Looking back on it now, sportswriters couldn’t remember exactly when it happened, but they were quite sure it had. It was probably during that unforgettable 1914 season, when the Boston Braves sprinted from last place to first, in one of the greatest sports surprises of all time.
It was in one of those games near the end of the season, when everything was on the line, with Boston shortstop Walter James Vincent “Rabbit” Maranville at the plate. Maranville, a small target at 5-5, knew how to hit, even if it was never for power. Maranville sprayed the ball.
Anyway . . . the ump had called two strikes on Maranville, the last being very low and very outside. Maranville shook his head, stepped out of the box, shook his head again and then reached into his back pocket and handed the umpire a pair of glasses. The umpire tossed him.
Maranville was one of baseball’s original clowns. He would trot through a railroad sleeping car, dumping ice water on his teammates. His antics were so notorious that his fellow Braves gave him a wide berth.
But there was nothing funny about the 1914 season, at least as far as Braves fans were concerned. The previous year, the Braves had finished in fifth place in the National League — and they stunk. They won only 69 games, and while they’d finished ahead of Brooklyn, Cincinnati and St. Louis, they were far back of the powerhouse Giants.
The 1914 season didn’t look like it was going to be much better. The Giants were picked to repeat, and with the rangy Christy Mathewson on the mound, no one was going to bet against them. And that’s the way the season started. The Braves lost and lost. They started at 4-22. Then faded further in June. In early July, they were swept in Brooklyn (by the Robins) — and the bell was beginning to toll.
A lot of the Braves’ troubles was being pinned on their manager, George Stallings. Stallings, a man known for his quick temper, had this strange idea that righties hit better against lefties, and vice versa. He called it a “platoon.” Fans laughed, but Stallings kept at it, even as his team faded into oblivion.
It was then, on July 7, that the Braves took a break to travel to Buffalo for an exhibition game against the minor league Bisons. Stallings liked the idea of playing against some wannabes, as the expected win would give his team confidence. That’s not what happened: the Bisons humiliated the Braves, 10-2. For the first time in his career Stallings was speechless.
But not so with Johnny Evers. Stallings had traded for the talented Cubs’ second sacker during the off-season because he thought that Evers and Maranville would give the Braves the best double play combination in the league. Then too, Evers had a worse temper than Stallings (he would be ejected from nine games that year for arguing and fighting) and might spur the layabout Braves.
Stallings got it right. After the loss to the Bisons, Evers stood before his teammates and berated them for losing to the no-account Bisons. But in the middle of his speech, he suddenly (and unexpectedly) started to talk softly, and emotionally. It’s all about confidence, he said. And added this: Even if you have no confidence in yourselves, at least have confidence in me.
And then it happened. The Braves started to hit: or rather, they started to dominate. After Buffalo they traveled to Chicago where they took three of four from the Cubs. Then they ran off a series of wins, culminating in the pasting of a tough Cincinnati team, 11-1 on August 17.
Baseball writers started to pay attention in late August when the Braves swept the Giants and took three of four from the Phillies. These were the “lowly Braves” — they’d not won anything for twenty years, their last really good season coming in 1898, when they were the Beaneaters.
The Braves’s surge (which, baseball writers averred, was simply a streak — and nothing more) was keyed by Evers, Maranville and “Seattle Bill” James, a big righty of uncertain provenance who was a lot to look at, but not much more. He had a big fastball and intimidated hitters. In most other seasons he was just average, or worse. But in 1914 he was unhittable.
How good was James? From July 9 until the end of the Braves’ season, James was 19-1 with a 1.51 ERA. He led the National League in nearly every category, and if it had not been for a sole 3-2 loss to the pathetic Pirates on August 22, he would have won twenty games in a row — a record.
By the beginning of September, everyone was sitting up and taking notice. And all the talk about Stallings’ crazy platoon system had stopped: it seemed to be working.
Of course, that was the key. Stallings’ 1914 team was notorious for its poor hitting, but famous for putting men on and hitting them over. That is what the Braves did. They were slow, they didn’t hit home runs, and they didn’t hit for average. It wouldn’t be until years later, in a different era, that the simple talent of getting on base took on added importance. Stallings knew it in 1914 — and so did his Braves.
Not only did the Braves go on a sprint after their July loss to the Bisons, their winning record from mid-July to the end of the season was historic: they won 59 of their last 75 games to overtake and then pass Mathewson’s Giants. It was a breathtaking and unprecedented sprint to the finish.
Boston also played tough in one run games. No one compared with them. In 1914, the Braves were 33-20 in one run games, while the Giants were 18-25. On Labor Day of 1914, they overtook the Giants. The next day, they beat them for the second game in a three game series — and took over first place.
In September, the Braves crushed the opposition, and pulled away from the pack. When the season ended, Mathewson’s team was well in the rearview mirror — 10.5 games back.
Of course, the Braves were lucky, as their detractors would claim. A part of their luck rested on their fanatical fan base, a mass of Bostonians who showed up at the new Fenway Park, which the Red Sox had rented to them until their new stadium was finished.
But even the Braves’ fiercest critics became believers in October, when the Boston faithful watched their beloveds crush the mighty A’s, sweeping Connie Mack’s Philadelphia powerhouse, four games to none. The Phillies scored just six runs in the series.
The ever confident Johnny Evers, who would be named the league’s MVP (just ahead of Maranville) was at the center of the action –hitting the go-ahead run in the final tilt. He hit a torrid .438 in Boston’s four game World Series sweep.
And so the 1914 season, the season of “the Miracle Braves” (and one of the most surprising in baseball history) was in the book. Johnny Evers was the hero of Boston, along with “Seattle Bill” James and “Rabbit” Maranville — and, of course George Stallings. And so too, it seemed, the Braves were now an acknowledged National League powerhouse.
And then some. As Boston fans would then tell you, the Braves were Boston, outstripping the Red Sox in fanaticism and outdrawing them in fan interest. And they had a new ballpark under construction — “Braves Field” — that would open in 1915.
After the 1914 season, Boston newspapers paid obeisance to Boston’s new champions, who defined the game of baseball in New England. They were the best, the toast of the city, and so much better and more exciting than the Red Sox.
The Red Sox? Yeah, sure. The Red Sox were okay, and they might even one day amount to something. But the Braves? There was never any doubt: the Braves were in Boston to stay.
Above: “Rabbit” Maranville and (below) “Seattle Bill” James