Monday, July 10, 2017
Tony Cloninger's incredible feat in 1966 summer
If it happened before, it could happen again.
In 1966 our Minnesota Twins were a year removed from their pinnacle year of the 1960s. We won the pennant in '65 and then lost the World Series in seven games to the Dodgers. It's strange how we seem to remember nothing abut the '66 season. We still had an arguably super team. But we were not No. 1 in the league this time. We were No. 2 among the ten teams. America is a land that prioritizes being No. 1. I'm sure there were many pleasant afternoons and evenings at our Metropolitan Stadium, when our powerful Twins dispatched the opposition. But 1966 gets lost in obscurity in our collective memory, because in '65 we were No. 1, not in '66.
In 1966 the Braves were in their first year in Atlanta. Strange how Milwaukee could not do what was needed to keep the Braves. The Braves had been a highly exciting team with many interesting individuals in Milwaukee. Milwaukee would later show it could support big league ball with the Brewers. But something went haywire and caused those Hank Aaron-led Braves to migrate south. They had spent 13 seasons in the brew town.
Aaron, Joe Torre, Ed Mathews and Rico Carty took their act to Georgia. In '91 our Twins would dispatch the Braves in the fall showcase.
A pitcher who could hit
Tony Cloninger was a 25-year-old pitcher in 1966. I remember from playing the APBA simulation game that Cloninger was a superb-hitting pitcher, rather like having a DH in the order instead of the typical anemic-hitting pitcher. I remember that Cloninger was the Braves' staff ace in 1964, still in Milwaukee, when the Braves were involved in a suspenseful pennant race with several other teams. Warren Spahn was still with the Braves. Unfortunately he fell off from his prime. He had such a sturdy arm for so many years. Had he coaxed one more stellar season from that left arm, the Braves would have certainly won the '64 pennant. Instead they got edged out, as St. Louis with a young Lou Brock won the pennant and then went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series.
Cloninger's APBA card for 1964 suggested he was something other than a pitcher. But a pitcher he was, with hitting numbers that showed he could be quite the asset in that department.
Let's drift back in time to that 1966 summer when the Braves were established in their new home of downtown Atlanta. Let's park on the date of July 3, 1966, in the midst of the holiday slowdown for the Fourth. The setting was San Francisco, Candlestick Park with its mystifying winds. It was Sunday afternoon at the heart of the Independence Day spirit.
The Alou brothers batted leadoff for the two teams: Felipe for the Braves and Jesus for the Giants. Jim Bouton wrote that teammates didn't pronounce Jesus in the proper way, HAY-soos, but rather like the Biblical man, in the typical irreverent spirit of big league players of that era. They weren't paid or treated as well as they should have been. Therefore they could develop bitter or cynical edges.
The Braves weren't excelling as of July 3 as they were in eighth place among the ten N.L. teams. They were 15 games behind the league-leading Giants. The July 3 game developed in an explosive way just like the fireworks. Cloninger had a seven-run lead before he even went out to the mound in the bottom of the first. He had quite the role in getting that early spurt. How that rally developed: Felipe Alou popped out, Mack Jones singled, Aaron forced Jones to second, then here come the fireworks: Carty singled to right. Torre homered to deep center. Frank Bolling and Woody Woodward singled, chasing Giants pitcher Joe Gibbon. (Going through all these names revives memories of my baseball card collection!)
Denis Menke - yes, just one "n" in Denis - drew a walk from Bob Priddy. Priddy was probably relieved to get to the pitcher, Cloninger. Cloninger worked Priddy to a full count. Then, fireworks: Cloninger hit the ball to almost the same spot as Torre's homer: a grand slam. The ball cleared the 410-foot sign. Ah, six hits, seven runs. A Carty homer made the score 8-0 in the second.
Here we go again!
The fourth inning saw Carty trot down to first with a walk. Torre got on by error and Bolling singled to score Carty. There were two outs with two baserunners on when Menke came up to bat. Menke walked as he had done previously. The sacks were loaded again with Cloninger set to bring his bat to the plate. The count was 0-and-1 when Cloninger socked his second bases-loaded homer of the game, a liner over the opposite field fence in right. The score after 3 1/2 innings was 13-0.
Aaron hit his league-leading 25th home run in the fifth. The eighth inning saw Cloninger hit a run-scoring single. The final score was 17-3, quite a way to mark America's birthday. Cloninger's RBI total of nine on the day was quite the new standard for pitchers. The Braves sent 52 batters to face Giants pitching. Five Braves each had at least three hits.
Sharp on the mound too
Cloninger pitched a complete game, scattering seven hits while allowing three earned runs. He fanned five batters and walked two. He won for the sixth time in his last seven starts, raising his record to 9-7. He quipped after that July 3 game: "Funny thing, nobody is asking me about my pitching."
Fans left Candlestick Park wide-eyed to be sure.
Major league baseball fascinated me through the '60s as I passed through junior high, a rather arduous time of life typically. Baseball was an escape for me, a taste of the exciting "macro" world away from my mundane "micro" world of where I lived. How much more joy we would have felt, with no Viet Nam war as a horrible, devilish specter. We miss you, Richard Ungerecht.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org