R.I.P. Rick Camp

Dead of natural causes. Here’s a story I wrote for the local organ remembering Rick Camp’s most iconic moment as a Brave:

“I thought it was the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse,” she said — a sight no less likely than a Rick Camp home run.

No one was much surprised that the Braves lost — a common occurrence in the 1980s.

“If we have to rely on me to hit a home run to win a game, we’re in bad shape,” Camp said afterward.

RIP Earl Williams

Earl Williams, who at 22 was named 1971 NL Rookie of the  Year, died today after a bout with acute leukemia. He was 64.

Williams was one of five Atlanta Braves — along with Kimbrel, Fukey, Justice and Horner — to win ROY. Although Justice and Horner had better overall seasons, and fewer AB’s, Williams’ 33 HR and 87 are tops among Atlanta Braves rookies.

Remarkably, Williams’ rookie season also marked his debut as a catcher. The former corner infielder started 71 games behind the plate, and though he had 15 passed balls he threw out 27 percent of runners trying to steal.

The Society for American Baseball Research has an interesting overview of Williams’s career.

Productivity at catcher was a huge problem for the 1971 Braves. Both Bob Didier and Hal King were exceptionally weak hitters, and on June 20, Manager Lum Harris came to Williams and stunningly announced, “You’re my catcher.” Earl had no preparation for becoming a full time catcher in the Major Leagues, his May 23 appearance being his lone time behind the plate. His attitude toward catching would be a subject of controversy over his career. At the time of the move, Williams was ambivalent: “It’s okay… but I play where they put me.”

Williams told Sport Magazine in 1972, “My favorite position is batter,” and he played it well in 1971. On April 16 against the Phillies, Earl hit a two-run single for an 8-7 Braves victory, and the next day had the first of his five two-home run games of the season. On June 13, Williams had two three-run homers against the Astros, and on July 7 Earl pounded the Phillies again, this time with two home runs off of Barry Lersch. He won August player of the month honors in a media poll. For the year Earl had 33 homers and 87 RBI (fifth best in the NL), along with a respectable .260 average.

His fielding as a novice catcher was seen as remarkable at the time. Phil Niekro marveled at Earl’s ability to catch his knuckler, saying he caught as if he’d been “playing it for ten years.” Honey Russell said that Earl “isn’t far behind Johnny Bench as a catcher defensively.” In the Braves report in The Sporting News on July 24, Braves pitchers were quoted as saying Earl is “smart and calls a good game.” Also, his strong arm from his schoolboy pitching days served Williams well behind the plate. Earl himself would only offer that he had “plenty of room for improvement.”

He followed up his rookie season with 28 HR and 87 RBI but was traded, along with the Braves’ first round draft pick in  ’71, Taylor Duncan, for Pat Dobson, Davey Johnson, Johnny Oates and Roric Harrison.

He was traded back to the Braves in ’75 but wasn’t the same. Williams’ big league career was over at age 29.

Earl Williams, 1971 NL Rookie of the Year, had a life and career of dramatic swings. His power numbers for his first three years were first rate, but his pugnacious nature and willingness to speak out were constant trouble during his career. After 1980 he never played professional ball again. As he said in a Braves publication in 1976, “unusual things happen to me.”

NPR’s “All Things Considered” also has an interesting feature on Williams, from 2011.

R.I.P. Dan Roundfield

Dan Roundfield, arguably the best pure power forward in Atlanta Hawks history, drowned Monday off the coast of Aruba. He made three All-Star teams as a Hawk and was a regular on the NBA’s All-Defensive squad. Roundfield averaged 10 rebounds or better in each of his seasons in Atlanta and was a decent scorer, as well, averaging better than 17 points a game.

Munson the Brave

Before he became a Bulldog, Larry Munson was, briefly, a voice of the Braves. If only he had stayed and Milo Hamilton left.

Wouldn’t you have loved to hear Larry call Hank’s 715th?

Munson, who said baseball was his favorite sport, reminded me of Jack Buck, and I love Jack Buck. I can easily imagine Larry telling listeners to “go crazy, folks, go crazy” or say “I don’t believe what I just saw” and mean it.

Munson, Ernie, Skip and Pete would’ve been a helluva foursome. Now I’m being greedy.

The first year the Braves were in Atlanta, the television broadcasts were on WSB-TV. An occasional guest color commentator was former major leaguer Dizzy Dean. One memorable Friday night that first year during a rain delay, Dean warbled several verses of the Wabash Cannonball and purchased peanuts from a vendor in the stands, much to Munson’s on-air amusement.

A phenom’s plight

Old school Braves fans probably remember Hank Small, an Atlanta native and University of South Carolina legend once primed for stardom.

The big first baseman hit 25 homers, drove in 101 runs and hit .289 for the Richmond Braves in 1978. With Murph alternating between first and catcher, showing little aptitude for both, there seemed to be an opening for Small in Atlanta. The Braves opted for a retread instead (via The State):

Atlanta’s decision to go with free-agent first baseman Mike Lum at the expense of Small weighed on Small for years. Some say Small never sorted out all the questions and never found answers to why Atlanta ultimately shunned a hometown hero.

After a disappointing year back in Richmond, Small asked the Braves for his release. His baseball career was over at 25, with only four major league AB’s to show for it. He’d later find work as a groundskeeper at the same field, Chastain Park, where he was once a star.

He recently became engaged to Jennifer Strauss. A week ago Sunday the couple moved into what Strauss described as Small’s “dream house.” Two days later, Small fell on the front steps to the house, and he never regained consciousness.

Small was 56 when he died last March. I just discovered it tonight, hence the post.

Harwell got his start in Atlanta

“I went to a July 4 doubleheader in 1926, the Atlanta Crackers against the New Orleans Pelicans,” he said in the Detroit News article. “I later became the batboy for the visiting teams. But my first broadcasting experience of any kind came when I was in a puppet show in junior high at a hobby fair. The teacher asked me to do a boxing match. There I was behind a curtain with a script, and that was my first sports broadcast.”

Go here to read the complete story.

Baseball loses an icon

0424_largeWhat a week. First Nick Adenhart, then Harry Kalas and now Mark “the Bird” Fidrych has died.

Fidrych, one of baseball’s all-time characters, was killed in an apparent farming accident. He was just 54.

I was too young to appreciate his phenomenal 1976 campaign, but I have enjoyed — more than once — a replay of an old “Monday Night Baseball” game broadcast during the height of Fidrych mania.

I’ve never seen a player take over a game the way “The Bird” did that night. He was a master showman, yet authentically self-effacing — well-deserving of the folk hero tag.

He was a helluva pitcher, too, until injuries curtailed his career. Fidrych completed 24 games his rookie year, even though he didn’t make his first start until May 15. The 21-year-old right-hander won 10 of 11 games in one particularly brilliant stretch; his only defeat was by 1-0.

Fidrych would make only 27 starts the next four seasons in Detroit. He resurfaced in the Red Sox organization in 1982, though he never regained his dominant form.

Here he is as a PawSox, facing off against Columbus Clipper southpaw Dave Righetti. The crowd, as always, was firmly on Fidrych’s side.