After a thrilling run to a World Series title last year, the Boston Red Sox are playing a decidedly modest season in 2014. As of this writing, the Red Sox are 39-49 and in last place in the American League East, nine games back of the Baltimore Orioles. It would take a minor miracle for the Sox to play post-season baseball, but only a minor one. After all, the Red Sox do not face nearly odds that another team from Boston did a century ago.
For more than fifty years Boston had two baseball teams, the Red Sox and the Braves. The team that currently resides in Atlanta wasn’t always known as the Braves, though. Over the years, they went by the Red Stockings, the Beaneaters, the Doves, the Rustlers, and the Bees; but regardless of their nickname, Boston’s National League team was mostly lousy.
When the 1914 season began, the Red Sox were perennial contenders, having won World Series titles in 1903 and 1912. The Braves, on the other hand, had eleven consecutive losing seasons. In six of those campaigns, they had lost more than one-hundred games, five of which resulted in last place finishes in the National League. At this time, there was no divisional play, never mind any wild card spots. If your team didn’t finish in first place they went home for the winter.
In 1913, the Braves hired George Stallings to be their new manager. Stallings had previous experience with the Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, and the New York Highlanders. For his first season in Boston, Stallings guided the Braves out of the National League cellar to fifth place, with a record of 69-82. Despite the Braves modest improvement, no one had any expectations that they would conquer the New York Giants, who had won three consecutive National League pennants under the pugnacious John McGraw.
Indeed, April and May of 1914 promised to be the Braves’ worst season yet. The Braves would lose eighteen of their first twenty-two games and were eleven-and-a-half games back of the Pittsburgh Pirates. By June 8, the Braves were 12-28 and thirteen-and-a-half games behind the Giants, who had taken over first place. After being swept by the Brooklyn Robins in a doubleheader on Independence Day, the Braves were 26-40 and stood fifteen games back of the Giants. The Giants seemed well on their way to a fourth consecutive National League pennant.
The Braves began to recover on July 6, however, having swept a doubleheader against the Robins. A week later, the Braves had won seven out of eight games and their record stood at 33-41. Although they were still in last place, they were now only ten-and-a-half games back of the Giants. The Braves were eleven games back of the Giants on July 23, but by this time Boston had leapfrogged over the Robins, Pirates, Phillies, and the Cincinnati Reds into fourth place. On August 3, in the midst of a nine game winning streak, the Braves climbed over .500 with a 1-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
The following day, the Wilson Administration declared itself neutral concerning hostilities that had broken out in Europe. Four years later, America would be neutral no more and over 100,000 of our soldiers would be killed during World War I. But at this point, Americans paid more attention to baseballs than bullets.
In the space of a month, the Braves had won nineteen out of twenty-four games and went from being fifteen games to seven-and-a-half games out of first place. They would only get better. After winning five of their next six games, the Braves were only six-and-a-half games behind the Giants and found themselves in a three-way tie for second place with the Cardinals and Cubs. A week later the Braves were three games back of the Giants, having swept them in a three game series at the Polo Grounds.
The Braves climbed into first place following a Phillies doubleheader on September 2. In the space of less than two months, the Braves went from worst to first in the National League. They would stay in first for good on September 8 following an 8-3 victory over the Giants. The Braves weren’t done. They would win twenty-five of their final thirty-one regular season games to finish with a record of 94-59, ten-and-a-half games ahead of the Giants. Boston now had a date with the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series. They would be forever known as The Miracle Braves.
It is really astonishing that the Braves went 68-19 (with an astounding .781 winning percentage) over the last three months of the season when you consider that they had one of the youngest teams in the league. The Braves only had a handful of players over age thirty, and one of them was second baseman Johnny Evers of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” fame. The Braves acquired Evers in the off-season from the Cubs. Evers’ sterling defense at second was sufficient for him to be bestowed with the Chalmers Award, which was the forerunner to the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award.
The runner up in the Chalmers balloting was Evers’ twenty-two-year-old double play partner, Walter “Rabbit” Maranville, despite his committing sixty-five errors at short and batting a modest .246. Although Maranville stood only five feet, five inches and weighed 155 pounds, he was durable and played in a league leading 156 games. Maranville would play twenty-three seasons in the National League, a record that stood for more than fifty years until Pete Rose eclipsed him in 1986.
While Evers and Maranville would eventually end up in Cooperstown, they were very much the exception to the rule on the 1914 Boston Braves. Many members of those Braves would have short lived careers. First baseman Butch Schmidt and outfielder Larry Gilbert would play their last big league games in 1915, while outfielder Joe Connolly was out after the 1916 season. In Connolly’s case it wasn’t due to diminished skills. Rather, Connolly earned more money from his farm and playing semi-pro baseball than he did as a major leaguer. Free agency was more than six decades away and playing Major League Baseball wasn’t exactly a lucrative profession. In 1914, Major League Baseball faced an upstart in the Federal League which paid their players higher salaries.
The Federal League would fold two years later, but inadequate player salaries would continue to loom large. This truth was evident when eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw that year’s World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. By the time the Black Sox Scandal hit, most of the 1914 Miracle Braves were out of baseball.
The Braves were partially remarkable because of their average offense. Their .251 team batting average was, in fact, the league average. The true key to the Braves success was pitching and the platoon system. Indeed, of the Braves’ ninety-four wins in 1914, more than half of them were won by two pitchers, Dick Rudolph and Bill James. Rudolph and James won twenty-six games apiece, logging 336 1/3 and 332 1/3 innings, thirty-one and thirty complete games respectively. Although Rudolph would pitch with the Braves well into the 1920s, James was gone from the Braves after the 1915 season. He did try to make a comeback in Boston in 1919, but only pitched one game. It is now believed that James tore his rotator cuff, but there was no such thing as sports medicine in those days. It was thought instead that James was an overpaid malingerer. But in 1914, James was nearly unhittable.
Of course, the Braves offense was often unhittable as well. This is where Stallings comes in. Stallings was a mercurial personality who had a nasty temper, despised the color yellow, and would not move from a physically uncomfortable position if the Braves staged a rally, which happened often in those final weeks of the 1914 season. Quirks aside, Stallings deserves credit for developing the platoon system in baseball. It wasn’t so much simply playing right handed batters against left handed pitchers, but rather a matter of maximizing his players’ effectiveness by not overplaying them. As a result, opposing teams saw a different Braves lineup every night and the National League could not adapt to this approach.
Despite the Braves success in 1914, they were still the second most popular team in Boston. Although the Red Sox finished eight-and-a-half games back of the A’s in the American League standings, they outdrew the Braves by nearly 100,000 fans that year.
Needless to say, the Braves were given no chance against Philadelphia. The A’s had won three of the past four World Series. Connie Mack’s club featured the “$100,000 infield” of Frank “Home Run” Baker, Eddie Collins, Stuffy McInnis, and Jack Barry. They also boasted a pitching staff anchored by Eddie Plank and Chief Bender.
Someone apparently forgot to tell the Braves they weren’t supposed to win. Indeed, Stallings brashly predicted the Braves would sweep the A’s in four games and that is exactly what they did. Rudolph and James won two games apiece with James pitching eleven scoreless innings. Evers hit .438 (seven for sixteen) while catcher Hank Gowdy hit .545 (six for eleven, with a home run). The Braves shocked America by pulling off a miracle.
Alas, miracles rarely happen twice. The Braves would contend in 1915 and 1916, finishing second and third, respectively. But by 1917 the Braves were back to their losing ways. Other teams had adapted and refined Stallings’ platoon system, ending the Braves’ unique advantage. Meanwhile, the Red Sox would win three World Series titles between 1915 and 1918 (and then none for eighty-six years, but that’s another story). The Braves would dismiss Stallings after the 1920 season and he would never manage in the major leagues again.
To adapt a quote from Casey Stengel: the Braves continued to find new ways to lose. In fact, while Stengel would manage the team for nearly six seasons, he had a winning record for only one. In 1935, the Braves would go 38-115 and finish sixty-one-and-a-half games back of the Chicago Cubs. The Braves would win the National League pennant in 1948 on the pitching of Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain as in “Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain.”
That year could have featured an all Boston World Series if Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy hadn’t elected to start journeyman Denny Galehouse against Bob Feller on the final day of the regular season. The Cleveland Indians won the American League pennant and defeated the Braves in six games. They haven’t won another since (again, another story). Five years later, the Braves would move to Milwaukee where Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron, and Eddie Matthews would win two National League pennants and a World Series title in 1957 before moving south to Atlanta in 1966.
The Braves have not called Boston home for more than sixty years, and when they did play here they were Boston’s other team. Notwithstanding the success of the Red Sox, especially over the past decade, it can be argued that the 1914 Miracle Braves might be the greatest baseball team to have ever played in Boston. If they aren’t the greatest, they are certainly the most miraculous.