Wednesday, July 2, 2014

100 Years Ago: The 1914 Braves' New World

This year is the century anniversary of the 1914 Boston "Miracle" Braves. That team is famous for being dead last on the Fourth of July, far behind the New York Giants who seemed well on their way to a fourth straight National League pennant, and going on to not only win the pennant decisively but to sweep the heavily favored, far superior Philadelphia Athletics--winners of three of the four previous World Series--in the 1914 Fall Classic.

100 Years Ago: The 1914 Braves' New World 

There had in fact been positive vibes about the Boston Braves going into the 1914 season. George Stallings had taken over a team the previous year that had not lost fewer than 90 games since way back in 1903 (when they lost 80 in a 140-game schedule), and guided them into fifth place with a 69-82 record. The Braves were clearly getting better, and even though a writer for The Baseball Magazine, the preeminent publication on the sport at the time, thought Stallings had a sufficiently formidable club to maybe finish as high as third or even second in 1914, nobody expected them to beat out the Giants--who had averaged 101 wins in winning the NL pennant each of the three previous years (after which they lost the World Series each time). And so it was surely a disappointment that the Braves started so badly, losing 16 of their first 19 games, that they were already in a 10-1/2 game hole less than 20 games into the season.

On the day the country celebrated its 138th birthday, the Braves dropped both games of a doubleheader to Brooklyn, leaving them with a 26-40 record . . . in last place . . . with seven teams ahead of them . . . 15 games behind the pace-setting New York Giants. From then until the end of the season, the Braves not only got back into the race, but overtook the Giants in early September on their way to winning the National League pennant by 10-1/2 games. They did all that by winning 68 while losing only 19 games the entire rest of the 1914 season. That is the equivalent of a 120-34 record over a full 154-game season, which would have shattered the 116 games won by the 1906 Chicago Cubs.

The Boston Braves were an astonishing 21 games better than any other National League team after July 4th, and made up 25-1/2 games on the Giants. While the Braves may have begun their dramatic comeback on Independence Day, however, it was not until July 19 that they finally crawled out of the basement, after having shaved only four games from their deficit to the Giants. They were in the midst of a streak in which they won 26 of 32 games (one of which ended in a tie) to close to within half-a-game of the Giants after a doubleheader split with the Pirates on August 22.

On September 7 the Giants came into Boston for a three-game series to face a team that was now tied with them for first place. The Braves won two of the three to take a pennant-race lead they would not relinquish; winning 19 of their next 22 games assured that the pennant was on ice with a nine-game lead when they made a return visit to the Polo Grounds at the end of September. There they split four games to put an end to any Giant hopes for their own miracle, which would have required Boston losing every one of their 10 remaining games while New York won every one of their eight just to secure a tie.

While Boston's fantastic finish made it seem as though the Giants collapsed, John McGraw in fact never had his team in command of the race, as they had been in each of their three previous pennant-winning seasons. After starting the season with a 21-11 record through May, the Giants went 63-59 the rest of the way--hardly the mark of a contending team. On July 19, when they began their drive from the bottom of the heap to the top, the Braves started the day only 11 games behind New York in tightly bunched standings, and the Giants' lead over second-place Chicago was three games. The defending NL champions were 38-38 thereafter, while Boston was 21 games better with a 59-16 record--a pace for 121 wins over a 154-game schedule.

The miracle in Boston is an even more compelling story because the Giants had the much better team. Of no small significance, however, while neither of McGraw's pitching aces--Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard--pitched up to the lofty standards they had set in their careers (1914 was Mathewson's last as an effective pitcher), the Braves were paced by a trio of hurlers by name of Dick "Baldy" Rudolph, Lefty Tyler and Bill James. None should be considered among the National League's five best pitchers over any five year period that includes 1914, but all three were terrific that year, claiming 68 of their team's 94 victories.

The Braves' only players of note were shortstop Rabbit Maranville and second baseman Johnny Evers. Both may be in the Hall of Fame, but neither is widely considered by baseball historians with a long perspective on the game as one of the greats at his position. Indeed, at the time the Giants' double-play combination of Art Fletcher and Larry Doyle was probably better since both were in their prime while Maranville was just getting started and Evers was near the end of his career. While Stallings had a set infield--Butch Schmidt was the first baseman and first Charlie Deal and then Red Smith the third baseman--his Braves outfield was a mess. Specifically, not one of George Stallings' outfielders played every day. Not one.

What Stallings had were eight different players on his club at any one time who he could put in the outfield--four who batted left-handed and four right-handed. Stallings' epiphany was to platoon them to maximize the offensive possibilities of his starting line-up, depending on whether the opposing starting pitcher was a lefty or a righty. And if there was a pitching change, Stallings would typically make the appropriate outfielder substitution to keep his platoon advantage when the Braves were at bat. The dramatic competitive impact of Stallings' unprecedented systematic platooning--a major contributing factor to their miracle drive--is widely acknowledged as the catalyst for one of the most revolutionary developments in the history of managers thinking strategically about how to win games. See also an earlier post: "One Hundred Years Ago: When Managers Upended Orthodoxies"

No comments:

Post a Comment