Nonetheless, it was a star-crossed pairing. By that point, Johnson says, the Bambino was aging in “dog years.” He did have one last heroic performance — a 4-4, six-RBI, three-homer game in Pittsburgh that May — but by June, he had retired. The pledge to make him a manager was never kept. And, in a sad irony, Ruth’s short stay with the team coincided with the Braves’ worst season ever: a pitiful 38-115 campaign. “It was a bittersweet return,” says Johnson.
But the Braves did have some great successes. The greatest, of course, was the “Miracle Braves” World Series win in 1914.
That season started in dismal fashion, with the team dropping 18 of their first 22 games. By the Fourth of July, the Braves were in last place, 15 games behind the New York Giants. Starting the next day, however, the team went on an astonishing 41-12 run, capping it by taking two games from the Giants, to slide into first. The rest of the season was a virtual cakewalk, and they won the National League pennant handily.
Nonetheless, the Braves played the World Series as underdogs to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. In the end, the Braves shocked the nation, beating the A’s in four games, the first World Series sweep. Second baseman Johnny Evers — of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” fame — won the Chalmers Award (precursor to the MVP), with Maranville and pitcher Bill James also turning in strong performances. The series was played at Fenway Park — then just two years old — because the South End Grounds were too small.
Partway through the 1915 season, the Braves started playing at the new, enormous Braves Field, not far from Comm Ave. (It was called the “Bee Hive” during the period from 1936 to 1941, after the team had been renamed the Bees as the result of a fan poll.) At that point, with a capacity of 43,000, it was the largest in the country.
(In his indispensable Historical Baseball Abstract, writer and statistician Bill James — no relation to the pitcher — unearths a secret: “Legend has it that a dozen horses and mules were buried alive in a cave-in during construction, and lay beneath the third-base line as long as ball was played there.”)
With such a colorful and influential history, why are the Boston Braves all but forgotten? Compare their place in the popular imagination with a team like the Brooklyn Dodgers, who are still mourned nearly a half century after they moved to Los Angeles. What accounts for the difference? Roger Kahn, who memorialized the Dodgers in his classic memoir The Boys of Summer, says there were many factors. For one thing, the Dodgers left town at the top of their game, having won a pennant and a World Series the previous two seasons. For another, they had Jackie Robinson. But there were also intrinsic differences between two places like Brooklyn and Boston.
“Boston’s a city. It has the Athenaeum, it has Harvard, it has Faneuil Hall,” Kahn tells the Phoenix from his home in New York State. “Brooklyn was a borough. There was always kind of a complex that it was not really a city, it was a dormitory” — or “Manhattan’s bedroom, as the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica described it — “and a lot of Brooklyn pride focused on the baseball team.” The Dodgers were something of a joke in the ’20s and ’30s. But they got really good, really quick. “After the war, here comes Jackie Robinson, and here comes the team I call the Boys of Summer. Six pennants in 10 years. There was great pride in that.”
The Braves, despite their pockets of success over the years, left town with a whimper. “What I remember most vividly is that there weren’t many people in the ballpark,” says Kahn, who covered the Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune in 1952, the Braves’ last season in Braves Field. “When Brooklyn [visited the Braves], it was unusual. Jackie Robinson was still a big drawing card, and around the National League the Dodgers played in front of big crowds. Not in Boston. We used to joke that Braves Field was a good place to read a book because it was so quiet.”
Brave old world
HANK AARON: might have changed Boston’s racial reputation.
George Altison, 77, grew up in Allston, just a couple blocks from Braves Field. He’s now the business manager of the Boston Braves Historical Association (BBHA, boston-braves.com), a 14-year-old group, 500 or so members strong, which webmaster Byron Magrane, 32, describes, aptly, as “basically a bunch of guys who get together every year and reminisce about the Braves.”
In the early ’40s, when Altison was 11, he became a member of the “Knot Hole Gang,” a group of diehard youngsters who availed themselves of owner Lou Perini’s idea to swell Braves Field’s meager attendance: free admission for kids to the park’s left-field pavilion.