-run shot off Glendon Rush of the Chicago Cubs. Francoeur had a couple of good seasons but began to struggle with consistency, and by 2009 he began to bounce around both leagues, changing teams with regularity. He was out of baseball at the age of 32 after the 2016 season.

On Opening Day of the 2009 season, Jordan Schafer hit a home run in his first at-bat, and it was pretty much downhill for him for the rest of his career. He bounced around for parts of six seasons with three different teams and wrapped up his career in 2015 at the age of 28 with 12 career home runs and a .228 batting average.

© T.C.G.

On Opening Day 2010, Jason Heyward hit a home run in his first at-bat against the Chicago Cubs. He had a good rookie season, hitting .277 with 18 homers and 72 runs batted in. Heyward slipped to .227 with just 14 home runs in 2011 but seemed to be on the upswing the following season when he hit 27 homers. Heyward followed with two unremarkable seasons, and the Braves traded him to the Cardinals where he had one lackluster season. For some reason, the Cubs then gave Heyward an eight-year contract worth $184 million.

Evan Gattis got sidetracked on the way to his first Big League game; he was 26 years old when he arrived in Atlanta in 2013. Gattis hit a home run in his second at-bat off Roy Halladay of the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite playing only part time that season, Gattis hit 21 homers and followed that with 22 in 2014. The Braves traded him to the Houston Astros, where in four seasons he hit 96 home runs and was on a World Series Championship team in 2017. For some reason, Gattis is without a team this season; I hope one picks him up soon.

I’m fairly certain there have been other Braves who homered in their first game, but these are the only ones I remember.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com; all game details are from retrosheet.org.)

[Home Runs]

May 5, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Last month, Lane Thomas of the St. Louis Cardinals joined an exclusive group of Major League Baseball players by hitting a home run in his first big league at-bat. Since 1900, fifty-one American League players have hit home runs in their first plate appearance, and Thomas became the 67th National Leaguer to do it.

Two members of the Hall of Fame – Earl Averill and Hoyt Wilhelm – christened their careers with home runs. Wilhelm, a pitcher, homered on April 4, 1952, and then played 21 years without ever hitting another one.

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Bob Nieman of the St. Louis Browns in 1951 and Keith McDonald of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000 are the only two players to hit home runs in their first two big league at-bats.

At the other end of the spectrum, since 1900, fifty-three players have hit a home run in the final at-bat of their careers. Most baseball fans know that Ted Williams put an exclamation point on the end of his career by slamming his 521st round tripper. Williams and Mickey Cochrane are the only two members of the Hall of Fame to wrap up their playing days with home runs.

Remarkably, one player managed to hit a homer in his first big league at-bat and also homer in the final at-bat of his career. On September 11, 1966 John Miller of the New York Yankees made his Major League debut and homered in his first at-bat. Four years later, Miller was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers when he hit a home run in what ended up being his last hurrah. Making Miller’s accomplishment even more remarkable is the fact that he hit only two home runs in his entire career.

“I don’t remember that, but I’m sure it happened,” Miller said of his feat.

Miller appeared in six games with 23 at-bats for the Yankees in 1966. In addition to his home run, Miller managed only a single in his other at-bats to finish the year with a batting average of .087. In the spring of 1967, the Yankees traded Miller to the Dodgers, and he spent the next two seasons in the minor leagues. Miller made it back to the big leagues in 1969, and on September 23 of that year hit his second career home run in what turned out to be his final at-bat. The final numbers for his career were two home runs, three RBI’s, and a .164 average.

© T.C.G.

“I was in the on-deck circle in the last game of the season, but the guy in front of me made an out,” Miller said. According to the box score from that game, Miller was to pinch hit for pitcher Jim Brewer in the bottom of the 11th inning against lefty Ron Bryant of the San Francisco Giants. But when the Giants brought in righty Don McMahon, the Dodgers countered with lefty-swinging Len Gabrielson as a pinch hitter for Miller.

An unexpected circumstance during the off-season sealed the deal for Miller’s odd achievement.

“I had a falling out with the general manager, Al Campanis, and during the winter, they were going to send my contract back to Spokane, which was their Triple-A club, or I had an opportunity to go to Japan,” Miller said. “At that point, I wasn’t making a lot of money, so I took the opportunity to go to Japan.”

John Miller’s unique accomplishment just might stand forever. Every time a player completes his first at-bat without a home run, the record survives. And most players are not thinking about retirement in the midst of a home run trot.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com and baseball-almanac.com; all game details are from retrosheet.orgThe quotes from John Miller are from my telephone interview of June 22, 2010.)

Where Have You Gone Joe Torre?

April 14, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Fifty years ago, the Montreal Expos played their first home opener in the first regular-season game ever played outside the United States. A glance at the box score from the game shows that the Expos beat the St. Louis Cardinals 8-7 that day. As an Atlanta Braves fan, a couple of names in that box score caught my eye and reminded me of some of the terrible trades the Braves made after coming south from Milwaukee in 1966.

© T.C.G.

Former Brave, Mack Jones, batted fourth for the Expos that day, and he hit his second home run of the season. Jones was the Braves’ starting center fielder in 1966. The Braves traded him to the Cincinnati Reds after the 1967 season for first baseman Deron Johnson. Jones performed adequately as a backup outfielder in 1968, hitting 10 home runs with a .252 average. He was the fourth player the Expos picked in the expansion draft.

Former Brave, Joe Torre, batted fourth for the Cardinals, and he also hit his second home run of the season. Torre hit 36 homers, drove in 101 runs, and batted .315 in the Braves’ first year in Atlanta. He had a solid season in 1967, but injuries limited his playing time in 1968. Torre was a four-time All Star with the Braves and was just 28 years old when they traded him to the Cardinals for Orlando Cepeda on St. Patrick’s Day in 1969.

The Braves were the first champions of the National League West in 1969. The Miracle Mets swept the Braves in the NLCS, but still, it was a fine season. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the Braves would have been a much better team had they held onto most of the players they brought with them from Milwaukee.

Jones hit .270 with 22 home runs and 79 runs batted in for the Expos in 1969. The Braves started the season with Felipe Alou in center field and then acquired Tony Gonzalez after Alou was injured. Gonzalez performed well for the Braves, hitting .294 with 10 homers, but the Braves would have had a more imposing lineup with Jones in the outfield.

© T.C.G.

Torre hit .289 with 18 home runs and 101 RBIs for the Cardinals in 1969 while Cepeda hit .257 with 22 homers and 88 RBIs for the Braves. That’s not too bad, but the Braves would have been better with Torre in their lineup.

The Braves traded shortstop Denis Menke and pitcher Denver Lemaster to the Houston Astros after the 1967 season for shortstop Sonny Jackson. Menke hit .269 with 12 home runs and 87 RBIs for Houston in 1969. Jackson hit .239 with one home run and 27 RBIs for the Braves.

Lemaster was just 13-17 for the Astros in 1969, but he had a 3.16 earned run average. That means he would have been at least as productive in the Braves’ rotation as Milt Pappas, which brings me to another poor trade.

Early in the 1968 season, the Braves traded infielder Woody Woodward and pitchers Tony Cloninger and Clay Carroll to the Reds for Pappas, who was 6-10 with a 3.62 ERA for the Braves in 1969 while Carroll was 12-6 with 16 saves for the Reds. The Braves would have been much better with Carroll in their bullpen that season.

Not a single player the Braves received in these trades ever outperformed the players they gave up. Perhaps the Braves success in 1969 masked the damage all these trades caused. And perhaps since 50 years have passed, it’s time for me finally to get over it.

Nah.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.comall game details are from retrosheet.org)

Frank Robinson was One of the Best

February 10, 2019
Hugh Atkins

Frank Robinson passed away this past Thursday. I’m not sure even fans who followed baseball during Robinson’s career realize what a great player he was.

Robinson played 21 seasons and hit 586 home runs. He was the unanimous selection as the National League Rookie of the Year in 1956, and he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1961. Robinson was the American League’s MVP in 1966 and is still the only player to win the award in both leagues. In 1975 he became the first African American manager in Major League History, and he went into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, the first year he was on the ballot.

Robinson hit 38 home runs for the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1956, equaling the record for a National League rookie that Wally Berger of the Boston Braves established in 1930. That record stood for 51 years until Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers hit 39 homers in 2017.

© T.C.G.

Robinson was just 29 years old and coming off a great season in 1965, but for some crazy reason, the Reds traded him to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Milt Pappas. In his first year in Baltimore, Robinson won the Triple Crown, leading the AL in batting at .316, home runs with 49, and runs batted in with 122. He was the MVP the of World Series that year when the Orioles swept the Dodgers.

Robinson was an integral part of three more Orioles teams that made it to the World Series; they lost to the Miracle Mets in 1969, knocked off the Big Red Machine in 1970, and lost to Roberto Clemente in 1971.

Robinson played in 14 All-Star Games and was the MVP of the 1971 Mid-Summer Classic. He hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the third inning, becoming the first player to homer for each league in an All-Star Game.

Despite a very good season in 1971, the Orioles traded Robinson to the Dodgers during the offseason. It turned out to be a good trade as far as I was concerned, because it led to me seeing him hit a home run when our family visited Atlanta at the end of July during the 1972 season. In the nightcap of a doubleheader, Robinson led off the second inning with a home run against Braves’ lefty George Stone.

After just one season, the Dodgers traded Robinson to the California Angels, and he hit 30 home runs with 97 RBIs in 1973. Robinson hit 20 more homers for the Angels in 1974 before they traded him to the Cleveland Indians late in the season. He was a player/manager for the Indians in 1975 and 1976. In his first game as manager, he hit a home run in his first at-bat.

© T.C.G.

Robinson retired as a player after the 1976 season but continued to manage the Indians in 1977. He ended up managing 16 seasons with four teams, the other three were the San Francisco Giants, the Orioles, and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals. Robinson won 1,065 wins as a manager and was the AL Manager of the Year in 1989 with the Orioles.

In summary, Robinson was a Rookie of the Year, the MVP in both leagues, won a Triple Crown, was MVP of a World Series, MVP of an All-Star Game, the game’s first African American manager, and a Manager of the Year. And if that isn’t impressive enough, at the time of his retirement, only Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays had hit more home runs than Robinson.

Frank Robinson was 83 years old.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com; all game details are from retrosheet.org.)

It’s a Crime, Dog

January 13, 2019

Hugh Atkins

It’s time for my annual rant about Fred McGriff and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball’s Crime Dog is on the ballot for the tenth and final year, and according to the website Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker, he will not receive the required 75 percent of votes necessary for enshrinement. While that may not be an actual crime, it definitely is a shame.

As of the time of this post, McGriff is listed on 60 of 169 ballots, putting him at 35 percent. So, even if he received a vote on each of the 243 remaining ballots, he still would be six votes shy of the 309 needed for 75 percent.

© T.C.G.

I admit that, as an Atlanta Braves fan, McGriff holds a special place in my heart. On July 20, 1993, the Braves were 53-41, nine games behind the San Francisco Giants in the National League West. The Braves needed help and they got it in a trade with the San Diego Padres that brought McGriff to Atlanta, and the impact was immediate.

A fire broke out in the press box of Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium that night, delaying the start of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Once the action started, the Braves fell behind 5-0, but McGriff tied the score with a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth inning, and the Braves went on to win 8-5. After McGriff’s arrival, the Braves won 51 of their remaining 68 games and won the NL West title, finishing one game ahead of the Giants.

My loyalty to the Braves aside, McGriff’s career numbers clearly merit induction into the Hall of Fame. He hit 493 home runs, drove in 1,550 runs, and finished with a .284 batting average. McGriff was the first player to lead each league in home runs, and he hit 30 or more homers for five different teams; he hit over 30 home runs in a season 10 times and 20 or more in a season 15 times.

McGriff’s 1,550 runs batted in are more than many players already in the Hall of Fame, including Willie Stargell (1,540), Mickey Mantle (1,509), Billy Williams (1,475), Ed Mathews (1,453), Jim Rice (1.451), Orlando Cepeda (1,365), and Duke Snider (1,333). McGriff’s 493 home runs tie him with Lou Gehrig and are more than Stan Musial (475), Stargell (475), Dave Winfield (465), Carl Yastrzemski (452), Williams (426), and Snider (407).

Stargell had a .282 batting average to go along with his 475 homers and 1,540 RBIs; McGriff topped all those numbers. Stargell made it into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. If Stargell was such an obvious choice, then it seems to me that McGriff should have made it into the Hall, and it shouldn’t have taken 10 years for it to happen.

Braves infielders Mark Lemke (left) and Jeff Blauser (right) during the press box fire at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on July 20, 1993.

The only explanation I can offer for McGriff’s low vote totals is that the writers seem to think that 493 home runs and the rest of his offensive numbers aren’t as impressive as they used to be. Well, the reason the measly 493 homers that McGriff and Gehrig hit aren’t what they used to be is due to the players who used performance-enhancing drugs. Some writers will not vote for players associated with PEDs, but some of those same voters also must be penalizing players like McGriff.

Barry Bonds, the personification of the steroids era, sits at 72.2 percent with 122 votes, so he needs to get 187 more votes, or 76.9 percent, on the remaining ballots. That seems unlikely, but he still is going to get a lot closer than McGriff, and with three more years on the ballot, Bonds just might make it in the next year or two.

Of the 169 ballots reported, 83 writers voted for Bonds and did not vote for McGriff; Peter Gammons was one of them. Twenty-one writers voted for McGriff, but left Bonds off their ballots; Terrence Moore and David O’Brien, writers with close association with the Braves, were among them. Thirty-nine writers voted for both Bonds and McGriff; Bob Nightingale of USA Today was one of them. Twenty-six writers voted for neither Bonds nor McGriff. Of the four anonymous writers among the 169, three voted for neither Bonds nor McGriff while one voted for both.

The good news for McGriff is that the Today’s Era Committee just put Harold Baines in the Hall of Fame. While I could fill at least another entire post on whether Baines deserves to be in the Hall, I don’t see how the Today’s Era Committee could pass on McGriff, but stranger things have happened. Like a player of Fred McGriff’s quality and character not making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame after 10 ballots.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com, and all game details are from retrosheet.org.)

 

Stretch

November 8, 2018

Hugh Atkins

San Francisco Giants great Willie McCovey passed away last week. McCovey was one of the most powerful sluggers in baseball at a time when baseball had a lot of legendary sluggers. I always liked McCovey; he seemed like a good guy. As an Atlanta Braves fan, it seemed to me that he always killed the Braves.

After digging through some statistics, I think my memory of McCovey as being a Braves killer is accurate; he hit 71 home runs against the Braves during his career, 48 of them after the Braves moved to Atlanta. But there are some specific, personal memories of McCovey that form my opinion of him being death to Atlanta.

On June 22, 1969, McCovey hit a home run against the Braves that traveled into the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He was just the second player to ever hit a ball into the upper deck; Willie Smith of the Chicago Cubs did it just 12 days before McCovey.

© T.C.G.

In 1977, my future brother-in-law, Wayne Shearon, and I made the trip to Atlanta to catch a weekend series against the Giants. In the first two games, McCovey managed only one hit and two walks in eight trips to the plate. But in the fifth inning of the Sunday afternoon game on July 17, McCovey stepped to the plate against Buzz Capra and lined a home run that seemed to get over the fence in about two seconds. Wayne and I talked about that home run at least until we got to Chattanooga on our trip home.

The following summer, Wayne and I returned to Atlanta, and the Braves again were playing the Giants. In the first game of a doubleheader on Friday evening June 30, McCovey led off the second inning with the 500th home run of his career. In the fourth inning, he ripped a double and then left the game for a pinch runner.

On Saturday night, McCovey hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the second inning. By this time, Wayne and I were convinced that Babe Ruth had nothing on Willie McCovey. On Sunday afternoon, McCovey wasn’t in the starting lineup, but with the Braves leading 9-7 with one out in the top of the eighth inning, Wayne nudged me on the shoulder and pointed to the on-deck circle. McCovey had emerged from the dugout and was swinging a couple of bats as he prepared to pinch hit. We were relieved when Johnnie LeMaster grounded out, because we knew the worst McCovey could do was make it a one-run game. As it turned out, he grounded out to second base to end the inning. Because McCovey was such an imposing figure–even while merely swinging a bat in the on-deck circle–we feared the Braves’ lead was in jeopardy.

© T.C.G.

While McCovey was tough on the Braves, he also was tough on every other team in the National League. He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1959 when he hit .354 in 52 games; he was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1969. McCovey is the all-time National League leader in grand slams with 18; he led the National League in home runs three times and played in six All Star Games. Just when it appeared that McCovey’s career was over, he bounced back with 28 home runs in 1977 and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

McCovey played 15 seasons with the Giants before going to the San Diego Padres for most of three seasons; he finished the 1976 season with the Oakland Athletics before returning to the Giants for his final four seasons. Along the way McCovey hit 521 home runs, despite not having a regular spot in the lineup early in his career and playing the last several years of his career with bad knees.

McCovey wore number 44, just like his fellow Mobile native, Henry Aaron, and was, by all accounts, a good guy all the way.

Willie “Stretch” McCovey was 80 years old.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com, retrosheet.organd the Atlanta Braves 2018 Media Guide; all game details are from retrosheet.org.)

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