Before Twitter, it’s a conversation that was the thing of barstools and barbershops: who’s an athlete you wish had stayed healthy throughout their career?
Ken Griffey Jr. is a popular answer. Bo Jackson, too, along with Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax, but Bob Horner certainly deserves to be a part of that conversation.
The No. 1 overall pick in 1975, the third baseman was off to one of the most prolific starts to a career through his first five seasons. But he’d suffer a broken wrist in 1983 sliding into second base, playing 104 games. A year later, he broke it again, appearing in only 32 games.
Across his nine-year Braves career, Horner averaged 107 games, accumulating enough plate appearances (502-plus) to be deemed a qualified hitter just four times. That, coupled with being driven to Japan after low-ball offers in free agency that were later found to be part of teams’ colluding to keep salaries down, makes you wonder what could have been for a player that, at his peak, joined Dale Murphy as a potent center of the 1980s lineups.
The career never matched the potential, but nonetheless, that doesn’t belie the fact that Bob Horner was a Very Good Brave.
1. A start of HOF proportions
Had our current culture of hyperbole been prevalent in the early 1980s, Horner would have been seen as on a path to the Hall of Fame. With three seasons of 32 or more home runs through his first five seasons he had hit 138 through 553 games, the third most in history at the time behind only Eddie Mathews (145) and Ralph Kiner (143). That’s more than Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Wille McCovey. Maybe the scariest thing about Horner’s production to that point of his career, is that he’d never played more than 140 games, averaging 111 over that five-year span. As HOFer and future Braves broadcaster Don Sutton told Sports Illustrated in 1981 “Seriously, he’s the best young hitter I’ve seen come up. He’ll hit 60 some day. Make that 61.” That, of course, didn’t happen, as Horner’s peak was over after 1983 and five seasons of 2.3 fWAR or better, with a high of 3.5 in 1980. The man was a comet, a lavishly coiffed comet, but a comet, nonetheless.
2. Who need the minors?
It was a mere nine days after the draft that Horner made his MLB debut, homering off the HOF arm of Bert Blyleven in a Braves loss to the Pirates. Since the MLB draft started in 1956, Horner is one of 23 players to completely bypass the minors. Incredibly, there were four players from the 1978 draft that made that leap with the A’s Tim Conroy and Mike Morgan and Blue Jays’ Brian Milner joining Horner. Dave Winfield is the peak of those who skipped the minors as the lone HOFer in the bunch, and John Olerud had a long and productive All-Star career, but with a career 19.5 fWAR and 218 home runs, Horner only trails that duo in terms of fWAR and homers among players who made that jump in the draft era.
3. On an award tour
The man lived up to the hype and made a major impression on National League Rookie of the Year voters in 1978 with what was, relatively, just a taste of a major league season. Despite just 359 plate appearances, Horner would beat out the Padres’ Ozzie Smith with 12 first-place votes to eight for the future HOF. Those PAs are significant, because only McCovey would win ROY with fewer when he had 219 in 1959. Since Horner, Ryan Howard claimed the NL trophy with 348 PAs in 2005, but let’s put what Horner accomplished in those 359 trips to the plate into perspective. He hit 23 home runs, which led all NL third basemen, and 21 of them came in his last 69 games. Put his production over a full 162-game season and he was clobbering at a 41-homer clip.
4. With the No. 1 pick ...
Give the Braves this: they’ve had the No. 1 overall pick twice in franchise history, and they haven’t missed. They would reach a Cooperstown-level of success in 1990, when they took Chipper Jones at No. 1, but with Jones’ career bWAR of 85.3 and Horner at 21.9, the Braves are one of only five teams to ever take multiple players with the first pick that would go on to have career bWARs of 21.9 or higher, joining the Astros, Nationals and Twins. Only the Mariners, with Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Moore and Alex Rodriguez, have taken three such players at No. 1.
5. Four-home run game
Across MBL history there have been 16 players that have hit four home runs in a game, and only one of them came in a loss. That dubious distinction belongs to Horner, whose monster day on July 9, 1986, came in the midst of an 89-loss season (the second of six straight for the Braves before the miraculous 1991 turnaround). An interesting nugget: if you weren’t there, you didn’t see it live. While TBS was still the home of Braves games, they were airing the Goodwill Games and baseball was played on a tape delay. Despite his prolific resume, Horner had never hit more than two homers in a game, but after taking the Expos’ Andy McGaffigan deep in the second and fourth innings, he got to the right-hander again in the fifth, then with two outs in the ninth, delivered No. 4 off Jeff Reardon. “Of course, I wish we had won the game, but it’s a day in my career as a ballplayer I’ll never forget,” Horner said at the time. “It’s hard to put my feelings into words. That last ball I didn’t think I hit hard enough to get out, but it went out.” That game was the defining moment of what was Horner’s healthiest season in Atlanta, as he had a career-high 581 plate appearances, playing over 140 games for the first time with the wrist that had been a problem the previous two seasons finally healed. It would also be his last year with the Braves, bypassing what he believed to be below-market value deals and played in Japan in 1987, a turn of events that leads us to ...
6. Casualty of collusion
If you think the current state of baseball’s labor negotiations — or lack thereof — are bad, have I got a story for you. Horner was the face of one of the lowest points between the league and players coming off that long-awaited healthy 1986. As of Oct. 2, of that year, Horner told reporters that he had not heard a word from the Braves as he entered free agency after a four-year, $5.1 million deal he inked in 1983. When Atlanta finally offered, the came in at three years at $4.5 million, a deal that included a third season based on performance. When he hit the open market, Horner’s agent Bucky Woy put out feelers, and with the slugger seeking a five-year, $10 million deal, was told there was no interest from the likes of the Cubs and White Sox. The Braves came back with an even loser deal at three years and $3.9 million. Instead, Horner opted to play for the Yakult Swallows on a one-year, $2 million pact, and hit 31 home runs with 73 RBI. He’d come back to U.S. soil the next season, playing for the Cardinals, but a shoulder injury limited him to just 60 games. But this story has a happy ending for Horner’s bank account, as arbitrators found the owners guilty of violating the collective bargaining agreement in 1985 and forward, impacting more than 650 players. Horner received the biggest payout at $7,034,112, including interest, though that wouldn’t come until 2004, 18 years after the case began.
7. The almost-ASU connection
In 2020, ESPN let the fans vote on its all-time college baseball team, and Horner was beaten out at second base. The Arizona State product earned 15.14 percent of the voting, finishing behind Todd Walker (17.75 percent), Nick Madrigal (16.28) and Chase Utley (15.77). The people may have spoken, but this remains very true: Horner wreaked havoc in Tempe. As a freshman in 1976, he hit nine homers, then was MVP of the College World Series in 1977 and in 1978, won the inaugural Golden Spikes Award in hitting .412 with 25 homers. While he’d team with Dale Murphy in Atlanta in 1978, the two could have been doing damage as Sun Devils. Murphy was committed to Arizona State before the Braves took him with the No. 5 pick in 1974. Had Murphy gone to school, the two would have overlapped for a time in college. Pac 8 pitchers of the time are probably overjoyed that partnership didn’t happen at the collegiate level.
8. Taking the stand in Woy vs. Turner
Horner’s time in Atlanta saw him as part of one of the more bizarre situations — which is saying a lot — of Ted Turner’s run as Braves owner. On May 5, 1979, Bill Lucas — the first black general manager in baseball — died of brain hemorrhage and cardiac arrest from an aneurysm in his neck. Then-Braves owner Ted Turner believed it was the result of intense contract negotiations Lucas and Bucky Woy the agent of Horner. As Turner would tell reporters “in my opinion, Bucky Woy is guilty of manslaughter.” Woy filed a $17 million defamation suit that claimed that Turner’s comments had caused him to lose clients and ruined his relationship with Horner. The first baseman took the stand in May 1983, saying of Turner “I can’t describe his attitude. He just went into a tizzy. He pretty much told me Bucky Woy killed Bill Lucas and he told me, ‘I don’t give a damn what the doctor said.’” Turner himself would say in court “He as much as pulled the trigger of the gun, almost. ... I really do not believe Bucky Woy intended to kill Bill Lucas . . . he probably didn’t know he was causing (Lucas’ death) . . . I didn’t ever say he was guilty of murder.” The federal jury deliberated for an hour, ruling in favor of Turner. “I told the truth and when you tell the truth it’s not slander,” Turner said.
The Atlanta Braves as both god and Ted Turner intended. pic.twitter.com/7TUHz94NtB— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) April 17, 2021
9. A memorable photo
The mustache was glorious in this image of Murphy, Horner and the late Phil Niekro that occasionally makes its rounds on Twitter. Horner’s lone All-Star season he shared the stage with Murphy and Niekro, a year in which Horner hit .261/.350/.501 with 32 home runs and 24 doubles. As an aside, while we’re appreciating Horner, can we take a second to marvel at the longevity of Niekro. In 1969, the first time he was an All-Star he was joined by teammates Hank Aaron and Felix Millan, then 13 years later was there with Horner and Murphy. Also, the shirt with a nod to his brother Joe is fantastic.