Monday, December 21, 2015

1971 Atlanta Braves (3rd): 82-80, .506, 8GB

As a manager Lum Harris had just 2 winning seasons in his 4 1/2 years in Atlanta.  You will no hear his name bandied around in a conversation that compares the great bench lords of his time.  This is a given.  Since Harris is one of those footnotes in baseball history it's tough for him to get credit for finishing 82-80 in 1971.  Using pytagorean numbers he managed a team that was 10th in pitching (out of 12) and deceptively bad in hitting to a +7 and a winning record.  Since the Braves finished well out of the money in 3rd place Harris won't get any mention.  If Earl Weaver had accomplished this we would probably be talking about it.  In most cases, only the true baseball afficiando would know what a Lum Harris is.  Now to start off, other than Phil Niekro (15-14, 2.98) and Ron Reed (13-14, 3.72) his rotation did not have anyone who eclipsed 200 innings.  This was in an era where 250 innings was the norm and in many cases 300+ innings was not a shocker.  4 of the 6 guys who logged significant time in the rotation were of the part time variety.  Tom Kelley (9-5, 2.96) only pitched 143 innings in 20 starts + 8 relief appearances.  In fact every starter, with the exception of Reed (isn't that ironic) logged at least 3-4 relief appearances.  This was more common in past eras, but by the 70's starters didn't throw relief outings during their off days.  After looking at the stat line for their relief corps I can see why this was a necessity.  Cecil Upshaw (11-6, 3.51, 17sv) wasn't the problem.  He wasn't a top reliever, but he wasn't kerosene either.  His supporting cast was weak, which explains why Niekro, Pat Jarvis and Jim Nash (starters) all have saves.  Steve Barber was a 33 year old with a chronic sore arm.  His 4.80 ERA in 39 appearances instilled zero confidence in anyone, including his manager.  Bob Priddy (4.22) an Ron Herbel (5.23) weren't any better.  Lefty Mike McQueen (4-1, 3.54) looked to be fine, but his ability to let inherited runners score didn't affect his ERA, but managed to help lose games just the same.  With the lack of pitching Harris still found a way to keep the team at or near .500 all season.  After a modest 5 game winning streak the team was only 5 1/2 games out of first on September 18th.  With one week left to go in the season they had games against the Dodgers (2nd place) and the lowly Padres.  After splitting a 4 game set in LA they came home to split a brief 2 game set with San Diego to drop to 7 out.  Then a 3 game sweep at the hands of the streaking Dodgers sealed their fate.  Winning the final two vs the Reds ensured a winning season.  Based on what we just looked at it's simple to blame the 10th ranked pitching staff for this team's mediocrity.  How can you blame an offense that was 2nd in homers and 5th in runs scored ?  When you dig deeper you can surely see that they should shoulder some of the blame.  First off the Braves, playing in the Home Run friendly "Launching Pad" were feast or famine.  Being 2nd in homers is definitely a good thing, but being 1st in strikeouts tells us that they were swinging for the fences every chance they got.  Finishing 4th in hits is impressive, but they were also 8th in OBP, which means they weren't getting enough people on and when they did they were stranding them on base and quite possibly winning games via the blowout and losing the tight ones.  It all makes sense now.  It tells me Harris got more than was expected out of what he had.  He was also missing his most consistent bat man in Rico Carty who missed the whole year thanks to an injury in winter ball.  Of course Hank Aaron was the star of the team.  The 37 year old future immortal moved from RF to 1B and hit a robust .327 with 47 homers and 118 RBI's.  Don't blame the Hammer for the lack of timely hitting.  In fact don't blame him for the k's, because he walked more times (71) than he fanned (58).  Throw some blame on management for poor planning.  Orlando Cepedea, who was the team's primary 1B for the past 2 seasons was being squeezed out since Hank was staring to play more 1B.  Cepeda, who was only 33, hit .276-14-44 in just 250 AB's.  Project his line over a full season and he hits 30 long balls and knocks in close to 100.  Mike Lum, who made a living as a 5th OF'er/1B/PH got extended action for the only time in his career and did fine (.269-13-55), but you can't help but wonder how much better they would have been with Carty in that slot.  Youngster Ralph Garr finally got his chance and hit .343 with 30 swipes, but the biggest story was ROY Earl Williams (.260-33-87).  The numbers he posted had superstar written all over it.  The fact that he was a catcher made it that much more impressive.  Well it did and it didn't, because Williams was not really a catcher by trade and the staff didn't like throwing to him.  In fact he was error prone and he wasn't quick enough to block balls in the dirt as evidenced by his 15 PB's and 24 WP's. in just 72 games behind the dish (he also played 1b/3b).  The lineup also had weak bats in Marty Perez (SS), a young Darrell Evans (3B) and Sonny Jackson in center.  Between the three of them they combined for an OBP that was around .300, which meant not enough tablesetting for the big bats.

It took 16 cards to finish off this set.

After two cups of Joe Evans got extended time in 1971 and finally showed enough to stick with the big club.  With veteran glove man Clete Boyer scheduled to be the starter at 3rd Evans expected '71 to be another wasted year.  When Boyer, who was an "old 34", partied himself out of the league Evans (.242-12-38) was given the full time job.  No one could have seen it coming that he would hit 41 homers 2 years later and win an All-Star bid.  Evans wouldn't hit 40 homers again for another 12 seasons, which marks the biggest gap in MLB history for this stat.  After watching his numbers drop steadily the Braves dealt him to the Giants in the middle of the '76 season.  Evans, never a big average guy, was a great power bat and above average glove at 3rd.  When the Ginats gave up on him in the early 80's he moved over to Detroit where he found the fountain of youth and was a key contributor in their wire to wire 1984 championship run.  The following season, at the age of 38, he led the AL in homers.  Two years later at the age of 40 he hit 34 homers.  1989 would be the final season in his 21 year career.  Fittingly he returned to Atlanta to finish it all out.  Evans hit 414 pre-steroid lifetime homers and had 19 straight seasons in double digit.
General Dusty was just a lowly private back in 1971 where in his 4th cup of coffee he hit just .226 (14-62).  1972 would be his breakout season and for the next 4 years he would be a solid mainstay in the Braves outfield.  After the 1975 seasons the Braves traded him to LA (along with Ed Goodson) for Lee Lacy, Tom Paciorek, Jerry Royster and a fast fading Jimmy Wynn.  For the next 8 seasons he would be a core member of those great Dodger pennant winning squads.  After the '83 season he moved to the Bay area and played one year in SF and two in Oak before retiring after the 1986 season to embark on his next career as a major league manager.
1971's NL ROY came out of nowhere and exploded on the scene with a fantastic year at the plate (see above).  Unfortunately for Williams his glove was his nemesis.  After just 2 seasons in Atlanta he was dealt to Baltimore for some aging players and some spare parts.  Earl Weaver traded him back to the Braves after two sub par seasons with both the bat and the glove.  The change of scenery didn't help much as his numbers just kept dwindling.  After a below average (.241-13-38) 1977 season in Oakland he moved on to the Mexican League where he played two non-descript seasons before calling it a career.  The knock on Williams as being a terrible defensive catcher is an unfair one.  How can you blame a guy for being told to play a position he NEVER played before.  In 5 minor league seasons, prior to 1971, he only played 1st or 3rd bases respectively.  He was setup for failure by the Brave brass.
After only 3 games this 48 year old future HOF'er was given his unconditional release.  Considered washed up, which his 15.43 ERA might have attested to, the Braves let him go.  At 48 it looked like the end of the road was finally here.  To his credit Wilhelm kept in shape and practiced his craft in time to sign a late season deal with LA and save 3 key games down the stretch as the Dodgers were chasing the Giants.  He would pitch one more season and retire at the age of 49 with nothing left in the tank and certainly nothing left to prove.  The well traveled (9 teams) HOF knucleballer would eventually find himself enshrined in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.
Breazeale was drafted by the Atlanta Braves with the eighth pick of the first round of the January 1968 Major League Baseball Draft.  He played four seasons in the Major Leagues, three with the Braves (1969; 1971–1972), and one for the Chicago White Sox (1978). In his MLB career, Breazeale played 89 games with 179 at bats and 40 hits. He had three home runs, 33 RBIs, 20 runs, and a .223 batting average. He played his final game on July 19, 1978 with the White Sox.  (from wikipedia)
Foster had one of the more unfortunate debuts in Major League history, when playing his first game for the Braves against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium on July 9, 1971. Fielding at shortstop, he commits an error on the first ball hit to him. After flying out in the 3rd inning, Foster hits into a double play in the 5th inning, followed by hitting into a triple play in the 7th inning.  (from wikipedia).  The 20 year old Foster played in just 9 games for the Braves in 1971 and didn't get a hit in 10 AB's.  He spent all of '72 in the minors and most of '73 as well.  In 72 games with the Braves as their primary utility-man he hit a paltry .196 (22-112).  On April 4, 1975 he was dealt to the Mets for catcher Joe Nolan.  In two seasons as the Mets utility guy he hit a combined .216 with just one homer in 134 AB's before being traded to Boston, where he never played a major league game.  In 48 games with Boston's AAA affiliate Pawtucket he hit .239 and was given his release.  The following season he played in the Puerto Rican league and hit .205. On a side note, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Foster in 1975 at Shea Stadium where he signed my program before a Met game.  He was polite and cordial and while the big stars were nowhere to be found he signed every last autograph which I still remember 40 years later.

Perez arrived in Atlanta via a late October 1970 trade.  H was immediately installed as the Braves regular shortstop, a position he held onto for 5 1/2 seasons.  Never a big bat (.248 with Atlanta) Perez was a serviceable major leaguer who could play every infield position more than adequately.  In 1971 he hit .227-4-32 in 130 games.  Midway through the '76 season he was dealt to San Fran.  His strangest statline was the 1 game he played for the World Champion 1977 Yankees.  He went 2-4 then was shipped out with Dock Ellis & Larry Murray for Oakland's Mike Torrez.  After a subpar season in Oakland (.231) he followed that up with a horrendous start to 1978 (0-12) and was released.  The Mets, picked him up and assigned him to AAA-Tidewater where he hit .261, but was eventually released without ever getting a shot with the big club.
His original card featured one of the most aggregious airbrush jobs ever perpertrated on a professional athlete.  At least on this card he looks like a living a breathing member of the team, if you can call a guy hitting .111 (4-36) "living and breathing".  In all seriousness Staehle was a 29 year old journeyman middle infielder, who was all but out of baseball if not for the good timing of expansion back in 1969.  That afforded him a legit chance with the Expos, who released him after he hit just .281 in 321 AB's for them in 1970.  After the Braves cut him the Padres took a shot and assigned him to their Hawaii AAA team.  In 1972 he hit .294 in Hawaii, but at the age of 30 he was released.
Brown's biggest claim to fame was having a famous brother in the NFL (Willie) and another in baseball (Downtown Ollie).  The Braves had high hopes for Oscar.  After hitting .383 (18-47) in limited action during the 1970 season they expected 1971 to be a breakout year for him.  Instead what they got was a .209 hitting 5th outfielder.  Brown gave them more of the same during the following 2 seasons, which lead to his eventual release after hitting just .252 at AAA Richmond in 1974.  Compare that to his brother who hit .265 in 13 major league seasons as a very productive right fielder.
The Road Runner hit the big time in 1971 with a breakout .343 season in his first shot as a full time player.  Garr was everything the Braves could hope for with the bat hitting .317 in 8 seasons as a Brave including his 1974 All-Star season where he hit .353 and won the batting title while compiling 214 hits and 17 triples.  After the '75 season he was traded to the Chisox and proceeded to have two straight .300 seasons.  Garr would finish his career as a lifetime .306 hitter in parts of 13 big league seasons.  For all the speed that he had his SB % was low and his OBP wasn't much better than his BA.  He was also a subpar or indifferent fielder.  Still for an 8 year period he was one of the toughest outs in baseball and a threat to stretch a gapper into a triple.
His original card was of the BHNH variety, which some may joke meant Bald Head, no hat.  Sporting sideburns and aviator glasses to go along with his thin comb over I felt exceptionally obligated to give him a legit cap and uniform photo in this team set.  Herbel, who had some decent seasons with the Giants during the latter part of the 60's as a swingman was now a 33 year old veteran nearing the final station on his major league train ride.  After going 2-2, 1.38 for the Mets down the stretch in 1970 the Braves figured he had a few good years left.  What they got was a 0-1, 5.23 statline for a guy who pitched 25 games out of the pen (51.2 IP).  After being released by the Braves he caught on with the Twins and spent '72 with their Tacoma AAA Affiliate.  His AAA numbers (6-9, 4.41) weren't much better than his MLB numbers from the previous season.  As a result he was given his release and not invited to any camps in '73.  A notoriously poor hitter, Herbel's .029 lifetime average is the lowest in MLB history for anyone with over 100 AB's.
Former 20 game winner Steve Barber was long past his Baltimore glory days.  By the late 60's he began bouncing around from team to team hoping he could once again catch lighting in a bottle and overcome the "Sore Arm Steve Barber" moniker Jim Bouton bestowed upon him.  From time to time Barber would show flashes of brilliance that made GM's think he was back on track.  In 75 innings or work for the Braves in 1971 he showed little of that former brilliance (3-1, 4.80, 2SV).  Mid way through the following season he was let go only to wind up in California with the Angels where he was 4-4, 2.08.  Once again "fools gold" was looked upon as 14 karrat.  Then of course he slipped back the following two seasons and was out of baseball completely.  After such a prolonged goodbye many neglect to remember how lights out he was during his first 8 seasons in Baltimore (95-75, 3.12).
House's claim to fame would make for a great fun fact / trivia question:  "Who caught Hank Aaron's 715 homer?".  Yes, this bullpen fixture caught the ball served up by Dodgers Al Downing.  He would also go on to be a pretty good MLB pitching coach.  As a player he was a mid level reliever, who had a couple of good years for the Braves during the mid 70's.  In 1971 as a rookie 24 year old he was 1-0, 3.05 in 11 games for the Braves.  His best years were 1974 (6-2, 1.93, 11 SV) and 1975 (7-7, 3.18, 11 SV).  Other than that he was more or less the 10th man on the staff.  After two mediocre years in Boston he added two mediocre years for the expansion Mariners.  To be fair his numbers were better than average for that pitching challenged staff.  Aftre logging the most innings in his career (116) and winning more than he lost (5-4, 4.66) he was released by the M's and out of baseball and off to the Mexican League.  A brief stink in the PCL for the Padres Las Vegas affiliate in 1983 where he doubled as their pitching coach, was the end of his competitive career.
Kelley underwent shoulder surgery in the late 60's and languished in the Minor Leagues for three years before reviving his career with the Atlanta Braves in 1971.  In that season, Kelley made 28 pitching appearances for the Braves, including 20 starts, posting a 9-5 record with a solid 2.96 ERA and five complete games.  He then spent four years in Triple-A with the Braves and New York Mets organizations before retiring in 1976.  In a seven-year career, Kelley went 20-22 with a 3.75 ERA in 104 pitching appearances, including 45 starts, 16 complete games and one shutout, striking out 234 batters while walking 207 in 408 innings of work.  He also went 20-22 with a 3.75 ERA in 104 minor league games.  Following his baseball career, Kelley worked for United Parcel Service for 15 years.  (from wikipedia)  His original card was of the BHNH variety.  This new card does him justice.
By now we all know that this career .199 hitter would eventually win up in Cooperstown...not for his playing skills, but for his excellent managerial skills.  After 5 failed cups of joe with the A's Tony moved over to the Braves in the middle of the season and hit .286 (.2-7) in 9 games.  His best accomplishment during this era would be earning his law degree.  His don't quit attitude was apparent by the fact that he spent the lion's share of '71 hitting .290 in the minors.  He spent all of '72 hitting .308 for Atlanta's Richmond AAA affiliate, but never got a call up from a struggling big club.  In total he would spend 5 more seasons at various team's AAA affiliates until he hit .188 for New Orleans (STL-AAA) in 1977.  At 32 his playing days were done, but the best part of this baseball story was about to be written.
After a season in the Mexican Leagues the 31 year old Versalles was given a chance by the Braves to resurrect his declining career.  After hitting .191 in 194 AB's the Braves realized that his skills were not up to major league level and sadly he was released.  Just 6 years earlier he was the 1965 AL-MVP who won the 2nd of his 2 Gold Gloves.  By 1971 he was a broken down journeyman player who some said was just a flash in the pan.  Not to be discouraged he forged ahead and played in both the Mexican and Japanese leagues until 1974.  A brief shot with the Royals Double AA Jacksonville team in 1973 went unnoticed.  Sadly his after baseball life was one of despair and financial ruin.

I created this card by Colorizing a B&W photo of him with Atlanta and superimposing it on top of a blurry photo of Fulton County Stadium.

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