This article was written by Bob Boynton
Albert Autry Jr. was born in Modesto, California on February 29, 1952. It was then a town of about 17,000. His was a stable family in which he was one of five children, three of them sisters. Asked, “When did you first dream about becoming a major league ballplayer?” his surprising answer was that he never really did. He played baseball because it was fun, he was good at it, and his friends were into it. Starting with Little League at the age of 8, he had always been a fastball pitcher and a star on his various teams. Success continued through Babe Ruth and American Legion ball during his adolescence.
Actually, he liked basketball better than baseball, and with his tall and husky frame, he was very good at that, too. However, pro basketball scouts generally recruit college stars, while the baseball scouts begin earlier. A good student, Autry skipped fourth grade, and later scored good SAT numbers. He was barely 17 when he graduated from high school and baseball scouts were already impressed with him. He was drafted by the Kansas City Royals as their fourth choice in the summer of 1969. From the perspective of his family, which was by no means wealthy, the money he was offered on his first minor league contract loomed large. So in 1969 he went immediately into professional ball with Winnipeg of the Class A Northern League. Subsequently he pitched for Waterloo of the Class A Midwest League, San Jose of the Class A California League, Jacksonville of the Double-A Southern League, and Omaha of the Triple-A American Association. At the end of the 1975 minor league season, while driving with his father from Omaha to their home in California, they heard on the radio that Al had been traded to the Atlanta Braves organization. He was invited to join the Braves as a non-roster player for the final ten days of the major league season, which was a great joy for him.
After spring training in 1976, the Braves sent him to Richmond of the Triple-A International League, where he finished with eleven wins, six losses, and an earned run average of 2.85. He recalls that he never had a bad start during that season. Although Richmond finished a game under .500, the team made the playoffs and entered the finals against the Rochester Red Wings – a team that had finished 34 games above the break-even mark – and beat them. Ted Turner, owner of the Braves, was in the stands throughout the playoffs, perhaps because observing the minor league action was more fun than watching the Atlanta Braves struggle through the last weeks of a dismal, last-place season. On Turner’s orders, none of the Richmond players were to be called up until after the playoffs. At the conclusion of the final playoff game, manager Jack McKeon announced that he had some good news. Catcher Dale Murphy and pitchers Autry and Rick Camp, among others, were being called up to finish the major league season with the Braves. Autry was in no way surprised by the news. At the peak of his form, he felt his time had come. Few major league hurlers on the shady side of 25 have had minor league experience as extensive as Autry’s before being summoned to the big show. By this time the six-foot, six-inch pitcher weighed in at 225 pounds and seemed to be reaching his full potential.
When the International League playoffs concluded, Atlanta was playing on the West Coast. After a 4-3 loss to San Diego on September 9, the Braves suffered an incredible double rainout on the 10th and 11th in Los Angeles. This necessitated successive doubleheaders on Sunday the 12th and Monday the 13th. Murphy had been summoned to join the Braves in Los Angeles, where he caught the second game on Monday, his major league debut. Autry and his good friend Camp, on the other hand, had been instructed to delay reporting until the Braves came home on Tuesday, when a third straight doubleheader (a twi-night affair) was scheduled without benefit of a travel day. While waiting, Autry and Camp did a little dove shooting near Camp’s home in Trion, Georgia.
Dick Ruthven and Frank LaCorte were listed in the newspapers as the starting pitchers for the Tuesday doubleheader. When he checked in at Fulton County Stadium to sign his contract, Autry was surprised when general manager Bill Lucas casually told him: “You’re going to start the second game of tonight’s doubleheader against the Astros. Go back to your hotel, relax, and come out to the park in time to suit up and begin your warm-ups for the second game.” Autry followed these instructions, and says that with his wife, Paula, helping him to stay calm, he was not particularly nervous while waiting. Later, while warming up, he felt a bit stiff, probably because he hadn’t thrown for several days, but this did not worry him because he knew from experience that his stuff in the bullpen was a very poor predictor of game performance. Also, the assemblage of 960 fans was not very intimidating.
In the top of the first inning, with Dale Murphy as his battery mate, Al easily retired the first hitter, Alex Taveras, but after Enos Cabell walked, Cesar Cedeno doubled him home to give the Astros a 1-0 lead. The Braves came back with a run of their own in the bottom of the first and then, after Houston had failed to score in the second and third innings, the Braves took a 4-1 lead when Willie Montanez poled a three-run homer in the bottom of the third. In the fourth inning, Autry faced Cedeno again, this time with the bases empty. Fifteen years later, Autry recalled that his pitching strategy had been unaltered by Cedeno’s earlier double. Autry fired a good pitch, one that should have been tough to hit and especially difficult to pull, a tad high and just outside the strike zone. Yet Cedeno, a righthanded batter, was able to pull the ball over the fence in left-center field. Cedeno’s home run was a shocking “welcome to the big leagues” kind of experience. In the fifth inning, Jose Cruz also hit a solo home run; Autry feels that this did not result from a “mistake” pitch, either.
By the middle of the fifth inning, despite the home runs by Cedeno and Cruz, Autry had held the opposing Astros to only five hits, while walking three, and the Braves were leading, 4-3. Throughout his career, Autry had been a strong finisher, usually giving up most of his runs in the early innings. Therefore, when he came back to the dugout after retiring the Astros in the fifth inning, he was surprised to hear Dave Bristol, the manager, say, “Good, rookie, but we’re taking you out.” Autry’s feelings at the time were mixed. On the one hand he realized that, by having completed five innings and leaving the game with the Braves ahead, he stood a chance to win his first major league game. On the other hand, he says he “didn’t feel really good” about being removed from the contest. As it turned out, the Braves’ lead held up, and Autry was the winning pitcher.
When asked whether he could possibly have imagined that this would be his only major league appearance, he replied, without hesitation, “Absolutely not.” After all, his season with Richmond had been a great one, he had acquitted himself well enough in his first major league start, and the last-place Braves seemingly could use his talent. Nevertheless, he was unaccountably forced to sit out the remaining 2 1/2 weeks of the season without being called upon the throw even one pitch during a ballgame. On Sunday, September 19, five days after Autry’s debut (although he was unaware of it), the papers listed him as the starting pitcher. For some reason, lost in the dustbin of history, Dick Ruthven started instead. Autry claims to have been discriminated against because of “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” referring to an incident involving his buddy Rick Camp, who had made his major league debut one day after Autry. As the starting pitcher one day, Camp gave up four runs on eight hits in 5+ innings, lost the game, and did not start again that season, although he appeared four times in relief, all in losing causes. (Camp subsequently appeared in 410 more games during nine years with the Braves.)
In one of Camp’s relief appearances, which Autry recalls as occurring a few days after each of them had started (September 19, actually) an incident occurred that may have spelled the end of his major league career, trivial as it seemed at the time. During that game, while trying to pick a runner off first, Camp threw the ball “about 200 feet” into the nearly empty stands. After the game, while tunneling back to the locker room from the dugout, Autry hollered in good-spirited jest, “Holy shit – Camp couldn’t have thrown that ball any farther if he had been trying to set a long-distance record!” Unfortunately, manager Bristol gave Al the “evil eye,” and according to what Autry told Dennis Snelling, Bristol added “It wasn’t that fucking funny.” Perhaps Bristol didn’t know that Autry and Camp were close friends, well accustomed to needling one another.
Despite the awful frustration of those season-ending days with the Braves, Autry was elated around Christmastime in 1976 when he found a contract in his mailbox calling for somewhat more than the major league minimum. Quite reasonably, this was taken as a strong positive signal that the Braves were seriously interested in him as a possible pitcher in their starting rotation. But the elation was not destined to last. The Braves’ spring training was at Florida’s West Palm Beach in 1977, Al’s sixth major league camp. By the rules that prevailed, this probably would be the Braves’ last chance to keep him on their major league roster. Were they to release him to the minors again and then attempt to recall him later, any other major league team could claim him at the waiver price, with the condition that the claimant would be required to keep Autry on its major league roster for a minimum of 60 days.
Yet three weeks of spring training passed, and Autry was still not being used. Bristol behaved as if Al didn’t exist. The agony of the previous September was rekindled. Understandably distressed, Autry consulted with veteran pitchers Phil Niekro and Andy Messersmith, and followed their suggestion that he seek out Bristol to discuss the situation. Autry knocked on the door of the manager’s office one day, and after politely requesting permission to speak, said, “I want to make this club bad, and I deserve the chance. I’ve been in the minors long enough to deserve the break.” Bristol’s reaction was both stunning and crude: “I run this fuckin’ team and you’ll pitch when I say so!” said the man with the evil eye. Later that spring, Autry got into a B-squad game against Texas, but after he had retired nine consecutive batters he was taken out. A few more innings followed in games against Baltimore and Texas, but after that he was returned to Richmond.
At Richmond, Autry became a “frozen” player. Theoretically, the only route back to the big leagues would involve waivers. Al became sufficiently frustrated that it began to affect his pitching, and he lost his first six decisions. But when he turned things around and won the next six, the parent Braves decided they could use him, and they checked by phone to see if any other team was interested in him. If not, they could safely recall Al to Atlanta. It turned out that the Cardinals wanted Autry, but only for one of their farm teams. To accomplish this, and to circumvent the need to keep Autry on their major league roster for 60 days, the Cardinals agreed to purchase his contract outright for the waiver price and then dispatched Autry to their Triple-A farm team at New Orleans for the remainder of the 1977 season. In 1978, Autry was transferred to Springfield of the
American Association, where he appeared in 25 games, mostly in relief, with limited duty because of a knee injury from which he had recovered by the end of the season.
By this time Al and Paula, who had married young, already had two children, Monica (born January 16, 1975) and Paul (born February 19, 1978), and the rigors of minor league baseball were taking their toll. Completely frustrated, while still in possession of a major league fastball clocked at 94 mph, Autry requested his release after realizing that the Cardinals were not planning to use him on the parent club. Autry left the game forever at the age of 27.
After quitting baseball, Autry returned to Modesto (a city of about 200,000 by the end of the century), where he resides today. He was never tempted to resume a career in any aspect of baseball, but he still likes to play slow-pitch softball in the City league. After starting as an advertising solicitor for the local newspaper, the Modesto Bee, he rose to the position of advertising director. A third child, Jared, was born on June 17, 1984, long after Al’s baseball days were over. Both boys were active in Little League baseball, but their father did not push them at all. He has preferred to let his children make their own decisions.
Al Autry has never been a hero worshipper. He is not today a baseball fan, and probably never was. He told Dennis Snelling, “It’s a great game, it’s a lot of fun. I never had a bad day at the ball park. Oh, there were days I wish I were fishing and those kind of things. But, sitting in the bullpen and playing grab ass, and giving a hot foot, and eating hot dogs and peanuts while the game was going on, knowing you weren’t gonna play ’cause you were a starting pitcher – that’s a great life. And if you can make big money doing it, that’s really neat.”
Al Autry comes across as outgoing, friendly, and articulate. He claims no bitterness about what might have been, and does not regret having given baseball his best shot. Quite possibly he has led a fuller and more satisfying life in the years after baseball, back in his hometown with a challenging job that he likes. Also, he has been able to spend much more time with his family than if he had become a successful major league starting pitcher. The fact that he made it to the majors, even for a day, is important to him and makes him seem special in his own eyes, and those of his friends. That he was the winning pitcher that September night in Atlanta adds a special luster to his brief major league experience.
Much of this essay (written April 2004) is based on an unpublished text that was the basis of a presentation that I gave at a meeting of the Allan Roth Chapter of SABR in Los Angeles on November 14, 1992. Prior to that talk, I had enjoyed two extended telephone interviews with Autry, the second after he had had an opportunity to read a draft of my talk. In 2003, after I had dug a copy of the manuscript out of my files, I sent it to Autry for further comment and updating, after which we had another telephone conversation and he told me of two books in which his career was described.
The year following my talk in Los Angeles, Dennis Snelling published A Glimpse of Fame: Brilliant But Fleeting Major League Careers (McFarland, 1993). A chapter about Autry (pp. 75-88) is one of fifteen in his book. Although there are minor discrepancies in our versions, the overall story is the same. In 1998 Richard Tellis published Once Around the Bases: Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors (Chicago: Triumph Books) in which he describes the careers of forty one-game players. Autry appears in Chapter 37, pp. 290-302. Like Snelling and myself, Tellis also interviewed Autry and did additional research, while relying heavily on Snelling’s work.
For the statistics on one-game players, I am indebted to Wayne McElreavy who immediately sent me a list of them after I had issued a SABR-L request.