Despite a roster featuring Hall of Fame-bound Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Joe Torre, the Atlanta Braves entered their September 3, 1966, doubleheader with the Houston Astros at Atlanta Stadium in the middle of the National League pack. The Astros were looking up at the Braves from several spots below. In fact, the Braves, in their first season after moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta, had taken the last nine games in a row from Houston.
When the Astros visited Atlanta in July, two games were rained out, necessitating back-to-back doubleheaders in early September. The Braves swept the twin bill on Friday, September 2, running their season record against Houston to 11-4. In Saturday’s first game, Atlanta took an opportunity for a look at the future, bringing up 18-year-old Charles Wayne Vaughan for his major-league debut.
Vaughan, a native of Brownsville, Texas, had completed his second professional season pitching for the Braves’ Double-A affiliate, the Austin Braves. Selected in the fourth round of baseball’s first-ever amateur draft in June 1965,1 Vaughan, as he recounted in a 2021 interview, was in awe of the task he faced, just 15 months out of high school.2
Braves manager Billy Hitchcock took Vaughan aside just before the game. His instructions were explicit. The 6-foot-1 left-hander had a good fastball plus his “out” pitch, a sweeping curveball, one of the best in the Braves organization. With the experienced Torre – who had been selected for his fourth consecutive NL All-Star team in 1966 – behind the plate, Hitchcock stated that under no circumstances was Vaughan to shake off any signs, let alone throw any pitch that Torre had not called.
Vaughan took the mound to warm up. Once ready, he stepped off the mound to take a quick look around. He had a veteran lineup supporting him: Torre catching, Felipe Alou at first, Mathews at third, Rico Carty in left, and Aaron in right.
Vaughan gave up just a single to second baseman Ron Brand in the top of the first. In the bottom half, the Braves used a walk, an error, and singles by Torre and Carty to take a 2-0 lead against Houston starter Dave Giusti.
Vaughan began to settle in a bit on the mound. After the game, he acknowledged that catcher Torre “went to the mound several times in the early innings … making me take deep breaths before each pitch before getting too nervous. And he kept telling me not to aim the ball, just throw it.”3
In the second, the Astros managed only a single by Lee Maye. In the bottom of the inning, Vaughan came to the plate for his first time in the majors. With one out and no runners on base, Giusti’s first pitch was a letter-high fastball that Vaughan laced into center field for a single, his first major-league base hit. But Vaughan advanced no farther, as Alou grounded into a double play to end the inning.
Giusti and Ron Davis opened the Astros’ third with singles, but Vaughan got Brand to ground into a double play to shut down the threat. The Braves broke the game open in the bottom of the third. Mathews, who had homered twice in the first game of the previous night’s doubleheader, led off with a home run, the 490th of his career. Aaron singled and stole second. Carty singled him home, center fielder Mack Jones walked, and shortstop Denis Menke hit a three-run home run to build the lead for Vaughan to 7-0.
Vaughan held the Astros to only a single over the next three innings. Meanwhile, the Braves added five more runs, the feature being a three-run home run by Jones in the fourth off reliever Carroll Sembera.
Vaughan clearly recalled taking the mound to warm up in the top of the fifth. For four innings, his focus had been on manager Hitchcock’s instructions and Torre’s signs and glove placement, nothing else. Suddenly the public-address announcer’s voice broke through to Vaughan. He announced that a pinch-hitter – 32-year-old Gene Freese, winding down his big-league career with the Astros – was leading off the inning for Houston.4 Vaughan shook his head at the reality he was about to face. He was about to pitch to someone whose baseball card was back at home in his collection. Vaughan struck him out.
As Vaughan went out to start the seventh inning with the Braves leading 12-0, Hitchcock asked if he was tired. Vaughan acknowledged it, “a bit.” But with the large lead, Hitchcock let him take the mound. The Astros scored two runs that inning on three singles and a stolen base.
Hitchcock again asked if Vaughan was tired when he came off the mound at the end of that half-inning. Vaughan acknowledged he was tired and his curveball “just wasn’t there.” Hitchcock told him to take a seat. Jay Ritchie finished the last two innings on the mound. Charlie Vaughan got the victory and the Braves got the win, extending their streak against the Astros to 10 straight. The Braves won the nightcap as well, 6-4, moving the streak to 11 games.
Reflecting on his performance after the game, Vaughan acknowledged that the seven innings he had pitched were his longest stint in a game all year. Some prior injury concerns had caused Paul Richards, the Braves’ chief of player personnel, to mandate pitch-count control for Vaughan’s pitching at Double-A Austin. While Torre called on Vaughan’s prized curveball about 30 percent of the time, most of the time, Vaughan noted, they were “too low and inside” to be effective.5 Pitching coach Whitlow Wyatt said, “If he can pitch that good without that big curve ball, he will be really good with it.”6
The Atlanta Journal declared that Vaughan, “a handsome youngster with a big curve ball, had worked seven strong innings.”7
The Houston Chronicle did note that “The Astros had some excuse in the first game. They had their four best men out of the lineup. Jim Wynn is out for all games, of course, with a broken arm. Rusty Staub and Joe Morgan were sick and Sonny Jackson has a sore leg.”8
The Braves told Vaughan he could stay in Atlanta for a while, but he would not pitch again that season, or dress for another game. Vaughan said he felt great.9 In seven innings he had given up eight hits and walked three while allowing only two runs, both of which came in the final inning he pitched. He had struck out six Astros. He stayed in Atlanta for a few days and then headed home, still only 18 years old and with his first major-league victory and dreams of what might be in the coming seasons.
Prior to Vaughan’s going home, Eddie Mathews approached him to say he wished Vaughan would stay with the club for the remainder of the season. Throughout his career Mathews was known for, among other things, the ability to hit the long ball. In the 1966 season he hit only 16 home runs. However, he hit four of those while Vaughan was on the roster, resulting in Mathews giving Vaughan the nickname “My Lucky Charm.”
Little did anyone realize that the game Vaughan pitched would be the only victory he would earn in his major-league career. Far too soon, injuries and surgeries interfered with what had begun with such a stellar performance on that Saturday in Atlanta. He appeared in only one more major-league game, a relief appearance for the Braves in June 1969, and he pitched in his final professional game in 1970.
This article was fact-checked by Bruce Slutsky and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org. He also relied on a series of personal interviews conducted during 2021.
1 Vaughan was selected in the Rule 4 Draft. As explained on the MLB.com website, “The Rule 4 Draft is the official term for the First-Year Player Draft, an amateur draft held annually.” “Rule 4 Draft,” MLB.com, accessed August 21, 2023, https://www.mlb.com/glossary/transactions/rule-4-draft.
2 Author interview with Charlie Vaughan, 2021. All otherwise unattributed information from Vaughan comes from these interviews.
3 Wilt Browning, “Braves Go Boom for Vaughn [sic],” Atlanta Journal, September 4, 1966: 77.
4 The second game of the doubleheader was the final game of Freese’s 12-season major-league career.
7 Wayne Minshew, “Vaughan, Johnson ‘Two-Time’ Astros,” Atlanta Journal, September 4, 1966: 73.
8 John Wilson, “Braves Scalp Astros Twice,” Houston Chronicle, September 4, 1966: Sports 2-5.
9 Vaughan interview.