Cecil Upshaw presents evidence that the Braves’ closer role has always been cursed, and that I am wrong in blaming Gene Garber for hexing the bullpen. I don’t even know that the “closer” term was being used at the time.
Upshaw was sort of like Joey Devine, if Devine hadn’t been rushed so much — a big, hard-throwing sidearmer who was signed out of college (Centernary) in 1964 and in the big leagues pretty rapidly, if not as rapidly as Devine. Upshaw made his debut in 1966, throwing three innings. In 1967, Upshaw replaced Phil Niekro as the relief ace when Knucksie went into the rotation.
For two years, Upshaw was one of the better relievers in the game, putting up ERAs of 2.46 and 2.91 (with the rise of offense from 1968 to 1969, the latter is actually a little more impressive) and saving 13 and 27. (The save rule was made official in 1969, and managers apparently already were piling more saves on their best guys.) Relief aces threw a lot of innings back then; Upshaw threw 116 2/3 innings in 58 games in ’68 and 105 1/3 in 62 in ’69. He pitched in all three games in the LCS, giving up two runs in the middle game when it was too late to matter.
Given the workload, it may not be surprising that Upshaw got hurt. It’s the nature of his injury, however, that proves that the closer role was already cursed. Upshaw, who stood about 6-6, decided to show off for his teammates by demonstrating how to dunk a basketball. On an awning. He caught a ring on the awning and severely injured his finger, causing him to miss the entire 1970 season.
He was never the same pitcher. He came back in 1971, which is pretty impressive, and worked 82 innings in 49 games, saving 17, but his ERA ballooned to 3.51. In 1972, he was just about average and saved 13. He got off to a bad start in 1973, and the Braves, in keeping with their “Sell Low” philosophy of the time, unloaded him to the Astros for washed-up and punchless outfielder Norm Miller. Upshaw had two solid years in middle relief for the Indians and Yankees but was released by the White Sox in spring of 1976 and never pitched again. He died in 1995.