Skip to main content
Original Issue

MILWAUKEE BRAVES: A great team grows old ungracefully

Once the Braves spoke confidently of pennants. Now they speak hopefully of the first division, and even that may be out of reach if their fading old men don't pull off a geriatric miracle

High jinks in the Milwaukee camp reached a rollicking climax early this year—it was the opening day of spring training—when eight perspiring and puffing Braves' executives put on spikes and galloped around the infield in a pantomime of throwing, running and fielding. "I don't think we can win a pennant with this group," said the Braves' new manager, Bobby Bragan, and proceeded to herd his bona fide ballplayers out on the field. "I don't think he can win a pennant with this group cither," said a reporter sitting on the bench. And the sad part was no one argued the point. Yet just a few short years ago anyone who as much as mentioned even second place for Milwaukee was a wise guy. All that is changed now. The good Braves are no longer young, and the young ones aren't much good. And last year the citizens of Milwaukee didn't seem to care.

"But it's going to be enjoyable sitting around with these guys," said Bragan, pointing toward Eddie Mathews, Henry Aaron, Del Crandall, Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, who were milling around the batting cage. It would be even more enjoyable for Bragan if this old guard were all to have one more big, fat, glorious year. "We could be a first-division club if they did," said Bragan, and he is not one to make something out of nothing. What he doesn't know, of course, is whether the old Braves will have that good year. Certainly there was tangible evidence last season that it was all up with some of the old stars. The powerful Mathews suffered a mysterious sore shoulder and, even after a winter's rest, the soreness is still there. Spahn finally did, at age 41, what the experts said he'd do years ago—not win 20 games (but he did win 18). Burdette went into a sort of involuntary retirement and won just half his customary total. And the long, crisp drives that Crandall used to hit down the left-field line became spray singles—good for the average but not calculated to scare pitchers. With General Manager John McHale trading away brilliant young pitchers (Joey Jay and Juan Pizarro) and solid everyday performers like Billy Bruton and Joe Adcock, and then unloading over half the once fertile farm clubs, Bragan will have to depend on old Braves who may prefer peace to war.

Crandall doesn't hit the home run much anymore, but he's a more scientific hitter now and harder to get out. "I just may use him at first base," said Bragan. "That way we'll have Crandall and Joe Torre in the game at the same time." Torre seems likely to become a solid .300 man and everyday service for him would make the Braves' attack much more attractive. Norm Larker is now a Brave, and he once came close to a batting championship. It's doubtful if he'll come close again but losing is an affront to the combative first baseman, and the Braves could use some of that attitude. Crux of the Braves' run production is Aaron and Mathews. No matter how the Braves slide, Aaron blissfully hits all the time. He humiliates a pitcher. Mathews still has the beautiful whiplash swing, but the pain in his shoulder hurt his hitting more than his fielding. The Braves need both Aaron and Mathews at their best to win games. Henry's young brother, Tommie Aaron, "may be the best left fielder in camp," says Bragan, and that puts him at the head of a sizable, if not distinguished, list. His swing is as vicious as Henry's, but he fails to do the same mischief.

The Braves could very well be respectable here, but again it depends on good years from the senior citizens, Spahn and Burdette. The Spahn of '62 was quite a good pitcher, no matter what anybody says. He again led the league in complete games (his eighth time) and his 3.04 ERA does not suggest complete decay. Burdette was of little use to the Braves last year and Bragan had just about counted him out for this season, too. "I'd say he would have to show me in spring training that he's better than some of these other fellows," was the way Bragan put it. And Burdette has done just that. "He has shown me," said Bragan. "Right now Spahn is No. 1, Burdette is No. 2." That certainly means Bob Shaw is No. 3 and Tony Cloninger or Bob Hendley is No. 4. Bragan will call mostly on Frank Funk, Claude Raymond (2.72 ERA) and young Denny Lemaster (3.00 ERA) to help faltering starters.

Roy McMillan and Frank Boiling are among the best around second and Mathews has learned to play third masterfully. If Bragan decides that Crandall is his first baseman, some enemy hitters may find themselves on base unexpectedly. If it's Larker, hitters will have to earn the bass. Tommie Aaron is the best-fielding first baseman of the lot, but he'll likely be in left field. Mack Jones or Ty Cline (obtained from the Indians) in center are very fast, and Henry Aaron in right is a fine fielder. Both Torre and Crandall are excellent receivers and can handle any kind of pitching.