Monday, September 12, 2011

Miracle Teams Part 1: Miracle Braves

An idea occurred to me out of nowhere – as they so often do – that most of the great teams that people write about are the dynasties.  So I thought, “What about the non-dynasties?”  That is, what about the teams that were really good for one year, and then receded into the fog of history?  It seemed like these teams – out-of-nowhere success stories – would be just as interesting to write about, if not more so.

So I compiled my list of teams with a few caveats.  One is that I generally wanted teams that made the postseason.  That may seem unfair at first, but then who would read a series of essays about “Worst-to-Third” teams?  Secondly, I wanted teams that were not very good before and after their season of success, since this would make their one good season an interesting oasis of winning.  And thirdly, I’ll admit that I was biased toward teams that were a good story and potentially fun to write about.  Hopefully then, they will also be fun to read about.

The series will run in chronological order.  This sets up a potential anticlimax, since the first team in the series just might be the biggest miracle story in baseball history:  the 1914 Miracle Braves.


In the first thirteen seasons of baseball’s modern era (1901-1913), only three different teams won the National League pennant.  Any modern columnist complaining about the lack of competitive balance in baseball is clearly ignorant of the facts of life in the early 20th century NL.  The Cubs, Giants and Pirates were kings of the senior circuit for more than a decade at the dawn of the century.  Not only did these three teams have a monopoly on first place, they had a near-monopoly on the top three places in the league; these three teams finished 1-2-3 in some fashion in eight of these thirteen seasons.

Fans of the Phillies, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers and Reds would be forgiven for giving up on their respective teams, knowing that fourth place was the most you could hope for, unless lightning struck and the team finished second.

That started to change in the mid-1910s.  It’s difficult to pinpoint one specific reason for the rise of competitive balance at the time.  The birth of the outlaw Federal League in 1913 served to violently upset the status quo.  But the key reason, I think, was that NL teams were finally recovering from the devastating player raids of the American League from 1901-1903.  It’s no coincidence that the three dominant teams of the 1900s were the teams that best managed to keep their players from jumping to the AL.

And no team suffered player losses quite like the Boston Braves.


The Red Stockings, as they were known at the time, had a glamorous entrance into the National League when it was formed in 1876.  The founding brothers of the franchise were George and Harry Wright, who so famously inaugurated professional baseball in Cincinnati with another team known as the Red Stockings.  Their move to Boston, bringing along several key players, pushed the Beantowners to NL pennants in 1877 and 1878.

But the true glory days of the franchise were the 1890’s.  Known by then as the Beaneaters, they dominated the NL, winning five pennants in the decade.  They were driven primarily by three Hall-of-Fame pitchers:  John Clarkson and Vic Willis, who were quite good, and Kid Nichols, who was easily the best pitcher of the 19th century.  Their lineup was based around Boston folk hero Mike “King” Kelly, along with other, younger Hall-of-Famers such as Hugh Duffy, Tommy McCarthy, Billy Hamilton and Jimmy Collins.

But along came the American League’s Boston Red Sox.  The 1901 Sox took two-thirds of the Beaneaters’ starting outfield, solid players Chick Stahl and Buck Freeman.  The third member, Billy Hamilton, retired after 1901.  The 1902 Beaneaters started an outfield of Billy Lush, Duff Cooley and Pat Carney, none of whom would likely be touring the vaudeville circuits to wow the multitudes with tales of their on-field exploits.

As if that weren’t enough, the Red Sox also made off with 24-year-old pitching phenom “Big” Bill Dinneen, who would, along with many former Beaneaters, play a big part in the team’s 1903 World Series victory.

By the time the league wars were settled in 1903, the Beaneaters’ cupboard was bare.  The team had come up with a decent catcher, Pat Moran, but the stars were all but gone.  Pitching ace Nichols threw his last pitch for the team in 1901 and then was out of the majors for two years.  The only good hitter left from the 1890’s dynasty was first baseman Fred Tenney.

The last pitcher standing was Vic Willis, who stayed with the team through 1905 and then was traded to the Pirates for spare parts after he led the league in losses, only to enjoy a career renaissance in the Steel City. 

After losing Willis, the team finally dropped from 7th all the way to last place in the eight-team National League.  They changed names three times along the way, from Doves to Rustlers to Braves (in 1912), but the cosmetic changes couldn’t bump the team into the first division.  In fact, the team finished last for four straight years from 1909 to 1912 before moving up to a surprising 5th place in 1913 (69-82), the smallest of omens that their luck might just change in 1914.


Who presided over this monstrosity?  Other teams lost big names to the American League without being thrown into a death spiral.  What sort of management geniuses did the Braves have to turn the ship around?

For quite a while, there was no one.  Al Buckenberger was hired in 1902 to replace Hall-of-Fame manager Frank Selee but soon realized that he had few options.  In their book Total Ballclubs, Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella attribute this to a) management’s cozy relationship with star Fred Tenney, whom they saw as the manager-in-training, and b) ownership’s mandate that cutting costs was more important than winning ballgames.  Arthur H. Soden had owned the team almost since its inception; he had seen the premature detonation of his dynasty and seen the Red Sox, staffed with his players, turn Boston into a solidly American League town.  It was after the 1906 season that Soden decided to sell out to one George B. Dovey (hence the team’s new nickname:  the “Doves”).

Despite starting off with a strong determination to repair the public relations mess left by Soden, the Dove years quickly degenerated into the sort of drama typical to moribund franchises:  Tenney was traded to the Giants despite still owning stock in the Braves, the league promised an investigation but never followed through, Tenney was brought back to the team when Dove’s partner sold out, and then Tenney was fired as manager after the team went 44-107 under him.

Management turnover was the story in Boston, both on the field and in the executive offices.  Things finally stabilized in 1912 when the team was sold to a syndicate with a pure baseball pedigree, represented by Hall-of-Famer John Montgomery Ward.  The money man was one James Gaffney, whose personal fortune owed much to his Tammany Hall connections.  Gaffney, not a man who favored power-sharing, soon replaced Ward as team president with himself.

Despite all this, there was one managerial change that proved to be positive.  In 1913, Gaffney brought in George Stallings as manager.  Stallings didn’t have a great pedigree, but he had done well in short stints managing the Phillies, Tigers and Yankees.  It was in 1913, Stallings’s first season at the helm, that the team surged forward to 5th place.

Stallings was also, even by the standards of baseball managers, an eccentric.  He was nicknamed “Gentleman George” for his snappy dress and was one of the most nervous men of his day.  An exhaustive list of his peccadilloes is impossible, but among other things* he:  slid up and down the bench so much that he wore out his pants, he hated seeing peanut shells of pieces of paper on the field, and if his team started a rally, he would freeze in one spot, comfortable or not.  But second baseman Johnny Evers said of him, “Mr. Stallings knows more base ball than any man with whom I have ever come in contact during my connection with the game.”

* – The anecdotes in this paragraph are owed to the wonderful article on Stallings by Martin Kohout in SABR’s Deadball Stars of the National League.


The team’s 5th-place showing in 1913 owed something to the stability in the front office, of course, but there was also an undeniable uptick in the quality of players on the field.  There were some veterans on the team who could still play:  thirty-seven-year-old John Titus hit a robust (for the era) 297/392/420 while longtime Giant Art Devlin held down third base.   

More important to the team’s long-term future was the arrival of some good, young talent.  The key man was 21-year-old Rabbit Maranville, a future Hall-of-Famer and defensive marvel at shortstop.  Maranville was never much of a hitter, even for a shortstop, but his tremendous defense, daring baserunning and expert clowning gave the team a presence on the field and in the clubhouse.

There were some other key contributors as well. Joe Connolly, salvaged from the minor leagues at the age of 29, continued to crush the ball, serving as the team’s best hitter in 1914. The team then dipped back into the minors to find a solid first baseman in Butch Schmidt, who’d been out of the majors for years. Also worth noting is catcher Hank Gowdy, pilfered from John McGraw in a trade for Buck Herzog, and later to become famous as the first major leaguer to enlist after the United States entered World War I.

The pitching staff was led by three aces no older than 25.  Lefty Tyler was purchased from the minors in 1910 and finished 1913 with a league-leading 28 complete games and a 2.79 ERA.  Dick Rudolph washed out of the New York Giants, but did well in his first season as a Brave, posting a 2.92 ERA.

But the man who would step forward as the ace of the Miracle Braves was “Seattle Bill” James.  In 1913, James went straight from minor-league Seattle to the majors at the age of 21, notching a 2.79 ERA in 135.2 innings as a starter and reliever.  But his best work was yet to come.

The Braves made a number of moves during the 1914 preseason in their efforts to build a pennant-winner, but none was more important than the trade that brought in Hall-of-Fame second baseman Johnny Evers.  Evers, known as the “Crab” for his style of defense and his prickly personality, was a veteran of the Chicago Cub dynasty of the previous decade.  But after a rough stint as player-manager, Evers’s departure from Chicago was acrimonious and complicated.  The Cubs tried to trade him to the Braves, and Evers eventually went, though only after the trade was nullified and he was declared a free agent.

The Braves had successfully plugged a number of holes in their roster, potent though it already was, and had even added a Hall-of-Fame second baseman and team leader.  With stable money in the owner’s box and a committed on-field tactician, this looked like a team that was going places.


Where they were going, it turned out, was back into the cellar.  Not just the cellar, but dead last.  The team stank it up for the first half of the season, bottoming out at 11 games behind the first place Giants, with six teams in between.

And then, the Miracle.

The Braves finished July by going 10-2 and reaching the .500 mark, at 45-45.  This shifted them up to 4th place, but they were still 8 games out.  Things started getting serious in August, when the team went on an 18-6 romp that put them in 2nd place, just 1/2 game behind the Giants.  For two weeks, the squads traded first and second place.  As late as September 18, the Giants were still in it, just 3 games out.  But the Braves left them in the dust by ending the season at a 17-4 clip.  The race degenerated into a farce, with the second-place Giants finishing 10.5 games back.

The Braves had won their first pennant of the century and were going to their first-ever World Series.


It’s impossible to credit the miracle pennant to any one person.  The Braves got solid offense and defense up and down the lineup.  Evers and Maranville worked wonders in the middle infield, and Joe Connolly again proved to be the team’s top hitter, finishing at 306/393/494.

If anything, the real Miracle in Boston in 1914 was the Braves’ pitching staff.

The Braves rode their top three starters, James, Rudolph and Tyler, for 940 total innings, or about 2/3 of the season total.  James went 26-7 with an ERA of 1.90.  Rudolph went 26-10 with a 2.35 ERA.  Tyler “only” managed to go 16-13 with a 2.69 ERA, which was above average even by the standards of the day.

The Braves had found the perfect balance of veterans, rookies, leadership and good management.  They had won the NL pennant back when winning the pennant alone was still cause for a ticker-tape parade.  The only thing they weren’t was the best team in baseball.

That was the Philadelphia Athletics.  The team the Braves would be facing in the World Series.


At the turn of the century, bad baseball in Philadelphia was sort of like coming down with a head cold; if you didn’t get too upset about it, it would be gone before you knew it.

Granted, this was only true of one of the city’s franchises; the Phillies had been a joke ever since the American League ransacked them at the turn of the century, pilfering future Hall-of-Famers such as Nap Lajoie, Elmer Flick and Ed Delahanty.

But for the A’s - led since their inception by manager/president Cornelius “Connie Mack” McGillicuddy - winning was a habit.  It was a habit borne of hard work, discipline and high standards in an era where few baseball teams could master even two of those concepts.

The Mackmen (as the A’s were commonly called) were born in 1901 with the seeds of a dynasty already in place.  After a strong 4th-place finish in 1901, the A’s won the pennant in 1902.  They slipped to second in ‘03 and then fifth in ‘04, then roared back to win the pennant again in 1905 before losing a heartbreaking World Series at the hands of the New York Giants (or, specifically, the right hand of Christy Mathewson, who threw three shutouts).

The next four years saw no pennants, but the team finally righted itself in 1910 with an astounding 102-48 record, leaving the rest of the American League (and, in the World Series, the Cubs) in the dust.  The 1911 club “fell” to 101 wins, but still dispatched McGraw’s Giants in the series with some ease.

In 1912, the club’s 90-62 record was only good enough for a strong third place, but they quickly retooled and won the World Series in 1913, again over the Giants.

The 1914 Philadelphia Athletics had five future Hall-of-Famers on their roster:  pitchers Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, and Herb Pennock; second baseman Eddie Collins and third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker.  That’s not including their Hall-of-Fame manager, who dwarfed “Gentleman George” Stallings not just with his six-foot-two stature but with his considerable resume: six pennants to just one for Stallings.

The only controversy swirling amongst the bookmakers prior to the series was whether the A’s would sweep the series or win it in five.


For Game 1, Mack started Chief Bender, according to Mack “the greatest money pitcher in baseball.”  But Bender departed in the sixth after allowing six runs (a performance that would haunt him for some time), while Braves hurler Dick Rudolph pitched a complete game; he allowed just one run on five hits with eight strikeouts.

For Game 2, the A’s started another Hall-of-Famer, Eddie Plank.  Plank held a shutout through eight innings, which was not nearly as surprising as the fact that Bill James was doing the same thing.  The Braves broke the scoreless tie in the ninth, when Charlie Deal doubled, stole third and was singled home by Les Mann.  The Braves had taken the first two games in Philadelphia from the defending champions.

The Athletics sent their third ace, “Bullet” Joe Bush, to the mound for Game 3 against Lefty Tyler.  Again, the underdog Braves were able to match the A’s vaunted pitching, battling them to a 2-2 tie after nine innings.  Both teams allowed two runs in the 10th, and the Braves brought in Game 2 starter Bill James to seal the deal.  While Tyler was relieved, Joe Bush did go out for the 11th and then the 12th inning.  Hank Gowdy led off with a ground-rule double (which was nearly a home run), and then Bush intentionally walked pinch-hitter Larry Gilbert to set up the double play.  The next man up, leadoff batter Herbie Moran, laid down a bunt.  Bush made the fateful decision to throw to third to get the lead runner Gowdy, but the throw was wide, and Gowdy raced home with the winning run.

By Mack’s own admission, the first three losses had nearly broken the spirit of his team.  It was up to another top-notch pitcher, Bob Shawkey, to turn the tide in Game 4.  Shawkey only made it through five innings, allowing three earned runs.  His replacement, Hall-of-Famer Herb Pennock, shut out the Braves the rest of the way, but three runs turned out to be enough for Dick Rudolph, who picked up his second win of the series with his second complete game victory of the series.  An estimated 35,000 Bostonians came out to Fenway Park (a better and more modern venue than the Braves’ South End Grounds) to see the David and Goliath myth played out on a baseball diamond.


The myth of the Miracles Braves was only enhanced by their failure to recreate the magic of 1914 in subsequent years.  Stallings’s team finished 2nd in 1915 before falling to 3rd in 1916 and then back down to 6th in 1917.  They wouldn’t finish higher than 4th again until 1947.

Where did the talent go?  Some, such as Charlie Deal and Les Mann, jumped to the Federal League, which started poaching major leaguers the very year the Miracle Braves won the Series.  Johnny Evers, the team’s only name player, just got old.  If that weren’t enough, the team shot itself in the foot by dealing Rabbit Maranville to the Pirates in 1921 for pennies on the dollar.

As for the pitching staff, it just seemed to burn out.  Bill James threw just 73.1 innings after 1914 and was out of the majors at age 27, the victim of a sore arm.  Dick Rudolph’s arm held up for three more years before fading out, despite a slight resurgence in 1919.  Lefty Tyler was the only one whose arm survived 1914 intact.  As if to punish him for such insolence, he was traded away in 1918 in a series of moves that ultimately landed infielder Buck Herzog in Boston.  (Herzog had been a star, but he was an old 32, and his lone full season in Boston was a dud.)

To replace the departed stars, the Braves found … well, no one really.  Until the end of the World War II, the Braves were pathetic in player development.  The list of useful young players the team acquired in those years – Tony Cuccinello, Wally Berger, Johnny Cooney, Tommy Holmes, Vince DiMaggio – isn’t nearly as impressive as the list of the washed-up stars of yesteryear employed by the team – George Sisler, Rogers Hornsby, Rabbit Maranville (reacquired at age 37), Al Simmons, Paul Waner and, of course, Babe Ruth.

The strategy of Braves ownership in the intervening years seemed to be acquiring star players at the end of their careers to boost ticket sales.  The utter failure of this plan did not deter them from continuing to pursue it.  The most reliable way to sell tickets – winning – was not just beyond them, but often seemed to be of secondary importance entirely. 

Building a winning baseball team takes great patience and a great investment in that most unpredictable of assets – young baseball players.  This was especially true in the days before the amateur draft and the widespread adoption of farm systems.  Successful teams had to invest money in scouting and, if they didn’t have much of a minor league system (and the Braves did not), they had to be willing to pony up cash to buy the best minor league players on the free market.  The Braves’ unwillingness (or inability) to do some or all of these things sent the franchise into a downward spiral that took 30 years to correct, and even then wasn’t completely renewed until the franchise left Boston for Milwaukee in 1953. 

There were some managers who tried and failed.  There were even some executives who tried and failed (Christy Mathewson served as team president before a fatal case of tuberculosis forced him out of the game).  It would take a bold ownership group (led by Lou Perini) and a bumper crop of young talent (Spahn, Sain, Aaron, Mathews, Burdette, Crandall, Torre) to erase the decades-long stigma associated with the Boston Braves.

All of this makes the fact that the 1914 team won it all even more breathtaking.  In all fairness to Stallings, there was no master plan that put the team together.  There weren’t even many players on the team who were all that good.

But they became, for one year at least, the greatest Cinderella story in baseball history.  No one has surpassed it, nor will they ever.


Sources:  Multiple sources, including stats for noted players and play-by-play for 1914 World Series.

SABR Bio Project.  From

Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star by Tom Swift. Bison Books.

Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball by Norman Macht & Connie Mack III.  University of Nebraska Press.

Deadball Stars of the National League Ed. Tom Simon. Specifically, “Johnny Evers” by David Shiner, “Fred Tenney” by Mark Sternman, “Lefty Tyler” by Wayne McElreavy, “George Stallings” by Martin Kohout, “Bill James” by David Jones and “Dick Rudolph” by Dick Leyden. Brassey’s, Inc.

My Sixty-Six Years in the Big Leagues by Connie Mack. Dover Press.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella. Sport Classic Books.

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