Eddie Mathews, now captain of the Atlanta-bound Braves, is the last of the old guard who came from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953, and next year he might be the first player in modern baseball to play for the same team in three different cities. The current Braves, he admits, are far different from the ones of a few years back. "This used to be strictly a happy-go-lucky team," Mathews says. "Now there's no more hazing when a new man joins our club. We used to do all kinds of things to a new man—hide his socks, hide his shorts, put itching powder in his uniform. Guys like Burdette and Spahn were always lighting your newspaper while you read it. A guy would be getting interviewed and someone would pull the microphone away. But don't forget, we were young and we were winning in those days and that made for a loose club. Now the younger players are worriers. They take the game very seriously, and they are a fine bunch. We have to work hard to win now, and they know it. Sometimes, though, I sit and wonder where all my old buddies are, what has happened to them. Baseball has changed so much."
The new Braves last year led the majors in hitting (.272) and runs scored (803), and they were second in the league in home runs with 159. Milwaukee players finished second, third and fourth in the batting race, and the team tied a National League record by having five men with 20 or more homers. Rico Carty hit .330 with 22 homers and 88 RBIs, Henry Aaron .328 with 24 HRs and 95 RBIs, Joe Torre .321 with 20 HRs and 109 RBIs. Lee Maye hit .304. Mathews had 23 homers, and Denis Menke hit 20, which was almost twice that of any other NL shortstop. Even the bench was potent: Gene Oliver hit 13 homers, Ty Cline batted .302, and Mike de la Hoz .291. And now the Braves have added two major league retreads: Lou Klimchock, who led the Pacific Coast League with a .334 average, and Mack Jones, who failed with the Braves before but who led the International League last year with 39 home runs.
Though the Braves won 20 of their last 26 games and jumped from 14½ games back to just five at the end, only three pitching staffs in the majors had a worse team ERA than the Braves' 4.11. The staff led the league in giving up home runs and making wild pitches (Denny Lemaster alone yielded 27 homers and was worst in the majors with 20 wild pitches). Yet the future is bright, for the five starters are strong-armed and young, ranging in age from 21 to 27. Tony Cloninger, 24, got his curve to break more sharply last season and led the team with 19 wins. Lemaster, 26, a temperamental left-hander, was 17-11 but needs to learn how to set up hitters with his wide assortment of pitches and how not to be bothered by bench jockeys and bad breaks. Left-hander Wade Blasingame, 21, was 9-5 but won six games in September. Hank Fischer, 24, had five shutouts among his 11 wins, and Bob Sadowski, 27, was another nine-game winner.
First man on call in the bullpen is knuckleballer Bob Tiefenauer, whose 3.21 ERA was best on the club last year. Behind him are fast baller Dan Osinski (picked up from the Angels) and former Giant Billy O'Dell. Much-needed help may come from Clay Carroll, who was scored on in just one of the 11 games he appeared in with the Braves last year. And the Braves are hoping that lefty Dan Schneider, best college pitcher in the country a few years ago at the University of Arizona, will be ready to pay dividends on his big bonus later in the season.
Manager Bobby Bragan probably will juggle his men the way he did last year when he used 110 different lineups, inserting the hot hitters wherever possible. Only four players are set in their positions: Torre, one of the best catchers in the league, Mathews at third, Menke at short and Aaron in right, all solid fielders. Aaron may be hampered for some time, though, because of an ankle operation he had last month. At second base it will be either no-hit Frank Bolling (. 199 last year), once an expert at playing the hitters, or newcomer Sandy Alomar, a converted shortstop with swift feet, a sure glove and a mild bat. Felipe Alou is both the best center fielder and the best first baseman on the team, but where he will play is in doubt. Bragan wants Carty at first, though he seems even less adept at this new position than in left field. Lee Maye wants to play center, but Bragan prefers him in left. "You can't play scared," says Maye, "so I decided to be an aggressive fielder from now on." Maye is also a sometime vocalist. Last month his latest song, which he wrote himself, was released. It is called Careless Hands, a title possibly inspired by some of his outfield antics. When Bragan has a lead to protect, he will insert two of his best glovemen: Ty Cline in either left or center, and Tommie Aaron, Henry's brother, at first.
The Braves are facing a strange situation: playing almost as enemies in the city that once loved them. But before they leave the land of beer and bratwurst for that of hush puppies and hominy grits, they would like to climax their 13-year stay in Milwaukee with a third pennant. However, it is not likely that the pitchers will improve enough for Maye to write a song to commemorate a lame-duck pennant.