Russ Nixon died last week in Las Vegas. He was 81. He managed the Atlanta Braves after Chuck Tanner and before Bobby Cox’s second term in the dugout here. Full disclosure: I liked Russ Nixon a lot.
It was his lot to inherit terrible teams in midseason. He’d taken the Cincinnati Reds from John McNamara on July 21, 1982. (Full disclosure: I didn’t like McNamara one bit.) These were the post-Big Red Machine Redlegs — Pete Rose and Joe Morgan and Tony Perez were gone; Johnny Bench had moved to third base — which meant they were doomed to fail. Which they did.
Nixon was fired after the 1983 season. He was replaced by Vern Rapp, a drill-sergeant type who lasted 4 1/2 months before being replaced by the aforementioned Peter Edward Rose. Nixon and Pete had both attended Cincinnati’s Western Hills High. So had Don Zimmer. I once asked Nixon about being one of the school’s famous graduates. He laughed. “We’re not sure Pete graduated,” he said.
Having hung around Nixon’s Reds while working for the Lexington Herald-Leader and his Braves for the ol’ AJC, I can attest that he was tons of fun to interview. He loved to talk. He never sugarcoated anything. He’s still remembered by the Cincinnati press corps for his description of an especially awful Reds performance. It cannot be repeated in this space. It involved marine life.
This was Nixon, when asked if the Reds had told him they’d be replacing him with Rapp: “They didn’t. If they had, I’ve have said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.'” Only he used a different verb.
Nixon was managing the Double-A Greenville Braves when Tanner allowed the 22-year-old Tom Glavine to throw 105 pitches IN 3 1/3 INNINGS while yielding nine hits and seven earned runs on a Friday night in Pittsburgh. Cox was then the general manager, and he — see if this sounds familiar — had staked the franchise’s future on young pitching. He could not abide what he believed to be wanton arm abuse. He decided that night to fire Tanner.
But Cox, being something of a softy, didn’t want to dump Tanner, the native Pennsylvanian who’d won the 1979 World Series with the Pirates, in Pittsburgh. On Saturday, Nixon got the call to leave the Greenville team and head for Chicago, where the Braves were scheduled to begin a series with the Cubs on Monday. Tanner was allowed to manage the final two games in Pittsburgh and fly to Chicago with the team. Cox met him Sunday night at the Hyatt Regency on Wacker to deliver the figurative pink slip.
Historical note: Tanner was fired on May 22, 1988; earlier that day, the Hawks lost Game 7 in Boston Garden despite Dominique Wilkins’ 47 points. Such were Atlanta sports in those halcyon days.
Another historical note: Nixon’s scheduled first game as Braves manager was rained out.
(Oh, there was also this: Nixon bore an uncanny facial resemblance to Grady Little, who was managing in the Braves’ minor-league system at the same time as his lookalike and who would go on to manage the Boston Red Sox. The first time I ever saw Little, I thought he was Nixon’s twin brother. As it happened, Nixon actually had a twin brother — Roy Nixon, who like his sibling played in the Cleveland organization.)
Coming after Tanner, who was Mr. Sunny-Side-Up, the crusty Nixon made for a bracing change. In July, his Braves played a twi-night doubleheader — remember those? — at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium against Pete’s Reds. The visitors won the opener 3-2. The Reds fielded a lesser nine for the nightcap. Seeing the lineup card, Nixon shouted, “Hey, that’s not a very good team out there!”
A Braves’ player said: “Which one?”
Nixon: “Them, dammit!”
(The Braves won that game 2-1. It took 10 innings.)
A particularly excruciating Nixon game came Sept. 4, 1989. With Glavine pitching, the Braves led the Padres 8-3 after six innings. The first three batters — Bip Roberts, Roberto Alomar and Tony Gwynn — reached in the seventh. Glavine was lifted and Mark Eichhorn summoned. Jack Clark greeted him with a majestic grand slam, a moon shot down the left-field line. (Afterward Nixon would say of the blast: “I didn’t think Fulton County would hold it, and I don’t mean the stadium.”)
The Braves still led 8-7, and Nixon was trying everything to hold on. In the bottom of the seventh, he deployed the 22-year-old John Smoltz as a pinch-runner. In the eighth, Nixon brought in Joe Boever, briefly and erroneously known as Boever the Saver. With two out and two on, Boever faced Clark, who launched a screamer that nearly tore out a row of seats beyond the left-field fence. In two innings, one Padre had hit two homers that traveled 850 aggregate feet and were worth seven runs. The Braves lost 10-9.
By then it was apparent that the Braves were still terrible and that the sardonic Nixon wasn’t exactly the guy to nurture young players, some of whom he considered soft. He was fired June 22, 1990. Stan Kasten, then the Braves’ president, persuaded Cox to move downstairs, which was one of the two greatest moves Kasten ever made. (The other was hiring John Schuerholz as GM.)
Nixon blamed his ouster on TBS, saying, “It’s a damn soap opera down there.” He even summoned the media to his farm in Covington, Ga. — he and his wife, Glenda, raised horses there — to grouse at greater length. But the cold truth was that the Braves were 130-216 under him. As had happened with the Reds, he’d been handed a difficult job and worked no wonders.
Yet another historical note: The Braves’ first scheduled game after Nixon was fired was also rained out.
And one more: Not until May 17, 2016, would the Braves fire another manager.
Nixon stayed in baseball for many more years, all but one spent in the minor leagues. I wasn’t aware he’d settled in Vegas until I read this column by Ron Kantowski of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. I also wasn’t aware — and I can’t believe I missed this — that Nixon was the man closest to Roger Maris when he hit No. 61 off Tracy Stallard on Oct. 1, 1961.
Nixon was the Red Sox catcher that fateful Sunday. Kantowski asked what pitch he’d called. “It was a fastball,” Nixon told him, “and it didn’t get to me.”
File that under Classic Russ. I always wondered what he’d have done with a good team. Alas, he never got that chance.