Grave Story: Hank Small (1953-2010)


Here lies Hank Small, a record-setting slugger in college whose Major League Baseball career was limited to one game. Small played for the 1978 Atlanta Braves.

George Henry Small was born in Atlanta on July 31, 1953. He grew up in an area of Atlanta called the Golden Ghetto – a rough neighborhood surrounded by middle-class neighborhoods. He attended Dykes High School in Atlanta and first gained reputation as a power hitter there. One memorable home run cleared the left field fence, a hill behind the left field fence and the street behind the hill behind the fence! Small was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 7th Round of the 1971 Amateur Draft. He didn’t sign and chose to attend the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He’d rewrite the record book while he was there, becoming the first real home run hitter in the school’s history.

His coach at USC said, “He reminded me so much of Mickey Mantle. He had the power. He could run. … The only difference was Mantle was a switch-hitter. But Hank didn’t need to be (a switch-hitter) because he could hit to all fields.”

That’s a nice thing for a college coach to say about one of his players. But Small’s coach at USC was Bobby Richardson, who was a former teammate of Mantle’s, so if there was anyone who could make that comparison and have it mean something, it’s him.

Small’s batting averages at his four years at USC are: .379, .282, .360, .390. In 1974 (junior year), aluminum bats were allowed, and he hit a school record 17. He then broke his own record with 19 homers in 1975 and was a first-team All-American. The Gamecocks made it to the College World Series but lost to Texas 5-1. That one run was a Hank Small solo shot.

Source: The Atlanta Constitution, May 17, 1975.

His 19 homers in a season stood as a school record until 1985. His 48 career home runs were also a school record until Justin Smoak broke the record in 2008. In 1975, USC hosted an exhibition game between the Mets and Yankees, and Small took part in a home run hitting contest with Thurman Munson of the Yankees and Duffy Dyer of the Mets. Small won.

Richardson expected Small to be a first-round draft pack. He heard rumors that the Braves were not quite that high on Small. “He would excite some people in Atlanta the way he’d hit in the Braves’ ball park,” he told the Atlanta Constitution in May of 1975, just before the draft. “And if Eddie Robinson [then the Braves’ GM] doesn’t know about him he ought to be ashamed of himself.”

Small was drafted by the Braves in the 4th round. It wasn’t as high as Richardson expected, but it continues the fairy tale that is Small’s life to this point. A local kid grows up, goes off to conquer college and enters professional baseball with his hometown team. Small was drafted as a first baseman, but Richardson said he can handle any of the outfield positions as well.

Eddie Matthews, by then a Braves scout, says “He will do everything above average major league. I don’t see how he can miss. He should be a star major league ballplayer.”

In 1975, he started with A-Ball Greenwood and hit .247 with 7 home runs. In 1976, he moved up to AA Savannah and hit .282 with 8 home runs. He started 1977 with AAA Richmond and really struggled for the first time. He hit .204 with 1 home run – a pinch-hit 3-run walk-off blast against Syracuse. He was demoted back to Savannah and tore up the league with a .330 batting average, but he hit a total of 7 home runs that year. His vaunted power abilities had yet to show up.

Then we get to 1978, where Hank Small put it all together in Richmond. He had a .289 batting average and a .504 slugging percentage, with 29 doubles, 25 home runs and 101 RBIs. He was named the Most Valuable Player of the International League, and he won the IL’s Silver Glove fielding award with a .997 fielding percentage at first base. The Braves brought him to the major leagues on September 22, shipping infielder Cito Gaston to Pittsburgh to free up a space on the 40-man roster for him.

Small made his one and only appearance versus the Houston Astros on September 27, 1978. The Braves were handcuffed by Vern Ruhle and Joe Sambito of the Astros, who combined on a 5-hit, 4-0 shutout. Small went 0-for-4 and grounded into a double play. He made 12 putouts at first base and, according to the game recap, made a nice play of a pop foul near the stands. The season ended shortly after, and Small had his one game in the majors.

Before we move forward, let’s back up and talk about the other story taking place in the Braves organization. Dale Murphy was drafted in 1974 as a catcher, a year ahead of Small. The two young sluggers were frequently minor-league teammates, though Murphy’s power was a little more evident than Small’s.

Source: The Atlanta Constitution, July 15, 1979.

In 1976 and 1977, Murphy got a couple cups of coffee as a catcher. By 1978, he was a full-time major-leaguer, as a catcher and a first baseman. He hit 23 home runs in ‘78 with the Braves, but he hit just .226. Murphy eventually spent the rest of his excellent career as an outfielder, but the Braves didn’t try him at that position until 1980.

I should probably point out that while the Atlanta Braves of recent years have made some very good roster moves, the team’s management, historically speaking, has been known much more for being dumb. Case in point, in the offseason between 1978 and 1979, the Braves have on their roster two young power hitters and four positions where they can play – first base and the three outfield positions. Not only can the team not figure out how to make that work, they muddy the waters even more by signing free agent first baseman Mike Lum to a 3-year, $375,000 deal.

Earlier in his baseball career, Small seemed like a pretty fun-loving goofball, When his Gamecocks beat North Carolina State to get a spot in the College World Series, Small and his teammates shut down a bar to party – Small standing on the bar in his underwear, leading the party. As a Braves prospect, he was at a banquet with Lillian Carter, the mother of then-President Jimmy Carter. After engaging in pleasant dinner conversation with her all evening, Small leaned in for one last question: “Are you going to eat that chicken?”

Fast forward to July 1979, and the 25-year-old Small was bitter and angry. He hit over .400 in spring training but was sent back to AAA. The Braves removed him from the 40-man roster but didn’t give him the courtesy of telling him. He was so upset he asked for a trade, though as a rookie, the Braves were under no obligation to do anything for him.

“I used to want to play for the Braves more than anything. Now, I just want out of the organization,” he told the Constitution. “If I wait on them to give me a chance, I’ll probably be waiting until I’m 40. Hopefully, by next spring, they will do me the favor of letting me have a chance with somebody else. But if they don’t and if they tell me I’m coming back to Richmond, I’ll definitely get out. Definitely.”

Small had come to realize that his one game in the majors was basically a token appearance – a chance to play in front of the hometown crowd. That 1978 Braves team lost 93 games and could have easily given Small a week at first base to see what he could do. But he never got into another ballgame; even when the last game of the season went to 14 innings, Small was one of two Braves position players sitting on the bench.

Small’s disappointment carried over to the playing field. He had an awful 1979 season in Richmond and hit just .220. He was released in January 1980; a Braves spokesman said the team felt that the best thing it could do was give him a chance to sign on with another club. Sure, now they were looking at his best interests. According to his Sporting News player contract card, Small may have had some sort of deal with a team in Evansville in 1980, but he never played for them and may not have even donned a uniform with the team.

Source: The Atlanta Constitution, March 6, 2010.

In his 5 years in the minor leagues, Small slashed .267/.322/.413 with 53 home runs. Incidentally, Mike Lum hit .246 with 6 home runs for the ’79 Braves. I can’t help but feel like Small could have done that for a league-minimum salary.

Small became the head coach of the Gordon Junior College baseball team in Barnesville, Ga. After three seasons, he moved to South Carolina and got into the insurance business. He divorced his high school sweetheart wife and eventually moved back to Atlanta, where he got a job with a groundskeeping company, maintaining baseball fields – including some of the fields where he hit homers as a kid.

Richardson, without going into details, later said that Small had a difficult time after his baseball career ended – again, much like Mickey Mantle.

By 2010, it seems like Small had moved into a much better phase of his life. He had gotten engaged, rediscovered his faith and had bought a new house in Griffin, Ga. On March 3, as he was moving in, he stumbled backward off his front stoop and hit his head on the sidewalk. He lost consciousness and never recovered. He was 56 years old. Hank Small is buried in Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs, Ga.

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