Behind the 375-foot mark in left field in Atlanta Stadium is a sign for a bank credit card that proclaims, "Think of it as money." For the young man who stands in front of the sign when the Braves are in the field, "it" means batting average, and if Ralph Garr keeps on hitting, the result for him will be lots of money. After 23 games Garr's average is .400, the best in the majors, and this, he says, "proves to me what I can do. I'm not saying I'm going to hit .400—I don't want that kind of pressure. But I have the ability to hit .300. I don't care how you pitch me, I can figure out a way to get a hit."
On his first time at bat against Gaylord Perry of the Giants last week, Garr showed one method. He bluffed a bunt on the first pitch, drawing Third Baseman Hal Lanier halfway to home. The next pitch he bunted hard right at the charging Lanier, who overran the ball for Garr's first of four hits that night, the third game this year he has collected that many. The next time up, Garr singled off Perry's leg on a two-strike count, and seconds later he was doing a hop, skip and jump around the bases when Henry Aaron hit his 600th career homer.
Ever since Garr, a 5'11", 185-pound left-handed batter, hit ".500 and change" at Grambling College (it was .568, which is a lot of breakage), his hitting and running—if not his fielding—have had the Atlanta organization drooling. Says Aaron, "They claim Mantle had speed. But Ralph gets down to first as fast as anybody I've ever seen."
Garr's speed has become something of a problem for Aaron. "I like to concentrate when I'm batting," he says, "but the pitchers throw over to first five and six times to keep Ralph close. That breaks my concentration." Aaron also sees more outside pitches than usual, since catchers want to be in throwing position if Garr tries to steal.
The Braves have taken advantage of Garr's speed, entering into an agreement with Warner Brothers Inc., and its agent, the Licensing Corporation of America, for exclusive rights to nickname their new star Road Runner II. "Our contract with the Braves makes Ralph the first licensed nickname to our knowledge anywhere in the world," says LCA chairman Jay Eminent. The contract also makes it illegal for any other athlete to use the nickname. Urged on by the management, Atlanta fans squeak "Beep! Beep!" when Garr reaches base.
Although he stole 63 and 39 bases in his last two years at Richmond, where he twice led the International League in batting (.329 and .386), he has not run much this season. "I don't see any sense when I've got Aaron and Cha Cha [Orlando Cepeda] behind me," he says. "My job is getting to first. Those two can worry about the rest." Even at that he has stolen five bases in eight attempts.
Garr was supposed to challenge converted Shortstop Sonny Jackson for the center-field job, but he became the regular leftfielder when Rico Carty, last year's National League batting champion, broke his leg playing in the Dominican League. Garr played in the same league and finished with the best average ever recorded there, .457. According to Paul Richards, vice-president of the Braves, Carty may not return as a regular this season. "We can't risk it if he isn't fully recovered," Richards says. "When Carty is ready we will decide on a new lineup. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Garr lead the world in hitting. We knew last year he was a big-league hitter. Even without his speed he would be good. But the speed gives him a chance to be a superstar. His fielding kept him at Richmond." Garr's fielding is not all that bad. Third Base Coach Jim Busby and Aaron have worked with him. He is not as aggressive in the field as he is at bat and he still makes mental errors, but these should be eliminated in time.
Even if he keeps his batting average up, Garr, who is 25, is ineligible for Rookie of the Year honors because he has had major league trials the past three seasons. He was drafted in the third round in 1967, but Garr thinks he would have gone higher if anybody had believed his Grambling batting figures. "They looked at my college average and thought it was a joke," he says. "They must have thought the pitchers were throwing underhanded. They got me cheaper than I was worth. I had the credentials but I didn't get the big money. I am the sole support of my family and I want to get paid."
Garr was a holdout this spring, but Richards says, "He signed and I don't consider him a problem." One of eight children from a Ruston, La. family, Garr is supporting his mother, his father and three of his brothers as well as his wife, Ruby, a senior at Grambling, and their 2½-year-old daughter, Shorta. "When it comes time to sign," Garr says, "they act like I batted .100. I look at my average and I think I'm Superman."
Remarkably, Garr is a bad-ball hitter, but he always seems to make contact—just three strikeouts in 95 at bats. No power swinger, he has been peppering infields and outfields with every kind of single imaginable, including a 130-foot drag bunt to right. "Nothing is impossible," he says when people ask him if he is going to hit .400 forever. "I'll just wait for my ability to show what I can do. Sometimes I even surprise myself." Beep! Beep!