Braving the Knuckler

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Phil Niekro

Hall of Famer Phil Niekro pitched for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves for 21 years, winning all but 50 of his 318 career victories in a Braves’ uniform. He is the winningest knuckleball pitcher in major league history, and amassed the third most wins of any Braves pitcher (after Warren Spahn and Kid Nichols).

Phil Niekro was a 20-game winner three times. His best season came in 1969, when he was 23-13 with a 2.56 ERA for the Atlanta Braves.

Niekro was signed by the Braves in 1958. He made his major league debut in 1964, and he was 6-6 over the next two years as a member of the Braves’ bullpen. In 1967, Niekro went 11-9 with a league best ERA of 1.87. More importantly, he made the transition during the season from the Braves’ relief corps to the team’s starting rotation, pitching 10 complete games in 20 starts. He would be used as a starter almost exclusively for the rest of his career.

Niekro went 14-12 with a 2.59 ERA in 1968. In 1969, at the age of 30, he posted his first 20-victory season, going 23-13 with a 2.56 ERA.

Over the next 18 seasons, Niekro would win 264 games, 214 of those games with the Braves. He would win 10 or more games 17 times, and pitched more than 300 innings in a season four times. Between 1977 and 1979, Niekro led the National League each year in starts, complete games, innings pitched and losses. In fact, he lost an average of 19 games between 1977 and 1980, a testament to his durability and to the teams playing behind him as he averaged 18 wins per season and posted a combined 3.48 ERA for that period. He led the National League with an .810 winning percentage (17-4) in 1982.

Phil Niekro won 268 games in 21 seasons with the Braves. Over the last five years of his career, he won 50 games playing for three teams.

Niekro was released by the Braves after the 1983 season and signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees. He won 16 games in each of his two seasons with the Yankees, including career victory number 300. He went 11-11 for the Cleveland Indians in 1986 and was 7-13 for the Indians and Toronto Blue Jays in 1987. He pitched in one game for the Braves in 1987 before retiring.

Niekro’s 24 years in the major leagues produced a 318-274 record with a career earned run average of 3.35. In 716 career starts, he pitched 5,404 innings and 45 shutouts. He won five Gold Gloves and was a member of the National League All-Star team five times. He pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 1973.

Niekro was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

 

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Trust the Law

 

Career Year: Vern Law – 1960

Vern Law was a lanky right-hander whose fortunes as a pitcher improved steadily throughout the 1950s … just as his team, the Pittsburgh Pirates (his only major league team over a 16-year career), clawed its way out of the bottom of the National League standings by the close of the 1950s.

Pitching for weak Pirate teams in the early 1950s, Vern Law struggled to a 40-57 record in his first five seasons.

By 1960, the Pirates had improved all the way to World Series champions. And in 1960, the best season in Law’s distinguished career, he was acknowledged as baseball’s best pitcher.

After two seasons in the minors, Law joined the Pirates in 1950. In his first five seasons, he was 40-57 with a 4.56 ERA. He registered his first winning season at 10-8 in 1957, with a seventh-place team. When the Pirates finished second in 1958, Law was 14-12 with a 3.96 ERA. When the Pirates finished fourth in 1959, Law emerged as the team’s ace at 18-9 with a 2.98 ERA. It was the best season of his career, so far …

Law’s first start of the 1960 season came in the season’s second game. At Cincinnati, he shut out the Reds on seven hits, backed by five RBIs from Roberto Clemente and four RBIs from Bill Mazeroski, for a 13-0 waltz. He made only two more starts in June, winning both with complete games.

Vern Law’s 1960 season was the best of his career: 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA. He also won two World Series games and was the winning pitcher in the second All-Star game.

Law made seven starts in May, winning four and losing one with three more complete games. He was 4-2 in June with another three complete games. At the All-Star break, Law was 11-4 with a 2.52 ERA. He retired Brooks Robinson and Harvey Kuenn in the bottom of the ninth inning to preserve a 5-3 win for the National League and teammate Bob Friend. In the second All-Star game four days later, Law was the starter (and winner), allowing no runs and one hit in two innings as the National League won 6-0.

Law won his last two starts in July, and then won six straight decisions in August. He finished August at 19-5 with a 2.84 ERA. The Pirates led the rest of the National League by 5.5 games.

After being so strong, so consistent, Law faltered in September. In six starts, he was 1-4 with a 4.43 ERA. The Pirates finished five games ahead of the second-place Milwaukee Braves. And Law had a new best season: 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA. Law led the National League with 18 complete games. His 271.2 innings pitched were fourth most in the league.

Law capped off a fine 1960 season by winning a pair of World Series games with a 3.44 ERA. And though he finished third in the league in victories (Warren Spahn and Ernie Broglio each won 21 games.), Law won the Cy Young voting handily over Spahn, Broglio and Lindy McDaniel.

Despite leading the National League in only one pitching category – with 18 complete games – Vern Law won the Cy Young Award as baseball’s best pitcher in 1960.

Law wouldn’t have another season like that in the seven seasons he had remaining. He would win 17 games in 1965, and finish with a career record of 162-147 with a 3.77 ERA.

 

 

 

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Command and Control

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Lew Burdette

It’s natural to remember Lew Burdette as primarily a 1950s pitcher. That was his dominant decade. Teaming with Warren Spahn and Bob Buhl to fashion one of the most formidable starting rotations in the National League, Burdette was a commanding right-handed starter, using his power and control to win 120 games for the Milwaukee Braves between 1953 and 1959.

But Burdette also pitched for eight seasons into the 1960s, winning 77 games as a starter and reliever for four different teams.

Lew Burdette spent 13 of his 18 major league seasons with the Braves. His finest moment in a Braves uniform came in the 1957 World Series, when he won three complete game victories over the New York Yankees, including two shutouts.

Burdette was signed by the New York Yankees in 1947. He made his only two appearance in Yankee pinstripes at the end of the 1950 season.

In 1951, he was traded by the Yankees with $50,000 to the Boston Braves for Johnny Sain. He pitched in 45 games for the Braves in 1952, all but nine in relief, and compiled a 6-11 rookie season record with a 3.61 ERA. He became the Braves’ closer in 1953, finishing 24 of his 46 appearances. He posted a 15-5 record with a 3.24 ERA and eight saves.

By 1954, Burdette had moved into the Braves’ starting rotation, winning 28 games over the next two seasons. In 1956, he went 19-10 and led the National League with six shutouts and a 2.70 ERA. He won 17 games during the 1957 season, and was the Most Valuable Player in the 1957 World Series, beating the Yankees three times with a pair of shutouts. He closed out the 1950s with back-to-back 20-victory seasons: 20-10 in 1958 and 21-15 in 1959, while leading the league that season in starts (39) and shutouts (four).

In 1960, Burdette led the league in complete games (with 18, tied with Spahn and Vern Law) while going 19-13 with a 3.36 ERA. He also pitched a 1-0 no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies that season. He allowed only one base runner (hitting Tony Gonzalez with a pitch) and faced only 27 batters – while driving in the winning run. He won 18 games in 1961, and then slipped to 10-9 in 1962.

Lew Burdette was never afraid of piling up innings. For eight consecutive seasons (1954-1961), Burdette pitched 200 or more innings. From 1958 to 1961, he averaged 278 innings pitched per season.

In 1963, after more than 13 years with the Braves, Burdette was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for catcher Gene Oliver and pitcher Bob Sadowski. He had a combined record of 9-13 for the Braves and Cardinals, and the next season was a combined 10-9 for the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, after being traded in June for pitcher Glen Hobbie.

He split a 3-5 1965 season with the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. He closed out his career as a reliever for the California Angels, going a combined 8-2 with a 3.67 ERA in 73 appearances over two seasons.

Burdette retired after the 1967 season with a career record of 203-144 and a 3.66 ERA. He completed 158 games (out of 373 starts) with 33 shutouts over a career that amassed 3,067 innings. He was an All-Star twice.

 

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The Arm that Owned the Yankees

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Frank Lary

He “owned” the New York Yankees when that franchise was at the pinnacle of major league dominance. From 1955 to 1961, no other pitcher beat the Yankees as often or as consistently as Frank Lary.

Frank Lary was 23-9 with a 3.24 ERA for the Detroit Tigers in 1961. He led the American League with 22 complete games that season, the third time he led the league in that pitching category.

Frank Lary was 23-9 with a 3.24 ERA for the Detroit Tigers in 1961. He led the American League with 22 complete games that season, the third time he led the league in that pitching category.

And in between starts against the Yankees, Frank Lary was also a pretty good right-hander and the ace of the Detroit Tigers staff going into the 1960s.

Lary was signed by the Tigers off the University of Alabama campus in 1950. He made his debut at the end of the 1954 season, and in 1955 went 14-15 in his rookie campaign with a 3.10 ERA. In 1956, Lary went 21-13, leading the American League in wins, games started (38), and innings pitched (294).

That was the season when Lary’s reputation as a “Yankee Killer” began. In 1956, Lary went 5-1 in seven starts against the team that would end the season as World Series champs. In 1958, Lary won 16 games for the Tigers and led the league in complete games (19) and innings pitched (260.1). Against the Yankees, he was 7-1 in eight starts with a pair of shutouts and a 1.86 ERA.

Lary won five out of six decisions against the Yankees in 1959 when he went 17-10 for the Tigers. His best season came in 1961, when Lary went 23-9 and 4-2 against the Yankees. He finished third in the 1961 Cy Young balloting behind Warren Spahn and that season’s winner, Whitey Ford.

Frank Lary’s dominance over the New York Yankees lasted six seasons. From 1956-1961, Lary was 23-5 against the Yankees.

Frank Lary’s dominance over the New York Yankees lasted six seasons. From 1956-1961, Lary was 23-5 against the Yankees.

Lary was never the same pitcher after the 1961 season.  From 1955 through 1961, he averaged 17 victories and 257 innings per season. From 1962 through 1965, arm problems limited Lary to a combined record of 11-23 and an average of only 90 innings per season. He stayed with Detroit into the 1964 season, and then bounced between the New York Mets, Milwaukee Braves and Chicago White Sox before retiring after the 1965 season.

In a 12-season career, Lary won 128 games, 28 against the Yankees, and 100 against everyone else.

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Mets Spend for Spahn

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(November 23, 1964) – The New York Mets announced today that they had purchased left-handed pitcher Warren Spahn from the Milwaukee Braves.

Left-hander Warren Spahn was the first 300-game winner to wear a New York Mets uniform. During his 21-year career, Spahn won 363 games, but only four of those victories came with the Mets.

Left-hander Warren Spahn was the first 300-game winner to wear a New York Mets uniform. During his 21-year career, Spahn won 363 games, but only four of those victories came with the Mets.

The 43-year-old Spahn was 6-13 with a 5.29 ERA for the Braves in 1964, his twentieth season with that franchise. Spahn won 355 games for the Braves, and won 20 or more games in a season 13 times, tying him with Christy Mathewson for the most 20-win seasons by a National League pitcher. Only a year before, he was 23-7 for the Braves and led the league in complete games for the seventh consecutive season. Spahn pitched only four complete games in 1964.

Spahn would make 20 appearances in 1965 before being released by the Mets and signed by the San Francisco Giants. For 1965, he would have a combined record of 7-16 and a 4.01 ERA. At the end of the 1965 season, Spahn would retire with 363 career victories, the fifth highest total in major league history and the most by a southpaw.

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Warren and Christy … Together at Last

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(September 8, 1963) Pitching a nine-hit complete game, Warren Spahn raised his season record to 20-5 as the Milwaukee Braves beat the Philadelphia Phillies 3-2 at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia.

It was the thirteenth time in his career that Spahn won 20 or more games. That tied him with Christy Mathewson for the most 20-vistory seasons in the major leagues.

The 1963 season was the thirteenth 20-victory season in the career of Warren Spahn. It was the seventh straight season when Spahn led the National League in complete games.

The 1963 season was the thirteenth 20-victory season in the career of Warren Spahn. It was the seventh straight season when Spahn led the National League in complete games.

For the 42-year-old Spahn, it was his nineteenth complete game of the 1963 season. He would finish the season with 22 complete games, the most in the majors. Spahn recorded no strikeouts or walks during the game.

The Braves scored in the first inning when lead-off batter Lee Maye singled and advanced to second on an error by Phillies starter Dallas Green. Frank Bolling sacrificed Maye to third, and Maye scored on Hank Aaron’s groundout to Phillies second baseman Tony Taylor. It was Aaron’s 117th RBI of the season.

The Braves’ lead held up as Spahn pitched a shutout through six innings. Tony Gonzalez led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a triple and scored on a Roy Sievers sacrifice fly.

In the eighth inning, Green walked Eddie Mathews, who scored on Gene Oliver’s sixteenth home run. Spahn pitched a scoreless eighth inning and allowed a solo home run by Don Demeter in the ninth. Don Hoak doubled to put the potential tying run in scoring position, but Spahn retired Bob Oldis and Wes Covington to end the game.

The losing pitcher was Green (5-4).

Shown in an undated photo is Christy Christy Mathewson was the first major league pitcher to win 20 or more games 13 times. (Warren Spahn was the second.) Mathewson finished his career with 373 victories, third most in major league history (tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander) and 10 more than Spahn.

Christy Mathewson was the first major league pitcher to win 20 or more games 13 times. (Warren Spahn was the second.) Mathewson finished his career with 373 victories, third most in major league history (tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander) and 10 more than Spahn.

Spahn’s 1963 season was one of the best of his career, as he finished the season at 23-7 with a 2.60 earned run average. It was also his seventh straight season leading the National League in complete games, and he pitched seven shutouts, tying his season high and the second most in the league (behind 11 Sandy Koufax shutouts).

Though he tied Mathewson for most 20-win seasons, Spahn fell short of matching Mathewson’s 373 career wins. Spahn retired after the 1965 season with 363 victories, the most by any left-hander in baseball history.

300 and Counting

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(August 11, 1961) The Milwaukee Braves today defeated the 2-1 behind the six-hit pitching of Warren Spahn.

Warren Spahn's 12th victory of the 1961 season was also his 12th complete game ... and the 300th win of his career.

Warren Spahn’s 12th victory of the 1961 season was also his 12th complete game … and the 300th win of his career.

For Spahn (12-12), it marked the 300th victory of his career, and made Spahn the thirteenth pitcher in major league history to reach the 300-victory plateau. He was also the first 300-game winner in two decades, following Lefty Grove in 1941.

Spahn drove in the game’s first run in the fifth inning with a sacrifice fly that brought home catcher Joe Torre. The Cubs tied the game at 1-1 in the sixth inning. Ron Santo scored on an Andre Rodgers RBI single.

Braves center fielder Gino Cimoli hit a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth inning off Cubs starter Jack Curtis (7-7). Curtis and Spahn each allowed just six hits.

For Spahn, the victory marked his twelfth complete game of the season … and Spahn would lead the National League in complete games in 1961 for the fifth consecutive season. He would also lead the league in ERA (3.02) and victories at 21-13.

And he still had 63 victories left in his 40-year-old arm.

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The Greatest Pitching Duel of Our Lifetime

 

This Week in 1960s Baseball

(July 2, 1963) In one of baseball’s most memorable pitching duels, the San Francisco GiantsJuan Marichal and the Milwaukee BravesWarren Spahn both hurled 15 scoreless innings before Willie Mays ended the marathon with a home run off Spahn in the bottom of the 16th inning, giving San Francisco a 1-0 win.

Warren Spahn

Warren Spahn

Spahn (11-4) allowed nine hits in 15.1 innings pitched, striking out two Giants batters. Giants right-hander Marichal (13-3) allowed only eight hits in pitching his 16-inning shutout. Marichal struck out 10 Braves and lowered his season ERA to 2.14.

Willie Mays’ lead-off home run in the 16th inning broke up a scoreless pitching duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal.

Willie Mays’ lead-off home run in the 16th inning broke up a scoreless pitching duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal.

Mays’s walk-off home run was his 15th of the season. He would finish the 1963 season with 38 round-trippers (to go with a .314 batting average and 103 RBIs). Mays still holds the major league record with 22 extra-inning home runs.

Spahn would finish the 1963 season at 23-7 with a 2.60 ERA. It would be the last winning season of his Hall of Fame Career.

Juan Marichal

Juan Marichal

Marichal, also a future Hall of Famer (this particular game featured seven different future HoFers), finished 1963 with a 25-8 record and a 2.41 ERA. He would lead the majors with 321.1 innings pitched.

 

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Slam Bam Brave

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Tony Cloninger

A hard-throwing right-hander, Tony Cloninger stepped up as the Milwaukee Braves‘ ace in the mid 1960s when time finally caught up with Warren Spahn. Cloninger was also, like Spahn, a dangerous hitter who could win games with his bat as well as his arm.

Tony Cloninger emerged as the ace of the Milwaukee Braves’ pitching staff in the mid-1960s. He won 43 games in 1964-1965.

Tony Cloninger emerged as the ace of the Milwaukee Braves’ pitching staff in the mid-1960s. He won 43 games in 1964-1965.

Cloninger was signed by the Braves in 1958 and made his debut with the team in June of 1961. During his first three seasons with the Braves, he had a combined record of 24-16 with a 4.31 ERA.

Cloninger’s breakout season came in 1964, when he went 19-14 with a 3.56 ERA. In 1965, Cloninger turned in a 24-11 season with a 3.29 ERA. He posted career highs in complete games (16), innings pitched (279), and strikeouts (211). He also led the league in bases on balls with 119, a feat he would repeat in 1966, when his record slipped to 14-11. That was also the season when Cloninger set a hitting record that no batter has ever topped.

On July 3, 1966 in Candlestick Park, Cloninger won his ninth game of the season with a 17-3 complete game performance over the hometown San Francisco Giants. Cloninger’s bat produced nine of the Braves’ 17 runs that day, including two consecutive grand slam home runs.

Tony Cloninger drove in nine runs in the Braves’ 17-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants on July 3, 1966. Eight of those RBIs came on consecutive grand slams.

Tony Cloninger drove in nine runs in the Braves’ 17-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants on July 3, 1966. Eight of those RBIs came on consecutive grand slams.

Not a bad hitter for a pitcher (.192 lifetime average), Cloninger hit .234 in 1966, with five home runs and 23 RBIs. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1966 season, Cloninger was already on the downside of his pitching career.  He won only five more games for the Braves over the next two seasons, and was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in a deal that brought Clay Carroll and Woody Woodward to the Reds and sent pitcher Milt Pappas to the Braves. As a spot starter and long reliever, Cloninger was a combined 27-33 in four seasons with the Reds.

The St. Louis Cardinals traded Julian Javier for Cloninger just before the 1972 season, but he was only 0-2 in 17 relief appearance for St. Louis, and retired after the 1972 season. He finished with a career record of 113-97, and 11 career home runs.

Piling Up Innings and Wins

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Bob Buhl

Bob Buhl was the kind of workhorse every pitching staff can use. From 1955 to 1965, he could be counted on for an average of 13 wins and 200 innings per season, year in and year out. Though never a 20-game winner, Buhl’s most outstanding feature was his durable consistency, providing quality starts whether pitching for a contender … or for the Cubs.

Bob Buhl won 18 games for the Milwaukee Braves in both 1956 and 1957. He won 109 games in 10 seasons with the Braves.

Bob Buhl won 18 games for the Milwaukee Braves in both 1956 and 1957. He won 109 games in 10 seasons with the Braves.

Buhl was signed originally by the Chicago White Sox in 1947. A year later he was granted his free agency and was signed by the Boston Braves. By the time his minor league development had earned him a stay in the National League, Buhl was pitching for a Braves team playing out of Milwaukee, going 13-8 in 1953 with a 2.97 ERA, third best in the league behind Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts. In his rookie season, Buhl had eight complete games in 18 starts, with three shutouts.

After a 2-7 season in 1954, Buhl rebounded with a 13-11 record and a 3.21 ERA in 1955. It was also the first season when he topped 200 innings pitched (201.2), a feat he would achieve eight times in the next decade. Buhl won 18 games in both 1956 and 1957, leading the league in winning percentage in 1957 (.720 on an 18-7 record) while registering the league’s fourth-best ERA (2.74). In 1959, he had the league’s third-best ERA (2.86) while going 15-9 with 12 complete games and a league-best four shutouts. He won 16 games for Milwaukee in 1960, and then slipped to 9-10 with a 4.11 ERA in 1961.

Two weeks into the 1962 season, Buhl was traded by the Braves to the Chicago Cubs for Jack Curtis. In five seasons with the Cubs, Buhl was 51-52 with a combined ERA of 3.83. His best season in Chicago came in 1964, when he was 15-14 with 11 complete games and three shutouts for a Cubs team that finished eighth in the National League.

Bob Buhl was 15-14 with a 3.83 ERA with the Chicago Cubs in 1964.

Bob Buhl was 15-14 with a 3.83 ERA with the Chicago Cubs in 1964.

The most important contribution Buhl made to the Cubs was to be traded in 1966 with pitcher Larry Jackson to the Philadelphia Phillies for John Herrnstein, Fergie Jenkins and Adolfo Phillips. Jenkins went on to a Hall of Fame career, including six 20-victory seasons for the Cubs. Buhl won six games for the Phillies in 1966 and then was released by Philadelphia in 1967, retiring with a career record of 166-132. He was a member of the National League All-Star team in 1960.

 

 

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