The countenance of Atlanta Braves player Bob Horner will probably never grace the halls of Cooperstown, but he will always be remembered for something he did on the afternoon of July 6, 1986.
Horner was the cleanup hitter through the ebb and flow of the Atlanta franchise from the late 1970s through the middle part of the ‘80s. He was the Braves “other” slugger, not as lauded as the teetotaling superstar Dale Murphy, but perhaps more relatable and raw. Horner’s appearance, with his stocky frame and curly, yellow-white mane of hair, made him look as though he could have been a member of the NWA’s Four Horsemen along with Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard, and Arn Anderson. He had a sweet, compact swing that could turn on a baseball like a disloyal spouse. He had massive thighs, big arms, and a big upper body. And when he uncoiled, the ball went far. My, did it go far.
A baseball prodigy of sorts, Horner was called straight up to the majors after a stellar career at Arizona State, where he led the Sun Devils to a College World Series and set an NCAA record for home runs in a career with 58.
He promptly won NL Rookie of the Year in 1978 after tallying 23 home runs in only 89 games.
For the next few seasons, Horner added pop to a Braves lineup that included stars like Murphy, Gary Matthews, and Chris Chambliss. Beginning in 1981, injuries began to limit the young slugger and Horner played in only 79 games.
By 1982, however, the Braves had replaced manager Bobby Cox with Joe Torre, and a healthy Horner logged the most games (140) of his career. Things seemed to be looking up.
But in August 1983, Horner broke his wrist while attempting to break up a double play and was lost for the season. At the time, the Braves were in first place with a 71-46 record and streaking toward the playoffs. “To go this far, to have this team to have this kind of lead … personally it’s like a club across the top of the head,” Horner said.
Without Horner, Atlanta hit a downward slope and finished at 88-74, three games behind the first-place Dodgers.
Horner played only 32 games in 1984 as the Braves posted an 80-82 record. By 1985, Horner was healthy but the Braves were slumping. Appearing in 130 games, he clubbed 27 home runs, hit .267, and his 89 RBIs were second on the team to Dale Murphy’s 111. The Braves went 66-96 between two managers, Eddie Haas and Bobby Wine.
The next year, the Braves entrusted veteran Chuck Tanner as their skipper. Tanner had directed the 57-win Pirates in 1985, and in the end could not reverse Atlanta’s fortunes as the Braves continued on the skid.
But for a brief moment in July, Horner delivered magic. On a bright day, deep in the furnace of summer, Horner hit home runs 14, 15, 16, and, yes, 17 on the year against the Montreal Expos at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. It was as if a post-Independence Day fireworks show went off in the form of home runs.
The first blast was a low tomahawk shot off Expos pitcher Andy McGaffigan that left the yard in a hurry. The second one, also against McGaffigan, was deposited into the stands in deep left center. The third home run—once again off McGaffigan, who was none the wiser—was a lined shot that caused a commotion between the shirtless fans dotting the left-field bleachers. It should be noted that all of these clouts occurred before McGaffigan was pulled after 4 2/3 innings of work. Finally, the fourth installment was off reliever Jeff Reardon, who hung a fat breaking ball over the plate that Horner quickly stroked into the cemented area behind the fence in left center.
Horner’s feat was only the 11th such time a Major League Baseball player had hit four home runs in a game. Previous to Horner, it hadn’t happened in 10 years. Mike Schmidt, the great Philadelphia Phillies slugger, swatted four against the Chicago Cubs in an 18-16 marathon on April 17, 1976. Before that, the most recent occurrence was in 1961, when San Francisco Giants legend Willie Mays slugged four against the Milwaukee Braves. Lou Gehrig had done it in the ’32 season, but Babe Ruth never did. Nor did Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle, or Willie McCovey.
Indeed, Horner was in elite company.
“I remember that game for a lot of reasons but what I remember most about it is we lost the game,” Horner later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Braves starter Zane Smith gave up eight runs on nine hits, and relievers Jeff Dedmon and Paul Assenmacher surrendered three more as the Expos went on to win, 11-8.
Horner would hit only 13 more home runs in his MLB career, 10 with the Braves and three with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1988 after spending a year playing baseball in Japan. Injuries hampered his career and eventually forced his retirement after the 1988 season.
Analyzing Horner’s career numbers brings out something relatively interesting. Normally when sluggers swing big, they miss big. But this was not the case with Horner, who struck out only 512 times in 3,777 at-bats. “He just wasn’t going to swing at anything. He was going to make you pitch,” said teammate Terry Harper, who played outfield for the Braves from 1980-86.
Twice Horner hit over .300; his .314 clip in 1979 was fifth behind, oh, a fairly decent bunch: Steve Garvey, Ray Knight, Pete Rose, and Keith Hernandez.
And although Horner hit more than 30 home runs on just three occasions, his 162-game home run average was 35 across an injury-plagued 10-year career. Not too shabby.
Horner’s baseball career certainly leaves a lot for the imagination and folks wonder what might have been for him and the Atlanta Braves had he not been injured so much. Braves fans certainly would have liked to have seen a few more home runs from him, as would baseball fans who knew the kind of power potential Horner had.
In the end, injuries diminished Horner’s legacy and the baseball gods—funny yet fierce as they are—kept him from a hall of fame career. Harper summed up his hitting this way: “That guy could hit. You can ask anybody who played with him or against him. To me, he was our best hitter on the team when I played with him. Dale Murphy was the best all-around player, but as far as hitter, Horner had a major bat. If he could have stayed healthy and played more years, he had a hall of fame bat. That’s what I thought about his hitting.” H&A