The Greatest Unimportant Braves Game

[This post is not a recap of last night’s stirring 8-3 win. I was at 30,000 feet for the game, and Mr. Copenhaver has agreed to supply a full recap. Until then, I celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the Greatest Braves Game of No Importance. My long march through 1966 has skipped over the managerial change.  I’ll cover that next week.]

From the opening pitch by Tony Cloninger to Matty Alou on April 12, 1966 to the last out in last night’s 8-3 win the Atlanta Braves have played almost 8,400 games. Of those, the truly memorable ones are but a few hundred. And of the truly memorable games, only a few were memorable despite being unimportant for the pennant race or some particular feat like Tony Cloninger’s two grand slams or Albert Hall’s cycle or Bob Horner’s four homers. My nominee for the greatest ordinary game in Braves history is August 9, 1966, when Denny Lemaster faced off against Sandy Koufax in Atlanta Stadium before a sellout crowd of 52,269 plus one completely awed ten year old kid.

Here’s why.

1. Sandy Koufax: Sandy Koufax was in the last year of his career, and what a year, winning the Cy Young Award for the second straight season and finishing second in the MVP race for the second straight season. He finished 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and 323 strikeouts, all of which led the NL. This was his second, and last, game pitched in Atlanta Stadium, the other being a 2-1 win over Lemaster on June 26th. (He also had a 5-2 loss to Ken Johnson on July 9th in Dodger Stadium in which Cloninger got his only save of the season.) As a clear demonstration of the phenomenon that was Koufax, those games were two of the three highest attendances of the season, and this game exceeded Opening Day in Atlanta, while the other one fell just short.

2. The first 8 ½ innings: Atlanta Stadium had already started to gain its reputation as the Launching Pad, but this was an old-fashioned pitching duel. Felipe Alou led off for the Braves in the bottom of the first with a homer, Woody Woodward singled twice and Mike de la Hoz walked for all the offense the Braves could muster until the bottom of the ninth against Koufax, who struck out 9. But Lemaster matched him: after two harmless walks in the first inning, he was untouchable until the 8th when Jim Lefebvre hit a homer to break up the no-hitter and tie the game. This isn’t 2018, though, and Lemaster stayed in, even giving up a double to Koufax later in the inning and a two-out single by Tommy Davis in the top of the 9th. 9 innings pitched, 1 run, 3 hits and 10 strikeouts.

3. Eddie Mathews: with one out in the bottom of the 9th, Eddie Mathews hit a line drive walk-off homer to right to end the game. It was the next-to-last loss of Koufax’s career. I haven’t talked about Mathews that much because he wasn’t having a very good season. After this game, he was hitting .222 and OPSing .680 with only 8 homers. This was the 485th home run of his career. He’d hit 8 more in Atlanta in the last two months before being traded to Houston and Detroit for 19 more after an entire previous career with the Braves franchise: the only player to play in Boston Milwaukee and Atlanta.

4. A walkoff homer by one Hall of Famer off of another Hall of Famer is a pretty rare event. Babe Ruth hit a walkoff against Ted Lyons in 1928. Jimmie Foxx hit one off Lefty Grove in 1938. Frank Robinson did it twice; off Bob Gibson in 1964 and Rollie Fingers in 1971. Roberto Clemente hit one off Fergie Jenkins in 1972. Tony Perez hit one off Bruce Sutter in 1983. There are surely more but it’s not that easy to research.

Tfloyd in a comment last week mentioned that he thought in 1966 that Cloninger was an elite pitcher when clearly he wasn’t. I thought the same of Lemaster. He faced the greatest pitcher of the 60’s (sorry Bob Gibson) twice in 1966 and beat him 2-1 and lost to him 2-1. To this 10 year old, Lemaster was Koufax’s equal. And on this night, I was right and I got to see it live. I attended some pretty famous games: Aaron’s 715th, McWilliams and Garber ending Pete Rose’s hitting streak, Bob Horner’s debut. But this was the greatest game I ever attended, and one of the greatest in Braves history.

 

Author: JonathanF

Alive since 1956. Braves fan since 1966. The first ten years were pretty much wasted. Exiled to Yankees/Mets territory in 1974 --- bearable only with TBS followed by MLB.TV.

96 thoughts on “The Greatest Unimportant Braves Game”

  1. I said yesterday I’ve been hanging around here for 13-14 years.

    That sir was one of the best posts I’ve read here.

  2. Loved the recap! Still remember that game. Thought Denny would do that many times more. Alas…not quite.

  3. It’s too bad I wasn’t a Braves fan until 1969. It has always seemed to me that the Braves were only ever Atlanta’s team and Milwaukee and, even more so, Boston were ancient history. I always thought of Cloninger as a Reds pitcher and Lemaster as an Astros pitcher so it’s hard for me to relate. At any rate, I love the recap and enjoy the baseball history lesson.

  4. Wonderful, JonathanF. I remember that game well. I was “there” the same way I was for most games that season—listening to the radio in bed.

    That night I was at my grandfather’s house, and I remember talking about it over breakfast the next morning. I mention that because I’ll be taking my preschool grandchildren to the game today (all of us decked out in Braves gear).

  5. And I’ve got to come up behind that? Fantastic post. What a game to see in person, and you’ve seen some good ones. Really well done.

  6. As to Eddie Mathews, it’s kind of a shame he was no longer at star in ATL, because he already had a big fan base due to his time as an Atlanta Cracker. The first pro game I went to at Ponce de Leon park (in 1963, I think) my father and grandfather pointed out the magnolia tree some 500 feet from home plate where Mathews hit a homer.

    The walkoff against Koufax was magical; it’s all the more memorable because it was pretty much his last hurrah.

  7. My memory is that Bobby Bragan had started platooning Mathews in 1966, benching him against southpaws. All the more remarkable that Eddie hit this walkoff against the greatest lefty of his time.
    (I’m looking forward to JonathanF’s report on the 1966 managerial change)

  8. Thank you, JonathanF, for the memory. Like TFloyd, I watched those Braves games on the radio. I am enjoying reliving those bygone days. Thanks again.

  9. How great was Eddie Mathews? There’s a good argument he was the second greatest third baseman of all time. One of the other three or four contenders for that title would be Chipper.

  10. Jaws goes:

    Schmidt, Mathews, Boggs, Beltre, Brett, Chipper, Santo, Robinson, Molitor, Rolen

    bWAR is the same except Boggs and Beltre swap and Santo is down to 9th with Robinson and Molitor moving up one.

    fWAR is:

    Schimdt, Mathews, Boggs, Chipper, Brett, Beltre, Robinson, Santo, Rolen, Molitor

    It should be noted that ARod played nearly as many games at 3b as SS and would lead them all.

  11. Thanks everybody, but I didn’t *play* in that game, I just wrote about it. Greetings from the Home of the Padres where, if my schedule works out, I will attend a game at Petco Park to root against the Phillies.

    Third base is a weird position. Nobody argues for Pie Traynor anymore. I don’t think there’s another position in which the greatest players at the position all played in my lifetime. Maybe catcher…. Berra retired in 1963.

  12. Last night’s game was an excellent example of the excellence of Tyler Flowers. The offense is really better than it has looked this year, but that is not the focus of this post.

    A lot of what kept getting the gNats out last night was Tyler’s framing. Don’t believe the disinformation that framing doesn’t matter. Tyler is good enough to be a No. 1 catcher on a good team. The problem is that he can’t catch 120 to 130 games. So, you need a 70 or more game catcher to go with him.

  13. A-Rod is either the best SS or the best 3B of all-time, and he shouldn’t be penalized for not playing one position his entire career.

  14. JonathanF @ 16,

    Part of the reason for the recent 3B phenomenon is that Eddie Matthews reinvented the position. In Dead Ball era, fielding bunts at third was very important. So, teams were more willing to sacrifice offense over there.

  15. @14 Don’t worry everyone, I’ve figured out where to slot A. Rod, or should I say A. Roid…….. :)

  16. A fun piece of trivia from last night: apparently the Flowers and Acuna homers in the 4th inning went a grand total of 900 feet combined!

    I didn’t get to watch the game live, but based on the highlights it sure looked like a lot of things went the Braves’ way and the game could easily have been a lot closer than it was – Daniel Murphy missed a very hittable pitch when flying out with the bases loaded to end the first inning, Jackson somehow came back from a 3-1 count to strike out Eaton with the bases loaded and 2 down in the 6th, plus the line drive DP in the 9th inning was pretty fortunate as well.

    Basically, this was just one of those games that went our way and we capitalized on the Nats’ mistakes (including, but not limited to, starting Tommy Milone). The shoe has been on the other foot many times, and it sucks when that happens, but that’s just baseball – no matter how good or bad your team is, sometimes the ball bounces your way and sometimes not. Best to enjoy it when the breaks go your way!

  17. I’m heading to Nationals Park. I’ve got recap duty but it will be tonight before I can post.
    First time I’ve recapped a game that I attend in person.
    I will try to post some comments during the game, especially since many of you won’t be able to watch.

  18. It’s been really encouraging to see the favorable pitching match-ups we’ve had on the Nats. Stras not staying on the field is uniquely helping us this particular year.

  19. Am I the only guy that puts the steroid guys into the “if they were good before they used steroids, who cares” category? I mean if you even deflated their stats by X % that you might arbitrarily assign to steroids they are still better than 99.99% of their peers.

    I mean A-Rod and Barry Bonds AND Clemens were HOF players when they were skinny as a rail and in Clemens case just when he wasn’t using them.

    Vis a vis someone like Ken Caminiti (not saying he was a HOF) who without steroids wouldn’t have been a fraction of the player that he was with them.

  20. I would think someone like Harper would need to be put on the DL and chained to a bench not to play in a game as big as today’s is for the Nats.

  21. @26 I disagree on Bonds. I suppose it depends upon when he started taking ‘roids. For his first four years, Bonds was great but nowhere near HOF worthy. In his fifth year, his power spiked and reports were that he looked more chiseled. It was suspicious from the very beginning. Without steroids, Bonds was on his way to being Nick Markakis. After steroids, he never played CF again.

    A-Rod and Clemens, I have an easier time accepting. Both of them were about the same greatness from the beginning.

  22. @26/27 Agreed that my mental calculus vis a vis the steroid guys is to try to guesstimate what their careers would have been without steroids. And for Hall of Fame consideration, tack on whatever kind of ‘cheater penalty’ you want to assess depending on the circumstances of the player.

    Bonds, ARod and Clemens were all already headed for inner-circle HOF careers before they started juicing. Ultimately, I think all three will be in the HOF.

    @30 Bonds had already accumulated something like 45 WAR, including several ~10 WAR years, while a skinny dude with the Pirates. He was going to be a HOFer, and hit tons of HRs, cheating or not.

  23. Barry Bonds is generally agreed by all informed persons to have started using HGH in 1999-2000, in response to once again having his all-world, MVP level talents overlooked and overshadowed, this time by the 1998 Sosa-McGwire lovefest in the media. He was a HOF player before he ever thought about HGH or steroids. He was the best player of his generation without any chemical help. WITH the assist in the training room, he became the best player in the history of the game.

  24. While you guys are re-heating the dead horse of steroid moralism yet again, I’ll throw a note out here that today’s game starts in like, 15 minutes, and is another of those Facebook Only Live Video Streaming Only Games On Facebook things.

  25. I’m not completely sure I buy the narrative that most just accept as fact, that these guys played clean, and then magically decided to start cheating at a certain time.

    That said, as baseball tacitly allowed the rampant cheating to continue, then there is no reason that at least Clemens and Bonds should be in the HOF. A Rod is different, he failed a test and was suspended for an entire season.

  26. Bonds was easily the best player in baseball for the first ten years of his career. Just look at his numbers. No doubt HOF trajectory. I’ve read that he didn’t start doping until 98 or 99.
    His 2000-2004 roid numbers were freak show and unprecedented, but he was an all time great before that.

  27. @8 Or Jeter might be trying to drive the price up. We just need to make him an offer he can’t refuse.

  28. Also, Mays and Mantle played their entire careers jacked to the gills on amphetamines, as did Good Henry. The technology improved, not the players’ willingness to use technology to play better.

  29. I don’t want to take away from Jonathan’s post, which was great, by throwing up a recap before an afternoon game, so I would just like to make some quick notes:

    -Folty didn’t have his best stuff, but he battled, and almost got through 6 against a lineup hitting well. He’s consistently pitching into the 7th away from being a top 10-15 pitcher.
    -Getting production from the catcher and shortstop positions is huge, and we’ll need it if we’re going to contend.
    -Duvall is now 2-13 and that’s not good.
    -The pen is about the deepest you can expect from what we went into the season with if Jackson can become a high leverage guy.
    -I think Ender gets traded this offseason through no fault of his own the way it was easy for Kenny Lofton to move on to shift Andruw from RF to CF.

  30. Yeah, Bonds is an inner-circle no-doubter for me no matter how many drugs he took. And Roger, that’s just not true. Barry produced 14 wins his first three seasons, age 21-23. Then he kept getting better. Part of that is he was rated as an elite defender because he was fast as hell. Then he started hitting for higher averages, which was the biggest hole in his offensive game, and he won three MVP awards in four years by the time he was 29.

    The only season Barry Bonds ever struck out 100 times was his rookie year.

  31. @34 Thanks for the reminder Sam. I’m definitely streaming the game from my office today.

    Interestingly, Inciarte is getting a start vs. Gio Gonzalez (a lefty) instead of going with Duvall.

  32. Speaking of bad announcers, these guys on the Facebook game are just awful. Can I turn them off and just hear the baseball game???

  33. Ozzie singled, then got doubled off on a Freddie drive to the gap that was run down.

    Trea Turner singled, was erased on a FC from Soto.

    0-0 going into 2.

  34. @44 I think the announcers are F.P. Santangelo and (former Brave!) Mark DeRosa. You’re not wrong to want to mute them.

    Kakes goes YARD to right! 1-0 Braves. Announcers were just saying that “if you’re going to consider Freeman for MVP you have to consider Markakis”, which is not really logically accurate, but then Kakes ripped a HR two seconds later so I guess yeah, KAKES FOR MVP.

  35. I’m n the right field bleachers with two toddlers and no view of the big scoreboard. That’s fine but for some reason they keep the smaller scoreboards covered with ads more than half the time.
    Still, as old Ernie always said, you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark.
    I did just see Nick. Absolutely crushed

  36. Diving catch by Daniel Murphy to rob Ender of a single to right. 2 down in the 2nd inning. Colonel Dans is up.

    Announcers noted the Culberson-Swanson look alike situation and then said “chime in from the comment section!”. I would post a frowny face to the FB feed but I don’t want to give any kind of encouragement to Facebook.

    Dansby walks, allowing us to clear the pitcher’s spot in the order .

  37. I’m a complete steroid agnostic. I don’t care what sacrifices players go through to make themselves competitive. Period. I also don’t care about people stupid enough to emulate them. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s “Steroid era? What steroid era? And Dock Ellis’ no-hitter still counts, too.”

  38. I have to say that I appreciate a broadcast without commercials. Of course, the downside is that FP and DeRo have to blather through the break but with better commenters it could be awesome.

  39. Breaking news: Kevin Gausman reports that there is apparently a baseball team named “the Orioles”. I’ll send more updates as the news rolls in!

    Bizarrely, the feed kept the video on Gausman throughout the entirety of Acuna’s AB (which ended in a line out). That was pretty annoying.

  40. This is ridiculous. It’s not the Nats’ fault at all, but we should plunk someone to make the universe a bit more symmetrical.

  41. Going to see somebody getting up in the pen???? You mean someone wasn’t already warming up? Parsons chucked about 7 balls in a row……..

  42. That’s the only way the GNats can win. Injure our pitchers. That sucks. Meanwhile – not much liking the walks from Parsons.

    With Anibal, they can’t get a hit and with Parsons we can’t get an out.

  43. Who are they going to get up? McCreery? Have him eat, at most, two innings? Then what? This game is in Parsons’ hands now.

  44. I’m sick of other teams’ pitchers getting hits. Gio scores the first run.

    I guess one has to be considerate of the fact that Parsons walked two after being whacked with a line drive. He can still gut his way into a decent performance.

  45. For those not watching, the last ball hit in the 2nd was off Anibal’s calf and he came out with a bruised calf. Parsons was then hit in the ankle but stayed in and walked Soto to drive in a run and then Rendon just missed a grand slam for another run on a SF. Parsons got through it… we’ll see how he is.

  46. Honestly, I love watching Juan Soto. His approach at the plate is so incredible. He doesn’t give away at-bats. He doesn’t get fooled. He has such an advanced understanding of the strike zone, he’s so quick through the zone, generates such easy power. He’s the complete package as a hitter.

  47. @73 Soto’s only weakness (such as it is) at the present is he really does his damage off fastballs, so pitchers have started throwing him more breaking pitches. That said, he has excellent plate discipline and doesn’t expand his zone, and there are only so many pitchers who can successfully and reliably throw breaking pitches in the strike zone.

  48. I hope we don’t let Gio off the hook. We were hitting him hard and looks like the offense is going to sleep.

  49. Has Flaherty had a hit since May?

    Terrible day, between starting Ender vs a lefty (What is Duvall here for?)

    Resting Camargo as well

    Albies contiunuing to pop up on first pitches

    Friggin SP’s getting hit by comebackers in the second inning

    Freeman getting thrown out at home by 30 feet

    I tire of the nats, go and beat up or get eliminated by the phillies already.

    edit; oh yeah, fp santangelo (shudders)

  50. Ender actually has good numbers against Gio so that didn’t totally surprise me. I don’t know why Camargo didn’t pinch hit, though.

  51. 2 on, nobody out in the top of the 9th. (Potential) tying run for the Braves is in the on deck circle!

    EDIT: Dansby *nearly* hits it over Eaton’s head into the RF corner but instead it’s caught for Out #2. Bummer. Turns into a sac fly, two down, 6-3 gNats.

    EDIT PART DEUX: Camargo K’s as a PH to end the game.

  52. On the plus side, the Brewers blew a lead in the 9th inning vs the Padres today, which helps the Braves’ wild card chances (if it comes to that).

    As of right now, the Braves are 1 game behind the Phils in the NL East; the Brewers are WC1 and we’re 1 game behind them in WC2 (with the Dodgers lurking .5 game behind us). Anything could happen between now and Game 162, but it looks like the NL is packed with a bunch of high-80s win teams. The Braves could possibly take the East with 87-88 wins, but there are plenty of scenarios where that number doesn’t even get you to the wild card game.

  53. A split isn’t bad. We have a long way to go still. I’m hoping that Snitker can occasionally field our best lineup a few times a week. I think he’s more likely going to go overboard on the “get them some rest” front.

  54. This game changed an awful lot when Sanchez came out. Braves lost their swagger. They’ve hit Gio pretty well in the past and it felt like all the energy just left when Anibal went out. Day games don’t seem to be good either. Feels weird like the gNats cheated to win two games by scheduling day games and knocking our pitchers out with line drives.

    The worst part is this had the feel of a real surge to end the year and now it just feels like a split series of playing .500 ball. Freddie and Nick are out front doing great work but the rest of the team can’t seem to get over the top.

    Since it’s Touki’s day to pitch tomorrow why not call him up and let him have a whirl? We could keep everyone else on the extra days rest and now we might have to have a fill-in for Anibal’s next start.

    Has anyone noticed that of all the Gwinnett reinforcements, Fried has really stood out? Hasn’t he shown he belongs in the permanent rotation – assuming he can stay healthy? Right now, Fried is one guy we cannot possibly trade. I’d sure like to see the same from Touki. If he can get a call-up and do some good work then I won’t feel so bad about our rotation depth.

    And Gohara is back on the DL isn’t he?

  55. Totally agree. I was sitting WAY up in the nose bleed seats behind home plate and was on the edge of my seat the whole game. Mathews was my all-time favorite player. What a game!

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