Revisiting the Atlanta Braves’ first division champions, 50 years later

When the Braves won their first NL West title in 1969, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. celebrated with future home run king Hank Aaron.
Caption
When the Braves won their first NL West title in 1969, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. celebrated with future home run king Hank Aaron.

The passage of a half-century and the celebration of 17 subsequent division championships -- and one World Series title -- may have reduced the 1969 Braves to a footnote in most accounts of franchise history.

But those involved in the first championship won by the Braves after moving to Atlanta, the 1969 National League West title, believe to this day that season holds a special and significant and underappreciated place in team annals.

“The most amazing thing about that year is the fact that nobody says much about it,” said Hank Aaron, one of four future Hall of Famers who played for the ’69 Braves. “I think it was a moment that should be remembered. I really do. We were the first Atlanta Braves team to win our division.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that season – a season that surprised and delighted a city new to the world of big-league sports.

The Braves were in only their fourth year in Atlanta. Major League Baseball was in its first season of divisional play and put Atlanta, incongruously, in the NL’s Western Division. The Braves had gone 243-243 in their first three seasons here.

Bill Bartholomay fondly remembers the breakthrough season of 1969.

He led the ownership group that moved the Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, putting a big-league sports team in the Southeast for the first time, and will turn 91 years old Sunday. Still frequently in attendance at Braves games, Bartholomay recently reeled off some momentous dates in the franchise’s Atlanta history: April 12, 1966 (their first regular-season game here); April 8, 1974 (the night Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home-run record); Oct. 28, 1995 (the night the Braves won the World Series). And on that esteemed list, he also placed this date: Sept. 30, 1969.

It was a Tuesday night, and 43,974 fans – more than SunTrust Park holds today – were in Atlanta Stadium (later renamed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) as the Braves beat the Cincinnati Reds 3-2 to clinch the NL West.

“It helped establish the team in Atlanta probably better than anything,” Bartholomay said of that season. “The fans well deserved it after all they went through to support the Braves and get us started (here).

“I was pretty excited when we clinched the World Series on Oct. 28, 1995, but it was also pretty darn exciting in 1969 to be part of a winning team with a chance to go to the World Series.”

The Braves didn’t go to the World Series that year – they were swept by the New York Mets in the inaugural National League Championship Series – but by late September they had printed World Series tickets. Orders poured in to the front office by mail. Alas, those tickets became mere collector’s items.

The Braves made it clear on the cover of their 1969 NLCS program how big a deal they thought the division championship was. Taking creative license, they connected the Braves’ feat with an historic event of about 2-1/2 months earlier: Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first two men to step foot on the moon.

A photo illustration purported to show a Braves player stepping out of the lunar module onto home plate on the surface of the moon, with Earth far in the background. Below the illustration appeared these words: “One Step for the Braves, One Giant Leap for the Southeast.”

Neil Armstrong couldn’t have said it much better.

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The Braves went to great lengths for that cover illustration, combining a photo obtained from NASA with one staged at Atlanta’s 1969 Southeastern Fair, recalled Bob Hope, the team’s assistant public relations director at the time. The Braves “player” who appeared to be stepping onto the moon actually was the team’s ticket director at the fair’s lunar exhibit.

“I remember when we came up with that idea thinking it was going to be so hokey,” Hope said.

Fifty years later, he still loves how it turned out -- an enduring image of a special season in an historic year.

“It had been all football down here before that,” said Phil Niekro, the ace of the Braves’ pitching staff  in 1969 (and many other years). “I don’t think too many people here had followed baseball unless maybe the Atlanta Crackers in the minor leagues at Ponce de Leon Park. Then here we come in 1966, and three years later we win the division.

“I think probably that opened a lot of eyes of people in the South about baseball.”

Although the Braves fell onto hard times in the 1970s, the 1969 season provided Atlanta’s first look at the stress and stakes of pennant-race and postseason baseball.

“Clearly, there were struggles after that. But in winning the division, the excitement was high. It was the talk of the town,” Hope said. “And really none of that had existed here before.

“Even though there was excitement when the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, there really wasn’t an understanding of baseball that you would have in other cities. I think 1969 got people to pay attention and understand. Of course, that became a double-edged sword because when the team got really bad a few years later, people understood that was bad baseball.”

But in 1969, there was much to cheer as the Braves went 93-69, their most wins in a season in Atlanta until 1991.

Right fielder Aaron hit 44 home runs and drove in 97 runs. Niekro had 23 wins and 21 complete games. First baseman Orlando Cepeda, acquired during spring training from St. Louis in a trade for catcher Joe Torre, had 22 homers and 88 RBIs. Relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, then 47, picked up two wins and four saves down the stretch after he was acquired in early September.

Aaron, Niekro, Cepeda and Wilhelm are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There also were a lot of other good players on the ’69 Braves, who were managed by Luman Harris.

Left fielder Rico Carty, who missed the previous season because of tuberculosis, returned to hit .342. Second baseman Felix Millan made the All-Star team (as did Aaron and Niekro). Third baseman Clete Boyer won a Gold Glove.

Outfielders Tony Gonzalez, acquired in a June trade, and Felipe Alou hit .294 and .282, respectively. Starting pitcher Ron Reed won 18 games. Reliever Cecil Upshaw saved 27. Bob Didier, a 20-year-old rookie catcher, was adept at handling the knuckleballs of Niekro and Wilhelm.

Regular-season tickets at Atlanta Stadium in 1969 cost $2.50 for upper-level seats and $3.50 for field level.

Atlanta got its money’s worth that  year.

“We had a ballclub that scraped and scrapped and competed very well,” Aaron said.

Caption
Pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm (left) and Braves executive Bill Bartholomay celebrate in the Braves locker room in 1969. AJC file photo

Credit: AJC file photo

Pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm (left) and Braves executive Bill Bartholomay celebrate in the Braves locker room in 1969. AJC file photo
Caption
Pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm (left) and Braves executive Bill Bartholomay celebrate in the Braves locker room in 1969. AJC file photo

Credit: AJC file photo

Credit: AJC file photo

The inaugural NL West race was a compelling one, with five of the division’s six teams – Braves, Reds, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros – closely bunched through the summer.

On Sept. 1, the Giants were in first place, one-half game ahead of the Dodgers, one game ahead of the Reds and three ahead of the Braves. On Sept. 18, the Giants led the Braves and Dodgers by one-half game and the Reds by two games. Then the Braves took charge, earning the division championship with a 10-game winning streak.

The final win of the streak ignited a wild celebration at Atlanta Stadium among players and fans alike. Trailing 2-1 in their next-to-last game of the regular season, the Braves scored two runs in the seventh inning to beat the Reds 3-2 and win the West. Wilhelm, in relief of Niekro, finished the game with two perfect innings.

“The celebration was terrific that night,” Bartholomay said.

“I don’t think anybody expected us to do that well that quick coming from Milwaukee to Atlanta,” Niekro said.

“We were all so pleased we were the first one to win the division,” Aaron said. “We were very happy.”

Aaron recalled that he arrived home in the early-morning hours after celebrating with teammates, didn’t have a key and cut his hand trying to open a window, requiring stitches.

The Braves finished three games ahead of the second-place Giants, but were no match for the “Miracle Mets” in the NLCS.

The Braves scored five runs against Tom Seaver in Game 1 in Atlanta and led 5-4 after seven innings behind Niekro, but the Mets scored five runs (four unearned) in the eighth to win 9-5. The Mets built an 8-0 lead in Game 2 and won 11-6. In Game 3 at New York’s Shea Stadium, the Braves led 2-0 in the third inning when the Mets “brought in a young reliever I’d never heard of before, a guy by the name of Ryan,” Bartholomay recalled.

Nolan Ryan pitched the final seven innings, holding the Braves to three hits and striking out seven, as the Mets won 7-4 to end the best-of-five series.

Despite his injured hand, Aaron hit .357 with three home runs, two doubles and seven RBIs in the series.

The Mets went on to upset the Baltimore Orioles four games to one in the World Series. The Braves wouldn’t win their division again until 1982 and wouldn’t find sustained success until the 1990s. In 2019, they seek their 19th division championship on the 50th anniversary of their first.

“How could it possibly be 50 years?” Hope asked. “Time passes quickly.”

Caption
After the Braves won the NL Western Division on Sept. 30, 1969, Ron Reed (right) and Orlando Cepeda expressed their joy in the clubhouse. (AJC file photo)

Credit: Unknown

After the Braves won the NL Western Division on Sept. 30, 1969, Ron Reed (right) and Orlando Cepeda expressed their joy in the clubhouse. (AJC file photo)
Caption
After the Braves won the NL Western Division on Sept. 30, 1969, Ron Reed (right) and Orlando Cepeda expressed their joy in the clubhouse. (AJC file photo)

Credit: Unknown

Credit: Unknown

THE 1969 BRAVES REVISITED

Starting pitchers: Phil Niekro (23-13, 2.56 ERA), Ron Reed (18-10, 3.47), Pat Jarvis (13-11, 4.43), Milt Pappas (6-10, 3.63), George Stone (13-10, 3.65).

Relief pitchers: Cecil Upshaw (6-4, 27 saves, 2.91 ERA); Hoyt Wilhelm (2-0, four saves, 0.73 ERA); Paul Doyle (2-0, four saves, 2.08 ERA), Gary Neibauer (1-2, 3.90); Claude Raymond (2-2, 5.25); Jim Britton (7-5, 3.78, including 13 starts).

Outfielders: RF Hank Aaron (.300, 44 HR, 97 RBIs); LF Rico Carty (.342, 16, 58); CF Felipe Alou (.282, 5, 32); CF-LF Tony Gonzalez (.294, 10, 50); OF Mike Lum (.268, 1, 22).

Infielders: 1B Orlando Cepeda (.257, 22 HR, 88 RBIs); 2B  Felix Millan (.267, 6, 57); shortstops Sonny Jackson (.239, 1, 27) and Gil Garrido (.220, 0, 10); 3B Clete Boyer (.250, 14, 57).

Catchers: Bob Didier (.256, O HR, 32 RBIs) and Bob Tillman (.195, 12, 29).

Utility: Bob Aspromonte (.253, 3 HR, 24 RBIs); Tito Francona (.295, 2, 22); Tommie Aaron (.250, 1, 5).

Manager: Luman Harris.

General manager: Paul Richards.

Note: Prospects called up to appear briefly with the 1969 Braves included OF Dusty Baker, 3B Darrell Evans and OF Ralph Garr.

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