It has now been 30 years since my family packed up our home in Memphis, TN and moved east to Columbus, GA, about 100 miles south of Atlanta on the Georgia-Alabama state line. It has been 30 years since my baseball infatuations were focused onto a single team. It has been 30 years since I became an unabashed fan of the Atlanta Braves.
I was, of course, a baseball fan first. I certainly can’t pinpoint the date when that happened. I’ve loved baseball for as long as I can remember. I can remember playing catch with my Grandpa in his driveway at the old house on Sutton in Memphis. I can remember playing whiffle ball games with Mom, Dad and Jason in the backyard. I can remember standing on my seat at Tim McCarver stadium, watching the Memphis Chicks, screaming CHARGE at the top of my lungs. I can remember the countless hours pouring over the numbers on the backs of ball cards.
I cannot, however, tell you when I started collecting. I can’t remember a time from my childhood when I didn’t. In the late 70s, living in Memphis, without cable, baseball was the Game of the Week on NBC. Baseball was the box scores in the morning paper. Baseball was your card collection.
When we arrived in Columbus, there was this amazing box sitting on top of the television with what seemed like dozens of little buttons. Each button would bring up a separate station. I finally had cable television. Thanks to WGN and WTBS, baseball was no longer one game a week, and I could watch the Cubs and the Braves as often as I liked. Since the Braves were on in the evenings, and my parents liked baseball, we watched more Braves than Cubs. That, along with simple geography, led to me becoming a Braves fan.
Truth be told, I didn’t know much about the Atlanta Braves of 1981 when I became a fan. As a kid in Memphis, I was infatuated with Reggie Jackson’s Yankees, the 1979 Pirates and the 1980 Phillies. I was also a big time Expos fan since the Memphis Chicks had been an Expos AA franchise. Needless to say, if I were to be a Braves fan, I had some catching up to do. I turned to my collection.
I kept my cards in old shoeboxes, with each team separated into their own stack held together by a rubber band. The majority of the cards in the Braves stack would have been from 1980 Topps, with some of the 1981 Topps, Fleer and Donruss issues mixed in. My Braves cards were filled with names like Brian Asselstine, Bill Nahorodny, Larry Bradford, Luis Gomez and Preston Hanna. Among the names of Braves I barely remember are the names of those that came to define my early fandom.
Thanks to his Topps card, I knew that Biff Pocoroba had hit over .300 in 1979, but the Braves catcher in 1981, was the rookie Bruce Benedict. Infielders Rafael Ramirez and Glenn Hubbard would man the middle for what seemed like decades. The bullpen was anchored by Rick Camp, but he was overshadowed by two of his bullpen mates. "The Mad Hungarian" Al Hrabosky would stomp around the mound like a mad man, and he looked the part and his cards are among my favorites. Gene Garber wasn’t as obviously entertaining, but it was hard not to be amazed at his delivery, which would see him turn his back to home plate before chunking the ball sidearm.
The starting pitching staff featured two future 300 game winners in Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro. In 1981, Perry hadn’t appeared on a Braves card yet, but I doubt I would have found the back of his card as entertaining as I found Niekro’s. I was amazed at all the wins and even more amazed at all the losses. I knew, even then, that he must have pitched on some very bad clubs. Niekro was great to watch, often managing to confound hitter and catcher with one of his great knuckleballs.
The best players weren’t hard to spot. Not with the numbers on the back of their cards. Not from their performance on the Superstation. They were, of course, Bob Horner and Dale Murphy. Both had hit 30+ homers in 1980, and thanks to their cards, before I ever saw either play on WTBS, I was excited to see them.
Bob Horner’s card told me that he had gone straight from starting for Arizona State to starting for the Atlanta Braves, minor leagues be damned. He had one of those classic power strokes. When he would connect just right, there was no doubt the ball was leaving the park. It was hard not to love the pudgy Horner. Dale Murphy, on the other hand, looked like the great athlete he was. His card may have said he was a former catcher, but he certainly did not look like one. His long, lean frame dwarfed that of most MLB center fielders. I can’t say for sure that in 1981 you could see the player he would become the following year, but he was already my favorite Brave.
Last, and never least, is the great Bobby Cox. 1981 would be the last year of his first pass through the Braves organization. At the time, I had no idea who he was and little memories of him from the season. I know he was the manager and I know he was fired and replaced by Joe Torre after the season, but that is all. Now, it’s hard to imagine a time before Bobby Cox’s place in Brave history was secured.
Here I am, 30 years later, as passionate about Braves baseball as ever and as passionate about card collecting as ever. Baseball moves on. The superstars never fade from memory, but the bit players, the solid guys, they tend to fade from memory. My link to this past is my card collection. I am a baseball fan, I'm an Atlanta Braves fan and I am a card collector. I can't separate the three.
Chris will be joining the Talking Chop team with a weekly column on Sundays, where he will extol the virtues of being a Braves fan and collecting baseball cards. You can normally find him on his blog, Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, or on Twitter @MadGlavSmoltz.