Denny Lemaster, Master Wildlife Carver
Former Atlanta Braves pitcher, Denny Lemaster, was born in Corona, a city deep in southern California. The postcard pretty Santa Ana Mountains overlook Corona, a city some 2,007 miles from Lincoln County, Georgia.
It’s quite a journey that brought Denny to Lincoln County, a voyage through time and geography that involves rocks, baseballs, bats, fish, knives, and blocks of wood.
It began in 1958 when Denver Clayton Lemaster signed with the Milwaukee Braves as a left-handed pitcher. He broke into the big leagues July 15, 1962, with the Milwaukee Braves. Before his professional baseball career was over, it would include time with the Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, and Montreal Expos.
You could say Denny’s journey to big league baseball really began in Willard, Missouri. It was there he walked a mile and a quarter to the main road to catch the school bus. Walking more than a mile every day to and from the bus stop gave him the chance to throw rocks at fence posts, something all boys do. Something all boys can’t do is hit every post, every time.
“I got so good at throwing rocks, I could knock a bird out of a tree whenever I wanted to,” said Denny.
His accuracy throwing things naturally led to pitching. By the time he was pitching in high school baseball games back in California at Oxnard High School, agents far and wide came to see the lefthander. He fanned batters with uncanny consistency and recorded a lot of no hitters.
He was 19 when he signed with the old Milwaukee Braves in ’58. His locker was right next to one of the game’s pitching legends, Warren Spahn. Spahn wore jersey number 21 and Denny wore Number 23.
Denny joined a team on a roll. The year before the Milwaukee Braves had won the World Series. The kid who rocked fence posts found himself in the company of baseball greats: Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Lew Burdette, Del Crandall, Joe Torre, and a fellow by the name of Ernie Johnson who would become a color commentator and play-by-play broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves from 1962 to 1999.
In 1966, the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta. During his time there, Denny pitched a one hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals, but that was not his most memorable game. The game he recalls best was a big game on a Tuesday, August 9, 1966, in the old Fulton County stadium. The game pitted Denny against one of baseball’s legends, Sandy Koufax.
It was a heralded match-up. At that time, 52,270 fans, the most people ever, came to the sold-out stadium. Fans desperate to see the game bought 3,000 tickets for standing-room-only views. The game was billed as a pitching duel and despite pitching in a stadium dubbed “The Launching Pad,” Denny and Koufax turned in stellar performances.
Both pitchers kept the crowd on its toes. Koufax would strike out 10 batters and Denny would strike out nine. Both would pitch complete games.
Felipe Alou led off the first inning with a homer to put the Braves up 1-0. The majority of the game settled into a gridlocked, classic pitchers’ duel. Despite a third-inning rain delay of more than two hours, the fans wouldn’t leave the stadium. Denny had a no hitter going.
Denny took his no-hitter into the seventh inning when Jim LeFebrve hit a homer to tie the game, 1-1. Eddie Matthews hit a home run leading off the bottom of the 9th to win the game, 2-1. The crowd went wild, a tribute to Denny and Matthews. It was after one a.m. and 45,000 fans were still in the stadium.
An interesting fact about that game: the first and last pitch Koufax made that night ended up in the seats. Denny’s night ended at a hospital, but it was a happy occasion, a night to remember. When he got home, his wife had gone into labor. They went to Piedmont Hospital where his fourth child, a daughter, was born the next morning.
In 1967, Denny was one of three Braves designated to play in the All Star game along with Hank Aaron and Joe Torre. Denny has great memories of his years in the majors, off and on the field.
He was doing some landscaping one day when a lost driver pulled up and asked for directions to a nearby but hard-to-find country club.
Denny was caked in dust and sweating. Rivulets of mud ran down his face. Denny told the driver how to find the country club and off he went only to turn around and return to shout, “Hey, aren’t you Lemaster?”
“Yes,” replied Denny.
“Well come go to the country club with me.”
The driver was Ted Turner. Denny cleaned up a bit and went to the country club soiree where Turner spent the evening introducing him to guests.
A memorable story involves the great, if tarnished, Pete Rose. Denny was with the Astros in 1968. One day in a game Denny was scheduled to pitch, Rose came over while the players were warming up. Rose was in a tight race with Matty Alou for the National League Batting title.
“I’m trying to win the battling title,” said Rose. “Think you can help me out?”
“If we’re winning by a good margin and I’m still pitching, I’ll see what I can do,” replied Denny. Late in the game, the Astros had the game under control. Denny threw Rose a fastball right down the middle of the plate. Rose just stood there and looked at it.
Denny threw his arms up in disbelief and stared at Rose as if to say, “There it was and you let it go by.”
Denny served up another fastball down the middle and Rose got a base hit. That hit kept him in the lead for the National League Batting Title, which he went on to win.
After the game, Rose signed a bat, “Thank You,” and gave it to Denny. In recalling Pete Rose, Denny said Rose would be in the Hall of Fame today if he had just admitted he had gambled on baseball. But he didn’t and he isn’t.
So, how does a major league pitcher end up living in Lincoln County? Denny participated in a bass tournament at Elijah Clark State Park about 35 years ago. He finished second and continued to come back because of the great fishing he experienced.
Camping at Elijah Clark State Park and fishing at the lake eventually led to the purchasing of a lake lot where Denny has a studio. With his years of major league ball behind him, his hands today stay busy carving wildlife as realistic as it can be.
There’s a story behind the story of how a big leaguer becomes a wildlife carver. About 25 years ago Denny and his wife, Bunny, were at Lenox Mall. A duck carver from Griffin was there showcasing his carvings.
“We enjoyed talking to him,” said Bunny, “and I got his card.” Bunny knew that Denny loved to sharpen knives and was great with color and moreover she knew her husband would stick with something until he got it right. Carving, she felt, would suit his skills and temperament.
“I called the carver, Alan Sykes, and asked if he taught carving.” Next, she gave Denny a blank (a wood block meant for carving) and some tools for Christmas.
“It took a while, but in March we drove to Griffin and Denny started,” said Bunny. Sykes would carve one side and Denny the other. “That was the beginning,” said Bunny. “I knew he would be a good craftsman. I never dreamed he would become the artist that he is. His work is incredible.”
Carving realistic looking waterfowl and other wild creatures demands an eye for detail, a steady hand, and great patience. Denny is especially fond of carving American kestrels, a small falcon known also as sparrow hawk because of its small size. Denny often has leftover wood from blanks that are ideal for carving kestrels.
“Every bird is a challenge,” said Denny. “I start by cutting the rough shape out of a block of wood. From there I use reference material to get specific details on a bird. The main challenge is thinking in three dimensions, drawing the right pattern, and not cutting off something that you want there later.”
You can place one of Denny’s carving by a real bird and you won’t be able to tell the difference. A sharp eye is at work here, that, and a man with patience, patience tempered while pitching against the alert eyes of hitters waiting for a mistake. Carving wildlife is a lot like pitching: make one mistake and the game’s over.
When Denny’s not carving, chances are you’ll find him on the lake. After all, it’s his love of fishing that brought this major league pitcher to Lincoln County, a county filled with Brave fans, many who recall No. 23, the lefthander for the Atlanta Braves.