One & Done: Tony Cloninger, a pitcher, belted two grand slams in one game
In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
Of the 5,729 grand slams hit in the major leagues over the last 75 years, 71 have come off the bat of a pitcher.
During that time, some hurlers have hit those slams with more regularity than others, as Dizzy Trout, Camilo Pascual, Bob Gibson, Dave McNally, Rick Wise and Denny Neagle each smacked a pair in their careers, with McNally belting one in the 1970 World Series. In addition, Madison Bumgarner, the Giants’ ace and pinch hitter du jour, had two slams last season.
Tony Cloninger is the only pitcher in the game’s history who can claim a single game with two grand slams — a feat also accomplished by 12 position players over the years — and to hear the former Yankees bullpen coach and Red Sox pitching coach tell it, two of the greatest hitters of all time may have had something to do with his magical day at the plate on July 3, 1966.
"A lot of it was luck, but a little bit of it was having two lockermates where I could listen to them talk about hitting," the 75-year-old Cloninger told FOX Sports in a phone interview Monday. "With Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, I would listen to them each day and not say anything. I was (20) when I got to the big leagues (in 1961), and I was between those two guys until (Mathews) was traded (in 1967).
"The things that I would listen to — at first, it was hard to comprehend, and I don’t know if I ever really totally comprehended it at all, but it sure was a lot of information and it helped me as much, probably, as a pitcher as it did a hitter."
During the early part of his professional career, the North Carolina-born Cloninger was your typical light-hitting righty, with a .174 batting average over 298 at-bats during his first five seasons with the Milwaukee Braves. Late in the 1965 season, which saw him win a career-high 24 games, Cloninger connected for his first major league home run — he’d hit four in the minors, as well — but few saw it as a sign of pop to come.
The Braves moved to Atlanta before the 1966 season, but there didn’t appear to be anything in the Georgia water that changed Cloninger’s reputation as an easy out, as he had four hits in his first 33 at-bats that season. On June 15, Cloninger’s bat came to life in a game against the Mets, as he hit a three-run homer off Dave Eilers and a two-run shot off Larry Bearnarth in a 17-1 win, his five RBI tying the single-game record for NL pitchers at the time.
Little did Cloninger know, it was just the beginning.
Any time I’ve got runners in scoring position, I’d go up and I’d look to put the ball in play.
"Any time I’ve got runners in scoring position, I’d go up and I’d look to put the ball in play," Cloninger said of his first foray into run production that season. "I’d try to hit the ball, put a good swing on it and knock in some runs to make it a little easier on myself."
Cloninger managed three more hits in his next 12 at-bats following the win over the Mets, raising his season average to a hearty .200 before the Sunday game against the San Francisco Giants on the eve of Independence Day.
Left-hander Joe Gibbon started for the Giants but didn’t make it out of the top of the first after allowing hits to five of his first seven batters, including a three-run homer by Joe Torre. Bob Priddy inherited runners on the corners when he came on to relieve Gibbon with two outs in the inning, and after he walked Denis Menke, Cloninger came up to bat with the bases loaded.
To that point in his career, Cloninger had stepped to the plate with the sacks full 14 times — including once against Priddy earlier in the ’66 season — and was 4 for 14 with a scattering of singles and an impressive 10 RBI to show for it. So while Cloninger was definitely a threat to put the ball in play, he wasn’t thought to be a threat to go yard, but that’s exactly what happened, as he blasted Priddy’s 3-2 pitch to center to give himself a 7-0 lead before he took the mound.
"I was just looking for a ball to hit up the middle a little bit to try to make the game a little easier that day," Cloninger said. "But luck was on my side, and when I hit it, I hit it better than a little bit."
In the top of the third, Cloninger grounded out to third, and by the time he came up again in the fourth, Atlanta’s lead had grown to 9-0 and Giants pitcher Ray Sadecki had loaded the bases. This time, Cloninger went the opposite way, hitting the second pitch he saw past Jesus Alou and over Candlestick Park’s right-field fence, giving Atlanta a 13-0 lead with his second grand slam of the day.
Said Cloninger of the hit: "You’d have had to slap me in the face then like you’d have to today for me to believe it."
From there, Cloninger cooled down — sort of — and in the bottom of the fifth Sadecki returned the favor with a homer of his own off Cloninger.
"They always kidded me that, ‘He let you hit a home run, so you let him hit a home run, didn’t you?’ but he was a good hitter throughout his career," Cloninger said. "I guess I was thinking too much about my hitting and had a little trouble getting him out."
In the top of the fifth, it appeared Cloninger might get another shot with the bases loaded, but Menke grounded out to third with two outs and runners on first and second, stranding Cloninger in the on-deck circle. When he came up to start the sixth, Cloninger nearly added a third home run to his total, flying out to the left-field warning track. Then when he faced Sadecki for the third time in the eighth, he drove in Woody Woodward with a one-out single to left.
The hit gave Cloninger a record nine RBI for the game — Vic Raschi had the previous high for a pitcher with seven, set in 1953 — a mark that still stands today. And in the nearly five decades since, few pitchers have even come close to breaking Cloninger’s grand slam or RBI records.
In June 2002, Phillies pitcher Robert Person hit a grand slam and a three-run homer (and narrowly missed another grand slam) against the Expos before exiting the game with a 14-1 lead after five innings, and in 2007, hard-hitting Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Micah Owings went yard twice and had six RBI in a game against the Braves. Aside from Owings and Person, only three other pitchers have had even six RBI in a game since Cloninger, and just 14 others have had multi-homer efforts.
Following his own monster day, Cloninger continued to rake and went 16 for 39 between that first two-homer game on June 16 and Aug. 2, raising his average from .121 and .278 in the process. During the streak, Cloninger hit five home runs and drove in 21 of his 67 career RBI.
However, he hit .154 through the end of the ’66 season, and in 212 more career at-bats from 1967 on, Cloninger hit .193 with an identical five homers and 21 RBI. And in seven more career at-bats with the bases loaded, Cloninger went 2 for 7, with a three-run double off Rick Wise in 1968 the closest he’d come to reliving his grand slam glory.
But for those fleeing few weeks in 1966, Cloninger fit in fine with his lockermates Aaron and Mathews and had no problem talking shop — and swinging the lumber — with the game’s best sluggers.
"Guys were good-natured about it and would come around and start asking me, ‘Well, how’d you hit that one?’ but I’d say I picked up everything I knew from the best," Cloninger said. "I didn’t ask for them, but they gave me lots of tips.
"I was just trying to hit the ball hard and let things fall into place, and it worked out pretty good, but I don’t think I missed my calling," added Cloninger, who won 113 games over the course of his 12-year big-league career. "I was still meant to be a pitcher."
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