Sunday, September 21, 2014

The 1914 Boston Braves

The 1914 World Champion Boston Braves
The 2014 Atlanta Braves are having a disappointing season. After leading the NL East for much of the first half, the Braves went from being a struggling first-place team to an mediocre also-ran team thanks largely to losing 12 of 15 games from July 28 to August 12.  Even since then they remain an uninspiring team to watch.  Now they are struggling to just win half their ball games.  Atlanta is so far out of it that they are not longer contenders for a wild card spot in the playoffs, but, as long-time readers know, I detest the wild card to begin with so I am happy the Braves won't be something I detest as they were in, say, 2010.

This Braves team certainly looks mediocre compared with the 1914 Boston Braves team that won a world championship 100 years ago this October.  The "Miracle Braves" still have the reputation of being one of the hottest teams in baseball history.  Their "miracle" resides in the fact that they rocketed from last place on July 4, 1914 to win it all.  After July 4 the Braves posted a truly amazing 70-19 record, one of the highest winning percentages in baseball history for that number of games played.

This Braves team was mainly filled with players no one had ever heard of or thought of as exceptional talent.  Second baseman Johnny Evers and shortstop Rabbit Maranville were probably their best position players.  They represented a solid middle defense and lead the league in turning double plays that season.  Maranville also led the team with 78 RBIs and 28 stolen bases.  Remember this was still the "dead ball" era.  Home runs were scarce (outfielder Joe Connolly was the team's power hitter with a grand total of 9 homers), the hit and run was routine, and stolen bases were plentiful.  Boston was not a heavy hitting team, only Connolly batted over .300 for the season and third baseman Charlie Deal only batted .210.

The Boston Braves won the championship primarily with pitching.  This was in the era when most teams had 3-man pitching rotations, with a couple of other guys occasionally starting as a fourth pitcher.  The top three for the 1914 Braves were Dick Rudolph, Bill James, and Lefty Tyler. Tyler posted a 16-13 record with a 2.69 ERA. Rudolph was considered the ace of the staff.  He went a solid 26-10 with a 2.35 while James went an outstanding 26-7 record while allowing only 1.90 runs every nine innings.

The Braves blew past the rival New York Giants in early September, ending the season 10 1/2 games ahead of them at 94-51, an outstanding record for a 154-game season.  But, despite their momentum, over in the American League the Philadelphia Athletics under Connie Mack, probably the greatest manager in baseball history, went 99-53 (the reason some of these records don't add up to 154 games is that rain outs were often not made up unless the pennant races demanded it - national travel was too cumbersome in this era before the airplane). Philadelphia was heavily favored by baseball experts to take the upstart Braves in the 1914 World Series.  The Athletics were the reigning champions and were baseball's powerhouse team at the time, having won the Series in 1910, 1911, and 1913.

Game One was played in Philadelphia at Shibe Park before a sell-out crowd of 20,562. Randolph faced Chief Bender who had a 17-3 record in 1914.  The Braves batters hammered Bender while Randolph threw a complete game in a dominating 7-1 win. Game Two was another full house in Philadelphia. James faced Eddie Plank.  This one was a real pitcher's duel with both hurlers going a full nine innings, unheard of in today's era of pitching specialization of course.

The scoreless game was decided in the ninth inning when Deal, the batter with the lowest batting average on either team, drove a ball deep to centerfield.  The Athletics fielder lost the ball in the sun and it fell for a double. (World Series games were afternoon games until television came along.) Deal later stole third base as James, the pitcher, batted for himself and struck out. Deal scored on a base hit by the Braves right fielder, Les Mann, a player name that surely an agent would change in this day and age.  James proceeded to walk two batters in the bottom of the ninth but no relief pitcher was brought in (there might not even have been a mound visit from the manager or pitching coach) and James managed to work out of the situation for a 1-0 Braves win.

The series then switched to a wild Fenway Park in Boston. The city was crazy over the Braves turnaround and the strong momentum of their absolute dominance of play.  Few teams have ever been hotter at just the right time.  The Park was packed with 35,520 vociferous fans.  This was the best game of the series with fine plays and timely hitting by both teams. A 2-2 tie went into extra innings.  In the tenth inning the Athletics took a 4-2 lead.  But the Braves followed with two runs of their own in the bottom of the inning to keep the game going.  Finally, in the 12th inning the Braves scored an unearned run on a throwing error by the Athletics defense and won the game 5-4. Amazingly, the Athletics Bullet Joe Bush pitched a complete 12 innings for the loss (though credited with only 11 innings in the box score, apparently because he got no one out in the Braves 12th...and was not relieved!).  The Braves brought Bill James in after Lefty Tyler pitched 10 innings, and James ended up getting the win.

Think about this.  Bill James was a starting pitcher. In 1914 he pitched 11 innings and won two consecutive World Series games, pitching a complete game win and then relieving for two more innings for the win in the next game. That is a rare feat that would be unthinkable today.  Perhaps this has happened several times but I cannot find any other instance in baseball history as of this post, maybe back in the nineteenth-century.  To my knowledge no other starting pitcher has won back-to-back World Series games.

That left Dick Rudolph fresh to start Game Four for the Braves.  Boston was abuzz with the possibility of a world championship.  The Braves did not let them down, steamrolling to a 3-1 win and sweeping Connie Mack and the heavily favored Athletics. Rudolph fired a complete game. Boston celebrated the Braves' first world championship in their storied history.  Baseball's oldest franchise would go on to win (so far) championships in 1948, 1957 (in Milwaukee), and in 1995 (in Atlanta).  So, only four championships in the long history of the Braves.  
A rare 1914 Boston Braves Press Pin.
By comparison the American League New York Yankees have won more World Series than any organization with 27 championships.  The National League St. Louis Cardinals are second with 11. Seven current major league teams have never won a World Series while most franchises have won one or two. Among those with championships in their history the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series in 1908.  The fact is, the Braves won their first World Series six seasons after the Cubs won their last World Series.  That makes the Cubbies the team with the longest World Series victory drought.

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