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Braves Throwback Thursday: Bob Horner, the original Atlanta slugging phenom

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41 years ago, Horner skipped minor leagues entirely

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves have developed a reputation in recent years of being particularly aggressive in promoting their top prospects.

Among others, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Dansby Swanson, Ronald Acuña, Austin Riley and Mike Soroka all reached the big leagues at age 22 or younger. But all of them got at least a year of minor-league seasoning before making their Atlanta debuts.

Riley in particular has excelled almost immediately, bashing 16 home runs and posting a 117 OPS+ in his first 49 major-league games. The young left fielder’s early power display brings to mind another Braves slugging phenom who took the National League by storm 41 years ago, one who skipped the minor leagues entirely after being drafted No. 1 overall.

Bob Horner was viewed as a can’t-miss prospect coming out of Arizona State, where he hit a then-NCAA record 56 home runs from 1976-78. The Glendale, Ariz., product helped his home-state school to College World Series appearances all three years of his career, with the Sun Devils winning the national title in 1977.

Described by Sports Illustrated as “blond, blue-eyed, curly-haired and bull-necked,” Horner was named college player of the year by The Sporting News and Collegiate Baseball newspaper in 1978, when he slashed .412/.502/.819 with 25 home runs and 100 RBIs in 60 games at Arizona State. Collegiate Baseball’s Lou Pavlovich noted — perhaps with a bit of hyperbole — that Horner “came within inches of hitting at least 15 more homers that were either caught against the fence or bounced back onto the playing field after barely failing to clear the top portion of the barrier.”

‘He won’t be good enough’

Though jumping straight from amateur baseball to the majors is virtually unheard of these days — only two drafted players, pitcher Mike Leake in 2010 and outfielder Xavier Nady in 2000, have done it this century — it was a fairly common practice in the 1970s. Twelve players did so in that decade, nearly all of them with poor teams.

That was certainly the case with the Braves in 1978, who were coming off a 101-loss season and mired in last place in the NL West at 19-31 when they drafted Horner with the top pick on June 6. Rod Gilbreath — on his way to posting a 69 OPS+ in his final major-league season — had been Atlanta’s regular third baseman through the first 2 ½ months of 1978, so the Braves certainly had a need at that spot.

Even so, the idea of Horner beginning immediately with the big club didn’t seem to be on the radar heading into the draft. An Atlanta Constitution story published on the day of the draft noted that “it’s likely you won’t see him in a Braves uniform for at least two years. … Because he won’t be good enough.”

Even after the draft, the original plan was for the 20-year-old Horner to begin his pro career at Savannah of the Double-A Southern League. Braves general manager Bill Lucas told the Constitution that Horner would be in Atlanta “within a year and a half.”

It was more like a week and a half.

After a day of intense negotiations between Horner and agent Bucky Woy and the Braves, Horner agreed on June 13 to a contract worth $160,000, which was at the time believed to be the richest in the 14-year history of the MLB draft. Most notably, Lucas agreed to let Horner begin his career on the big-league roster, with the idea he would be in the starting lineup at third base the following night against Pittsburgh.

Horner indeed made his professional and MLB debut on June 15, 1978, batting seventh against the Pirates and future Hall-of-Famer Bert Blyleven at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. And like Riley, he made a near-instant impression.

After grounding out to shortstop in the third inning and flying out to center in the fifth, Horner came to the plate in the sixth with two outs and teammate Dale Murphy (who was then playing in his first full season in the majors) on first base. Horner slammed one of Blyleven’s famous curveballs over the wall in left-center field for a two-run homer, the biggest highlight in a 7-5 Braves loss (Horner walked in his final plate appearance of the night to finish 1-for-3).

“I really didn’t know what to expect before I stepped in the batter’s box,” Horner told the Atlanta Constitution of his home run. “Blyleven’s good, his curve is great. I just got hold of one.”

“When he swings, he lets it out,” Blyleven told the Associated Press. “He doesn’t give any half-swings. He impressed me.”

Horner’s first-game success didn’t continue, at least not immediately. He went 0-for-3 and made two errors at third base in his second game, a 5-3 loss to the Pirates (leading to the Atlanta Constitution headline “Honeymoon Ends for Horner”).

Horner hit only one other home run in his first 20 big-league games, and was slashing .213/.227/.373 through July 6. He began to heat up around the All-Star break, however, homering in back-to-back games against San Diego on July 7-8, then going deep four times in three games against Montreal in late July.

Horner had lifted his slugging percentage to .540 following a 4-RBI day against Cincinnati on Aug. 1, then homered four times in a three-game series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field Aug. 14-16.

“I don’t like to talk about things like rookie of the year, but I haven’t seen anyone like Horner,” Cubs manager Herman Franks told the Atlanta Constitution following the third game of the series. “He swings the bat like he was born with it in his hands.”

Despite Franks’ reticence, it was around that time that Horner’s chances to win NL Rookie of the Year began to be seriously discussed. Braves coach Clete Boyer told the Sporting News’ Dick Young in August that Horner would “soon be hitting 30 home runs a season.”

‘All he is is the best there ever was’

Horner signature at the plate was a compact upper-cut finish that then-manager Bobby Cox described in a mid-August Sports Illustrated profile as “one of the best swings I’ve ever seen.” Owner Ted Turner, never one to shy away from outrageous statements, was even more effusive in that same SI article.

”Nobody’s ever come straight into the majors and done what he’s done,” Turner said. “So all he is is the best there ever was.”

Horner hit two homers in an 11-10 loss to St. Louis on Aug. 25, and finished the month with 17 homers and 51 RBIs in just 68 games. To illustrate how different the game was back then, Horner struck out just 32 times in his first 249 big-league plate appearances (Riley, by contrast, struck out 69 times in his first 202 PAs).

Horner homered in back-to-back games against the Dodgers Sept. 9-10 to reach the 20-home run mark, but by that time was suffering with a sore right shoulder that had troubled him since the college season. He was finally shut down with a week left in the regular season in order to have shoulder surgery, but not before hitting home runs in three consecutive games against Cincinnati Sept. 22-24 to end his rookie year with a .266/.313/.539 slash line (good for a 127 OPS+) and 17 doubles, 23 home runs and 63 RBIs in just 89 games, resulting in a FanGraphs WAR of 2.3.

Horner got married in late October, and in mid-November was named National League Rookie of the Year. He garnered 12 ½ of a possible 24 votes in balloting by NL beat writers (San Diego shortstop Ozzie Smith got 8 ½ votes, while Pirates pitcher Don Robinson got the other three).

“Super. Fantastic. What more can I say?” Horner told the Atlanta Constitution. “It really has been some kind of year for me. And now this. This tops all.”

Rookie of the Year, but a bitter offseason

Horner’s instant impact was obviously the story of the season for the Braves, who went 69-93 and finished in last place in the NL West for the third of four straight years. And though they got a bit of a midseason bump just after Horner’s arrival, Atlanta finished last in the league in attendance, drawing only 904,494 fans to Fulton County Stadium (an average of just 11,166 per game).

But Horner’s eventful offseason didn’t end with his Rookie of the Year award. He quickly became embroiled in a bitter dispute as to whether or not the bonus he agreed to when he signed with the Braves should be considered his salary for the 1978 season (rather than the $21,000 league minimum the team believed it was paying him).

Turner offered Horner a contract for 1979 at $100,000, which if Horner’s rookie-year salary was $181,000 (as he and Woy believed) would be a larger pay cut than allowed by MLB’s collective bargaining agreement. After an arbitration panel eventually ruled in Horner’s favor, he agreed to a salary of more than $130,000 for 1979, which according to the New York Times was the largest ever given to a second-year player at the time.

(In a sad postscript, Lucas — the first African-American general manager in MLB history — died May 5, 1979 following a massive brain hemorrhage and cardiac arrest at age 43. In perhaps the lowest moment of his 20-plus years as Braves owner, Turner publicly blamed Horner’s agent for Lucas’ death, telling reporters “in my opinion, Bucky Woy is guilty of manslaughter”).

Horner made good on Boyer’s prediction and hit 33 home runs in his second season, then followed that up with 35 in 1980 (finishing 9th in the NL MVP balloting). He slammed 32 homers and drove in a career-best 97 runs in the Braves’ division-winning season of 1982 (earning his only career All-Star berth), and was on the way to perhaps his best year in 1983 — slashing .303/.383/.528 with 20 homers and a 148 wRC+ in 104 games — when he suffered a broken right wrist sliding into second base against San Diego on Aug. 15.

Horner missed the remainder of the season, with his injury contributing mightily to the Braves blowing a 6 ½ game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. He broke his wrist again diving for a ball the following June and played in only 32 games, drawing as much notice for rushing onto the field with a cast on his arm during the team’s infamous Aug. 12, 1984, brawl with the Padres as for anything he did on the field.

He healed well enough to hit 27 home runs in both 1985 and 1986, including an MLB record-tying four-homer game against Montreal on July 6 of the latter year. Fittingly for the Braves of that era, they lost the game 11-8.

However, the acrimony between Horner and the Braves’ front office that first emerged following his rookie season reared its head again eight years later. Dissatisfied with the club’s 3-year, $4.5-million contract offer and unable to secure a satisfactory deal with another organization, Horner spent the 1987 season in Japan, hitting 31 home runs for the Yakult Swallows.

He returned stateside with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1988, but was limited to just 60 games and three home runs by a shoulder injury. After failing to make the team with the Baltimore Orioles in 1989, Horner retired after 10 MLB seasons, 218 home runs, a .277/.340/.499 slash line and 21.9 career bWAR (an overall number hampered by a minus-7.4 career defensive WAR).

As it turned out, Horner’s suspicions regarding the Braves’ negotiating tactics were well-founded. In 2004, he was awarded more than $7 million in back salary as one of 650-plus players who were found to be victims of MLB owners colluding to keep salaries down during a three-year period in the late 1980s.

Horner’s career with the Braves is now seen as one of largely unfulfilled promise, if it’s remembered much at all. But after a magical 3 ½-month stretch in 1978, his potential looked as limitless as that of any player who has ever donned an Atlanta uniform.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Darryl_Palmer4. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: BaseballReference.com; BaseballAlmanac.com; Fangraphs.com; The Sporting News Archives (via Paper of Record); Newspapers.com; Sports Illustrated Vault