Coach Jim Pruett asked me last week if I could name the starting lineup for the Atlanta Braves in their 1966 opener. Of course, that was the Braves first season in Atlanta and that was 49 seasons ago. That was quite a task for any Braves’ fan.
Well, believe it or not, I got them all! There are two spots that are very tough, but I knew one of them and made a good guess on the other. For some reason I have always remembered that the Braves’ starting first baseman in their first ever Atlanta game against the Pittsburgh Pirates was Lee Thomas. The one that I guessed correctly was second base where Frank Bolling got the opening nod.
Pretty good huh? The other starters were catcher Joe Torre, third baseman Eddie Mathews, shortstop Denis Menke, and outfielders Rico Carty, Felipe Alou, and Hank Aaron. The starting hurler was Tony Cloninger.
Of course the Braves lost that game 3-2 to the Pirates on a 13th inning home run by Willie Stargell. Cloninger went all 13 innings and some say that he was never the same after that evening. Torre hit two solo homeruns for the Braves.
Bobby Bragan was the Braves’ manager and they went on to have an 85-77 season record, putting them fifth in the ten-team National League. The league was not divided into divisions at this time. Aaron led the league with 44 home runs and 127 runs batted in.
As I looked up some information on the 1966 Braves I found their roster. There I found some names that brought back some memories of this early Braves’ squad. Do you remember pitchers Ron Reed, Clay Carroll, Wade Blasingame, Pat Jarvis, Ken Johnson, Dick Kelley, Denver Lemaster, Ted Abernathy, Joey Jay, or Phil Niekro? How about players like Gene Oliver, Mike de la Hoz, Felix Millan, Gary Geiger, Mack Jones, or Sandy Alomar?
I’ll mention a couple of interesting things happened during the 1966 season. First, on July 3 Cloninger became the first National League player (and pitcher) to hit two grand slam home runs in one game. He did so in a 17-3 win over the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. He also drove in nine runs in the game.
Then on September 11 Jarvis became the first strikeout victim of Nolan Ryan, who went on to record 5,714 strike outs in his Hall of Fame career.
Two interesting transactions happened before the 1966 year as the Braves prepared to play their inaugural season in Atlanta. In April the Braves traded outfielder Billy Cowan to the Chicago Cubs for third baseman Bobby Cox. Cox never played in a game for Atlanta, but as all Braves fans know he later became the team’s manager and went on to a build a Hall of Fame career.
The other transaction took place in January, 1966 when the Braves drafted Tom Seaver as the 20th overall pick in the secondary phase of the major league draft. Seaver went on to sign a contract with the Braves. Before he could join the Braves, Seaver had his contract voided by Commissioner William Eckert because his college team, Southern Cal, had played two exhibition games that year, even though Seaver did not play in either.
Seaver then intended to finish his college career but, because he had signed a pro contract, the NCAA ruled him ineligible. After Seaver’s father complained about the unfairness of the situation and threatened a lawsuit, Eckert ruled that other teams could match the Braves’ offer. The Mets were awarded his signing rights in a lottery with two other teams that had matched the Braves’ offer. Those teams were the Phillies and Indians. By 1969 Seaver had led the woeful Mets to a World Championship!
So the Braves should have had a super pitcher in Hall of Famer Tom Seaver but the Commissioner got in the way. He should have left things alone and the Braves may have won a couple more World Championships with Seaver leading the way. And they wouldn’t have had to try to hit Seaver as a Met!
So that’s the 1966 Braves, Atlanta’s first pro team. There’s much more to learn and maybe this little taste will lead you to investigate even more. Have fun learning about this very interesting time in Atlanta sports’ history.