There’s a lot to say about this photo. First of all, it’s pretty damn blurry, which is too bad since it’s one of the few team shots taken on a sunny day away from any stadium shadows. That invites the question of where the photo was taken; my guess is in spring training since Pat Dobson (fifth from left in back row) and just-completed post subject Bob Didier (second from right in bottom row) are here. Here too are some surprises: ’65 AL Rookie of the Year Curt Blefary (second from right in last row); ’68 AL Cy Young and MVP winner Denny McLain (fifth from right in third row); and Andre – then Andy – Thornton (left of Dobson), who I never knew was part of an Atlanta roster. There’s even a guy sitting on a lawn mower or some other type of wheeled conveyance but he may have a medical issue so I’m leaving that one alone. There are some Hall of Famers: Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, and manager Eddie Mathews are here but one potent cog from the ’73 machine is missing in Darrell Evans.
There’s not too much good to say about this team. Yeah, the infield set a record for the home runs it produced with three guys generating 40 or more. But even that stat was tainted because Hank Aaron – ascribed first base to make the record work and also voted to that position in the All-Star game – never actually played there all year. The real story was the team’s sorry pitching. Between the ineffectiveness of Pat Dobson and Ron Reed and the injury to Gary Gentry the rotation was a mess and Dobson was sent away mid-year. The bullpen was terrible and not one swing guy had a good year. Atlanta back then was a bit of a launch pad and the team’s 4.25 ERA was the NL’s worst. The Braves kicked off the season 3-10 and was never at or above .500. The team pretty much resided in fifth place the whole year. But at least Hank’s chase of the Babe was bringing them to the park.
There aren’t a crazy lot of record holders to review but there are enough to split this post into two, so here goes:
Tommy Holmes grew up in Brooklyn and played semi-pro ball there after graduating high school. He was discovered in ’37 – when he was 20 – by a Yankee scout who showed up to watch Tommy’s team take on a team from the Negro Leagues and Tommy was signed on the spot. He tore up his B league that summer with a .320 average, 25 homers, and 111 RBI’s. Tommy generally wasn’t a home run hitter, though, and his next few seasons were more indicative of his style. In ’38 in A ball he hit .368 and the next three years he averaged well over .300 in Double A. But in ’41 NY had an All-Star outfield led by Joe Dimaggio and after that season Tommy was traded to the Boston Braves for Buddy Hassett and Gene Moore. With Boston his first couple seasons he stepped into the starting center field spot and did pretty well, especially after being tutored on pulling the ball to right – Tommy was a lefty – by Paul Waner who was finishing up his career in Boston. Tommy made good contact, had good doubles power, and rarely struck out and his first two seasons hit a bit above .270. In ’44 he failed his draft physical – he had bad sinuses – and had his first .300-plus year while only striking out eleven times. Then in ’45 came his monster year: .352 on 224 hits with 47 doubles, 28 homers, 117 RBI’s, and a .420 OBA, all on only nine K’s. He led the MLB in doubles, hits, and homers. It was also in that season that he had a 37-game hitting streak, the longest in the NL until it was broken by Pete Rose in ’78. His homer and RBI power came back to earth from then on but he still banged out lots of doubles and the next three seasons hit well over .300, including ’48 when he hit .325 to help take Boston to the NL pennant. The next year his average went south a bunch and both that season and in ’50 he was platooned in the outfield, though the latter year his average revived to .298. In ’51 he managed and played – he hit .319 – at Boston’s A franchise in Hartford until mid-season he was asked to take over the Braves after Billy Southworth resigned as manager. He went a game over .500 the rest of the way while playing sparingly and after a 13-22 start in ’52 was released. He then hooked up with the Dodgers for whom he pinch hit and then returned to the Series. That was his final work as a player up top and Tommy finished with a .302 average with 292 doubles, 88 homers, and 581 RBI’s with 122 strikeouts in just under 5,000 at bats. He hit .185 in his nine post-season games. In ’53 he returned to the minors to manage, that year in the now-Milwaukee system, and from ’54 to ’57 in the Brooklyn one. He played a bit in ’54 ending his minor days with a .326 average. He finished with a managing record of 61-69 up top and posted a winning record in the minors. In ’58 he scouted for the Dodgers before taking on his next gig as commissioner of the New York State Sandlot Baseball Alliance which he did for over 30 years. He also hooked up with the Mets in ’73 as a community relations guy which he did also for over 30 years, retiring when he was 86. He relocated to Florida where he passed away in 2008 at age 91.
Getting any information on Ray “Rabbit” Powell has been pretty tough. A little guy from Siloam Springs, Arkansas, he was still living in his hometown in his thirties. By 1908, when he was 19, he was playing independent ball in Oklahoma. A speedy outfielder, he wasn’t a great fielder, but was always near the top of his league in triples and stolen bases. Beginning in 1910 he played three seasons for A league St. Joseph, Missouri and towards the end of the ’11 season it was announced he was getting purchased by the White Sox for $5,000, although it seems dubious as to whether that ever happened. After his best season in ’12 – he hit .309 with 17 triples – he moved up to the Double A Providence Grays where he spent almost all of the next five seasons. He did get purchased for a short run for Detroit in ’13 – no at bats – and in July of ’17 got bought by the Braves for whom he immediately took over center and hit .272 as a 28-year old rookie. His average slipped to .213 the next year before he and a couple teammates joined the navy for WW I. In ’19 Ray and his mates returned and he would be an outfield fixture in Boston the next five seasons, that first season in left, but the rest of his time in center. He took a while getting on track average-wise, hitting only about .230 his first two years back. But after the ’20 season he announced he was walking home to Arkansas and he came back in ’21 to have his biggest year: .306 with all those triples, 12 homers, and 74 RBI’s, all career highs. He tied a mark with three triples in a game that year and the next two seasons his average hovered around .300. But he was losing playing time in ’23 and the next season was a back-up, partly because he wrecked his knee, which was discovered when he was traded to – and returned from – the Phillies the prior December. ’24 was his last year up top and he finished at that level with a .268 average with 67 triples and 35 homers, pretty good for a little guy back then. He then returned to the minors, first for four seasons at Houston, a St. Louis A league team, where he coached and hit well over .300 as a regular every year. In ’29 he began managing back in independent ball where he hit around .340 for two years. His last year as a regular player was in ’31 when he was 42 – he hit .300 in the minors - and he continued to coach or manage through at least ’46, including five-plus years in the Yankees system and five in Cleveland’s. By the early Sixties he had relocated to Missouri where he passed away in ’62 at age 73.
Eddie Mathews I’ll do on his manager card and Rogers Hornsby’s been covered already. On to a pitcher or two:
Vic Willis grew up in Delaware and briefly attended the University of Delaware before he left to play B league independent ball in 1895 when he was 19. He only went 10-15 that year and in ’96 was sick pretty much the whole season. But in ’97 he got healthy and pitched for Syracuse, an A level team, and went 21-17 with a 1.16 ERA. At the end of the season he was traded for some cash and Fred Lake to the Boston Beaneaters. Back then Boston was a powerhouse and Vic stepped right into the rotation to go 25-13 his rookie year as his team won the pennant. In ’99 he went 27-8 with an NL-leading 2.50 ERA and five shutouts. After an off 1900 he won 20 in ’01 and then had his biggest year, at least in terms of league-leading stats: he was 27-20 in 46 starts of which he completed 45, with three saves and 225 strikeouts in 410 innings. All those stats but the record were NL-leading. By that year, though, Boston was heading south fast and his records the next three seasons were 12-18, 18-25, and 12-29 despite league-average ERA’s. That last loss total is a record since 1900. But following the ’05 season Pittsburgh took a flyer on Vic and traded three guys for him. Pittsburgh won that trade as the next four years Vic averaged a record of 22-11 with excellent ERA’s, his best being a 1.73 ERA in ’06. In ’09 he helped the Pirates take the pennant and then won a Series ring though he didn’t pitch terribly well. By then it was rumored he and manager Fred Clarke didn’t get along too well and after a mediocre ’10 season Vic was done. He finished 249-205 with a 2.63 ERA, 388 complete games, 50 shutouts, and eleven saves. He hit .166 with 84 RBI’s and in the post-season went 0-1 with a 4.63 ERA in a couple games. He returned to Delaware after he retired where he bought and ran the Washington House Hotel until he passed away in 1947 at age 71. He was voted into the Hall by the Veterans Committee in 1995.
Charles “Togie” Pittinger was born in Greencastle, PA and played local ball for a while after school. When he first hooked up with a semi-pro league in 1895 he was 23. By then he’d been married and had a couple kids, one of whom passed away. He was apparently sick often and his first recorded stats are from ’96 when he went 5-7 for an independent team. He was then signed by Boston and played the next two seasons for their B team, going a combined 20-4 with an ERA below 1.00. Of the 72 runs he gave up those two years, only 25 were earned: I guess that was pitching back then. In ’99 and 1900 he moved up to A ball and went a combined 22-10 until his mid-season promotion to Boston. The rest of 1900 he went 2-9 up top with an ERA over 5.00. He settled down a bit to go 13-16 with a 3.01 ERA in ’01 and then had his big ’02 in which he went 27-16 with a 2.52 ERA and led the NL in walks, which he’d also do the next two seasons. In ’03 and ’04 his record mirrored that of Willis’ as he went a combined 33-43 though his ERA was just south of league average. After the ’04 season he was part of one of baseball’s first big trades ever when he went to the Phillies for pitcher Chick Fraser and third baseman Harry Wolverton. For Philly, Togie had a one-year renaissance as in ’05 he went 23-14. He then went 17-15 over the next two seasons before he finished with a record of 115-113 with a 3.10 ERA, 187 complete games, 23 shutouts, and three saves. He returned to Greencastle after he was done playing where he passed away only two years later from Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment. He was only 37.
I’ll pick these up on the next post.