What he did: The best swing in Atlanta Braves history?
It is debatable. Hank Aaron and his strong wrists certainly deserve mention. So does David Justice’s picture-perfect left-handed stroke. But it is hard to debate the short-yet-sweet swing of Bob Horner. No telling how many home runs the blonde, blue-eyed college boy wonder might have hit if he could have stayed healthy.
Horner was born in Junction City, Kansas, but moved to Southern California and played at Apollo High School in Glendale. He was a shortstop but because the area was not known as a baseball hotbed, he was somewhat overlooked, going in the 13th round to Oakland in the 1976 Major League Baseball draft. Horner decided a college education was worth more than a small bonus from the A’s and signed he with Arizona State, where he would become one of the greatest college players ever.
In Tempe, he was moved to second base, hit nine home runs as a freshman and was named All-American his sophomore and junior seasons as a third baseman, hitting a then-NCAA record of 58 career home runs. After batting .412 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs in ’78, he was named the winner of the first Golden Spike Award, which goes to the top college player. Horner led the Sun Devils to a national championship as a sophomore before ASU finished as runner-up his junior season to Southern Cal.
The Braves, coming off a 61-101 record in ‘77, took Horner first overall in that summer’s draft and called him straight to Atlanta. In his first game on June 16, 1978, against Pittsburgh, he hit a home run off future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. He was 20.
Horner was all Atlanta could talk about. Despite the team’s continued struggle, he played in 89 games and hit .266 with 23 home runs and 63 RBIs. He was named National League Rookie of the Year, beating out the great Ozzie Smith who had played in 159 games.
The beginning of the 1979 season was marked by the tragic death of general manager Bill Lucas, at the time the highest-ranking black executive in the game. And again the Braves struggled. But Horner hit .314 with 33 homers and 98 RBIs and the future looked bright for manager Bobby Cox, whose lineup included Dale Murphy, Glenn Hubbard, Gary Mathews and starter Phil Niekro.
But problems began in 1980. After 10 games owner Ted Turner tried to demote Horner to Class AAA Richmond following the team’s 1-9 start. Though he was hitting just .059, Horner, who was listed on the All-Star ballot that season, refused to go, causing a huge uproar with fans and in the media. Neither side would back down for 10 games until the Braves finally relented. His average dropped to .268 but he still hit 35 homers and drove in 89 runs in 124 games.
Then began a string of injuries. Horner also struggled with his weight in a strike-shorted season of 1981. Cox was fired, Joe Torre was brought in and Horner came back in ’82 to make his only All-Star appearance. The Braves won the National League West and Horner hit .261 and had 32 homers and 97 RBIs in 140 games. But a hyper-extended elbow slowed him down during the stretch run. In the NLCS while the Braves lost three straight to St. Louis, Horner had just one hit in 11 at-bats.
In 1983, Horner signed a new deal which included an incentive clause that paid him $7,692.31 if he weighed less than 215 pounds on each of 13 selected Fridays. The record is unclear over how many weigh-ins he made but hit .303 before breaking his right wrist sliding into second base in August and missed the rest of the season.
He played in only 32 games the following season but came back with back-to-back 27-home run seasons in ‘85 and ‘86, when he also he became the 11th player in major league history to hit four home runs in a game, doing it against the Expos
Horner became a free agent in 1987, turning down what he thought were low-ball offers from the Braves. That was the year major league clubs were later found to have colluded to keep down salaries. Some 17 years later, Horner would receive more than $7 million from the law suit the players filed against the owners.
He did, however, end up playing in ’87. To great fanfare, he went to Japan, signing a one-year deal for $2 million. He was highly popular and hit 31 homers and drove in 73 RBIs for the Yakult Swallows, who averaged 10,000 more fans per game than the previous season. At the time, Horner was the highest paid player in Japan and was offered $3 million to come back.
Instead, he returned to the majors the next year, signing with St. Louis for $950,000. But he hurt his shoulder and played in only 60 games. He was invited to 1989 spring training by the Baltimore Orioles but decided to retire.
Horner hit 158 homers in 2,620 at-bats (one every 16.6 at-bats) during his first six seasons, which, according to a 1985 Orlando Sun-Sentinel story, ‘’was ahead of the home run-per-at-bat ratios (during same time period) of Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Mel Ott and Lou Gehrig.’’
In 2006, Horner was inducted into the inaugural class at College Baseball Hall of Fame.
Where he lives: Horner, 58, lives in Irving, Texas, with wife Chris of 36 years. He has two sons, Tyler and Trent, and four grandchildren.
What he does now: Horner has been retired for years and said his life is focused on his family and grandkids, who, he said, “are all nuts.’’ He still can hit a golf ball, saying he is a 7-handicapper.
On why he didn’t turn pro out of high school: “The amount of money they were offering didn’t come close to the value of a four-year education.’’
On his career at Arizona State: “It’s funny but we won (the NCAA title) in 1977 though, frankly, I think we had a much better team as far as talent in ’76. The year we won it was a culmination of things and, looking back now, really makes me appreciate my years in college.’’
On going straight from ASU to the majors: “It was all about the situation I was in. If I had been drafted by a team, say, with a Ron Cey or Mike Schmidt at third, I probably would have started and been in the minors for years. But the Braves were struggling and had nothing to lose.’’
On his homer in his first game: “It was pretty much a blur and all I remember is bits and pieces of it. And getting rookie of the year was nice. But really what I wanted to do was help the team get better and win.’’
On hitting four homers in one game: “I remember that game for a lot of reasons but what I remember most about it is we lost the game.’’
On dealing with all the injuries: “At the end of the day, I just couldn’t do anything about it. There was no magic pill to take to make them go away.’’
On the owners colluding against top players: “At the time, I really didn’t know what was going on. But after a few years, you figure it out. It is a shame because it wrecked a lot of careers … and for what? It accomplished nothing. I mean, look at the salaries they pay today. I will just say, God bless the players.’’
On going to Japan: “I was sitting around in January and all the deadlines had passed and I got a call from my agent and he said he had a team from Japan on the line. I thought, let’s go. I enjoyed it immensely. Don’t get me wrong. It was a tough gig with the language barrier and different culture. But they could not have been any nicer to my wife and children.’’
On playing with Murphy: “He is a delightful man with a great family. I treasure the time we played together.’’
On his relationship with Turner: “I have been asked that question a lot. In a lot of ways, we were both bullheaded and stubborn to a fault. But I mean this sincerely and have nothing but respect for the man and where he took the Braves and his company.’’
On retiring from baseball: “When you get up in the morning and know you need help, it’s time to call it a day. It was no way to live.’’
On what he has done since leaving the game: “(Laughing) I’m not qualified to do anything.’’