Whatever happened to: Buzz Capra

What he did: Before the days of Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz, Buzz Capra had one of the best seasons a Braves starter ever had, going 16-8 in 1974 with a major league-low ERA (2.28) among starters. But there are two facts that now, some 42 years later, Capra likes to talk about.

He is one of the few players ever to be on the same team with Hank Aaron in Atlanta and Willie Mays when he played for the Mets. And Capra is the only player to have pitched in Aaron’s record-tying 714th home run game and again four nights later, when the Hammer hit his record-breaking 715th.

Nicknamed by a neighbor when he was 6 living in a tenement building on Chicago’s Northside, Lee William Capra was a star shortstop at Lane Tech High School. From there, he went to Illinois State where in his senior season, the Redbirds won the Division II national championship.

In college, Capra started pitching on a fulltime basis and was taken by the New York Mets in the 27th round of the 1969 draft. Only 5-feet-10 and 168 pounds, the Mets handed him a $1,500 bonus check and plane ticket to Florida where he spent his first season with Pompano Beach of the Class A Florida State League. Capra spent time both in the bullpen and the rotation, going 8-2 with a 2.68 ERA in 18 games.

At the time, Whitey Herzog was the minor league director for the Mets and liked Capra. With less than three years in the system, he was called up to the Mets in September 1971, making his major league debut against his hometown Cubs in New York, throwing four scoreless innings. But Capra had a hard time finding a permanent home with the Mets, bouncing between the minors and New York. In two-plus seasons, he went 5-10 with a 4.49 ERA but started only six games.

However, he did play on the 1973 Mets team that won the pennant and was he involved in one of the most well-known brawls. In Game 3 of the NLCS against Cincinnati, Pete Rose took a hard slide at second base into Bud Harrelson, which started it off and soon, the benches emptied. Capra would square off with Reds pitcher Pedro Borbon in the melee. The Mets would win the pennant in five games before losing to Oakland in seven games in the World Series. Capra did not pitch in either series.

Late in the spring of 1974, he was sold to the Braves for $25,000 and he immediately became a starter for a staff that had been one of baseball’s worst the season before (4.25 team ERA). With all the attention on Aaron and his chase of Babe Ruth’s record, Capra quietly became the club’s most dominant starter, running off a then-Atlanta record with nine straight wins. He was also named to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati. He finished the year with five shutouts and 11 complete games. That same year, teammate Ralph Garr won the NL batting title, hitting .353.

But by the end of the season, Capra felt a twinge in his right shoulder and would never be the same. He started only 12 games in 1975 before having to undergo surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon and could only pitch in five games the following year.

He came back in 1977 to appear in 45 games, 16 of them starts, going 6-11 with a 5.36 ERA. But he was cut the following spring by first-year manager Bobby Cox. He took a year off before trying to make a comeback for the 1979 season with the Braves but retired after being told he was going to go back to the minors.

Capra spent time as a sales manager in a manufacturing business before coaching at a small college. In 1985, he got back into professional baseball and spent 16 seasons as a minor league coach with the Braves, Expos, White Sox, Phillies and Mets organizations. He finally stepped down after having his second shoulder surgery. He was no longer able to throw batting practice, which at that time was a must for minor league instructors.

Were he lives: Capra lives in Hoffman Estate, a suburb of Chicago. He has two daughters, Leanne and Leslie, from a previous marriage and four grandchildren.

What he does now: Capra, 68, is semi-retired and spends time rehabbing houses and properties. He also tutors young pitchers.

On being drafted by the Mets: “The scout is in my home trying to sign me and my father, a proud Italian, is trying to get me a few more dollars. But the scout said, ‘Take it or leave it.’ And I was thinking, ‘Please stop talking, Dad.’ I took it.’’

On his size: “I had to do more than the others to prove that I could be a major league pitcher despite my size. I remember always being first in sprints and things like that. It was unusual back then to see a small starting pitcher.’’

On his major league debut against the Cubs: “I got to the ballpark really early and remember my uniform didn’t fit quite the way I wanted. I was sitting in the bullpen, enjoying the scenery and (starter) Jerry Koosman got in trouble and the phone rings. The coach points at me and said, ‘Yeah, you.’ My father tells the story that his phone is ringing off the hook at our house in Chicago. Everybody in the neighborhood was talking about it and watching it on television. I remember my father telling me he was in tears.’’

On the brawl with the Reds in the ’73 NLCS: “We were all running in from the bullpen and I got blindsided by Pedro Borbon. He punched me but I then got in a few shots at him and we had a good scuffle. He ripped off my hat and I remember after it was all over, he picked up my hat and put it on. I told one of our batboys to go get it and when it came back to me, it was ripped up in three pieces. Pedro had torn it with his teeth. I put the hat back together and still have it today.’’

On coming to the Braves: “Eddie Mathews was the manager and I was excited because I knew the Braves organization knew me pretty well as I had beaten (Triple-A) Richmond several times when I was at Tidewater. Eddie Robinson was the general manager and he was very tough to negotiate with. He was so tight, he squeaked. But I realized I had a good opportunity because of how bad the pitching staff was the previous season.’’

On playing with Aaron and Mays: “I had baseball cards of those guys. I mean, how cool is that? How many people can say they played with both when Aaron was with the Braves and Willie the Mets? Mays retired after 1973 and ’74 was Hank’s last season in Atlanta.’’

On having the lowest ERA in baseball in ’74: “It all came together for me and for the first time in the majors, I was getting a chance to start consistently. I just wish I could have stayed healthy.’’

On his first shoulder surgery: “I knew something was wrong at the end of 1974. I tried to pitch through the pain in ’75 and won my first few starts but there came a time where I couldn’t even raise my arm. My biceps tendon was stuck to my humerus bone and they had to do a transplant. I worked my tail off to get back out there but it was never the same after that first surgery.’’

On where he got his nickname: “I had a little wooden bat and my father would throw the ball to me right outside our building when I was 6. I would swing and keep spinning around and there was an older man who would be watching us all the time and he told me that I looked like a buzz saw. The ‘Buzz’ part stuck and it’s funny because there are some friends that still call me ‘Saw.’ I remember one time I was asked to come to a card show and the promoter sent me a ticket and had Buzz on it for my first name. It was after 9/11 so I needed my real name on the ticket. I remember the guy had to reschedule the ticket.’’

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