Recalling Boston’s Other Baseball Champions: The Beaneaters and Braves
Fans of the Boston Red Sox have no idea how good they have it. The team won a World Series as recently as 2018, with a dominant team that could lay claim to the best this century.
The Red Sox have four titles since 2004. Indeed, a youngster born in New England in the late 1980s or early 1990s hasn’t gone more than five years without a Red Sox world championship since he or she was a teenager.
Curse of the Bambino? What’s that?
But the Red Sox are not the only baseball champions to delight Boston and Massachusetts. The first champions were actually crowned years before the “Red Stockings” existed. The city has had three franchises win world championships on the diamond.
Not even New York teams can surpass that.
You know how Bostonians hate the term Beantown? Well, in the 19th century the nickname wasn’t as loathed. In the 1890s, the National League team was known by that name, and it was a damn good baseball club.
Prior to 1900, the National League was the only game in town, mostly. The American League was years away from being born. In the 1890s, the Boston NL team was one of the best in professional ball.
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The Beaneaters had many of the biggest stars of the Gilded Age. There was catcher Michael “King” Kelly, a star who was so daring on the bases that he used to announce when he was going to steal a bag.
Then there were the bookend outfielders: Hugh Duffy, a likable kid from Rhode Island known for playing a quirky section of left field called “Duffy’s Cliff”; and Tommy McCarthy, the carousing Irishman from Boston who was a fan favorite. Duffy and McCarthy were called “The Heavenly Twins” because of the beautiful, graceful way they played baseball.
You think Wade Boggs or David Ortiz could hit a baseball? Duffy batted .440 in 1894. That season he led the league with 18 home runs, even though they were using a baseball so dead back then that a cannon couldn’t make it go 375 feet.
The 1892 ‘World’s Series’
Since there was only one league of note in the 1890s, there was no need for a World Series. But wouldn’t you know it? In 1892 the league played a split schedule, crowning winners of both halves. The two teams met in the fall in the first “World’s Series” as they called it, a best-of-nine series.
The Beaneaters slapped the Cleveland Spiders (yes, really) around for a convincing 5-0-1 series win in 1892. Following their convincing victory, the NL decided not to hold a postseason tournament again for almost a decade.
The victory, and the greatness of the Beaneaters, was a source of pride to the city, as one newspaper detailed in a description of an opening day parade celebration in 1893.
“Emerging from a gathered crowd of cranks (fans) was a parade of Boston’s champions: McCarthy, Duffy, Lowe, and the beloved Kid Nichols. A thunderous cheer enveloped the giants of the diamond, and before they arrived at the ballpark, their pockets were pregnant with coins.”
Don’t we all want our pockets to be pregnant with coins?
The Miracle Braves: Baseball’s Most Amazing Rags-to-Riches Story
By the 20th century, the Beaneaters had changed their name a few times.
First to Doves, then Rustlers, and finally in 1912, to the Braves.
The Braves nickname was not in homage to Native American tribes, by the way. It came about only after James Gaffney bought the franchise. Strange as it seems today, Gaffney was an alderman in New York City when he purchased the Braves. Can you imagine a New Yorker buying the Red Sox today? Egads.
Gaffney was a member of Tammany Hall, an influential political organization. Tammany’s crest featured a Native Amrican wearing a headdress. As a result, members like Gaffney were called Braves. That’s why the Boston team was called the Braves. And it’s why the team, now in Atlanta, is still called that. Like it or not.
Anyway, by 1914, Gaffney had one of the worst teams in professional baseball. The Braves had finished last four of the previous five seasons. The 1914 season seemed like it would be no different. The team lost 16 of its first 19 games. Gaffney was sure the season was a lost cause, and even spent much of his time in New York. But he didn’t count on the genius of his manager.
George Stallings was unusual, especially for a baseball manager in what is known as The Deadball Era.
Stallings was college-educated, refined, a gentleman even. Unlike other managers, Stallings shunned a uniform. He preferred to wear a suit in the dugout. He liked high-collars that were popular about a decade earlier. He wore a white straw hat. He was quite a sight amidst the tobacco-spewing, foul-mouthed ruffians who played baseball back then.
Stallings loved to use his entire roster. He didn’t care what a player couldn’t do. He was concerned with any strength they might have. That’s why he would platoon a good fielding player with a hard-swinging slugger. Or use a left-handed first baseman and right-handed first baseman on alternating days.
His methods kept his team fresh. And they often gave the Braves an advantage against less progressive teams.
Stallings was also superstitious. Like many people back in the early 20th century, he believed hairpins and rabbit’s feet were good luck. One Boston sportswriter liked to drop hairpins on the field before a game and watch Stallings obsessively pick each one up.
In mid-June, Stallings identified his best pitchers as Big Bill James and Dick Rudolph, a 26-year old righty whose hair was so thin his teammates called him Baldy. The Boston manager didn’t trust many pitchers other than his big two, and he decided to roll the dice on their arms.
In fact, it was Stallings who reportedly coined one of baseball’s most famous sayings. According to lore, Stallings was undergoing a checkup late in life when his doctor asked him why he thought he had a bad heart.
“Bases on balls, Doc,” George said. “Those damned bases on balls.”
A Resurgence for the Ages
On July 4, in the traditional Independence Day doubleheader, the Braves lost twice to the Dodgers. Their record was a putrid 26-40, in last place. Two days later, facing Brooklyn again, the Braves won 3-1 behind the pitching of Baldy.
From then on, the Braves were nearly unstoppable.
The Braves ended up with an 18-10 record in July, lifting themselves out of last place. But that was just the beginning. The team won nine straight in early August, six of the victories coming from James and Rudolph. In August the team went 26-5. From July 4 to the end of the regular season, Boston went 68-19. They won 52 of their last 66.
It was an amazing stretch that not only led the team into first, but pushed them to finish more than 10 games in front. All of that after trailing the Giants by as many as 11.5 games. It was the franchise’s first NL pennant since 1898.
They called them “The Miracle Braves.” And that nickname came before the team played in the 1914 World Series. Few experts gave Stallings and his team a chance against the American League champions, the Philadelphia A’s, who were in their fourth Fall Classic in five seasons.
Braves Win the 1914 World Series in a Sweep
The World Series was a yawner. Rudolph won Game 1, James won the next game, and after the two teams traveled by train to Boston, the Braves won Games 3 and 4, behind those same two pitchers. In the series, the Braves catcher, the almost-unknown Hank Gowdy, hit a home run, triple, and three doubles. As a result, he became an instant star.
The Boston Braves of 1914 remain one of the most surprising teams to win a championship, surging from last place to first with a barrage of wins in a few weeks of feverishly amazing play. Years later, when he was asked about it, Stallings was nostalgic.
“It was the summer of all our lives,” he said. “That team was magical, and the best group to ever play for me, and I love them all.”
Baseball fans may not remember the 1914 Braves and 1892 Beaneaters much. But they should find some love for those old champions, just like Gentleman George did.