1969 Atlanta Braves: The 1st NL West Champs

A Braves franchise that had been a consistent winner in Milwaukee, including a 1957 World Series title, moved to Atlanta in 1965. By 1967, the Braves were losing more than they were winning. They made a managerial change, bringing in Lum Harris. The team improved to .500 in ’68. The 1969 Atlanta Braves made an even bigger leap, winning the first-ever NL West title.

1969 was a threshold year for Major League Baseball overall. The expansion of the sport from 20 to 24 teams led to a historic innovation—divisional play. No longer would there just be a single American League and National League with the winners going directly to the World Series. Each league was split into an East and a West. While you still had to finish in first place to qualify for the playoffs, a League Championship Series round was instituted prior to the Fall Classic.

In a geographical twist that was…shall we say strange…that Braves, along with the Cincinnati Reds were in the West, while the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs were in the East. Atlanta and Cincinnati joined with the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros (an NL team prior to 2013) and the San Diego Padres to comprise the inaugural field in the NL West.

Based on the 1968 standings, San Francisco and Cincinnati would have been the favorites in the West for ’69 (the Cardinals had won the pennant). Atlanta had been third-best among the new NL West teams in 1968. And while the Dodgers hadn’t contended in ’68, they were still a franchise that could never be counted out. The 1969 NL West race had the potential for excitement—and it delivered.

Atlanta made a big trade in the offseason that didn’t work out as hoped. They dealt Joe Torre to St. Louis in exchange for first baseman Orlando Cepeda. Torre still had an MVP season in his future, while the 31-year-old Cepeda had rather pedestrian numbers of a .328 on-base percentage/.428 slugging percentage. The everyday lineup had other players whose numbers were similarly mediocre—Felix Millan, Clete Boyer and Sonny Jackson around the infield and Felipe Alou in centerfield.

What the Braves did have was the great Henry Aaron. Baseball’s Home Run King was 35-years-old, but he still hit .300, slugged 44 homers, drove in 97 runs, and finished third in the MVP voting. Atlanta also had leftfielder Rico Carty in left, who batted .342. The star power of Carty and Aaron was enough to keep the Atlanta offense above water, fifth-best in the National League.

The pitching staff was also carried by a future Hall of Famer. Knuckleballer Phil Niekro logged 284 innings, posted a 2.56 ERA, won 23 games, and finished second in the Cy Young race. He was supported by 18-game winner Ron Reed. Pat Jarvis has a mediocre ERA of 4.43, but he was reliable in taking his turn—33 starts and 217 innings pitched.

Harris was able to squeeze respectable work out of everyone from 22-year-old George Stone to veteran Milt Pappas to Jim Britton to fill in the gaps. And at the end of the bullpen, Cecil Upshaw saved 27 games, while working 105 innings and finishing with a 2.91 ERA. Like the offense, the Braves’ pitching staff wasn’t great—sixth in the National League for composite ERA—by they were good enough to compete.

Atlanta made an early statement when they started the season by going 6-1 at home against San Francisco and Cincinnati. The Braves went on to sweep the Dodgers in early May, and took two of three from the eventual NL East champion New York Mets on the road. By Memorial Day, Atlanta was 26-13 and 3 ½ games ahead of the field. The Dodgers, Giants, and Reds were all closely in the rearview mirror.

A schedule stretch against good NL East teams in early summer slowed the momentum. Atlanta went 8-11 against St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. The Braves needed some help. Just before what was then a June 15 trade deadline, they got it. Atlanta traded for outfielder Tony Gonzalez. Over 89 games in a Brave uniform, Gonzalez would post a stat line of .354 OBP/.447 slugging percentage.

Atlanta bounced back when the schedule returned to their NL West rivals, and they won 12 of 18, mostly at home. They were 46-30, a half-game up, when a road trip saw things go sour. The Braves lost 11 of 18 on a trip that took them from the West Coast to Cincinnati.

The good news was that none of their divisional foes stepped up and took control. At the All-Star break, Atlanta’s 56-42 record was still enough for a one-game lead on Los Angeles and San Francisco, with Cincinnati four games out.

Late summer was the toughest part of the year. From late July up until an early Labor Day on September 1, the Braves only went 17-20 and slipped to fourth place. They were still only 2 ½ games out, but with three teams to catch, the margin for error was rapidly disappearing.

A big series win in Cincinnati helped stabilize the ship and set up a key four-game sequence from September 8-11. The Braves would host the Dodgers and Giants in consecutive two-game sets.

This crucial moment didn’t exactly start off well. Atlanta left twelve runners on base in the Monday night opener against Los Angeles, wasting a good combined effort from Stone and Pappas in a 2-0 loss. Tuesday night seemed to be following a similar pattern. Niekro was brilliant, but trailed 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh.

The bats awoke in time. Aaron legged out an infield hit and then scored the tying run on Carty’s double. Atlanta scraped out another run in the 10th and won 2-1. Niekro went all ten innings.

Thus awakened, the bats surged against San Francisco. Aaron and Carty each had two hits and a home run on Wednesday night. Upshaw tossed 3 2/3 innings of shutout relief and the Braves won 8-4. Aaron homered again on Thursday night in support of Reed. The game was tied 3-3 in the eighth. Pinch-hitter Mike Lum came up in Reed’s spot—he delivered a two-out/two-run RBI hit that delivered a 5-3 win.

Atlanta used the momentum to sweep Houston on the weekend. They were back into first place, up 1 ½ on L.A. and San Francisco and plus-2 on Cincy.

The schedule flipped the next week, with consecutive two-game sets out west. This time, the Braves lost three of four to the Dodgers and Giants. But Atlanta quickly regained their footing by sweeping San Diego. Then the Braves delivered another sweep of the Astros.

Atlanta was taking full advantage of their opportunities against non-contenders. Los Angeles had fallen by the wayside. Cincinnati was 3 ½ games back. With a week to go, only San Francisco, 1 ½ games out, was still in real striking distance.

The Braves would host the Padres on the weekend. On Friday night, Millan had four hits and Cepeda belted a grand slam. Atlanta won 10-4, but San Francisco held serve and kept the pressure on. Saturday was a particularly big day. Reed beat the Padres 4-2 behind two hits from Millan and a blast from Carty. The Giants lost. Atlanta’s magic number was down to two with three games left.

Atlanta got another 4-2 win on Sunday, but San Francisco’s victory kept the champagne on ice. The Braves and Giants both took Monday off. Atlanta was 2 ½ games up and had a two-game series at home with Cincinnati. If the Braves lost both, the Giants could pull even with a sweep of the lowly Padres and force a one-game tiebreaker.

Niekro took the ball on Tuesday night and delivered another vintage performance. He still trailed 2-1 in the seventh. But Gonzalez came through. On a night when the midseason acquisition had four hits, he came up with the game-tying knock. A sacrifice fly from Carty gave Atlanta the lead.

The 3-2 cushion was handed over to the legendary Hoyt Wilhelm. Now 46-years-old and only doing marginal work, he got the three outs that clinched. Backup shortstop Bob Aspromonte fielded a groundball, threw to Cepeda and the Braves were NL West champs.

In the first year of this new format, Atlanta won what was easily the most compelling division race. That’s ironic, because the year this format ended—in 1993—Atlanta also won the most compelling race, before shifting into their current home in the NL East.

As far as 1969 goes, the 97-65 run to the division title was where the dream ended. The 100-win Mets took out Atlanta in a sweep of what was then a best-of-five League Championship Series round. Brave pitching had a rough go of it, giving up 27 runs in the three games of the 1969 NLCS.

The more unfortunate news for Atlanta baseball fans is that this would be the last time they watched contending baseball for some time. The Braves slipped back under .500 in 1970. They didn’t return to serious contention until Torre came back—as manager, when they returned to the top of the NL West in 1982.