2018-07-28 23:02:07 UTC
Former Rock Springs High star played 12 years in major leagues, including the Atlanta Braves first season of 1966
IRON STATION - Rarely in newspaper history does a sports story on a high school athlete rate Page One coverage.
In the May 22, 1958 edition of the Gaston Gazette, Tony Cloninger was that rare player.
It was because Cloninger, who had just graduated from Denver’s old Rock Springs High, was signing for $100,000 with the Milwaukee Brewers - one of largest signing bonuses to that point in major league baseball history.
While the major league draft didn’t officially begin until 1965, Cloninger in essence was the 2018 version of the Detroit Tigers’ No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize out of Auburn in June - and Mize’s signing bonus was $7.5 million.
Cloninger’s baseball talents were so well-known in the spring of 1958 that in the 16-team major leagues, 24 scouts attended his final high school game in which he struck out eight in a four-hit 4-0 loss to Bessemer City at Lincolnton’s old Love Field. The May 16, 1958 game came less than a week after he threw a perfect game in a first round playoff win over Drexel.
Cloninger, who went on to have a 12-year major league career died on Tuesday at 77. The son of the late Carl E. and Edna L. Cloninger, he is survived by three sons Tony, Jr. (Karen), Darin (Angie) and Michael (Kim) and one daughter Meredith Sherrill (Ronnie). He’s also survived by nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be held on Sunday from 4 to 7 p.m. at Denver United Methodist Church, Highway 16 North with funeral services on Monday at 11 a.m. at Denver United Methodist Church.
In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts can be made to East Lincoln Optimist Club, P.O. Box 39, Denver, N.C. 28037.
Warlick Funeral Home is serving the family.
Nicknamed the “Rock Springs Rifle” by late Gazette sports reporter Dwight Frady when Cloninger was a basketball and baseball star at Rock Springs and a baseball star for Cherryville American Legion Post 100, Cloninger would eventually become one of the first players that led to the region’s ongoing embrace of the Atlanta Braves.
Then, after his major league career ended, Cloninger was a standout recreation softball player for the legendary Howard’s Furniture team in Denver before eventually returning to the major leagues as a pitching coach.
Born in 1940 in Cherryville, Cloninger led Rock Springs to back-to-back Catawba-Lincoln baseball titles in 1957 and 1958 with a combined pitching record of 13-4 and to the school’s first-ever appearance in the state’s eight-team basketball championship tournament in 1958.
During the summers of 1956 and 1957, Cloninger was a pitching and hitting standout for Cherryville Post 100. He had a 16-5 pitching record with 308 strikeouts in 171 innings in those two seasons, which ended with playoff defeats to Shelby. Cloninger also had a 22-strikeout game earlier in the 1957 season in a 10-1 victory at Shelby’s old Sumter Street ballpark.
In the era prior to the draft, Cloninger could have signed with any major league team. But he narrowed his list of finalists to the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Braves and San Francisco Giants before signing with the Braves.
Cloninger would make his professional debut in Midland, Tex., in June 1958 and make his major league debut on June 15, 1961 as a 20-year-old. He went on to have a 113-97 record with 13 shutouts and six saves and 4.07 ERA in 352 appearances (247 starts) over his 12-year career. He also was an accomplished batter with a .192 batting average, 11 home runs and 67 RBIs.
His best seasons came in 1965 as the Braves were in their final year in Milwaukee and in 1966 in the Braves first season in Atlanta. He went 24-11 with a 3.29 ERA in 1965 and was 14-11 with a 4.12 ERA in 1966 while also hitting .261 with five home runs and 23 RBIs.
Local baseball fans will forever remember Cloninger as the opening day starter for the Atlanta Braves in their April 12, 1966 major league debut at old Fulton County Stadium and for hitting two grand slams in the same game (still a major league record) later that season at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on July 3, 1966.
His next career as a standout athlete came on the softball diamond as he played for national power Howard’s Furniture of Denver that was owned by softball Hall of Famer Richard Howard and coached by softball Hall of Famer Bobby Lutz, Sr. Among Cloninger’s teammates were softball Hall of Famers like Don Arndt, Roger Brown, Gene Fisher, Stave Harvey and Rick Scherr, local standouts like Butch Adams, Buck Buchanan, Dave Carroll and Johnny Colvard and eventual college basketball coach Bobby Lutz, Jr.
Cloninger later returned to baseball as a New York Yankees bullpen coach (1992-2001) with World Series titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 and as Boston Red Sox (2002-03) pitching coach.
Richard Walker: 704-869-1841; twitter.com/jrwalk22