(In this series, I will recap in a series of posts one season of Braves baseball from Boston-to-Atlanta and everything in between. If you have a particular season you’d like to see reviewed, let me know in the comments.)
|The Sporting News Collection, Public Domain|
Prologue – The Seeds of a Title is Planted in 1913
If you are a Braves fan, certain years immediately pop out as big ones. 2005. 1995. 1991. 1974. 1966.
And if you are a fan of Braves franchise history, you start thinking beyond the recent history of the franchise in Atlanta and start thinking of the Milwaukee years – specifically 1957 and 1958 when the Braves split a pair of October Classics with the Mickey Mantle-led Yankees.
The Braves played in Milwaukee from 1953 until 1965. Before that, they can be traced back to 1876 in the city of Boston. They were known as the Bees, the Rustlers, the Doves, the Beaneaters, and the Red Stockings, but the name that stuck the most was the Braves. They adopted it for the first time in 1912 and outside of a five-year run as the Bees in the late 30’s, they remained the Boston Braves until their move to the midwest. They lost over 500 more games under the moniker than they won, but also did something in 1914 that is still one of the biggest accomplishments in baseball history – they won it all.
The franchise had won two pennants as the Red Stockings and six as the Beaneaters during a dominant stretch of baseball in the 1880’s & 90’s, but once the National League and American League joined to give us the first World Series in 1903, the Braves had been shut out. They had finished with 100 loses in six of eight years before 1913 and gave up a mind-boggling 1021 runs in 1911 despite the deadball era, which stifled offenses. The Cardinals gave up the second-most runs that year – 745.
Things started to change for the better in 1913. The Braves named George Stallings as their new manager. He had previously helmed the Phillies, the Tigers, and the New York Highlanders (Yankees) before being unceremoniously relieved from his job after the team’s star convinced ownership to fire Stallings. The Highlanders were 19 games over .500 at the time.
After two years managing in the minors, James Gaffney, the owner of Boston, brought in Stallings. “I have never seen any club in the big leagues look quite so bad,” Stallings later remarked. Luckily for the Braves, Stallings was about to change the culture in a big way.
He wasn’t alone – Boston was finally starting to get some players. 1913 was the first full season of future Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville‘s career. One of the game’s slickest shortstops, Maranville was a web gem generator long before the phrase was coined. Also a rookie on the 1913 squad was center fielder Les Mann. A former three-sport star in high school, Mann had been signed the year before after leaving school early. After one season of minor league ball, Mann, who had been a football captain for Training College the previous fall, jumped to the bigs to solidify center field. He wasn’t much of a hitter, but was a lifesaver in center field with his speed.
Stallings used a pair of catchers in 1913, but the team had another backstop in the minors in Hank Gowdy who they were high on. The Braves had acquired him from the Giants in 1911, but he couldn’t find the field even after he switched from first base-to-catcher. Stallings liked him, but felt the 23 year-old needed to refine his receiving skills and a year in the minors could do him wonders.
Also new to the Braves in 1913 was corner outfielder Joe Connolly. For much of his professional career, Connolly had been a pitcher, but he was considered too small (5’7″) and by 1910, he was suffering arm troubles. He kept his dream alive to play in the majors by moving to the outfield full time and while he was defensively challenged, Connolly was a big-time hitter. Playing for Montreal in the International League, Connolly hit .316 with a .434 slugging percentage in 1912. That season led to Connolly finally getting his break – Washington drafted him. After failing to secure a spot on the Senators’ roster, the Braves purchased Connolly just as the 1913 season was beginning. The now-29-year-old became an immediate force for the Braves, hitting .281/.379/.410 for Stallings’ first team.
Just two years removed from one of the worst pitching staffs during the deadball era, the Braves were beginning to also put together a competent pitching force on the mound. Lefty Tyler (2.89 FIP), Dick Rudolph (2.62 FIP), and Bill James (3.28 FIP) were all 25-and-under in 1913 with James a fresh-faced 21-year old rookie.
The 1913 Boston Braves finished 69-82 and 31.5 games out. While that’s bad, the 69 wins were the most since 1902. They were much younger in 1913 than they had been in the previous two years and went through 46 players to find the right mix of talent heading into 1914.
|Evers | George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress|
Before that magical season, first came a winter that saw the Braves find a leader. They sold off starting first baseman Hap Myers and in February of 1914, Boston acquired Johnny Evers from the Chicago Cubs. Evers had been immortalized in the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance poem along with being one of the smartest players of his era. In his final season with the Cubs, the then-31-year-old hit .285/.361/.372 and guided the Cubs to an 88-65 season as a player/manager.
However, because the Cubs had not improved on their third-place finish, Cubs owner Charles W. Murphy removed Evers from the managerial role and initially tried to spin it as Evers resigning from the position. The respected player denied the charge and public opinion, and the other owners, were on Evers’ side. The PR disaster continued to blow up as Murphy tried to deal Evers to the Braves for a pair of players and cash, but Evers said he would not report and with the brand new Federal League offering $30K for Evers to jump, the concern was that the National League was about to lose another of its stars. Finally, the rest of the league stepped in and awarded Evers his release. He negotiated a move to Boston which made him the highest-paid player in baseball. Stallings quickly appointed Evers the new team captain.
As 1914 loomed, the Boston Braves were taking shape. They had Rudolph, James, and Tyler in the rotation. They lacked a fourth starter, but made due with a number of options. Gowdy came up from the minors to take over as catcher while Butch Schmidt, who the Braves had purchased from the International League the previous August, became the everyday first baseman. Connolly and Mann brought stability to the outfield while the Braves searched – and failed – to find everyday options at third base and in right field.
Nevertheless, a team that had been effectively built in two years began 1914 with reserved aspirations, but the knowledge that they were on the rise. How quickly would they be contenders?
Turns out – quicker than anyone imagined.
(Next time, I’ll look at how the 1914 Boston Braves began the season.)
Seasons in Time: 1914