As miracles go, this one 100 years ago was a beauty

Calendar journalism is huge this year. Haunting as well as exhaustive are the endless reflections on the centennial of World War I’s dramatic beginning, about to explode with the booming of the guns of August 1914 soon to be recalled. All of it highly merited, of course, the so-called Great War having been the pivotal event of the entirety of modern times.

Rather less weighty on the scale of historical remembrance, admittedly, is the 100th anniversary of a fabulous baseball season that an otherwise woebegone National League team from Boston called the “Braves” gave us, also in that epic summer of 1914. If very few witnesses survive to tell the tale, it only benefits the re-telling, which is so often the case with baseball’s choicest legendry. At least there’s still a handful of us left who fondly recall those luckless but loveable Braves and are thus still around to savor it.

They called what happened that year, in the casual overstatement baseball ever delights to indulge, “The Miracle,” as if anything properly supernatural could ever account for what happens on a mere baseball field. On the other hand, nothing like it had happened before, nor has it since been quite duplicated.

There have been, for sure, other “Cinderfella” teams that seemingly came out of nowhere to make a mighty splash and leave us weepy. The “Impossible Dream” Red Sox of 1967 are a splendid example. So were the 1969 Mets, also deemed “Miraculous.” If you’re from Pittsburgh, Bill Mazeroski’s thunderbolt that brought down the Yankee goliaths in 1960 surely qualifies. With much the same rationale, Red Sox Nation would nominate its 2004 squad. In Philadelphia, the Phillies’ “Whiz Kids” remain special 64 years later. In Washington, so, too, remain the Senators and their one brief shining moment woven around the myth of Walter Johnson 90 years ago.

It is purely a baseball thing and it happens every blue moon or so. A team comes along when unexpected and utterly astounds us, never to be forgotten. But quite alone among these precious few are the 1914 “Miracle Braves.” They were bloody unique.

By 1912, the once mighty Boston National League franchise was in rough shape. Variously known as “the Nationals” or “Beaneaters” and/or “Rustlers,” they were an NL original, founded in 1876, and over the subsequent turbulent quarter century of baseball’s evolution arguably the game’s sturdiest franchise, the rock upon which the entire, often chaotic enterprise was anchored. Franchises would come and go, sometimes overnight, and float all over the place. But the Boston Nationals were a constant.

During the Gay Nineties – a fabulous decade for baseball when it essentially came of age – Boston was dominant, winners in that ten-year span of seven titles and featuring future Hall of Famers Dan Brouthers, Hugh Duffy, Tommy McCarthy, Sliding Billy Hamilton, Fred Tenney, Jimmy Collins; pitchers Vic Willis, John Clarkson, and Charles “Kid” Nichols, seven times a 30-game winner; and one of their redoubtable characters, the near-mythical Mike “King” Kelly, who ran the bases to the fans’ cries of “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” They were the glory of their times.  

Then in 1901 along came the Red Sox, or the “Pilgrims,” as they were first called, and the glory years came crashing to a close. From the very outset of their arrival in the new American League to the Braves’ painful Boston demise a half century later, the Red Sox would be the bane of the Braves’ existence, often seemingly gleefully so. Merely for openers in ’01, the upstart Pilgrims stole from their cross-town rivals in bitter contract wars established stars Collins, Chick Stahl, Ted Lewis, Buck Freeman, and Bill Dineen, thus snaring the nucleus of a team that immediately became the AL’s first champion. Nasty!

It was after a string of 10 consecutive losing seasons, the last four in the cellar, that the old Beaneater/Rustlers finally became the “Braves,” so re-named by the Tammany Hall politician Joe Gaffney, who’d bought them in 1912 for a paltry (even for those times) $187,000. It was Gaffney who brought along another Gotham dandy, George Stallings, to manage them. In 1913, the irrepressible little shortstop Rabbit Marranville was introduced. In ’14, the irascible Cubs’ star Johnny “The Crab” Evers was purchased.  The moves transformed them.

Suddenly, they were contending for at least a bit of the limelight although the Red Sox, with their shiny new ballpark in the Fenway, and their latest championship achieved at the expense, no less, of John McGraw’s much-loathed Giants, remained the toast of the town. But at least the Braves were again viable, if no one expected much in 1914. When they were firmly nestled dead-last 15 games behind McGraw’s rowdies after being swept by the Dodgers on the Fourth of July, their season seemed over.

“Then just after the Holiday,” Evers would later note, “we lost an exhibition game to a soap-company team. That’s how bad we were.”
Maybe, on second thought, it had to have been an actual miracle that ensued promptly after that humiliating drubbing by the soap company. Without any roster changes or meaningful enhancements, the team so pathetic for 13 years went 68-19 over the next three months and rolled to the pennant, eleven games ahead of McGraw’s perennial juggernaut. It was the sharpest mid-season turn-around in the history of American professional sport.  And they did it with only one .300 hitter, spare-picket Joe Connolly. Pitching saved them.  Stalwart starters Dick Rudolph, Bill James, and Lefty Tyler combined to win 53 games.

With Europe already ablaze in war and the new world vowing to have none of it, the World Series was an especially pleasing escape with the improbable Braves capturing the national fancy. Deservedly, Connie Mack’s A’s, having won four of the last five AL crowns and boasting a lineup featuring Eddie Collins and Home Run Baker and a pitching-staff anchored by Eddie Plank and Chief Bender, were heavily favored.

Stallings was scornful. He ordered his saucy kids to make fun of the stately A’s, insult them off the field, and hector them on it. A civilized bunch, much like their manager, the A’s were bewildered by the tactic and by the time they’d snapped out of it they’d been swept, four straight. The reaction, nationwide was stupendous.

But near historically short-lived. Indeed, it was essentially over before it had much begun. Within three years, the Braves were back in the second division where they remained for the next three decades, finishing last or next-to-last 14 times in a 28-year span.

They struggled to bring stars to town – Rogers Hornsby was the best of them. But most were faded and battered by the time they arrived – George Sisler and Al Simmons being prime examples – or totally broken down at the end of the line, famously the case with the mighty Babe Himself. The Ruthian dalliance, shocking in its sadness, marked the Braves’ nadir, the 1935 season when they finished 38-115.  Only the Braves could have got themselves managed by Casey Stengel before he became a genius. In six seasons, Casey finished seventh three times.

Their struggle was quaint and gallant, but doomed. They were always liked rather more than the Red Sox, who were oft derided as the “Gold Sox” in those times. It seemed vaguely to have something to do with class. Or maybe it was the “loser” thing, the romance of the underdog. There was always something nicely harmless about the Braves, making it hard to disdain them no matter how miserably they performed. Whatever the degrees of their affection the paying public was hardly deceived. As of 1945, their single-season attendance record was 517,803. Pathetic!

That was the year the Three Little Steam Shovels, a trio of building contractors captained by the estimable Lou Perini, took over. In their too brief but happy run they orchestrated a marvelous last reprise for the Braves, quite enough for those of us who were kids at the time, and who got to see their games as members of their “Knot Hole Gang” for just a nickel, to remember quite fondly. The Red Sox didn’t do that stuff. Thanks anyway!  

That 1948 pennant-winning season was sensational. Bob Elliott and Eddie Stanky. Sain and Spahn. Jeff Heath and Tommy Holmes. Masi and Sisti. Despite the Series loss to the Indians, the team was unforgettable! Five years later, the Braves were gone.  We understood.