For much of the second half of the 20th century, Tony Lee Cloninger, a big right-handed pitcher with a blazing fastball, occasionally had difficulty talking about his 113 career victories, his 24-11 season in 1965, or the fact that he was Atlanta’s starter in the first major league game ever played in the South.
The grand slams kept getting in the way. Not any he may have given up in his 12-year major league career. The one he hit. Two of them, in the same game. Cloninger’s remarkable day came July 3, 1966, in Candlestick Park against the San Francisco Giants when he set the all-time runs-batted-in record for pitchers with nine in a single game.
For years, Cloninger was the only National League player of any position with two grand slams in a game. “I used to sit around and listen as (Eddie) Mathews and (Hank) Aaron talked about hitting,” Cloninger said. “They talked about watching the spin on the ball, and how they shortened their stroke in certain situations from time to time. I always had too much of a swing anyway. I started trying to do what they were talking about and I was really beginning to see the ball well. “I don’t think I ever it saw it as well as I did that day in San Francisco.”
But as a pitcher, Cloninger had much to talk about. In a three-year period, in Milwaukee in 1964 and 1965 and in Atlanta in 1966, Cloninger won a total of 57 games. They were the best years of his major league career, but years that failed to establish his overall career the way such a streak might have done under different circumstances. He came within a victory of winning 20 games in 1964 and turned down a chance on the final day of the season to do that. “Bob Sadowski was pitching and we were in about the fourth inning and leading,” Cloninger said. “Eddie (Mathews, who was filling in as manager) asked me if I wanted to go in for a couple of innings for a shot at picking up my 20th and I turned him down.”
Cloninger would reach the magic 20 victories a year later, and go beyond. “But on the day I was going for my 20th, there was almost no one in the ballpark to watch,” he said. It came in the closing weeks of the 1965 season in Milwaukee, a lame duck year for the Braves who would move to Atlanta. “I was excited about going to Atlanta, about being able to pitch not too far from my North Carolina home.”
With 24 victories a season earlier, Cloninger became the obvious opening day starter in Atlanta against Pittsburgh. In a game that lasted 13 innings, Cloninger went the distance and took the 3-2 defeat. All these years later, Cloninger believes it is the game that turned his career on a downward spiral and he won in double figures only one more time when he had an 11-17 record for the Cincinnati Reds in 1969. “It just didn’t work out too good for me,” he said. “Even after going 13 innings on opening day, I still think I would have been all right if I hadn’t had to come back on four day’s rest against the Mets.
By mid-season 1966, Cloninger knew that the damage had been done to an arm that had been so strong that when he opened the 1965 season against the Reds, he had thrown 112 pitches in winning; 104 of them had been fastballs.
Even the pain in his memory has softened with the years. “I look back now and think about all the great players who were my teammates – Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Joe Torre, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench. So many of them,” he said.
In recent years, Cloninger has served on the coaching staffs of both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox and this season is the major league senior pitching adviser for the Red Sox.
by Wilt Browning
May 20, 2004
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