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The first major league team to move to the rich baseball territory of the Southeast, the Braves struggled in their first decade in Atlanta despite being located in a booming city and establishing a strong regional (later national) broadcasting network. Ten years after their arrival, attendance had sunk to 534,672 and only the club's purchase by Ted Turner kept the franchise in Georgia.
After thirteen seasons in Milwaukee, the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966. In the club's inaugural season in Alanta, eight regulars tallied double-digit home run totals, led by Hank Aaron's 44 round-trippers. But the pitching wasn't strong enough to push the Braves into the upper echelons of the National League. Despite a 85-77 record and a home attendance of around 1.5 million, the team finished fifth in the league. Former star third baseman Eddie Mathews was traded in December, but the deal didn't improve the team's standing; in 1967, they fell to seventh place with their first losing record since 1952, their last season in Boston.
The emergence of Phil Niekro as an All-Star in 1969 (Niekro went 23-13 with a 2.57 ERA) keyed an amazing resurgence in 1969. Under Lum Harris, the Braves won 93 games and the NL West title, but fell in the minimum three games to the "Miracle" New York Mets in the first-ever NLCS. The disappointing sweep was the last playoff action the club would see until 1982.
In 1973, the Braves became the first team in history with three 40-homer sluggers, as Aaron, Darrell Evans, and Davey Johnson all topped that mark. Niekro still provided some highlights on the mound, but the Braves were fading fast. Hank Aaron, their lone remaining star from the days in Milwaukee, was traded to the Brewers in November 1974 after breaking Babe Ruth's career home run record earlier in the season. From 1975 to 1979, the Braves finished dead last four times, bottoming out with a terrible 61-101 record in 1977.
Manager Bobby Cox suffered through two of those last place finishes (1978 and '79) but led the team out of the cellar in 1980, when the club finished in fourth place with an 81-80 record. A large part of the Braves' success was due to the arrival of Dale Murphy, who quickly became a fan favorite as Atlanta's first homegrown star. Murphy, originally brought up as a catcher, was moved to centerfield in 1980 because of an overly powerful and often erratic throwing arm, and was named NL MVP in 1982 after leading the Braves to the top of the NL West with 36 homers and 109 RBI. That year, third baseman Bob Horner chipped in 32 homers and 97 RBI for new manager Joe Torre; Cox had left before the season to take the helm of the Toronto Blue Jays. But in the NLCS, the Braves were swept yet again -- this time by the St. Louis Cardinals.
"We are the team of the 1980s," proclaimed Ted Turner after the surprising division title, but despite another MVP season by Murphy the Braves slipped to second in 1983. In 1984, the Braves were runners-up again with a 80-82 record. The culprit again was pitching, or, more precisely, the lack thereof; the staff was plagued by inconsistency and injuries, leading to Torre's dismissal after the 1984 season. The Braves plunged towards mediocrity; between 1985 and 1990, their 69-92 finish in 1987 -- 20 1/2 games behind the San Francisco Giants -- was closest the team got to first place in the years between 1985 and 1990.
Perhaps Turner's brash prediction back in 1982 was made a decade too soon. Surprisingly, the Braves beat out Los Angeles in a close race for the NL West in 1991 after finishing sixth the previous season. Part of the reason was the fantastic flock of young players -- especially pitchers -- stockpiled by Bobby Cox since the former manager returned to Atlanta as the Braves' GM in 1986. But Cox's return to the dugout during the 1990 season -- and his uncanny ability to get the most out of his talent -- also played a large part in the Braves' resurgence. After trading fan favorite Murphy to Philadelphia in 1990, Cox handed the right-field job to Dave Justice. Justice was named Rookie of the Year after hitting twenty homers in the final two months of the season. Teammate Tom Glavine (20-11, 2.55) captured the Cy Young Award, and Steve Avery went 18-8 and played a key role in the Braves' NLCS win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But even though the Braves' sterling rotation was already considered among the best the league, the club couldn't surmount the Minnesota Twins in the World Series. A year later, they failed to defeat Toronto after another magnificent season and an exciting and emotional NLCS win. Free-agent acquisition Greg Maddux, the defending NL Cy Young winner, joined the team before the 1993 season and quickly established himself as the ace of the staff en route to his second consecutive Cy Young Award. Slugging first baseman Fred McGriff was also added early in the year to add punch to the lineup. But despite a 104-58 regular-season record, Atlanta managed only two wins against the NL East champion Phillies in a six-game NLCS loss.
After realignment shifted Atlanta to the NL East, the Braves finished second to the Montreal Expos in the strike-shortened 1994 season. But in 1995 the club once again proved themselves to be the class of the National League, winning a league-high 90 games, then taking three of four from the Colorado Rockies in the Division Series and sweeping Cincinnati in the NLCS. Thanks to outstanding pitching and timely hitting, the Braves vanquished the Cleveland Indians in a six-game World Series during which five of the six games were decided by just one run. Thanks to Bobby Cox, Ted Turner had finally brought a championship team to the Deep South. (PB)