The Braves had known only brief moments of success since moving to Atlanta for the 1966 season. They won the old NL West in 1969, but then fell off the radar. 1974 was a bright spot—the team won 88 games and Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. But that was the exception, rather than the rule, as losing season followed losing season. The 1982 Atlanta Braves got back to October—and they did with a then-unproven manager named Joe Torre.
Torre had managed the New York Mets from 1977-81, mostly without success. At the same time, Atlanta was being managed by someone else who had a bright future ahead of him, and in Atlanta no less—Bobby Cox. But Cox was young, the Braves weren’t very good and he would have to first prove himself in Toronto before returning south. In fairness to Cox, his last Atlanta team in 1981 was modestly respectable in a strike-shortened year, as he handed the reins to Torre.
Atlanta would produce a potent offense in 1982, the best in the National League. Dale Murphy, the 26-year-old centerfielder had a .378 on-base percentage, hit 36 home runs and produced 109 RBI, on his way to the first of back-to-back NL MVP awards. Bob Horner hit behind Murphy in the lineup, and Horner finished with a .350 OBP, 32 home runs and 97 RBI.
Chris Chambliss, a hero of the New York Yankees’ pennant teams in the late 1970s, played first base and hit 20 home runs. It was a top-heavy lineup—Claudell Washington, the rightfielder who finished with a modest .330 OBP—was the only other notable contributor, but it was enough to score runs.
And runs were needed, because the pitching wasn’t very good. In a 12-team National League, the Braves were 10th in ERA. Phil Niekro, the 43-year-old knuckleballer was solid, going 17-4 with a 3.61 ERA and working 234 innings. But no one else in the season-opening rotation finished with an ERA under 4.
Rick Mahler and Bob Walk were mediocre, and Ken Dayley was the same in spot starts. The Braves made a good move to pick up Pascual Perez in June, and his 11 starts with a 3.06 ERA provided a needed lift. Torre also made good use of the bullpen—Gene Garber saved 30 games and worked 119 innings, while Steve Bedrosian posted a 2.42 ERA.
Atlanta captured the attention of the nation to start the season. All their home games were broadcast on the TBS network and in a time when cable was first developing, the Braves were a rare “national” team. And they started the year by winning the first 13 games. Then they lost five in a row, setting the tone for a streaky year. Their lead in the NL West was still five games on May 21, when a 1-6 stretch cut it to a game and a half by the end of May.
June started well, with 12 wins in 15 games, including a sweep of the defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers on the road. The Braves got their division lead back to 4 ½ games by the Fourth of July, when they lost of four of six to end the first half. Atlanta went into the All-Star break at 51-33, up two games on the San Diego Padres and plus seven on Los Angeles.
The Braves came flying out of the break, went 10-4 and built their lead up to nine games. On July 29, they were flying high, completing a four-game sweep of the Padres where they scored 31 runs in the four games. Then Los Angeles came to town next and it all fell apart with breathtaking speed.
The Dodgers swept a doubleheader to start the series, and then took two more. The Braves went west for a return trip, and suffered another four-game sweep. The nine-game lead of July 29 had stunningly turned into a half-game deficit to LA by August 10. In total, the Braves lost 15 of 16 and by August 18, they were four games out and sinking fast.
In this year of streaks, Torre’s Braves had an answer. A 13-2 run got them back into first place and on September 8 they hosted the Dodgers for a two-game set. And the Atlanta bats were ready. Washington and Rafael Ramirez, the 1-2 hitters in the order combined for nine hits in the opener. The game was tied 11-11 in the 10th, when Washington, Ramirez and Murphy all singled in succession off Dodger closer Steve Howe to win the game.
Atlanta tore apart LA’s Fernando Valenzuela, the 1981 NL Cy Young winner the next day. Horner, Glenn Hubbard and Bruce Benedict all homered in a 10-3 win. The Braves concluded the series with a game and a half lead.
Both Atlanta and Los Angeles had another problem though—the San Francisco Giants were coming. After being left for dead, nine games out in early September, they were now lurking in the rearview mirror. Between September 13-22, when Atlanta managed to go 0-5 in two series against the last-place Houston Astros, the Giants snuck in and made it a three-way race. Atlanta would have to play both rivals in the season’s final week.
San Francisco and Atlanta met on the last Monday of the season and the Giants were within a game of first place. Niekro took the ball for the opener and delivered a two-hit shutout in a 7-0 win. In the finale, Washington and Royster combined for seven hits in an 8-3 win. The Giants weren’t dead, but the Braves had gotten a bit of breathing room. They went to Los Angeles leading the Dodgers by a game.
Wednesday’s game went 12 innings and Garber pitched four innings, as the Braves survived 4-3 and pulled even. But they lost on Thursday, as a game they trailed 5-3 in the seventh got away from Bedrosian and ended in a 10-3 loss. The lead was still one game. The Giants still had a shot, and they and the Dodgers would go head-to-head to end the year, while Atlanta was at San Diego.
Niekro continued to put the team on his 43-year-old back. He threw another complete-game gem, this one a three-hitter. And to underscore his stretch drive brilliance, he also hit a home run in a 4-0 win. The Dodgers beat the Giants by the same score. San Francisco was done, but Los Angeles was still breathing down Atlanta’s neck.
Bedrosian pitched three shutout innings out of the pen on Saturday, Chambliss homered and 4-2 win kept Atlanta in first. But the champagne had to wait, as Los Angeles crushed San Francisco 15-2. When Atlanta lost the finale 5-1, the door was open for the Dodgers to force a one-game playoff.
The Dodger-Giant finale became a part of baseball lore generally and that rivalry in particular. The game was tied 2-2 in the seventh, when Joe Morgan—a hero of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine and then with Houston’s 1980 NL West champs—hit a three-run shot with two outs. San Francisco won 5-2 and Atlanta was the division champ.
Even with the loss, the 1982 Atlanta Braves kept everyone interested all the way, in a crazy up-and-down year that went to the final day. And they brought Joe Torre to the October stage for the first time.