On July 3, 1966, Tony Cloninger Sr., then a 25-year-old pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, was at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park early.
He was scheduled to start against the Giants later that day, so he met with catcher Joe Torre beforehand. It was part of Cloninger’s routine; before every start, he and his catcher would discuss how to best approach each of the opposing hitters. That day, 50 years ago Sunday, was no exception.
At least not yet.
When the game started that afternoon, the sun sat high in the sky and wind was sweeping in from left field. The Braves took an early lead on Torre’s three-run homer in the first inning. After a few more hits in the same inning, the Giants switched pitchers.
Never miss a local story.
In came Bob Priddy, who walked the first batter he faced, Denis Menke, to load the bases. With two outs, up came Cloninger.
“All I was trying to do was get a base hit,” Cloninger said Friday, “but I got a pitch to hit.”
Cloninger crushed Priddy’s fastball, and his line drive cleared the center-field fence.
“I knew I hit it pretty good,” he said, “but I didn’t know it was gonna go out.”
Cloninger had been in that situation before. In his first career start, also against the Giants, he’d smacked a ball deep on the same line to center field. It looked good from the plate.
Cloninger was sure he’d hit a home run.
“Kinda gave it a little bit of a home run trot,” he said, “and (Willie) Mays went up over the fence and robbed me.”
Mays could not reproduce his magic on that July afternoon in 1966.
But Cloninger could.
In the fourth inning, facing Ray Sadecki, Cloninger again came up with two outs and the bases loaded. Again, he was just trying to get a base hit.
Again, he hit a grand slam.
“I wasn’t trying to hit a home run,” Cloninger said. “The second time I was swinging hard just in case.
“It’s still hard to believe.”
Still a record
Fifty years later, Cloninger is still the only pitcher in baseball history to hit two grand slams in a single game. Until Caldwell County’s Madison Bumgarner did it in 2014, no other pitcher even had two grand slams in the same season, let alone one game.
Cloninger still remembers all the details – the over-100-degree heat; the sticky gray uniforms; borrowing Menke’s bat because pitchers didn’t get their own; giving up a home run to Sadecki right after hitting his second.
He even remembers the Giants fans at Candlestick booing – but they weren’t booing him.
“When they started almost walking me,” Cloninger said, “Giants fans were booing their players for thinking they were gonna walk me.
“They wanted to see me swing again.”
Late in the game, Cloninger had an RBI-single to give him nine RBIs in the game. That’s another record of his no pitcher has broken.
When the game ended, Giants fans clamored near the field for Cloninger’s autograph or to shake his hand. He needed a police escort just to make it back to the clubhouse.
A decorated career
Fifty years have passed since then. Cloninger, 75, retired as a player and went into coaching, winning four World Series with the New York Yankees. He moved back to North Carolina – he attended Rock Springs High in Denver, which is about 25 miles northwest of Charlotte – and still works for the Boston Red Sox remotely as a consultant.
It’s impossible to discuss Tony Cloninger and not to bring up the two grand slams, but he was a pitcher first.
“A lot of people have remembered me just for (the grand slams) and not that I won 24 games one year,” Cloninger said. “I’m proud of it and very thankful for it, but I was a pitcher and I took pride in it.”
He had 113 victories, 24 of them in the 1965 season. He pitched in two World Series games with the Cincinnati Reds. Those feats are a big part of Cloninger’s legacy.
Still, 50 years after the fact, Cloninger hasn’t forgotten anything about the day that made him the answer to a trivia question.
He just doesn’t want to be defined by it.