This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the Peach State (Atlanta, 2010)
COLLABORATOR’S NOTE: Between his big-league broadcasting debut with the 1953 St. Louis Browns and his current work as the radio voice of the Houston Astros, Milo Hamilton worked for the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, and Pittsburgh Pirates. He came to Atlanta with the Braves in 1966 and stayed for ten seasons. What follows are his memories of that first year in Dixie.
I will never forget the response the Braves received when they moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. It was great. Before the Opening Day parade, the team had a caravan that went through Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Alabama. I went along as the new broadcaster and remember the unbelievable welcome.
It wasn’t that the folks didn’t know baseball; the Atlanta Crackers had a very rich heritage for many years under Earl Mann. And the Birmingham Barons weren’t far away. There were a lot of minor-league towns in the South and a lot of mill towns where all the cotton mills had teams. Baseball was a big item, and the people were ready for big-league baseball. They welcomed us with open arms.
I had been working for the Chicago White Sox, where I was Bob Elson’s sidekick. They told me I would get the number-one job because Elson was getting older, but I wondered how long I would have to wait, as Red Barber said, before getting into the “catbird seat.”
I had known [Braves’ General Manager] John McHale since I worked for Davenport in the old Three-I League. In fact, he took me out to dinner on my honeymoon! I also knew Bill Bartholomay, part of the Braves ownership group and a former Chicago insurance executive who was close to the White Sox owners. But the key man for me was Jim Faszholz, whose brother pitched for the Cardinals in the ’50s. He had been an intern in the TV studio where I did the six and ten o’clock sports news during my two years in St. Louis. When he became director of broadcasting for the Braves, that helped make up my mind to go there.
The fans in Georgia already knew me; the White Sox had a big network, with more than 90 stations, including one in Atlanta. We had gone there to play an exhibition game in May 1965—the White Sox against the Milwaukee Braves. The move to Atlanta had already been announced, so it was a lame-duck year for the Braves. Before the game, they had a big luncheon, and I got a tremendous reception. McHale and Bartholomay were there and came up to me at the game that night. “You really got a great welcome here today,” they said. “Why don’t we talk about you moving south with us?” In August, Jim Faszhold followed up, and I knew I was going to go to Atlanta to be their first announcer. I had been on a year-to-year contract with the White Sox anyway.
It was a good move for my family. They were all baseball fans, so that made it easy. Mark was ten, Patti Joy was 12, and Arlene was the team mother when Mark was in Little League. I started doing commercials and did about a thousand a year—more than all the players on the team combined. I had a clothing store, a car dealership, and a Sears store. Plus I was the voice of Delta Airlines. I did the six o’clock news before going to the ballpark. It was the first time I ever made any big-league money, so it worked out well for me.
It also happened to be a very interesting season for the Braves. The team led the league with 207 home runs and would have been in contention with any pitching at all. Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews were still together and had a lot of firepower around them in the lineup; Rico Carty, Joe Torre, Gene Oliver, Mack Jones, and Felipe Alou hit a lot of home runs.
Tony Cloninger, a Southern boy from Iron Station, North Carolina, had won 24 games for the lame-duck Milwaukee Braves in 1965 and was supposed to be the team’s number-one pitcher. He had earned the right to pitch the first game in Atlanta. Unfortunately for Cloninger, another Deep South native, Bob Veale, was announced as the Opening Night pitcher for Pittsburgh. Veale was a big lefty who was tough, so Cloninger knew he probably wasn’t going to get many runs of support. Sure enough, Veale was on his game. Torre hit a home run but the Pirates hit two [including the game-winner by Willie Stargell] and won, 3–2. It was a cold, rainy night, and Cloninger pitched the whole game—13 innings. He was never quite the same after that. Bobby Bragan, an Alabama native, had moved to Atlanta with the team and knew there was a lot of Southern pride involved in the outcome. But Pittsburgh won the opener.
I participated in the opening ceremony and all the things that go with the glitter of a great grand opening, welcoming big-league baseball to the Deep South. It was exciting to be part of everything new—a new city for the Braves and the fact that other teams were coming there for the first time.
I had been there several times at the end of spring training, when teams barnstormed north from Florida. The White Sox used to get on a train and stop in Savannah, Macon, and Atlanta en route to play their Triple-A team in Indianapolis.
Even though the Braves were not a really great ballclub, the fans came out. They increased the team’s attendance by about a million more than they had drawn the year before. The fans knew Eddie Mathews, who had actually played for the Atlanta Crackers in Ponce de Leon Park. One of the great minor-league ballparks, it featured a magnolia tree in fair territory. Luke Appling started there, and Chuck Tanner played there. A lot of big-league ballplayers went through Atlanta on their way up.
So did Ernie Harwell, who later became a Hall of Fame announcer. He was working for Earl Mann when the Dodgers came through town. Branch Rickey heard him and asked what it would take to sign him for Brooklyn. Earl Mann wound up getting a player for him: a catcher named Cliff Dapper.
By coming south with the Braves, Mathews became the only man to play for the same team in three different cities. He had broken into the majors when the team was still based in Boston. In 1966, however, he was definitely on the downside of a great career. In fact, Bobby Bragan started platooning him, benching him against lefthanded pitchers. When Bobby got fired in the middle of the season, Billy Hitchcock put Mathews back into the lineup against lefties. In his very first game under Hitchcock, Mathews hit a home run to help Denny Lemaster beat Sandy Koufax, 2–1. That gave the ballclub a good feeling, and it responded to the new manager, posting a 33–18 mark.1
Later that year, Paul Richards traded Mathews to Houston—a situation that did not make Paul many friends. Eddie found out when a reporter called to get his reaction. And then the team spelled his name wrong in the official press release. That was no way to treat a Hall of Famer.
During their tenure as teammates (1954–66), Mathews and Aaron hit 863 home runs—a number not reached by Ruth and Gehrig, Mays and McCovey, Maris and Mantle, or any other tandem. I had known about them when they also had Joe Adcock and Wes Covington in the lineup up in Milwaukee. If you were a home-run hitter in that lineup, you always had a chance to get a ball to hit. There was always somebody behind you, so they couldn’t pitch around you.
Aaron had been a pretty good home-run hitter before but had hit a lot of opposite-field home runs in Milwaukee. When he got to Atlanta and saw Fulton County Stadium, he became almost a dead-pull hitter. The ball just flew. But I don’t think anybody thought Hank could challenge Babe Ruth’s lifetime record until 1972, when he announced he was going for it.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes; when the Braves announced they were moving from Milwaukee to Atlanta, Aaron said he didn’t want to go. But he adjusted pretty quickly. He was from Mobile, so his parents were able to come to a lot of games. His brother Tommie was in the organization too. And the welcome he received helped to change his attitude, even though he got some vicious hate mail when he went after Ruth’s record a few years later.
Rico Carty, who often batted behind Henry that first year, was the best two-strike hitter I ever saw. He was even better than Aaron. If Rico got two strikes against him, you could bet in Vegas that the next pitch was going to go to right field. He could hit with power to all fields. And he hit some long home runs. It was always an adventure, though, when Rico was playing left field. Maybe that’s why Bobby Bragan tried to make him a catcher. Because he was such a good hitter, nobody noticed he wasn’t a very good catcher.#endnote2
Bragan loved versatility. Felipe Alou moved to first base from the outfield, Woody Woodward played second and short, and Mike de la Hoz played third, second, and short. Felipe Alou might have been the Player of the Year that first season in Atlanta. We always knew he was a doggone good ballplayer, but he put it all together that year. He hit 31 home runs, a career high for him, but he did it as the leadoff man because there were so many other sluggers on the team. He was a very popular player with a great smile, and he was always accessible.
Despite all the sluggers on the team, the best singlegame performance came from a pitcher. On July 3, Tony Cloninger became the first National Leaguer—position player or pitcher—to hit two grand slams in one game. He also drove in another run for a nine-RBI performance when the Braves beat the Giants, 17–3. Nobody thought Tony would hit two—even when he came up a second time with the bases loaded. He was a good hitter, but we were hoping for a single or a fly ball.
Not too long after that, the team decided to change managers. Bobby Bragan had lost the club, and John McHale felt it was time to make a change. So they hired a former Auburn star, Billy Hitchcock, to keep the manager’s seat in the Alabama family. He settled the ballclub down. He had been a pretty good ballplayer in his time, and the players felt he was the right guy for the job. The fact that he started Mathews in that first game against the left-handed Koufax gave the team a good feeling.
Hitchcock’s biggest contribution came the next year when he brought Phil Niekro out of the bullpen as an emergency starter when Ken Johnson took ill in Philadelphia. Phil stayed in the rotation for the rest of his baseball life. I remember being at the booster luncheon when Hitchcock made the announcement. We couldn’t believe it, since Phil had made no starts in 1966 and had only two saves and a 4–3 record.
When we first arrived in Atlanta, people kept asking me about the team’s chances. I thought to myself that they weren’t going anywhere unless they got some pitching help. We had been a little hopeful going into a new town, especially with Cloninger as the bell cow of the rotation, but who knew he would drop from 24 wins to 14? Three years later, when they got into the playoffs against the Mets, they had Ron Reed and Pat Jarvis to pair with Niekro. In 1966, Reed had just come out of the NBA, and Niekro was in the bullpen. They didn’t have a catcher who could handle his knuckleball until they traded Gene Oliver for Bob Uecker in ’67.
Our pitching was pretty thin in ’66. We had a 40-year-old rookie named Chi Chi Olivo, an over-thehill closer named Ted Abernathy, and a former Rookie of the Year (Don Schwall) who never amounted to much after his first season. Ken Johnson turned out to be the ace with 14 wins, the same as Cloninger, but the only other pitcher in double digits was Lemaster (11). Wade Blasingame, a 16-game winner in ’65, hurt his arm, and Pat Jarvis and Dick Kelley were just coming up. Clay Carroll, the late reliever, led the team with 11 saves.
As for me, I worked hard in 1966, too. I shared the broadcast booth with Larry Munson and Ernie Johnson. We went from booth to booth, changing in the middle innings, so I was doing both radio and TV. It was an interesting transition, to say the least. You could put it all under one banner—the newness kept the enthusiasm going.
More importantly, bringing major-league baseball to the Deep South did wonders for race relations. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.3 The advent of the Atlanta Braves also opened doors for other cities, including Dallas, Miami, and Tampa Bay. It expanded the game and created legions of new fans. I felt honored to be part of it.
DAN SCHLOSSBERG, a former sportswriter for the Associated Press is author or coauthor of 35 books, including this year’s “The 300 Club: Have We Seen the Last of Baseball’s 300-Game Winners?” (Ascend Books, 2010). He is managing editor of the syndicated BallTalk Radio and the founder and president emeritus of the North American Travel Journalists Association.
1 That’s a .647 winning percentage; the winning percentage under Bragan had been .468.
2 Carty caught 17 games in 1966.
3 Just a few years before baseball came to town, segregation and discrimination had been almost universal, not just in Georgia but throughout the Southern states. The KKK had rallies not far from Atlanta. And let’s not forget that Hank Aaron had been reluctant to move from Milwaukee to Atlanta. Fortunately, it turned out to be a move made in baseball heaven for both him and the ballclub. The Braves had other black stars, including Felipe Alou, Rico Carty, and Mack Jones, who also helped prove that color didn’t matter.