[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.
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.