When the Braves began play in Atlanta in 1966, I was ten years old and already a huge baseball fan and that’s what leads me to this look back at a Braves One Year Wonder, Bob Didier.
I vaguely recall the 1963 season, especially the World Series (what a performance by the Dodgers’ pitchers!), but I remember details of the 1964 season better than I do most any season since. At this stage, though, I was not a fan of any particular team. I followed baseball by reading about it, mainly in the daily papers (papers plural—the morning Constitution with Jesse Outler and the afternoon Journal with Furman Bisher). I studied the box scores every day and got my hands on the Sporting News every chance I could.
Listening on Radio
I listened to radio broadcasts of White Sox games out of Chicago 1964 and watched the TV game of the week every Saturday (in my memory it was always the Yankees). I was intrigued by the Phillies and their phenomenal rookie Richie Allen, and absorbed by the final two weeks of the regular season that witnessed the Phils’ epic collapse. AL ROY Tony Oliva of the Twins was as impressive as Allen, and the American League pennant race was almost as close and exciting as the NL. The World Series went seven games, with Bob Gibson going the distance in game 7 on two days rest to win it for the Cardinals. (I swear that I don’t remember 2014 or 2004 nearly as well as 1964.)
I had attended Atlanta Crackers games with my grandfather at old Ponce de Leon Park in 1964, and then at the new Atlanta Stadium in 1965. He taught me to keep score on a scorecard, which he did even at home while listening on the radio.
A Team of My Own
Although I was already a baseball fanatic, I took it to the next level when the Braves began play in Atlanta in April 1966. For the first time, there was a team that was my team, that I followed every day, and I lived and died with their performance. I listened to every inning of the epic 13 inning opening game against the Pirates. It was a wonderful new experience to listen to the game with my team every day, and then reading multiple articles about my team and the players every day in the local paper. There weren’t many games that I didn’t listen to the rest of the way, and I tried not to miss any of the rare TV broadcasts.
As a ten year old kid, I was convinced going into the season that the Braves were the class of the National League. After all, they had future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews leading the way, but the rest of the lineup was almost as fearsome. Joe Torre was the best hitting catcher in the league (more on him later), Rico Carty and Felipe Alou were all star caliber, even the shortstop Denis Menke had hit 20 home runs in 1964. And the young pitching staff showed lots of promise: Tony Cloninger won a combined 43 games in 1964 and 1965; 21 year old lefty Wade Blasingame had won 16 games in 1965; and Denny Lemaster had even better stuff than either of them (he just needed to put it together—and I knew he would!).
Well, 1966 was the first of many seasons in which the results did not match the promise. On August 9, with the Braves 7 games under .500 and twelve and a half out of first, they fired manager Bobby Bragan. The team rallied to finish 8 games over .500 but never threatened. The next two years were similarly disappointing; in 1967 they won only 77 games, and 1968 they finished .500 but still 16 games out of first.
1969, the Year of Braves One Year Wonder, Bob Didier
Which brings us to 1969 and one year wonder Bob Didier. Despite the rather bitter disappointments of the previous three seasons, I had not yet become jaded. I was once again convinced that the Braves had an excellent chance to win the pennant. This was the first year of divisional play, so they only had to beat out 5 other teams rather than 9. The Cardinals, who had won the NL the past two years, were fortunately in the other division.
As you are likely aware, the Braves did in fact win the first ever Western Division pennant. It was a great race—they never led by more than four games and were never more than three games back. Looking back, though, it’s not obvious why they did so well. Indeed, they overperformed their Pythagorean by 5 games.
The 35 year old Mr. Aaron was his usual phenomenal self—44 home runs, 1.003 OPS, 177 OPS+. Rico Carty was terrific (163 OPS+), but injuries limited him to 339 plate appearances. Midseason acquisition Tony Gonzalez had a very good second half. First baseman Orlando Baby Bull Cepeda was solid, but nothing special (109 OPS+). No one else had an OPS+ over 100. The pitching staff was led by Knucksie who was outstanding (23 wins, 6.0 bWAR). But no other pitcher had more than 1.5 WAR.
The team did have several excellent defenders. Clete Boyer was the best defensive third baseman I ever saw (and I saw Brooks Robinson); his bWAR was 3.0, but 2.1 of that was his defense. Gil Garrido took over as the shortstop down the stretch; his 0.8 WAR was entirely defense. Felix Millan was not a good offensive player but an excellent defensive second baseman.
The Trade of Joe Torre
The big news coming into the 1969 season was the blockbuster trade of star catcher Joe Torre to the Cardinals for former MVP first baseman Cepeda. Torre did not report to spring training in a contract dispute, and Cepeda was on the outs with the Cards’ front office. So the teams traded the all stars for each other in the middle of March.
As I said before, Torre was the best hitting catcher in the league, although his defense was always suspect (I don’t know how bad it was in fact, but that was the rap on him). To make it worse, the Braves did not have an obvious replacement for Torre. The 1968 backup catcher, Bob Tillman, himself left camp in a contract dispute, and Walt Hriniak broke a bone in his hand. So the job fell upon 20 year old Bob Didier.
Braves One Year Wonder, Bob Didier and Knucksie
Didier came through in a big way for the Braves. Only two years out of high school, he was the primary catcher in that pennant winning season. At the end of the year, he finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Phil Niekro had the first of his many hall of fame-worthy seasons, and Didier was given much of the credit. Although Didier led the league with 28 passed balls (and Niekro has 16 wild pitches), Niekro said he was never afraid to throw the knuckler, even with a man on third. And Didier’s mettle was tested further when they added HOF knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm down the stretch. GM Paul Richards, himself a former catcher, said Didier was the best at catching the knuckler that he had ever seen.
It turns out that Didier was a one season wonder if there ever was one. He never again played a full season in the majors, appearing in only 123 big league games after that rookie season. He lost his job and was sent to AAA in July 1970 after hitting .151 (with an OPS+ of 2—read that again—it’s not a typo) for the season. He made a few more appearances, but was never a regular again. In 1971, in 188 plate appearances, he improved his 1970 OPS of .383 all the way up to .507. He did have several injuries, but it’s also fair to say that he was not a major league hitter.
Truth is, Didier wasn’t much of a hitter in his glory year of 1969 either. He had no power; his on base percentage was higher than his slugging percentage. And his OBP that year was only .324! He never hit a big league homer.
To this 14 year old fan, Bob Didier was a primary reason the Braves won the pennant that year. His phenomenal defense allowed the pitching staff to get the job done, and although his stats weren’t great, he had a lot of clutch hits. Who needs Joe Torre, anyway?
Braves One Year Wonder, Bob Didier, a Misremembrance?
Looking back from a great distance, though, I’m pretty sure Didier was not the player I though he was (and that several ROY voters thought he was). He was certainly no Joe Torre. Don’t get me wrong; Torre holds a special place of enmity for Braves fans of the last 25 years. I’ll never forgive Torre for turning a blind eye to Sam Holbrook’s blind eyes, and I hate the late 90’s Yankees led by Torre. But Joe Torre was a great hitter. In fact he had a better year than Cepeda in 1969 and a much better career going forward from there. It was a hasty and ill considered trade.
But that trade did give Bob Didier a chance to become a one year wonder. Didier and the 1969 season stand out for me in large part because the team itself was a one year wonder. The Braves did not come within light years of a pennant until 13 years later. By the mid-seventies, I had learned from bitter experience not to pick the Braves to win the pennant every year. The Braves played October baseball when I was just starting ninth grade; the next time they did so I was married, a new father, and practicing law in Atlanta. In fact, they never played another meaningful September game for over a decade.
So yeah, 1969 was a big deal; thanks to Bob Didier for being a big part of it. (And thanks to the excellent biography of Didier on the SABR website:
Thanks for reading on Braves One Year Wonder, Bob Didier. If you enjoyed this piece, make sure to check this piece out on Braves One Year Wanker, Denny McLain.