This article was written by Norm King
In the 1940s radio drama The Diary of Fate, a character’s life would take an ominous turn as the result of a seemingly harmless event. In one episode for example, a sportswriter in need of money accidentally forgot his pipe in a telephone booth, and when he went back to retrieve it, he overheard a conversation about a payoff for fixing a boxing match. Cecil Upshaw’s entry in a diary of fate would read about how the seemingly harmless act of showing off his basketball skills ended up costing him a season and, possibly, a great career.
Cecil Lee Upshaw was born on October 22, 1942 in Spearsville, Louisiana, the only child of Cecil Lee Upshaw and Wilma Leanue Boatright. As a youngster, he went to Bossier City High School in Bossier City, Louisiana, then on to Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport, where he earned a degree in business administration. In college, his imposing 6’6” frame was suitable for basketball as well as baseball.
Upshaw’s statistics in both sports were impressive. As a basketball player, he averaged 13.7 points per game and six rebounds per game, but it was his baseball numbers that really stood out. He compiled a 12-4 record during his sophomore and junior seasons, with 204 strikeouts in 126 innings while walking only 24, and he still owns the top career and single-season Earned Run Average (ERA) in school history (1.18 career and 0.85 single-season, set in 1962).1
This being the era before the draft was instituted in 1965, the Milwaukee Braves signed Upshaw to an amateur free agent contract with a $30,000 bonus on March 3, 1964. They sent him to the Greenville (South Carolina) Braves of the Class A Western Carolinas League after he graduated from college. He pitched in two games, won one, and allowed a single run in eight innings.
The 1965 season was a busy one for Upshaw. He pitched in seven games, all in relief, for the West Palm Beach Braves of the Class A Florida State League, going 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA. He also had 25 appearances, including 11 starts with the Austin Braves of the Class AA Texas League. His 3-8 record is misleading, as he had a respectable 3.18 ERA and only 29 walks in 119 innings pitched. After the season, Upshaw was loaned to the Cincinnati Reds so he could play with their team in the Florida Instructional League. He performed well, leading the league with a 1.18 ERA in 61 innings pitched.
In 1966, the parent Braves moved to Atlanta after 13 seasons in Milwaukee. For Upshaw, it was also a season of change as he continued his progression through the minors and even got his first taste of life in “The Show.” He began the year in Austin, where he went 4-5 in 12 games (10 starts), with a 2.77 ERA. These numbers earned him a promotion to Richmond of the Class AAA International League. It became clear at this point that the Braves were grooming him for a role in the bullpen, for of his 23 appearances, only eight were starts. Nonetheless, he compiled a 5-5 record with a 2.87 ERA. He was called up at the end of the season and got into his first major-league game on October 1, pitching three scoreless innings of relief during an 11-5 blowout loss in Cincinnati. He also had his first major-league at-bat, which resulted in a single and an RBI. Not bad for a lifetime .160 hitter in the major-leagues.
Upshaw began the 1967 season in Richmond and continued grooming for a relief role at the major league level. He appeared in 25 games (one start), going 2-2 with a 2.16 ERA and an eye-popping 14 saves. This prompted the big club to bring up the big man to strengthen the bullpen, a move that brought dividends right from the get-go.
“Big man among the relievers seems to be 6-6 Cecil Upshaw, a bespectacled righthander (sic) who was called up by the Braves after he piled up an amazing 14 saves at Richmond (International) before the end of June,” wrote Wayne Minshew in The Sporting News. “Upshaw, in his first three appearances, chalked up a save and a victory.”2
That first victory came on July 22 against the St. Louis Cardinals, and he did it in spectacular fashion. He came on as the fifth Atlanta pitcher in the bottom of the ninth with two out and the winning run on second after the Braves bullpen had blown a 4-1 lead. He then induced Mike Shannon to ground to second, ending the threat. He gave up two hits in each of the 10th and 11th innings but came away unscathed, had a 1-2-3 12th, then gave up one harmless hit in the 13th to earn the win after the Braves scored the go-ahead run in the top of the frame. For the season, Upshaw went 2-3 with a 2.58 ERA in 30 appearances with eight saves. He struck out 31 and gave up eight bases on balls.
The 1968 season didn’t start well for Upshaw; at one point he was 1-4. He rectified the situation by calling on his little black book. Fortunately for him, his wife Jeannie had no problem with his book because it contained notes he made about his pitching in order to correct bad habits. For example, Bob Uecker, a former Braves’ catcher and broadcaster, noticed Upshaw’s arm was in a different position when he was about to throw a screwball, and that he may have been telegraphing the pitch as a result (although Uecker never said if it made the pitches go just a little bit outside). “Uecker told me about it later,” said Upshaw. “I jotted it down in my book and made a note to work on that in the bullpen.”3 The corrections he made as a result of his notes helped him turn the season around. He finished with an 8-7 record, a 2.47 ERA, and 13 saves. Four of his saves helped his cousin, left-hander George Stone, win games. During their seasons together on the Braves, Upshaw saved a total of 11 games for Stone.4
Upshaw and the Braves really hit their stride in 1969. With the addition of four expansion franchises, each league was divided into two divisions of six clubs each, with Atlanta slotted into the National League West Division. The Braves were hot from the start of the season, due in no small measure to Upshaw, who had posted nine saves and a victory by mid-May. He was also getting free meals, thanks to one of his teammates.
“Upshaw has a deal with one of the starters, Ron Reed,” wrote Minshew in The Sporting News. “When he saves a game for the gangly righthander, Reed springs for a steak. Upshaw had a save in all of Reed’s first four victories, which means he’s eating pretty well.”5
Upshaw also hit the first and only home run of his major-league career, an eighth-inning solo shot off of reliever Turk Farrell in a 4-1 Braves victory over the Phillies on May 25.
Hitting prowess aside, Upshaw showed that he was an independent thinker by openly criticizing a new rule that was designed to improve the statistics of relief aces. Before 1969, the “save” was not an official major league statistic, but a reliever was awarded one under criteria created by The Sporting News. To earn a save, a reliever had to finish the game and either face the potential tying or winning run or pitch three shutout innings or two perfect innings. Under the official rules instituted by Major League Baseball, a relief pitcher could come into a game with his team leading 10-0 and earn a save by recording the last out. “The way it is now…it’s pretty easy to get a save,” said Upshaw. “If your club is ahead, all you have to do is finish, no matter what the score is.”6
During the regular season, Upshaw appeared in a career-high 62 games for the Braves, and had a 2.91 ERA. Save rules notwithstanding, his total of 27 tied him for second place in the National League with Wayne Granger of Cincinnati, two behind league-leader Fred Gladding of Houston. Upshaw’s numbers helped propel the Braves to the National League West crown and a trip to the National League Championship Series against the upstart New York Mets. The “Amazin’s,” who weren’t going to be denied in 1969, swept the Braves during the then best-of-five playoff in three straight games, even though Upshaw appeared in every contest.
And then, just as the 1970 season began, fate made an entry in its diary.
After the Braves’ second game of the 1970 season, a 6-1 win over the Padres in San Diego on April 8, Upshaw and some teammates were out for a walk when they chanced upon a basketball court. Upshaw decided to show his teammates how he used to dunk the ball, and in so doing, caught his right ring finger on an awning and nearly severed it. He was immediately brought to a San Diego hospital and then flown to Palo Alto, California, where surgeons at the Stanford Medical Center reconnected a severed artery. For a while doctors feared that Upshaw would lose the finger, but on June 1, after five operations, they determined that amputation wasn’t necessary and Upshaw was allowed to return to Atlanta. The good news about the finger didn’t mean he’d ever be able to pitch again, but he was determined. “I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve got the motivation,” he told a reporter. “I’ve had the taste of playing in the big leagues. I like it pretty good.”7 That motivation contributed to a remarkable comeback from such a grisly and severe injury. He began soft tossing in July and was pitching batting practice by mid-August. His first real test came that fall when he pitched for the Braves’ team in the Arizona Instructional League (AIL). In 11 innings he gave up only one unearned run. Granted, nobody would confuse Upshaw’s AIL opponents with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, but the experience told him he was ready to return in 1971. The Braves, who fell to fifth place in 1970, really needed him.
Upshaw didn’t waste any time in 1971 proving to the team, himself, and anyone who did confuse AIL lineups with the mighty Reds, that he was back in form. He not only won the Braves’ first game of the season, but he did it against Cincinnati, the reigning National League champions. He came on in the sixth in relief of Braves starter Phil Niekro after the Reds scored two runs in the inning to make the score 4-3 for Atlanta. With Johnny Bench on first and nobody out, he uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Bench to move to second. Two outs later, shortstop Frank Duffy’s double drove Bench home to tie the score. From that point on, Upshaw held the Reds scoreless on three hits, while his teammates scored one in the eighth and two in the ninth to seal a 7-4 win. “Without him (Upshaw) we probably wouldn’t have won that game,” said Braves slugger Henry Aaron.8 That first win was no fluke; of the Braves first seven victories, Upshaw won four and saved another. He went on to have an 11-6 record with 17 saves and a 3.51 ERA for the season.
As reinvigorating as the 1971 season was for Upshaw, his 1972 season got off to a slow start right from the beginning of spring training. Before the season even started, he held out before finally signing a contract for $37,500. Then a player’s strike wiped out the Braves’ first eight games. As the team’s player representative, Upshaw was heavily involved in strike-related meetings and was quoted frequently in the media.
The strike didn’t last long, but Upshaw may have wished that it did. A sore arm put him on the 21-day disabled list in late April. On August 1, he suffered the indignity of surrendering Nate Colbert’s record-setting blast when Colbert tied a mark set by Stan Musial in 1954 with five home runs in a doubleheader. Overall he had a 3-5 record with a 3.69 ERA and 13 saves for the year.
What at first glance seemed like a happy event for Upshaw in 1973 served only to confirm that his best days were behind him. When he was a free agent after finishing college, Upshaw hoped to sign with the Houston Astros, but Atlanta’s offer was $3,000 higher, so he signed with the Braves. His wish finally came true when the Braves traded him to the Astros for part-time outfielder Norm Miller after he started the season with a 9.82 ERA and 0-1 record with no saves in five appearances.
While the dream-come-true wasn’t exactly a nightmare for Upshaw (the trade was no great shakes for the Braves, either; Miller arrived in Atlanta with a bad back and appeared in only nine games for them that season), he was clearly on the decline. The Astros had thought that Upshaw’s effectiveness in Atlanta was reduced because the Braves had switched his delivery from sidearm to submarine. Preston Gomez, who was running the Astros while manager Leo Durocher was hospitalized, told John Wilson shortly after the trade, “Our scouts thought he was more effective from the side.” 9
The numbers, unfortunately, did not bear that theory out. He was 2-3 for the Astros with a 4.46 ERA in 35 appearances with only one save.
The Astros traded him to Cleveland for pitcher Jerry Johnson after the season. Upshaw wasn’t a member of the Tribe for very long in 1974, as he pitched eight innings over seven games with only one loss to show for it before becoming part of what turned out to be a significant trade for the New York Yankees. On April 26, he was traded to the Bombers along with first baseman Chris Chambliss and pitcher Dick Tidrow for pitchers Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, Steve Kline, and Fritz Peterson. Chambliss and Tidrow contributed to the Yankees’ return to prominence; both were part of the team’s back-to-back World Series winners in 1977 and 1978, and Chambliss hit the memorable playoff winning home run in the ninth inning during Game Five of the 1976 ALCS that propelled the Yanks to their first Fall Classic in 12 years.
Unfortunately for Upshaw, his career was over by the time that all happened. After a lackluster season in which he had a 1-5 record with six saves, the Yankees traded him to the Chicago White Sox for infielder Eddie Leon, where he had a 1-1 record with one save in 1975. He retired after the White Sox put him on waivers for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release during spring training in 1976. Upshaw felt that White Sox manager Paul Richard, who was the Braves’ Vice President of Player Personnel when he played in Atlanta, had ulterior motives for releasing him. “I’ll always believe Paul held it against me because when he and I were with the Braves I was the player rep and had several confrontations with him in that role,” said Upshaw.”10
Motives aside, he was nevertheless in need of a new career. Fortunately for him, an acquaintance recommended him for a sales position with Plastics Packaging Incorporated (PPI) in Norcross, Georgia, approximately 20 miles north of Atlanta. He started out selling poly bags as a sales trainee for $175 per week, but his business degree clearly came in handy, because he was sales manager by 1978 when the company’s annual sales were $1.5 million. He was promoted to national accounts manager in 1984, by which time company sales had reached $7 million annually.
On the personal front, Upshaw and Jeannie had four children before divorcing. One son, Lee, was a left-handed minor-league pitcher for five seasons in the Braves organization from 1988-1991 and 1993. He also played in Mexico and Taiwan.
Sadly, Upshaw died on February 7, 1995 of a heart attack. He was 52. According to his obituary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he lived on his baseball pension the last few years of his life. Ironically, the demand for increased pension benefits was the cause of the 1972 players strike.
The Sporting News
1 These statistics are from the Centenary College Baseball Record Book update through the 2012 season.
2 Wayne Minshew, “Bullpen Worries Run-Shy Braves,” The Sporting News, August 12, 1967.
3 Minshew, “Little Black Book Makes Fair-Haired Boy Out of Upshaw,” The Sporting News, July 13, 1968.
5 Minshew, “Relievers Covering Up Sins Of Braves Starting Staff,” The Sporting News, May 31, 1969.
6 Minshew, ‘Saves Come Too Cheap’ – Upshaw,” The Sporting News, June 28, 1969.
7 Associated Press, “Cecil Upshaw may pitch yet this year,” Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard, June 6, 1970.
8 Earl Lawson, “Braves’ Swifties, Upshaw Upstage N.L. Champions,” The Sporting News, April 17, 1971.
9 John Wilson, “Cecil Realizes Old Dream… He’s Astro,” The Sporting News, May 12, 1973.
10 Tom McCollister, “Whatever Happened To… Upshaw makes his pitch in plastics,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 22, 1986.