Battle of the Titans

 

Lights Out! – 4-3 Thriller Is a Showcase for Aaron and Clemente

When: August 28, 1967

Where:  Atlanta Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia

Game Time: 2:38

Attendance: 8,725

Not even Hollywood could have devised a more dramatic, twisting scenario than the one that actually played out in this game.

Any discussion about the great National League outfielders of the 1960s has to begin with the mention of Willie Mays and the opposing superstars in this late-August contest: Hank Aaron of the Braves and Roberto Clemente of the Pirates. All three were multi-tool threats, complete ballplayers who excelled at every aspect of the game. 1967 proved to be another banner season for both Aaron and Clemente.

Hank Aaron His run-saving catch sent the game into extra innings.

Hank Aaron
His run-saving catch sent the game into extra innings.

At age 33, Aaron was still in the prime of his career. He led the National League in home runs (44) and runs batted in (127) in 1966. He came into this game batting .319 with 31 home runs and 87 RBIs. (He would lead the league with 39 home runs at season’s end.)

Clemente was the reigning National League MVP, having hit .317 with 29 home runs and 119 RBIs in 1966. Coming into this game, he was leading the league with a .345 batting average. (He would win his fourth batting title with a .357 average.) Clemente also had 18 home runs and 84 RBIs.

Braves catcher Joe Torre scored the game’s first run when Woody Woodward singled off Pirates starter Al McBean in the bottom of the second inning. Braves starter Pat Jarvis held the Pirates scoreless through the fourth inning. In the Pirates’ half of the fifth inning, catcher Jerry May singled and scored on Matty Alou’s triple. Jarvis balked, scoring Alou.

In the top of the sixth inning, Clemente led off with a solo home run that put the Pirates ahead 3-1. The score stayed that way until the bottom of the eighth. Rico Carty doubled with one out, and Gary Geiger went in to run for Carty. Felipe Alou singled to right field, scoring Geiger. Then back-to-back singles by Tito Francona and Aaron brought Alou home and tied the game at 3-3.

In the top of the ninth, with Jay Ritchie pitching for the Braves, Jose Pagan stroked a two-out single to right field and May walked, putting runners at first and second. With Manny Jimenez pinch hitting for Roy Face, Aaron made a circus catch of Jimenez’s liner to right to end the inning with the score still tied.

Roberto Clemente His two home runs put the Pirates ahead twice. His tenth-inning homer proved to be the game winner.

Roberto Clemente
His two home runs put the Pirates ahead twice. His tenth-inning homer proved to be the game winner.

Aaron’s saving catch went for naught. In the top of the tenth, Matty Alou led off by bunting for a base hit. Shortstop Gene Alley struck out, and with Clemente at the plate, Alou was thrown out trying to steal second. Clemente created his own go-ahead run by lining a home run over the wall in left-center field.

With two outs in the bottom of the tenth, Felipe Alou singled to left. But with the tying run at first and Aaron on deck, Francona struck out to end the game.

Pinstripe Heat

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Al Downing

When he first came to the big leagues, Al Downing lived and died on the heat of his often-unhittable fastball. And like so many pitchers who experience the inevitable decline in velocity that comes with age, Downing learned to evolve from thrower to pitcher.

But while he was a New York Yankee, what a thrower he was.

As a rookie in 1963, Al Downing averaged 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest strikeout ratio in the league.

As a rookie in 1963, Al Downing averaged 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest strikeout ratio in the league.

A New Jersey native, Downing was signed by the Yankees in 1961 off the campus of Rider University. By 1963, he had worked his way into the Yankees’ starting rotation, an important addition to an already formidable pitching staff. In his rookie season, Downing went 13-5 with a 2.56 ERA. On a Yankees staff that featured Whitey Ford (24-7), Jim Bouton (21-7) and Ralph Terry (17-15), Downing finished second on the staff in shutouts (four) and strikeouts (171), while leading the team (and the league)  in strikeouts per nine innings (8.8). He was the starter (and loser) in Game Two of the 1963 World Series, as the Yankees were shut out by Johnny Podres and the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-0. (The Dodgers took the 1963 World Series in four games.)

Downing won 13 games in 1964, while leading the American League in strikeouts (217) and walks (120).  As the Yankees’ fortunes tumbled, so did Downing’s won-lost record: to 12-14 in 1965 and 10-11 in 1966. He rebounded to a 14-10 record in 1966 with a 2.63 ERA, 10 complete games and four shutouts. But pitching 200-plus innings per season took its toll on Downing the flame-thrower, and he was limited to a combined record of 10-8 over the next two seasons.

Following the 1968 season, Downing was traded by the Yankees with Frank Fernandez to the Oakland Athletics for Danny Cater and Ossie Chavarria. His stay in Oakland lasted only two months, and he was traded again, this time with Tito Francona, to the Milwaukee Brewers for Steve Hovley. His combined record for both teams was 5-13 with a 3.52 ERA. The Brewers traded Downing to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Andy Kosco.

With the Dodgers, Downing had the best season of his career in 1971. He went 20-9 with a 2.68 ERA. He pitched 12 complete games with five shutouts, the most in the National League. He tied with Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver for second in wins (Fergie Jenkins won 24 for the Cubs). And he finished third in the Cy Young voting (behind Jenkins and Seaver). He was named Comeback Player of the Year for the National League.

Downing pitched six more seasons for the Dodgers, compiling a 26-28 record over that period. He retired during the 1977 season with a career record of 123-107.

 

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Indians Bopper

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Fred Whitfield

Fred Whitfield was a power-hitting first baseman who had his best seasons with the Cleveland Indians in the early 1960s. Nicknamed “Wingy” for his less than powerful throwing arm, Whitfield combined with Tito Francona, Leon Wagner and Max Alvis to form the power connection at the heart of the Indians’ batting order.

In his nine-year career, Fred Whitfield batted .253 with 108 home runs and 356 RBIs.

In his nine-year career, Fred Whitfield batted .253 with 108 home runs and 356 RBIs.

Whitfield originally signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1956. It took six minor league seasons for Whitfield to be promoted to the Cardinals’ roster, hitting .266 with eight home runs and 34 RBIs in 73 games with St. Louis in 1962. Following that rookie season, St. Louis traded Whitfield to Cleveland, where he had the chance to start at first base for the Tribe.

Whitfield hit .251 in 1963 with 21 home runs and 54 RBIs, dividing the Indians’ first base duties with Joe Adcock. When Adcock was traded over the winter to the Los Angeles Angels for Wagner, it looked like the door was opened to Whitfield for full-time first base duty. But it wasn’t to be.

In 1964, the Indians inserted Bob Chance at first, and he delivered a .279 rookie season with 75 RBIs. With fewer at-bats, Whitfield’s offensive numbers dropped to 10 home runs and 29 RBIs while he hit .270. Chance turned out to be a one-season wonder, and Whitfield won back his starting position at first base, hitting .293 in 1965 with 26 home runs and 90 RBIs. He followed up in 1966 with 27 home runs and 78 RBIs on a .241 batting average.

Fred Whitfield languished in the Cardinals organization before his 1962 trade to the Cleveland Indians. When he finally got the chance to play every day, he delivered for the Indians. In 1966, Whitfield batted .293 with 26 home runs and 90 RBIs.

Fred Whitfield languished in the Cardinals organization before his 1962 trade to the Cleveland Indians. When he finally got the chance to play every day, he delivered for the Indians. In 1966, Whitfield batted .293 with 26 home runs and 90 RBIs.

In 1967, the Indians acquired Tony Horton from the Boston Red Sox and again Whitfield was relegated to a back-up position, hitting only .218 with nine homers and 31 RBIs. In the off-season, Cleveland traded Whitfield with George Culver and Bob Raudman to the Cincinnati Reds for Tommy Harper. He saw limited action with the Reds over the next two seasons, hitting a combined .224 with seven home runs and 40 RBIs. Whitfield appeared in four games with the Montreal Expos in 1970 before being released and retiring at age 32.

Whitfield finished his nine-season major league career with a .253 batting average. His 108 home runs during the 1960s ranks his 60th among major league sluggers.

 

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Glancing Back, and Remembering Tito Francona

Tito Francona could flat-out hit. He wasn’t known for big power numbers. But he knew how to get on base, move base runners, and make runs happen.

Tito Francona had the American league's highest batting average in 1959 at .363, but fell 34 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title.

Tito Francona had the American League’s highest batting average in 1959 at .363, but fell 34 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title.

Francona was signed by the St. Louis Browns in 1952. He spent only 3 years in the minors (plus time out for military service), hitting a combined .292, and made his major league debut in 1956 with the Baltimore Orioles, hitting .258. He was runner-up in the Rookie-of-the-Year balloting to Chicago’s Luis Aparicio.

After the 1957 season, Francona was traded to the Chicago White Sox as part of a seven-player deal, and in June of 1958 he was dealt again, this time to the Detroit Tigers. He played sparingly for the Tigers, hitting only .246, and was traded for a third time in a little more than a year, this time to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Larry Doby.

Getting the chance to play every day, Francona blossomed for the Indians. He had a monster year in 1959, hitting .363 with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs, but fell short of the number of official at-bats needed to qualify for the batting title. (Harvey Kuenn officially led the American League in hitting in 1959 with a .353 average.) But Francona’s contributions to Cleveland’s third-place finish that season did not go unnoticed, as he finished fifth in the balloting for Most Valuable Player.

In 1960, Francona followed up with a .292 batting average, leading the American League with 36 doubles. In 1961, he hit .301 with career highs in hits (178), triples (8) and RBIs (85). He was also a member of the All-Star team that season. He hit .272 in 1962 with 14 home runs and 70 RBIs.

Then, inexplicably, his hitting tailed off dramatically. He hit only .228 in 1963 and .248 in 1964. The St. Louis Cardinals purchased Francona following the 1964 season, and he hit a combined .236 in his 2 seasons with St. Louis.

Over the next three seasons, Francona played for four different teams. As a part-time player, he hit .286 for Atlanta in 1968 and hit for a combined .318 for Atlanta and Oakland in 1969. He finished his 15-year major league career with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970.

Francona had 1,395 hits and a .272 career batting average.