At the end of the last trip in the RNG Braves Baseball Time Machine, I hinted that our next stop was going to take us to the 1970s. If you’re well-versed in Braves history, then you know that the 1970s were some really lean times for the franchise when it came to their on-field exploits. The first time the Braves made the playoffs during their time in Atlanta was back in 1969. Their next appearance wouldn’t come until 1982, so you can fill in the blank as to what was going on with the Braves when it came to their fortunes during the ‘70s.
However, there were a few bright spots in terms of individuals. You don’t need me to tell you anything about what the legendary Hank Aaron and the infamous knuckleballer Phil Niekro did as members of the Braves — all you have to do is look at the row of numbers Truist Park and you’ll see “44” and “35” prominently displayed among the rest of the retired numbers. One number you won’t see is the number 43, which belonged to Rico Carty. This definitely won’t be an argument to place Rico Carty’s number squeezed between that of Eddie Mathews’ and Hank Aaron’s, but it’s definitely worth noting Carty’s place in Braves history if we’re going to talk about today’s pair of games.
The first game took place on September 11, 1970 at the famous Astrodome. As a sidenote, it still amazes me that the Braves ended up having to go to place like Texas and California (more on that, later) in order to play games within their division. Oh, to live in a baseball world where Missouri and Illinois are in the “East” and Georgia’s in the “West.” With my digression out of the way, there wasn’t much on the line between the Braves and Astros on that particular day in the tail end of the 1970 season. Atlanta and Houston were both having typical 1970s seasons for their standards, which is to say that they were widely expected to be irrelevant to the grand scheme of Major League Baseball by the time the end of the season came around.
The main storyline for the Braves during this part of the season was that Rico Carty was on a mission. Carty was in the midst of what would end up being the best season of his career — he and Hank Aaron both got to represent the Braves at the 1970 All-Star Game and he would go on to finish the season as the team leader in fWAR, as he finished with a mark of 6.7 according to FanGraphs. Any time you finish a season with more fWAR than Hank Aaron (especially before Aaron’s precipitous decline following the 1973 season), you’re doing pretty good for yourself.
The mission that Carty was on was to win the National League batting title. He’d end up winning it pretty easily, as he finished the season with a career-high .366 batting average. The next best batting average was Joe Torre’s .325 mark, and Carty’s average was also way ahead of the AL batting champ’s numbers as well — Alex Johnson won the AL crown with a .329 batting average. For one season, Rico Carty was in rarefied air as one of the best everyday players in all of baseball.
For that one game in Houston, Carty continued to do what brought him to this point in time where he was now a favorite to win the NL batting title. He finished the game by going 2-for-4 — the first hit was a single (and he eventually scored on a game-tying single from Darrell Evans) and the second hit was a leadoff double in the ninth inning with the Braves trailing the Astros 3-2 at that point. Carty was doing his part to keep the Braves in it, but that was the final part of his participation in that particular game. Braves Manager Lum Harris decided to bring in a pinch runner who would become manager of the Astros 50 years later: Dusty Baker.
Dusty ended up making it to third base before Jack Billingham struck out Hank Aaron to end his complete game victory and give Houston a nice way to win their 69th game of the season. The Braves fell to 71-75 and would eventually finish a disappointing 76-86, just one year after making it to the NLCS. Things wouldn’t get much better over the next two seasons — the Braves finished with a winning record in 1971, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make it into the postseason. That brings us to May 20, 1972. The Braves were 11-18 heading into San Francisco to take on the 10-23 Giants at Candlestick Park. This was an interesting time in Candlestick Park’s history since they were playing on astroturf at this point in time in an apparent effort to save money.
Atlanta’s lineup had plenty of familiar faces in it when compared to the lineup that took to the turf in the Astrodome two years prior to this game. Rico Carty was there, but things had changed significantly for him since his excellent 1970 season. He ended up missing the entire 1971 season after he suffered what was described at the time as an injury that was “as bad of a knee injury that an athlete can have” while playing winter ball in his home country of the Dominican Republic. So it was basically a miracle that Carty was able to even make it back, but it was clear that he was never going to be the same following his injury.
Still, he was given a shot at returning to that form — as evidenced by the fact that he was batting third in the lineup for the game against the Giants on May 20. Carty ended the day with a walk and a single and he was once again sent to the bench late in the game in exchange for a pinch runner. This time, it wasn’t Dusty Baker since Dusty had worked his way into the starting lineup at this point. Instead, the pinch runner was Oscar Brown and he ended up coming around to score after Earl Williams went deep to give the Braves a 3-2 lead at that point.
That ended up being how the game ended on that day. Starting pitcher Tom Kelley was one out away from picking up the complete game, but he walked Ed Goodson and apparently that was enough for Lum Harris to get him out of there so that Cecil Upshaw could eventually get the final out and push the Braves to 11-19 on the season. The ‘72 Braves never really got into a good run of form that season and eventually ended up posting a 70-84 record. The Giants ended up finishing one-and-a-half games back at 69-86, which means that this game was ultimately another battle between two teams who weren’t really significant players when it came to the 1972 baseball season.
Clearly, the most interesting part of this trip to the 1970s was the duality of Rico Carty’s fortunes. In 1970, he wasn’t quite on top of the world but he was pretty close to it. By 1972, a mix of bad luck and some bad clubhouse chemistry ended up making ‘72 Carty’s final season in a Braves uniform. It’s a real shame since you figure that Carty could have at least made some more noise with the Braves had he not suffered that awful injury. He did have some productive seasons with Cleveland, but that was only after he bounced around with three different teams during the 1973 season, alone. Carty eventually retired following the 1979 season, and the only time he played in the postseason was with the Braves during the 1969 postseason.
So, while times were lean for the Braves during the vast majority of the 1970s, they weren’t as lean during the early part of the 2000s. That’s the era that we’ll be hitting next, as ordered by the RNG Braves Baseball Time Machine. I’ll let you know which games/years are on the schedule when I get in touch with you all for the next installment. For now, I’m going to lament over the fact that I somehow got to talk about two games from the 1970s and Hank Aaron only had one plate appearance in the 1970 game and he missed the 1972 game as well. History is weird.