You remember the line about the Braves' pennant-winning pitching staff of 16 years ago, when the team was still in Boston: "Spahn and Sain and two days of rain." Now it's the Milwaukee Braves, and they still have Spahn, but even Ogden Nash would run into a little trouble putting the names of the rest of today's staff to rhyme.
There are Lemaster, Cloninger, Sadowski, Tiefenauer, Niekro, Piche, Funk and Schnieder. There is a Smith, too, but there were two Smiths till one got cut. So did Hummitzsch, Maxie and Nixon. Nixon wore 64, and that sounds like a good omen for the former Vice-President except that Pitcher Nixon comes from Defeated, Tenn. There is also a Fischer, which helps semantically, but hardly otherwise since there are four Fis(c)hers in the majors, all of them pitchers—Bill, Eddie, Fat Jack and Hank. This one is Hank. "It's getting worse," he says. "Now I hear one of the other Fis(c)hers has a younger brother about ready for the majors."
But if Hank Fischer and the other Braves' pitchers sound new and strange, it is time to learn their names. They come with high praise and the Braves cleaned house—except for Spahn, of course—to make room for them.
Milwaukee is justly proud of its pitching tradition. For the past decade the Braves' ERA has been much the best in the league. In all that time, however, the pitching has been mostly Spahn and Lou Burdette and Bob Buhl. There was never much chance for promising youngsters like Joey Jay and Juan Pizarro to develop completely—and it was very embarrassing to the Braves when Jay and Pizarro were traded away to become stars in their own right. To a lesser degree this happened last year with Don Nottebart and Carlton Willey. But at Milwaukee, Spahn, of course, kept on going. So did Burdette, and Buhl was simply replaced by another veteran, Bob Shaw.
April 6, 1964
The Braves did not really break with the past until last May when they fell far into the second division. At first it was just a hint—Manager Bobby Bragan sent Shaw to the bullpen and brought 24-year-old Denny Lemaster into the starting rotation. After that came the deluge. Burdette was traded to St. Louis on June 15. This brought Tony Cloninger, 22, into a starting role. It also brought Bob Sadowski, 25, from the St. Louis farms and it brought Fischer, 23, back from the Milwaukee farms. Over the winter the Braves completely committed their hopes to these four—and Spahn—by trading Shaw and Starter Bob Hendley for hitters. It is a big gamble, the biggest made by a contender. Only Fischer won more games than he lost last year, and he won only four. They all need better changeups and control, but they all have their special boosters. For instance. General Manager John McHale believes that Fischer, the least known and experienced, has the best stuff of them all.
The backgrounds of these four young men would endear them to the Hollywood directors who organize the all-American infantry patrols for war movies in which the lieutenant is fresh out of West Point. Lemaster, for instance, comes from a Los Angeles suburb, which is important because 99.44% of the country is now suburban Los Angeles. Cloninger is a North Carolina farm boy, Sadowski a Pole from the Pittsburgh steel mills and Fischer a college kid from New Jersey. Central casting could not touch that kind of cross section.
So far, Lemaster is the best-known. For one thing, he is the only player in the majors who can be compared favorably to both Spahn and Ted Williams—he hits as well as Spahn and fishes as well as Williams. He also set a club strikeout record last year, and had the Braves not managed to get shut out seven times when he pitched, his record would have been vastly different from the 11-14 that it was. It also would have been vastly different had he not given up 30 home runs—every one off a fast ball. Lemaster is confident but not cocky. In a game at Los Angeles last August he had a 2-1 lead in the seventh, but he let the first two runners on and then ran up a 3-0 count on Maury Wills. Bragan came out and called for Shaw. He told Lemaster he could go to the showers, but Lemaster allowed as how he would rather wait for Shaw. He did, and handed the ball to the veteran relief star. "Here it is," he said grimly. "Now you save it for me." Shaw did.
Cloninger is from Iron Station, N.C., which has "a post office, a furniture store and a couple of grocery stores." With some of his $100,000 bonus—Lemaster got $75,000—Cloninger bought a 50-acre farm adjoining his father's. He raises corn and has just started breeding quarterhorses. Besides the money, Cloninger chose the Braves over 15 other teams because "the talk then was that Spahn and Burdette would be through and they'd need pitching." Cloninger—it is a German name, the g is hard—laughs at it now, but it was no joke last year. He finished strong in '62, but Burdette was so sharp last spring that Tony went back to the bullpen. It was June 15 before he finally won a game, although he finished 9-11. "This pitching is confidence altogether," Tony Cloninger says, and he knows it because there was a time when he had lost a lot of it. He was 0-9 at Cedar Rapids as recently as 1959.
Sadowski, the youngest of 12 children, grew up in Lawrenceville, a tough section of Pittsburgh. Both his parents were immigrants—"I'm 100% Polish"—and his father worked in a steel mill until his death, when Bob was 12. There was no big bonus for Sadowski—the Cards got him for $3,500. Two other Sadowski brothers were major leaguers—Ed, a catcher with the Angels, and Ted, a pitcher for the Twins.
Bob Sadowski's break came through an odd sequence of events. The Cards cut him last spring, despite the protests of many of the regulars. Before Sadowski left for Atlanta, Coach Clyde King told him to develop a slider. Sadowski was upset; he wanted no part of it. "I felt that I couldn't throw it," he says now in his soft voice, "but King made me promise, and I gave him my word." Switching back from overhand to a three-quarter motion, Sadowski found his slider within a month, and suddenly he was 9-2. The Cards could not recall him and knew they would lose him in the draft, so they let him go in the Burdette trade. A tremendously poised rookie, Sadowski was only 5-7 with the Braves last year—he lost too many close games—but his ERA was 2.62.
Fischer, a banker in the off season, is a graduate of Seton Hall, where he was also freshman basketball high scorer before the Braves changed his amateur standing by something like $50,000. "Funny," he says, "I hated to give up basketball, but if I had stayed on I would have been on that team with the fixers."
No matter where he has pitched, Fischer has averaged about a strikeout per inning, and his only problem seems to be control—of the ball and of himself. The Braves also think he needs to be a little more positive in his attitude. Bragan says he used to come in to pitch looking "like he was on a funeral march." He comes on spryer now, but only to humor the bosses. "Oh, I guess I am a little better about that now," he says, "but I can't see what difference it makes."
Such are the Braves' pitching prospects. And what are the chances for success? "All of these boys have talent," Pitching Coach Whitlow Wyatt says. "But what makes a good pitcher? I'll tell you. It is only two or three times a game when you have to be a good pitcher—when you're in a jam and you have to be just right. Just two or three times a game, and that's what makes a good pitcher. And we're just going to have to find out if these boys are ready to be good those two or three times a game." Whit Wyatt knows what he is worrying about. He did not become a good pitcher until he was 31 years old.