Obituary: Biff Pocoroba (1953-2020)

RIP to Biff Pocoroba, a former All-Star catcher with a decade-long career in the major leagues. He died on May 24 at the age of 66, according to Facebook posts from his family. A cause of death was not announced. Pocoroba played for the Atlanta Braves from 1975-1984.

Biff Benedict Pocoroba was born on July 25, 1953 in Burbank, Calif. Yes, “Biff” was his legal first name. “I wanted him to be a big league ballplayer and wanted him to have a name that sounded like one,” his father said in a 1975 interview. “I didn’t want him to have to go through life answering to Herman or something. Biff sounded rugged.” The “Benedict” part of his name came from his grandfather, who was a former FBI and Secret Service agent. According to that same interview, Pocoroba’s grandfather helped clean up Chicago during the Al Capone era, so toughness ran in the family. So did baseball, for that matter. His cousin, Tom Satriano, played with the California Angels and invited him into the team’s clubhouse when he was a kid. That helped to launched his dreams of playing baseball professionally.

As early as 1967, Pocoroba was getting attention for his play. While a part of the Canoga Park 1967 Pony League team, he hit .630. He kept up the offensive prowess at Canoga Park High School; he was named the West Valley League Player of the Year in 1971 when he hit .468 and was excellent behind the plate. That same year, he was drafted by the Braves in the 17th Round of the Amateur Draft. He opted to sign with the team instead of looking at college scholarships. “I decided I could go to college later,” the switch-hitting catcher told Atlanta columnist Furman Bisher in 1975. “There was no point in putting off my life’s ambition when it was already there waiting on me.”

Pocoroba started his professional career with the Wytheville (Va.) Braves in the Appalachian League in 1971. He played in 42 games and hit .298 with 3 home runs and 19 RBIs. He also showed a good eye, walking 11 times against 13 strikeouts. He moved through the minor leagues fairly quickly. By 1972, he was participating at the Braves’ spring training camp. Minor-league manager Clint Courtney couldn’t figure out his last name, so he called him “Coca-Cola” instead.

Pocoroba spent most of 1972 with the Greenville Braves, where he was named to the All-Star Team and hit .259 with 7 homers. He also had one hitless at-bat with the AAA Richmond Braves, which was the only AAA experience he had. Pocoroba then spent two seasons with the Savannah Braves of the AA Southern League. Hie first year there, 1973, saw him hit a career-best 12 home runs, but his batting average slipped into the .230s. In 1974, he kept up his production (9 home runs, 45 RBIs) and hit .311. As a catcher, he had just 2 errors in 70 games for a .996 fielding percentage. He started the year as a backup to Freddie Velazquez, but when Velazquez was promoted to AAA, Pocoroba stepped in and ended up an All-Star.

Pocoroba gets hip checked by Bill Buckner but still makes the play at the plate. Source: Star-Gazette, May 2, 1981.

Coming into 1975, Pocoroba was considered the fourth catcher in the Braves’ depth chart, behind veterans Vic Correll, Johnny Oates and Paul Casanova. Casanova was released in spring training. Oates was traded shortly after the season began. Correll caught the most games for the Braves in 1975 but batted just .215. That opened the door for the 21-year-old catcher with a single at-bat in AAA to step in as the Braves catcher.

Pocoroba made his MLB debut on April 25 against the Padres, with an inning behind the plate. He started some games early in the season but picked up just 2 hits in 6 games. He then sat for most of May before starting in Pittsburgh on May 31. He singled three times and scored twice, and from then on, he started seeing regular playing time. His first home run came in the Astrodome on June 28 off Houston’s Wayne Granger. He drove in 3 runs to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 28, which gave the California native some satisfaction.

“Like any kid who grew up in L.A., I wanted to play with the Dodgers… They talked real nice to me, but, when the draft came, they shot me down. I can’t think of anything more exciting than to shoot them down,” he said.

Pocoroba ended his rookie campaign with a .255/.319/.319 slash line in 67 games. He hit 1 home run and drove in 22 runs. He started the 1976 season as the Braves’ starting catcher and hit around .300 for the first month of the season. A broken kneecap cost him the entire month of June, and his season came to an end on August 8 after injuring the ligaments in his left leg after a collision with the Giants’ Mike Sadek. He hit .241 on the year.

Pocoroba rebounded in 1977 with the best season of his career, and the only one in which he appeared in more than 100 games. He slashed .290/.394/.445 and had career bests in doubles (24), home runs (8) and RBIs (44). He hit a pinch-hit grand slam on May 17, which was the first ever hit by an Atlanta Brave. Even though the team was prepared to hand the starting catcher job to rookie Dale Murphy in the spring, Pocoroba was the one who put together one of the better seasons by a National League catcher that year. Murphy, who had some problems throwing the ball to second, was sent to the minors and moved to first base before finding his niche in the outfield.

“Dale has definite superstar potential, he’s gonna be a great ballplayer,” Pocoroba astutely said. “He had some throwing problems, that’s all.”

Over the 1977 offseason, Pocoroba was the subject of several trade rumors. He was upset because the Braves wouldn’t let him play winter ball, and he asked to be traded to the Padres or Angels. However, general manager Bill Lucas called the catcher one of the players who would be a part of the Braves’ core, along with Murphy and Barry Bonnell. He was particularly effective at catching staff ace Phil Niekro‘s knuckleball. In May of 1978, the team made good on its word by signing the catcher to a seven-year contract worth $1 million. It was reported that Braves owner Ted Turner negotiated the extension himself.

Pocoroba was also recognized for his abilities by the National League, who added him to the 1978 All-Star team when Johnny Bench had to withdraw due to back injuries. He caught the 9th inning as Bruce Sutter retired the AL in order to secure a 7-3 NL win. Pocoroba batted .262 in the first half. His average dipped to .242 when, for the second time in his career, his season ended on August 8.

Prior to that fateful day, Pocoroba’s shoulder had been bothering him for the previous couple of years and was hampering his ability to throw out baserunners. Ultimately, he underwent surgery as Dr. Frank Jobe had to repair a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

Pocoroba returned to action in June of 1979, but he was limited primarily to a pinch-hitting role. In the meantime, Bruce Benedict had arrived in the majors and established himself as the team’s starting catcher. Pocoroba hit .316 on the season, but the attempt to catch regularly led to another stay on the disabled list when he re-aggravated the injury. He then tore ligaments in his right forearm in 1980 and missed half the season.

Pocoroba was never able to return to the catching role on a regular basis. He worked himself into becoming an effective pinch-hitter, but he was at his offensive best when he was starting behind the plate on a regular basis. The Braves attempted to use him as a third baseman in 1981, but he hit a career-worst .180 that season and didn’t play particularly well in the new position. He eventually was able to play in a backup capacity in 1982 and ’83, but he struggled with throwing out baserunners.

Pocoroba in his role of sausage maker at Sausage World in Lilburn, Ga.

Pocoroba hit .275 and .267 in 1982 & ’83, respectively, and he homered twice each year. He made his only postseason experience in 1982, going hitless in a pinch-hitting role against the Cardinals. He made his final appearances for the Braves in 1984, going hitless in four at-bats. The Braves acquired catcher Alex Trevino on April 24 and released Pocoroba, ending his major-league career.

In parts of 10 seasons, Pocoroba slashed .257/.339/.351, with 374 hits in 596 games. He had 71 doubles, 2 triples and 21 home runs while driving in 172 runs and scoring 132 times. He first generated buzz in the Braves organization when he threw out 11 straight baserunners in spring training, back before his shoulder began bothering him. Though he’s remembered today for having one of the all-time best baseball names, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was a pretty good catcher until injuries forced him to a part-time role.

After baseball, Pocoroba ran a bait-and-tackle ship in Snellville, Ga., before launching a meat processing business called Sausage World in Lilburn. Sausage World, which is still around today, was known for authentic Italian sausages, as well as brats, kielbasa, andouille, chorizo and other favorite sausages from around the world. He also operated a couple of restaurants in the Atlanta area.

“We grew up making sausages as kids, and I always had a liking for the food business,” Pocoroba said in a 1998 story. “Our family has always been good cooks.”

For more information: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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