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Remembering July 3, 1966 and two slams in the same game

July 4, 2016
James Atkins, II

Hugh Atkins

Can it really be 50 years since Tony Cloninger of that Atlanta Braves became the first player in the history of the National League to hit two grand slams in one game? It was quite an accomplishment, especially considering the fact that Cloninger was a pitcher.

Cloninger first came to the big leagues in 1961 and went 7-2 for the Milwaukee Braves. He steadily improved and won 19 games in 1964. His best season was 1965 when he won 24 games.

The Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966 and brought with them several brand name sluggers, including Henry Aaron, Ed Mathews, and Joe Torre. In the first game in Atlanta Braves’ history, Cloninger battled the hard-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates and pitched a 13-inning complete game. Willie Stargell hit a two-run homer in the top of the thirteenth and the Pirates won the game 3-2. Apparently, the marathon pitching performance took the life out of Cloninger’s pitching arm and he was never quite the same after that game.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Cloninger entered the 1966 season with one career home run, but on June 16 Cloninger clubbed two homers and drove in five runs against the New York Mets. This was the beginning of a hitting tear that would see him drive in 18 runs over the course of five games. Entering the game on July 3 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Cloninger was six for his last 16 with two home runs and nine runs batted in.

My brothers and I tuned into the game coming to us from the West Coast on WSM AM 650 out of Nashville. The Braves knocked out Giants’ starter Joe Gibbon after only 2/3 of an inning. With two men on, Bob Priddy replaced Gibbon and promptly made things worse by walking Denis Menke. That brought Cloninger to the plate and he hit a 3-2 pitch over the center-field fence for a grand slam that gave the Braves a 7-0 lead.

In the fourth inning, Cloninger came to bat again with the bases loaded. Ray Sadecki, the Giants’ third pitcher of the evening, got ahead with a strike, but Cloninger blasted the next pitch deep to right-center field and his second grand slam of the game sailed into the night. Cloninger topped off his performance by driving in another run with a single in the eighth inning. In another oddity, Sadecki got in on the home-run act by hitting one of his own in the bottom of the fifth inning.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

While Cloninger was the first player in National League history to hit two grand slams in one game, four American Leaguers previously had done it–Tony Lazerri of the New York Yankees in 1936, Jim Tabor of the Boston Red Sox in 1939, Rudy York of the Red Sox in 1946, and Jim Gentile of the Baltimore Orioles in 1961.

Since Cloninger joined the exclusive group of sluggers to hit two grand slams in one game, eight more players joined the club: Jim Northrup of the Detroit Tigers in 1968; Frank Robinson of the Orioles in 1970; Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox in 1995; Chris Hoiles of the Orioles in 1998; Fernando Tatis of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999; Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox in 1999; Bill Mueller of the Red Sox in 2003; and Josh Willingham of the Washington Nationals in 2009.

Cloninger remained the sole National League batter with two grand slams in a game until Tatis did it; and Tatis went one better by hitting both of his slams in the same inning. Mueller, a switch hitter, hit one slam as a right-handed batter and one as a lefty; he also hit a solo homer earlier in the game.

Cloninger hit one more home run in 1966, giving him five for the season; he also hit .234 with 23 runs batted in that year. The Braves traded him to the Cincinnati Reds in 1968; he hit two homers that season, one in 1969, and two more in 1970 to finish his career with 11 home runs. His career bating average was .192, which isn’t too bad for a pitcher.

Tony Cloninger finished his career with a 113-97 record as a pitcher. But because of one big night at the plate in July of 1966, he always will be remembered as a hitter.

(All statistics are from retrosheet.org)

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