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Opening Day is Finally Here

March 31, 2014
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball.” All right, Tennyson actually mentioned something other than baseball, but, hey, it’s Opening Day for the Atlanta Braves, so I’m taking a little poetic license here.

A little later today the Braves will play the Milwaukee Brewers and it will be the first time the Braves have opened the season in Milwaukee since 1961. The Braves were the home team back then and they hosted the St. Louis Cardinals in a game that went 10 innings. Daryl Spenser of the Cards hit a home run off Warren Spahn in the top of the 10th and Lindy McDaniel retired the Braves in order in the bottom of the inning to preserve a 2-1 win.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

The Braves moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season and there was no team in Milwaukee until the Seattle Pilots moved there in 1970 and became the Brewers. The new Milwaukee team was an American League franchise until the 1998 season, so it is no mystery why there have been 53 years between Opening Days in Milwaukee for the Braves.

Opening Day 1967

I started following baseball shortly after the 1966 season began, so the first Opening Day I remember was 1967 when the Braves opened against the Houston Astros in the Astrodome. During the off-season the Braves had a changing of the guard at third base and on Opening Day the Braves’ new third baseman squared off against their old one.

It all started on the last day of November 1966. I remember seeing an article in the Nashville Tennessean announcing that the Braves had made a trade with the New York Yankees.  I recently went to the main branch of the Nashville Public Library  and found the article about the trade. The headline read:  BRAVES ACQUIRE CLETE BOYER. Here’s how the article started:

The Los Angeles Dodgers traded two-time batting champion Tommy Davis to the New York Mets for Ron Hunt in a deal involving two other players while the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves pulled off the first inter-league trade of the season yesterday at the annual baseball winter meetings.

The article went on to explain the details of the Dodgers’ deal with the Mets. The Dodgers sent Derrell Griffith and Davis to the Mets for Jim Hickman and Hunt. The article then picked up with the Braves/Yankees trade:

Several hours later the Yankees announced a deal sending long-time Yank third baseman Clete Boyer to the Braves for outfielder Bill Robinson, who played for Richmond in the International League last season.

The Yankees will include a player to be named later, to be sent to the Braves’ Richmond farm team later. Atlanta threw in pitcher Federico (Chi Chi) Olivo, who is being assigned to the Yanks’ Syracuse farm team roster in the IL.

Boyer, 29, has played eight seasons for the Yankees, and hit .240 with 47 home runs and 57 runs batted in last season. Oliva, a right-hander, had a 5-4 record in 47 appearances with the Braves last season. He had a 4.23 earned run average.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

I remembered Olivo from following the Braves in 1966, but this was the first I had heard of Bill Robinson. I knew about Boyer, as well, since my brother, John, liked to keep up with the Yankees a little on the side. Whoever wrote the article made some mistakes. He spelled Olivo with an “a” at the end the second time he mentioned his name. And he said Boyer hit 47 home runs in 1966. I wasn’t sure how many homers Boyer actually hit, but I knew it wasn’t close to 47 (it was 14). If he had hit 47 home runs then the Yankees likely would not be trading him, especially for Chi Chi Olivo and an outfielder I did not know.

The article went on to talk about how the trade would affect the Yankees and the Braves:

Robinson, a right-handed hitter, hit .312 with Richmond last season, with 20 homers and 79 runs batted in.
‘He has the best throwing arm I’ve ever seen with the exception of Al Kaline,” the Braves’ John McHale said. “He was one of the top products in our system. With Boyer and Ed Mathews in our third base picture, it gives us good balance.”

I couldn’t understand why the Braves had traded for Boyer, a third baseman, when they had Ed Mathews. He was the team captain. He had 493 career home runs. My knowledge of baseball at the time was not sophisticated enough for me to speculate that the Braves might be planning to platoon Boyer and Mathews, playing the right-handed-hitting Boyer against left-handed pitchers while Mathews would play against right-handers. But the reasoning behind the trade became very clear a month later.

Captain Eddie

On December 31, 1966, the Braves traded Ed Mathews to the Astros; they received pitcher Bob Bruce and outfielder Dave Nicholson in return.

At the end of the 1966 season, Mathews was tied with Lou Gehrig for seventh place in career homers. Only Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, and Mickey Mantle had more home runs than Mathews. Mantle had 496 home runs and, like Mathews, his skills had deteriorated. But, unlike the Braves, there is no way the Yankees would have traded Mantle at that point in his career.

So on Opening Night 1967, the Braves, with Boyer at third base, took on the Astros, with Mathews at first base. The Atkins clan

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

gathered around the television to watch a rare telecast of a Braves game. The game turned out to be a pitcher’s duel between two fine lefties, Denny Lemaster for the Braves and Mike Cuellar for the Astros. The game was scoreless until the Braves broke the ice with two outs in the top of the seventh inning–on a home run by their new third baseman, Clete Boyer.

The way Lemaster was pitching, it appeared that Boyer’s homer might hold up. But Lemaster walked Bob Aspromonte to leadoff the bottom of the inning. Manager Billy Hitchcock brought in left-hander Dick Kelly since the next two Houston hitters were left-handed. The first hitter, Rusty Staub, bunted Aspromonte to third base. That brought up the second left-handed hitter–Ed Mathews.

Mathews clobbered a booming fly into the cavernous nether regions of the Astrodome. In most any other park, Mathews would have had his 494th career home run, but in the Dome, he settled for a triple—and a huge measure of revenge.

The night was over for Kelly. Clay Carroll came in, dashed some gasoline on the fire, and before the smoke had cleared, Houston led 6-1; that was the final score.

Clete Boyer went on to hit 26 home runs and drive in 96 runs in his first season in Atlanta. Mathews hit 10 homers for the Astros—including his 500th on July 14—before Houston traded him to the Detroit Tigers for a late-season run at the pennant. He hit six more home runs for Detroit.

I don’t know how today’s game in Milwaukee will end, but I am fairly certain that there will not be any drama to match the Braves’ 1967 opener. And neither starting pitcher will be around for the ninth inning, much less pitch into extra innings.

It’s Opening Day and, according to Alexander Pope, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Every team starts out in first place (unless they are in the National League West, where the Dodgers have already played three games, the Diamondbacks have played two and the Padres have played one). Even the Chicago Cubs can hope that his will be the “next year” they have been waiting for since 1908 when they last won the World Series.

 “Welcome to Opening Day, when all the teams are strong, all the players are good looking, and all the managers are above average.” With apologies to Garrison Keillor for that last bit of poetic license, I end by simply saying, PLAY BALL!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    April 2, 2014 6:14 pm

    how do u think the braves will do

    Like

    • April 2, 2014 8:06 pm

      They will win the East if they can hold it together until all of their starting pitching is back.

      Like

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