On this date in 1966, Tony Cloninger became the only pitcher in major league history to hit two grand slams in the same game.
Cloninger played for three teams over a dozen big league seasons – all in the National League. He posted double-digit wins four times and his best year came in 1965, when he went 24-11 during the Braves’ final season in Milwaukee. Between 1961 and 1972, Cloninger pitched in 352 MLB games, compiling a record of 113-97 with a 4.07 ERA in 1,767 innings of work.
Tony Lee Cloninger was born August 13, 1940, in the same hospital that birthed Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum eight years later. He attended Rock Springs High School where, one week after graduation, the 17-year-old hurler received a then-unheard-of $100,000 to sign with the Milwaukee Braves. Cloninger made his major league debut against the San Francisco Giants in June 1961, then earned a full-time roster spot heading into the 1962 season.
Cloninger’s fastball rivaled those of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, two of the most dominant right handers in the National League.
A 210-pound workhorse, Cloninger finished in the NL’s top ten in innings pitched three times and twice was among the league leaders in starts. The hard-throwing right-hander was fourth in the league in wins in 1964, then finished second the following season. Although he finished in the top ten in strikeouts for three straight years in the mid-1960s, Cloninger also struggled with control, leading the NL in walks and wild pitches in both 1965 and 1966.
On April 12, 1966, Cloninger threw the first pitch for the new Atlanta franchise, which had moved from Milwaukee after the 1965 season. Pitching in what was then called Atlanta Stadium, he started on Opening Day and tossed all 13 innings in a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh – a home run by Willie Stargell broke the tie. Cloninger went to the postseason with the Reds in 1970. He won Game 3 of the NLCS to complete a sweep of the Pirates, then started and took the loss in Game 3 of the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. The O’s then went on to capture the Fall Classic in five games.
A career .192 hitter, Cloninger twice posted a slugging percentage better than .400. A powerful right-hander, he belted 11 big league homers and drove in 67 runs. In 1966, Cloninger collected a career high 26 hits, including five doubles and five home runs with 23 RBI.
July 3, 1966, was a better-than-average day for Tony Cloninger. On a Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, 27,000 fans filed into Candlestick Park to see their first-place Giants take on the Braves, who were 15 games back and in eighth place in the NL. Playing in his fifth full season, the 25-year-old Cloninger entered the game having won five of his last six starts. One of those wins came June 16, a complete-game romp over the Mets in which Cloninger hit two homers and drove in five runs to tie the mark for most RBI by a pitcher in a single game.
The game was unique in that pitchers would hit three home runs and that an Alou would hit lead off for both teams: Felipe batted first for the Braves while brother Jesus was in the top spot for the Giants.
Facing a Giants roster that included Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, Cloninger had his work cut out for him. But before he took the mound in the bottom of the first inning, the six-foot righthander had been spotted a seven-run lead.
The barrage started early. After Joe Torre hit a three-run homer in the top of the first, Bob Priddy came on in relief of Giants starter Joe Gibbon. With the bases loaded and two out, Cloninger drove a 3-2 fastball from Priddy over the center field fence for his fourth homer of the year and the Braves seventh run of the frame. After grounding out to short in the third inning, Cloninger came to the plate in the fourth. A walk to Denis Menke had loaded the bases and Cloninger stepped in to face Ray Sadecki. The Giants right-hander quickly got ahead in the count 0-1. Then Cloninger, who would finish the season batting .234, lined the second pitch of the at-bat over the right field wall to extend the Braves lead to 13-0.
Cloninger wasn’t finished. After flying out in the sixth inning, the beltin’ Brave singled home Woody Woodward in the top of the eighth for his record ninth RBI on the day. He became the first National League player – at any position – to hit two grand slams in one game. Cloninger entered the game with eight RBI on the season and more than doubled it in one afternoon [he would end the 1966 campaign with a career-best 23].
The Braves fireballer went the distance, scattering seven hits while striking out five and walking two. He held Mays and McCovey hitless and stranded six Giants in a 17-3 shellacking. Cloninger gave up two homers, both solo shots, to get to 9-7 on the season.
In a game that featured Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Willie McCovey, Cloninger hit more homers and drove in more runs than all of the hall of fame sluggers combined.
In June 1968, almost two years after his magical afternoon along Candlestick Point, Tony Cloninger was traded, along with Clay Carroll and Woody Woodward, to Cincinnati. He appeared in 110 games for the Reds before being traded to St. Louis prior to the 1972 season. After pitching only 26 innings, the Cardinals released Cloninger in July, and he retired following the 1972 season.
Two decades after playing in his last major league game, Cloninger was named bullpen coach of the New York Yankees, where he helped mentor the Bronx Bombers to four World Series titles. Mr. Cloninger served as pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox in 2002 but was forced to step down when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer the following year. After undergoing successful treatment for the insidious disease in 2003, Cloninger moved to the front office, where he worked as a player development consultant for the BoSox for nearly 15 seasons. Tony Cloninger died July 24, 2018 – three weeks shy of his 78th birthday.
While 13 players in major league history have hit multiple grand slams in a game, Tony Cloninger remains the only pitcher — and only player in Braves history – to do so. The nine RBIs are also a single-game record for a pitcher.