There have been few players in Major League history who have made the kind of entrance that Bob Horner made in 1978.
That the Arizona State star was the number one overall selection in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft clearly carried the weight of certain expectations. Horner, however, met those expectations and surpassed them. He went directly to the Major Leagues, joining Atlanta immediately, making his pro debut on June 16, a mere 10 days after he was drafted.
Horner would go on to win National League Rookie of the Year in 1978 despite playing in only 89 games. It set the stage for a 10-year Major League career in which Horner would join a group of less than three dozen players who spend at least a decade in the Majors without ever playing a game in the minors. Hall-of-Famer Mel Ott is atop that list having spent the length of his 22-year-career with the New York Giants [1926-47].
“How do you explain it?” Horner said of going directly to the pros. “At the time, it just seemed like another step. Mentally, I just looked at it as a natural progression of things. You go from high school to college, college to the pros. Looking back on it, I think it’s certainly something to be proud of.
“I’ve told people over the years, though, that if I had been drafted by the Dodgers or the Phillies, who had Ron Cey and Mike Schmidt [respectively], I never would have gotten that opportunity. I got drafted by the Braves who were not playing well and needed help. They had nothing to lose and I had nothing to lose. It was just a series of small things that made it happen.”
Horner would prove to be one of the game’s biggest power threats over the next decade, topping the 30-homer mark three times while averaging nearly 22 homers a season in a career that was curtailed and eventually cut short by injuries.
He helped turn the Braves into a winning franchise – Atlanta finished last in the NL West with 69 victories in 1978 but went on to win a Division title in 1982, the year Horner hit 32 homers and made his lone All-Star appearance – before closing out his career with the Cardinals in 1988.
THE KING OF THE DESERT
Horner starred for Apollo High School [Glendale, Arizona], just on the outskirts of Phoenix, a few miles away from the Arizona State campus in Tempe. He was the team’s star and it only seemed natural that he would be heading to ASU to attend college and play baseball.
The Oakland A’s tried to lure him away from ASU, though, making him a 15th-round pick in the 1975 First-Year Player Draft. Horner, however, didn’t need much time to think about what the A’s were offering. ASU was a short drive from his home, his parents could watch him play and his draft stock could only improve with a few good seasons in Tempe. If he only knew by how much?
“I never regretted not signing with the A’s,” Horner said. “Going to ASU was the greatest thing that happened to me. I was just out of high school and I wasn’t ready to do anything [like pro ball]. I needed to go to college. I needed that. ASU at the time was the best school in the country and going there taught me so many of the things I needed to succeed in professional ball.
“So, looking back on it, the worst thing I could have possibly done out of high school was to sign. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have the skills physically or emotionally to deal with it. ASU was just a natural fit so it made all the sense in the world. If I had been drafted [by Oakland] in the first or second or third round, I might be talking about something different now. Otherwise that decision just made sense.”
Horner spent three years at ASU, leading the Sun Devils to a National Championship in 1977. He was a two-time All-American [1977 and ‘78] and the winner of the inaugural Golden Spike Award , emblematic of the best college player in the country. Horner hit .412 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs that year, totals that remain second on the school’s all-time single-season list in the aluminum-bat era. His .819 slugging percentage in ’78 remains a school record.
“When Hank Aaron shows up at ASU Stadium to scout you, you pretty much know where you’re going.”
Overall, his 56 career homers remain the ASU standard while his 229 RBIs place him fifth. His .339 batting average is also the second-highest ever recorded by an ASU freshman [Clay Westlake, .382 in 1973]. The possibilities seemed endless for the slugging infielder, who received a $162,000 bonus when he signed with the Braves.
“When Hank Aaron shows up at ASU Stadium to scout you, you pretty much know where you’re going,” Horner said. “It’s kind of hard to describe when the greatest player of all time shows up to scout you. How do you describe that?”
The only downside to his collegiate career was the shoulder injury he sustained, one that would hamper him his entire career and ultimately contribute to his early retirement.
“We were invited to play ball in Japan [in 1976] and I was playing shortstop there on a rainy, misty day,” Horner said. “Back then there were no such thing as turf shoes; we were wearing metal spikes. When I went to plant my foot, my shoe slipped and I came down on my shoulder with my arm extended. I knew I was hurt.
“I couldn’t feel my hand. My left hand was numb; I could see my fingers moving but I couldn’t feel it. I told the coach we have a problem here. That’s what started it. Over the years you’re playing every day and it just gets worse, not better. I tore my rotator cuff almost completely. I played the ’78 season [at ASU] and then went right to the pros. Two days after the season I got operated on and they put a screw there. I got married with a tuxedo on and 70 stitches in my shoulder. Everybody who plays sports goes through this in some way form or fashion, though.”
HORNER TAKES GEORGIA BY STORM
Though he wasn’t 100 percent physically, Horner treated his first game against Pittsburgh [June 16, 1978] the same way he had been treating teams like USC and Arizona the previous three collegiate seasons. He hit a home run off future Hall-of-Famer Bert Blyleven and drew a walk in a 9-4 loss. He would have preferred a victory, but that didn’t change the fact that he made his presence felt from the minute he arrived in the big leagues.
The good feelings didn’t last long, though. Horner hit .173 in 14 games that June, adding another homer and finishing with six RBIs. He began July in stronger fashion, hitting in 11 of the first 13 games and raising his average to .273. That included one four-game stretch against the Dodgers and Padres in which he went 8-for-18 with a pair of homers and six RBIs.
Horner remained consistent throughout the rest of the season without experiencing a prolonged slump. He did considerably better at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, known as The Launching Pad, hitting .323 with 19 homers and 48 RBIs. He hit .205 with four homers and 15 RBIs on the road but still managed to win National league Rookie of the Year, edging out San Diego’s Ozzie Smith, who played the entire season. His 359 total plate appearances were the third-fewest ever recorded by a Rookie of the Year winner [Willie McCovey, 219 in 1959 and Ryan Howard, 348 in 2005].
“I was kind of petrified,” Horner said of his arrival in Atlanta. “It was new circumstances, new team. I didn’t know anybody. I was in a new city, there by myself. It was kind of overwhelming really. I am with players and coaches and I have no idea who they are. I’m living alone and just trying to make sense of it all.
“More than what I did or how I played, that’s just kind of a blur. It was more about the overwhelming nature of what happened. It takes time to settle down and get used to it and then go on.”
Horner said that his then fiancé and now wife of 43 years, Chris, came to join him about a month into his stay in Atlanta. He said it proved to be of immeasurable help having someone there with him. Horner called her “his rock, the absolute center of everything I did”.
He settled in quite nicely in 1979. The reigning NL ROY appeared in 121 games and hit 33 homers, the first of three seasons in which he would crack that barrier. He also had career highs in RBIs , batting average [.313], slugging percentage [.552] and total bases .
PHILADELPHIA, PA - CIRCA 1983: Bob Horner of the Atlanta Braves fielding against the Philadelphia Phillies at Veterans Stadium circa 1983 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images)
Though Horner briefly entered into the MVP conversation that season, the Braves still finished last in the NL West, 28 games under .500. That hurt Horner more than his personal success pleased him.
“One of the hardest things for me personally was to come from college where I went to three straight College World Series, where we won one, came in second in one and third in the other, to a losing team,” Horner said. “Losing was a catastrophe at ASU and they instilled that in you. I was excited as heck to be a professional but when you’re losing 100 games the first three years you’re there, it’s hard to deal with. I wasn’t used to that. Going out every day and getting your butt whipped is absolutely no fun.”
The losing wouldn’t last for long, though. The Braves made a slow climb towards .500 under Bobby Cox and by 1982, Joe Torre’s first season as manager, Atlanta had reached the post-season, winning the West before getting swept by the Cardinals in the NLCS.
Horner had one of his best seasons in 1982, making his lone All-Star appearance, while driving in 97 runs. He had 32 homers and walked a career-high 66 times. It would be several years before he would enjoy that type of complete success again after a broken right wrist  and a broken left wrist , limited him to 104 and 32 games, respectively, over the next two seasons.
“Joe and Bobby Cox were great managers,” Horner said. “I also played for Chuck Tanner. They were really good people and good managers. Joe was a great guy and certainly a player’s manager. When he first got there, he called me into his office and told me you’re hitting behind Dale [Murphy]. That’s what I did. I told him if he thought that would help the team win, then I am all in.”
Torre was gone, though, when Horner returned to the lineup healthy in 1985. The Braves returned back to the bottom of the division that year, too, but Horner had another strong season, hitting 27 homers, driving in 89 and batting .267.
The following season proved to be one of the more eventful in Horner’s career for some of the right reasons and some of the wrong reasons. He hit 27 homers again, knocked in 87 and hit .273. He also became the 11th player in baseball history to hit four homers in a game on July 6 against Montreal. He remains one of 18 players to accomplish the feat but, along with Philadelphia’s Ed Delahanty [July 13, 1896] was also just the second player to do it and still have his team lose.
“I had a good week that day,” Horner said. “It was an amazing day for me personally but it’s going to sound like sour grapes, there is the fact that we lost the game. You come off the field, you hit four home runs, the 11th player [at the time] to ever do that and you lost. Then you’re sitting at your locker and kind of saying to yourself ‘what difference did I make’?. I hit four home runs and we didn’t win the game and later that day we’re on a flight to Philadelphia or somewhere else.
“It was kind of anticlimactic. Looking back, it’s a wonderful thing and I have enjoyed it over the years. But the bottom line is I’m out there to help the team win. The individual things can come when the team wins but when the team loses it doesn’t make any difference.”
Horner also hit his first career grand slam on Sept. 6 off Pittsburgh’s Stan Fansler, who appeared in three career games in the Major Leagues. The homer was the 211th of Horner’s career and his first grand slam, establishing the record for amount of home runs hit before connecting for a first grand slam. The record would stand until Sammy Sosa hit a grand slam on the 248th homer of his career in 1998.
ATLANTA, GA - CIRCA 1982: Bob Horner #5 of the Atlanta Braves in action during an Major League Baseball game circa 1982 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Horner played for the Braves from 1978-86. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
While the season marked the first time Horner cracked the 500 at-bat plateau  the Braves didn’t resign him that winter. No team did as collusion was in full swing among the owners, who were, at the time, trying to drive down salaries. The result – Horner headed to Japan in 1987. He appeared in 93 games for the Yakult Swallows, hitting 31 homers, driving in 73 and batting .327.
Horner would, years later, be part of a winning lawsuit against the owners, one in which he received a multi-million dollar settlement. The damage to his playing career, however, had been done.
“Once again, it was a series of things that happened along the way,” Horner said. “You have to do what you have to do and make decisions based on what’s in front of you. They made their decision, I made mine. I was never really close to going back [to Atlanta] once they decided not to resign me and then the whole collusion mess hit. I was never really close to signing with the Braves, though.
“And how do you explain Japan? It would take me a week. In a nutshell it was exciting, it was lonely and I had a real good year halfway around the world. It’s hard to sit here in two minutes and try to explain that year. It would take a lifetime to explain.”
Horner returned to the States in 1988 and signed with the Cardinals, for whom he appeared in 60 games, hit .257 and had three homers and 33 RBIs before another left shoulder injury and subsequent surgery cost him the rest of the season. He went to Spring Training with the Orioles in 1988 and made the team but retired before the season started.
Horner with the Yakult Swallows
“The hardest thing any player in any sport has to do is walk away,” said Horner, who hit 139 of his 218 career homers at Fulton County Stadium. “You know in your mind that it’s time to step down. I got tired of waking up every day and hurting. It just becomes overwhelming. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to be able to play catch with my kids and I didn’t want to get to a point physically where I was a mess.
“I can remember I was on a plane flying back from a Player’s Association meeting in Florida and I’m sitting there once again with a bottle of pain pills in my pocket and my shoulder was killing me. I thought, what am I doing this for? Why am I putting myself through this? Just make up your mind and do it. I called [general manager] Roland Hemond and told him and he told me that I was on the team and I was going to be hitting third or fourth. I told him you need to give some kid a chance, I am done. He didn’t know what to say.”
Horner said for a while after that, he did nothing but let his body heal and be a dad. He ended up coaching his two sons, playing golf and traveling with his wife. Now, he has five grandchildren and no regrets.
“I love the hand I was dealt,” he said. “It could have been better, sure, but it could have been a whole lot worse.”