“It’s work, son,” Father said. “That’s what money is; it’s hard work.”― Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy
Tony Lee was born to a farming family in rolling rural piedmont country, hidden away in North Carolina’s Lincoln County. He grew up fast, tall, strong and lean, and went on to set a remarkable and little-known Major League Baseball record that will probably never be broken.
There are many a story of country boys making it big in baseball. I’ll touch on three of the best known.
Mickey Mantle grew up in rural Oklahoma, along old Route 66. Who knows how many records Mickey Mantle would have set if he hadn’t taken to the bottle? Still, he hit 536 home runs in total – this during an era when baseball players, on average, hit homers only about 60 percent as often as today – and yet “The Mick” stands at #18 on the all-time home run list. More than a few above him took steroids and should thus be disqualified.
Bob Feller grew up a farming country boy in Iowa. Playing his entire career with the Indians, and coaching for them until his death at 92, he probably had the fastest fastball in the Majors during the 1940s. He led the league in strike outs seven times (twice in the 1930s as a teenager!). Over a stellar career, Feller amassed 266 victories. He surely would’ve reached the magical 300 milestone had he not served 3-1/2 years in World War 2 in the prime of his career. Or, if the Indians had had a slightly better team; they compiled mostly mediocre records in those years, but did manage to win the World Series in 1948. For the five full years of his career that sandwiched his military service he averaged 24 wins a season. Projecting a bit, that would put him around 350 wins for his career.
And finally, perhaps the most famous to baseball fans, is pitcher Denton True “Cy” Young. He grew up working his family’s farm in rural Ohio. His frame took on great strength and his mind a determined, stern discipline. When baseball found him, he could throw the ball so hard he was nicknamed “Cyclone”; or “Cy” for short. With a career of just over two decades that spanned the turn of the 20th century, Young won an astounding 511 games at the Major League level – a record that will never be broken. Since 1956 the Award for the Best Pitcher in each league has been named after him.
In this time of Covid, I’m not following sports much. Heck, until recently there wasn’t much to follow. But even with this rump of a baseball season coming to its tinny crescendo I have been unable to avert my eyes from box scores and standings completely.
It’s a lifelong habit and I guess I owe it to my dad. I can remember him taking me to watch a Cubs game at Wrigley Field during the summer of 1961. Billy Williams hit a home run. I could barely follow the game – long periods of sun-drenched boredom with brief moments of athletic excitement where the players and ball moved so quickly that I had little idea what was going on. All I knew before this was dad tossing whiffle balls to me – as I tried to make contact with a plastic bat – and a cheezy glove that he tossed balls into. Me, thinking I could catch, or hit! Ha. God Bless him. God blessed me with him.
Within a few years he taught me how to track a game. How to keep score. Tricks to playing each position (‘ twas clear from early on I’d never be a pitcher) and what to anticipate what could happen on each at-bat, on each pitch. I guess he thought I had “Mickey Mantle” potential, as he had me swing from both sides. Eventually I took to swinging only lefty – even though I am right-handed and right-eyed – which was fine with me. Billy Williams – who won Rookie of the Year in 1961, later won a batting title, and had become my favorite player – swung the same way, lefty, despite also being right-handed.
Back to 2020. So, I’m tracking some baseball stats this odd year-of-covid, like I always do. This, despite the fact that I’m inclined to believe that nothing about this year should even count. But, I can’t help myself. Reasons it shouldn’t count? Doubleheader games are only 7 innings; extra innings start off with a runner on second; and the biggest reason is that even the NL is using the Designated Hitter (DH), which means that – except in the most unusual of circumstances – pitchers don’t have to bat. Guess I’m just a traditionalist.
One thing I noticed through most of this weird 2020 season is that hitting and run production seem down. Until a few weeks ago batting averages across both leagues were at historic lows. And pitchers don’t even have to bat! Run production (scoring) was down only slightly, because players are still hitting home runs at nearly historically high rates.
There was a blip for a few weeks recently when scoring and hitting went way up. Teams started putting up double-digit tallies. In one single day (Sept 9) during that stretch the Brewers scored 19 runs in a game. And the Braves scored 29! In one game. During that Braves explosion, Adam Duvall hit three home runs, one of them a grand slam, and knocked in 9 runs. This statistic, 9 RBIs, tied a Braves franchise record. Plus a grand slam. [RBI is Run Batted in].
And my mind drifted back to 1966……
Baseball recruiting started to get aggressive in the late 1950s. For example, Tony Lee Cloninger, a lanky farm boy from North Carolina, was signed to a professional contract by the Milwaukee Braves in early 1958. For that, he received a signing bonus of $100,000. That was a lot of money. He had not yet graduated from high school.
Milwaukee. I lived just outside that Midwest city from Christmas week 1962 until the summer of 1974. Even though my first love was the Cubs, I could not help but follow the local Braves, as news of them was always in the newspapers. And of course, my sports-minded friends all followed them. So, I certainly knew of Tony Cloninger.
In fact, several superstars, future Hall of Famers, played for the Milwaukee Braves back then – Aaron, Matthews, Torre, Spahn – and I remember watching them all play at Milwaukee County Stadium.
Cloninger set several team records. He recorded the modern-day era for most wins in a season by a Brave – 24 wins in 1965 – which matched the count put up by Johnny Sain in 1948 (when the team was in Boston), and years later by John Smoltz in 1996. Not even the great Brave and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn ever won so many in a season.
Cloninger also threw one of MLB’s few Immaculate Innings (9 pitches, 3 strikeouts) in 1963, a feat that had only been achieved 13 times before. (As an indicator of how the game has changed – so many more home runs and more strikeouts – it’s been done 87 times since).
1965 was a strange year for the Milwaukee Braves. The ownership was trying to move the team to Atlanta. Fans still loved the Braves, but there definitely were some hard feelings. The case even went to the courts, as the city tried to keep them. Despite a good record and performance by stars – not just Cloninger’s 24 wins; three Braves ranked in the league’s top ten for home runs: “Hammerin’ ” Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthew and Mack Jones – attendance dwindled to a dismal 555,000, lowest in the entire major leagues. I can’t blame the fans for not supporting a team that doesn’t love its home city.
Cloninger was a bit of free-spirit, at least on the pitcher’s mound, I would guess, and his career numbers support that theory. In his great 1965 year (and the next year too), Cloninger led the league in Wild Pitches and Walks issued. During 3-1/2 seasons in the minors he steadily averaged about 7 walks per nine innings: a horrendous ratio at almost any level, especially as a professional. But he also showed a ton of potential and promise. He was promoted to the major league club, the Milwaukee Braves, in the middle of the ’61 season, just shy of 21 years old. He was probably an early poster-child for the term “effectively-wild.”
1966. Now the Atlanta Braves were hopeful for their prospects, based on a new location, their promising second half of 1965, and a roster full of stars, including Tony Cloninger as their #1 pitcher. Unexpectedly, both Tony and the Braves got off to a cool start and were definitely under-performing. For the July 4th weekend, they traveled to San Francisco, to play the first place Giants – they were also loaded with future Hall of Famers. Prospects didn’t look good.
On a Sunday afternoon, July 3, Tony Cloninger – a much better than average hitting pitcher – pitched for the Braves. Back then, we Milwaukee-ites all still followed the Braves rather closely – as there was no professional baseball team in Milwaukee to replace them yet (the Brewers arrived in 1970), and we still knew all the Braves’ players, and most (except me) disliked the rival Cubs in nearby Chicago. But we didn’t get a newspaper delivered on Independence Day, July 4th. What happened on July 3rd?
It was not until July 5th that I read what Tony Cloninger had accomplished. The details were scarce, since the sports section had to cram two days’ worth of news into a single Tuesday edition, typically a publication day of diminutive size.
I first scanned the July 4th results (for some cruel scheduling reason the Braves had to fly all the way to Houston to play an afternoon game the very next day in the new Astrodome against the lowly Astros) and noted that the they had eked out a win.
Then, … some numbers from the previous day’s box score literally jumped off the pages. Holy cow! The Braves beat the first place Giants by a score of 17-3. Tony Cloninger pitched a complete game for the win, and he hit not one, but two, grand slams. I could not believe my eyes. A late game single brought his RBI total to 9 for the game. These are astonishing batting feats for any player, almost unbelievable!! But for a pitcher? Typically, the lightest hitting player in any lineup.
Not sure if it was that day or the next, but I remember the Milwaukee Journal showing a grainy photo of Giants’ great Willie Mays looking up helplessly, as a ball Cloninger had clobbered soared over his head, near the fence in Candlestick’s center field. Gosh, I wish I had started saving newsworthy magazines and newspapers a bit earlier. I’d love to have that now.
This was the first time in National League history that a player had ever hit two grand slams in one game. And, I’ll repeat myself: by a pitcher no less. [It has only happened only twice since, with Fernando Tatis hitting two in the same inning(!), in 1999. It has been accomplished 10 times in the American League.] This has never been accomplished by a pitcher. Never. Before or since. And it never will be done again, especially with the NL contemplating permanent use of the Designated Hitter – which means pitchers practically never, ever get to bat.
The Braves 1966 season improved thereafter, partly due to changing managers (from Bobby Bragan – loved that name – to Billy Hitchcock). On the flip side: The Giants’ season sort of collapsed. And the Dodgers (again, sigh) raced on to the National League pennant, with one of the better pitching staffs in baseball history, led by Sandy Koufax (who promptly retired, aged only 30, when he was at the top of his game, after the Dodgers surprisingly lost the World Series to Baltimore, swept 4-0, at season’s end).
Tony “the farm boy” Cloninger had been experiencing some shoulder and elbow problems. He was a power pitcher, with a great fastball and nasty slider; both can be very tough on the body. 1966 was still a reasonably good season for him (he finished 14-11) and he was still the Braves #1 pitcher. But that was the beginning of the end. Even at age 25 his rugged farm-hardened body could not stand up to the rigors of tossing so many innings. He pitched for several more years, posting only fair results, at best, and he was traded around a couple times.
With his bonus money and salary, Cloninger had been buying up farmland in his native Lincoln County. He battled on for a few years, then struggled mightily through the first half of the 1972 season, whereupon he promptly retired mid-season, just before his 32nd birthday. Tony returned to his beloved rural homeland; he began settling in at his farm and its bucolic setting in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Cloninger compiled a career MLB record of 113-97. He once made the league top 10 in strike outs. Good, but not nearly good enough for the Hall of Fame. He’s also regarded as one of the best hitting pitchers of all time. Still not good enough to technically be in the Hall of Fame as an individual. But, photographs of him made that day in 1966 are there in the Hall. As is the bat he borrowed from teammate Denis Menke, the one he used to hit the two grand slams. They should be: it is a record which will never be broken by any player. Nor will even be tied, by a pitcher.
Cloninger couldn’t stay away from the game forever. In 1988 he took up an invitation from the New York Yankees to join their coaching staff…starting in the minors and ending up with the major league team. Later he switched over to the player development staff with the Boston Red Sox. I believe he was still with the BoSox when he passed away, just a couple years ago, in the summer of 2018, aged 77.
Tony, thanks for the memories. You’re a good old farm boy who did well in the world.
Thanks for reading. Cheers.
Joe Girard © 2020
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