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Boston Braves produced a miracle 100 years ago

After four months in last place, the 1914 Boston Braves finished the season with a remarkable stretch.

Associated Press/File

After four months in last place, the 1914 Boston Braves finished the season with a remarkable stretch.

They were deader than the ball with which they played, stuck in last place in the National League on July 18, 11 games behind the Giants. The Boston Braves were baseball’s bottom-feeders in 1914, operating on the wrong side of the tracks and drawing a few thousand fans to the smallest major league park in the country.

Then came the most remarkable resurrection in the game’s history as the “Miracle Braves” not only won the pennant by 10½ games over the three-time defending champion New York Giants but also wiped out the Philadelphia Athletics in the first four-game sweep of a World Series.

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“We did something nobody ever believed possible,” shortstop Rabbit Maranville said decades later. “Gamblers were laying 100-1 against us on Opening Day with hardly any takers. They raised the odds to 1,000-1 after the first month. By July 4, after we had been in the cellar all but three days, you could have gotten 1,000,000-1.”

The Braves’ takedown of the Athletics, who were scheduled to play each other in period uniforms in Atlanta Saturday night, was voted as the biggest upset of the first half of the century by the Associated Press. “It reaffirmed Boston’s position as the hub of the baseball universe,” said Richard Johnson, the Sports Museum’s curator. “From 1871 to 1918, Boston teams in five major leagues won championships.”

The most dominant of them were the Beaneaters, the Braves’ earlier incarnation who collected five pennants between 1891 and 1898. “They were hugely successful at the end of the 19th century,” says Bill Nowlin, vice president of the Society for American Baseball Research and editor of “The Miracle Braves of 1914: Boston’s Original Worst-to-First World Series Champions.” “They were the Yankees of that decade.”

The Beaneaters played in the South End Grounds in a magnificent medieval wooden edifice with “witch’s hat” turrets and a double-decked grand pavilion. When it burned down in an 1894 blaze that took most of the neighborhood with it, the franchise was never the same. Since the park only was insured for 60 cents on the dollar, the owners built a smaller version on the same site.

By 1908 they’d sunk into the cellar, the prelude to five consecutive last-place finishes by an aggregate 258 games amid a revolving door of five owners and seven managers and a variety of names — the Doves, the Rustlers, and in 1912 the Braves after the sachem symbol of Tammany Hall, the New York political machine that had turned owner James Gaffney from a policeman into a construction kingpin.

Gaffney spiffed up the South End Grounds and brought in Georgia native George Tweedy Stallings, who’d been directing minor league Buffalo, as his manager for 1913. After watching the Braves sleepwalk through a late-season doubleheader at New York the previous season, Stallings was appalled. “It is a baseball horror, I kept repeating over and over to myself,” he later wrote, observing that the players were “slow, ambitionless, careless, and incapable.”

‘A great team, one of the greatest. It had great spirit and just wouldn’t be beaten’

Connie Mack, Philadelphia Athletics manager, on the 1914 Boston Braves 
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Stallings, a taskmaster whom author Tom Meany said “could fly into a schizophrenic rage at the drop of a fly,” shook the club out of its torpor the next season and the Braves crawled out of seventh place in early July to finish fifth by winning six of their final seven games.

That closing upswing and the arrival of star second baseman Johnny Evers from the Cubs led Stallings to believe that his 1914 bunch would be a first-division club for the first time since 1902. He had no illusions, though, about a pennant. His roster, he said, was a middling melange of “one .300 hitter, the worst outfield that ever flirted with sudden death, three pitchers, and a good working combination around second base.”

After the Braves dropped the season’s first two games at Brooklyn by a 13-2 aggregate, they quickly tumbled to the bottom of the standings, losing 16 of their first 19 outings. “There was some hope for the Braves doing as well as or better than they had in 1913, then they just crashed,” said Bob Brady, president of the Boston Braves Historical Association. “The optimism quickly evaporated.”

Even a June revival, when the club won 10 of 12 amid a 31-game homestand, couldn’t move it out of the cellar. “Say, when you see Stallings tell him to take that ball club and dump it in the ocean,” Gaffney told club secretary Herman Nickerson after another dropped doubleheader.

Turning it around

The turning point came on July 7, when the Braves stopped in Buffalo en route to Chicago and were flogged by the Bisons, 10-2, in an exhibition outing. “Big league ballplayers you call yourselves, eh?” Stallings fumed as they boarded the train. “You’re not even Grade A sandlotters. I’m ashamed of you all.”

Major leaguers didn’t lose to soap company teams, as the Braves also had done. “Can you play better ball than you have been playing?” Maranville asked Evers at a players-only meeting. “Yes, I think I can,” Evers replied. Their teammates, asked the same question, acknowledged that they could.

They promptly did, taking three of four from the Cubs, splitting four with the Cardinals, taking three from the Reds and four of five from the Pirates, and found themselves in fourth place. “They were fortunate,” observed Brady. “Even when they were mired in eighth there wasn’t a lot of separation between the last-place team and the first-place team.”

Indeed, Boston was as many games behind the Giants (11) when it was in fourth as when it had been at the bottom. But after the Braves came home and won nine in a row, they began making up ground. “It wasn’t until the first of August that we thought we had a chance,” said coach Fred Mitchell, who later directed Harvard’s varsity for a dozen years. “And then we didn’t talk about it.”

Certainly their superstitious manager didn’t. Stallings, who’d been freed from his same-way-every-day obsessions when his club was losing, became a prisoner of its winning. “One day when he was walking to the ballpark he stopped at a cafe for a piece of lemon meringue pie and it was so good that he had a second piece,” related Brady. “They won that day, so he had to order two pieces of lemon meringue every day.”

If one of his players got a hit, Stallings would freeze in place. Once, when a 10-hit rally began as he was reaching down to pick up a peanut shell from the dugout floor, Stallings was contorted in that position for so long that he went into spasms and his players are said to have had to carry him into the clubhouse.

Superstition alone couldn’t account for the club’s extraordinary success (61-16 with 16 shutouts) over the second half of the season. Stallings’s persistent outfield platooning — he used eight starters in left, eight in center, and 11 in right — undoubtedly helped. But the key was the performance of its pitching rotation of Bill James (26-7), Dick Rudolph (26-10), and Lefty Tyler (16-13), who started 107 of Boston’s 158 games and completed 82 of them.

“They were like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz,” said Johnson. “It’s hard to think of a three-man staff that did more to win a championship than those three.” Over the second half of the season James was 17-1, Rudolph 16-2, and Tyler 10-4. When the trio swept the Giants at the Polo Grounds in mid-August to chop New York’s lead to 3½ games, with Tyler outdueling Christy Mathewson in the extra-inning finale, the pennant race was on in earnest. “Stallings, Worker of Miracles,” the Globe proclaimed the following day above a feature on the straw-hatted skipper, who wore a suit and bowtie on the bench.

It took 10 days for Boston to draw even with New York atop the standings and more than a week to take the lead. By then the Braves had been playing in Fenway Park for more than a month, courtesy of Red Sox owner (and former Braves minority partner) Joseph Lannin, who offered them the use of his spacious brick playpen free of charge for the duration. “It was a friendly gesture, but I’m guessing that the concessions income was going to the Red Sox,” said Johnson.

And while the Sox were out of contention by then, Lannin still had the core of the 1912 championship team plus a promising pitcher named George Ruth. If more pennants were to come, which they did in 1915, 1916, and 1918, it would be useful to have a postseason call on the new 40,000-seat park that Gaffney was planning to build on Commonwealth Avenue.

The Braves ended up drawing more than 380,000 fans for the season, more than triple what they’d attracted two years earlier, and they could have filled two Fenways for the uproarious Labor Day showdown with the Giants, which drew more than 74,000 fans for the morning-afternoon doubleheader with another 10,000 left outside the gates.

“Many of the overjoyed fans began throwing their straw hats in all directions,” J.C. O’Leary reported in the Globe after the Braves rallied to win the opener in the ninth, “and for a few minutes there was simply a cloud of headwear floating around.” The headwear was replaced by soda bottles amid a 10-1 defeat in the second game after outfielder Fred Snodgrass was hooted and pelted by spectators.

But when Boston took the finale, 8-3, and pitcher George Davis, a Harvard Law School student, no-hit the Phillies the next day, the momentum was unstoppable. “The Braves will win all right,” Athletics manager Connie Mack predicted. “Any team that can do what they have done in the last six or seven weeks will grab the National League pennant.”

The Braves clinched it in the home finale against the Cubs, then headed to New York and Brooklyn for the concluding 10 games. “I suppose that I have called you fellows a lot of hard names at various times during the season,” Stallings told his players. “I may have said that you were fatheads, boneheads, ivory tops, feather brains, and other things of that sort. Well, those names don’t go. You’re not any of those things I’ve called you. I’m not going to use any of those names again. At least until the World’s Series.”

Finishing it off

Most observers believed that the Athletics, who beat the Red Sox by 8½ games for the American League pennant, would win their fourth championship in five years, and many predicted a sweep. Philadelphia still had the “$100,000 infield” of Stuffy McInnis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, and Home Run Baker, as well as an imposing group of pitchers in Bob Shawkey, Bullet Joe Bush, Eddie Plank, and Chief Bender.

But even though a lost coin flip had determined that the first two games would be at Shibe Park, Stallings was supremely confident. “We’ll beat them four straight,” he declared. A bit of psychological warfare helped as the manager staged a fake telephone argument with Mack in front of his players, claiming that the Athletics were denying them practice time at the park. “Why that dirty bum,” said Evers, who was in on the ploy. “OK, if he feels that way about it, we’ll show him.”

The Braves belted the Athletics, 7-1, in the opener, chasing Bender in the sixth inning and scoring their final run on Butch Schmidt’s steal of home. James blanked the A’s, 1-0, in the second game, which Boston won after sun-blinded center fielder Amos Strunk missed Charlie Deal’s fly in the ninth. “We won’t be coming back,” Stallings predicted. “It’ll be all over after the two games in Boston.”

The turning point came in Game 3 at Fenway, which Philadelphia appeared to have won after Baker’s two-run single put the visitors up, 4-2, in the 10th. But catcher Hank Gowdy, who batted .545 for the Series after hitting .243 during the season, led off the bottom of the inning with a homer and the Braves drew even on Joe Connolly’s sacrifice fly. Then, with James coming back in relief, the hosts won it in the 12th after Gowdy’s leadoff double and Bush’s misfire to third on Herbie Moran’s bunt. “Hurrah for the next world’s champion,” the Braves hollered in their clubhouse.

Stallings, fretting about a jinx, told Nickerson to cancel the reservations he’d made on the train to Philadelphia for after the fourth game. “I haven’t even packed a bag and I don’t intend to, either, because I won’t need it,” the manager told the secretary.

Boston closed out the Series the following day as Rudolph again baffled Philadelphia’s hitters and Evers knocked in the winning runs with a two-out single in the fifth. Thousands of fans, led by the raucous Royal Rooters, mobbed the dugout where Stallings gave a victory speech. “There was joy last night in Boston,” a Globe editorial declared the next day. “The land of the free and the home of the Braves.”

Mack, whose club batted only .172 for the Series and led for just one inning, saluted the victors. “A great team, one of the greatest,” said the manager, who promptly broke up his own club. “It had great spirit and just wouldn’t be beaten.”

Boston finished a distant second to the Phillies in 1915 as its pitching troika sagged — Rudolph was 22-19, Tyler 10-9, and James 5-4. “They’d pitched their arms out,” said Johnson. “None of those guys was ever the same again.”

Stallings managed for six more seasons but his club steadily drifted downward. By 1922, the Braves were back in the cellar as 100-game losers, drawing only 168,000 to their enormous new park by the river, and they didn’t return to the first division until 1933. “As the club declined their popularity in Boston declined and attendance declined,” observed Brady, an associate editor of “The Miracle Braves of 1914.”

The Braves’ next great moment didn’t come until 1948, when they won the pennant behind aces Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain and a bunch of .300 hitters, then lost to the Indians, who’d beaten the Red Sox in a playoff. They didn’t win another crown until 1957, four years after they’d moved to Milwaukee, and have managed only one in six Series appearances since. But a century after their midsummer’s dream, the one that the Braves won in 1914 remains an unmatched miracle.

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