A Beautiful Dream for 1914 and 2018

The A’s can thank, in part, Matt Joyce’s back for their offensive improvement. (via Keith Allison)

If miracles were commonplace, they wouldn’t be miracles. In order to maintain our faith in the ineffability of the divine, prayers must go unanswered. This applies equally to cancer cures and baseball comebacks.

There is an old (1975) book called Baseball’s Miracle Teams by John Durant. It may have been written for children; it certainly reads as if it were, though it gives no outward indication of its intended audience. A slim volume, it covers just three teams, the 1914 Boston Braves, 1951 New York Giants, and 1969 New York Mets. (Apparently the American League had never had a miracle team through 1975, just an endless series of Yankees juggernauts.) In trying to explain how the Braves were 35-43 (.449) at the season’s approximate midway point, 11 games behind the first-place New York Giants, but thereafter went 59-16 (.787), won the pennant by 10.5 games, and swept the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series, Durant wrote this passage about one of the team’s two future Hall of Famers, shortstop Walter “Rabbit” Maranville: “For all his colorful antics on and off the field, he was a fine player. He was, in fact, a great shortstop. He saved many a game for the Braves with his ‘impossible” stops and his accurate snap throws to the bases.”

“Impossible” is in quotes, so we know we’re not supposed to take it literally, but it still raises epistemological questions, such as, “Can Rabbit Maranville make a stop so impossible that Rabbit Maranville can’t make it?” This is pure fantasy, of course; as John Lennon sang, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.” If Maranville actually made a stop, it may have been difficult, but by definition not impossible.

All “miracle” teams fall prey to this paradox. Pointing this out is not to be pedantic as to the meaning of the word miracle or to fail to understand the meaning of the word in a baseball context, that a team had an unexpectedly victorious campaign. The problem derives from the simplicity of the term. It’s not just an adjective, but a self-justifying explanation that deprives us of the valuable reasons these teams enjoyed dramatic reversals of fortune, namely that they altered their capabilities.

There are four types of miracle teams: (1) Those like the 1935 or 1938 Chicago Cubs who were pretty good all along but nonetheless had to do some unlikely fast pedaling to overcome a big gap in the standings (the ’35 Cubs had a 21-game winning streak in September, while the ’38 squad went 22-7 down the stretch); (2) those that had been down for years before winning a surprise pennant (the 1967 Boston Red Sox went to the World Series a year after the team lost 90 games and two years after it lost 100); and (3) teams like the 1969 Mets who qualified under both headings (the Mets, who climbed over a 10-game August deficit, had never finished higher than ninth in seven seasons of existence).

For a long time, the fourth category, a down team recovering from an abjectly miserable start only to go to the postseason, belonged solely to the 1914 Braves. The Braves predate the National League, although they were the Red Stockings, the Beaneaters, the Doves, and the Rustlers before they went by their current name. (Showing once again how sports is inextricable from politics, they became the Braves because they were owned by a Tammany Hall sachem from New York.) At times during the early days of the NL, the Braves were very good, winning eight pennants through 1898, including back-to-back wins in both 1892-1893 and 1897-1898. The war with the upstart American League was devastating to them, though, leading as it did to the departure of many of the club’s best players, future Hall of Fame third baseman Jimmy Collins among them. (He hied himself to the Red Sox). They lost 100 or more games in 1905-1906 and again from 1910-1912. They improved to 69-82 in 1913, but there was no reason to anticipate that they’d be competitive in 1914.

And initially they weren’t. Just 9-21 after their first 30 decisions, the Braves played at a 48-106 pace through the end of May and at a 107-47 pace from June 1 to the end of the season. “Not only were we in last place on the Fourth of July,” said team captain Johnny Evers, “but just after the holiday we lost an exhibition game to a soap manufacturing team. That’s how bad we were.” They also dropped an exhibition to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League (or, more likely, the Bisons and the soapers were the same outfit split into two by ballplayers’ unreliable recollections). These embarrassments were supposedly galvanic, leading to the club’s turnaround.

From 1914 until the beginning of divisional play in 1969, no in-season turnaround was so dramatic. The Braves capped their run by facing a Philadelphia A’s team on its fourth pennant in five years and sweeping it out of the World Series. This was the first time in the short history of the championship that a team had won in four straight games. Resultantly, there was a great deal of mythologizing of the Braves in 1914. It was, perhaps, symptomatic of a worldwide tendency at that moment to believe that a group’s externalities were really examples of its capabilities. The Braves’ pennant run shared newspaper space with the start of the First World War, during which an entire generation was murdered by its leadership on the theory that nationality, economic or educational status, or race made one man somehow better than another at ducking the bullets spit out of a machine gun. All involved were rapidly disabused of this notion, though not quickly enough for it to do a lot of good.

A related myth was that of generalship, that a bold leader could inspire his men through impenetrable barriers, such as fields raked by artillery fire or those aforementioned machine guns stationed behind yards of barbed wire. This too was a falsehood that died hard, but it lived on in baseball for decades. Coverage of the Braves was badly infected by it.

It centered on their manager, George Tweedy Stallings. A former minor league outfielder and catcher who had gotten the barest cup of coffee in the majors (seven games over three years; he went 2-for-20), Stallings was born into a well-off family in Georgia in 1867, one only recently deprived of its slaves. He spent the rest of his life saying he attended VMI and studied medicine at Johns Hopkins, but the evidence for the claim is lacking. What is certain is that Stallings had money. Unlike his rival John McGraw of the Giants, for whom baseball was a struggle for economic survival, Stallings went home to a cotton plantation (farmed by Black sharecroppers) large enough to host 80,000 peach trees. He had managed the Phillies (1897-1898), the Tigers (1901), and the Highlanders (1909-1910) without much success, but he kept coming back because he wanted to, not because he had to. In his later years he bought Rochester of the International League and made himself the manager.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of Stallings’ prosperity was his glowing teeth: In an era in which oral hygiene and tooth-sustaining nutrition were unaffordable to the average American, most ballplayers who dared to pose for a picture with his lips split revealed choppers stained black and brown by an apparent lifetime of using them to strain coffee, chewing tobacco, tar sands, and chocolate-flavored walrus suet. Not so Stallings, whose radiant grin could light ships around rocky shoals. This is not hyperbole: Stallings’ smile was so bright that it served as the team’s steal sign. If Stallings turned on his mouth-light, the runner was going.

Managing in a hat, bowtie, and that smile, Stallings affected the look of a Southern patrician. That’s not to say he lacked baseball ideas. “My clubhouse slogan,” he said, “is ‘Get the percentage.’” By this he meant try to gain every little edge you can in a game. His way of getting the percentage was platooning, a potential advantage he grasped well before much of the rest of baseball (20 years later, as Casey Stengel began a managerial career in which platooning would be a major factor, his general manager called the idea, “a psychological fad”).

He also had a unique way of solving a pitching shortage. “I have 16 pitchers,” he said at the start of the season, “all of them rotten.” Believing pitchers could be worked harder than was generally thought, he largely boiled his pitching staff down to three starters. Bill James, Dick Rudolph, and Lefty Tyler started 103 of 153 games and collected 68 of the team’s 94 wins. James and Rudolph split the four World Series victories between themselves.

“A pitcher’s arm is still sore the day after a full game, but rest on that day and massage on the second day brings it around,” Stallings said. “My three pitchers won’t crack.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Coverage of the Braves, though, largely ignored Stallings’ strategic manipulations in favor of his manipulative personal touch. “In spite of the way I keep after my men to play their hearts out in every game, they are all my friends,” Stallings wrote. This assertion of “friends” is a note sounded in all the coverage of the team in order to avoid having to call Stallings out for his comportment. A nervous, superstitious man, he let the vagaries of the game get to him and he would forget himself. As the sportswriter Tom Meany wrote in Baseball’s Greatest Teams,

Away from the ball park, he was a dignified, fastidious man, meticulous in dress, Chesterfieldian in his manners… Swarthy, moon-faced, bright-eyed, he would have been a cinch for today’s men-of-distinction ads.

On the bench during a ball game, Stallings was another person, Stallings was another person. No man, not even John McGraw or Leo Durocher, ever reached the heights of invective stormed by George… Sputtering with a fury which invited apoplexy, Stallings told off ballplayers as they haven’t been told off since.

Evers rated Stallings a master psychologist: “If he thinks [a player] is the type that will have his spirit broken by ‘riding,’ he encourages him, jollies him along, and does little scolding. But with the other type of player he is different. If a man is inclined to take things too easy or be careless, he can give him one of the best tongue lashings I have ever heard… He gets these men so that they will go out and fight to the finish, fearful lest they may do something which will displease their boss.” Stallings himself told of one pitcher ready to quit the team after the manager ripped him for being slow to warm up during a game. “I apologize to you here in front of all the other players,” he told the man. “You’ve known me long enough to realize that the things I say in the heat of battle I don’t mean.”

This is Abusive Parenting 101, but the Braves seemed to take Stallings at face value as an eccentric sort who really couldn’t help himself, a worrier who was capable of wearing the seat out of his pants by compulsively sliding up and down the bench during a game. His tirades were just part of that, and in retrospect they sort of enjoyed them. “It was an art form with him,” catcher Hank Gowdy said.

The Braves could give it back to him as well. Stallings had on his plantation an imported Hereford bull which he seemed to prize above even a Braves victory. Then, as all bulls eventually do, the Hereford went to meet its maker. Stallings was inconsolable. Subsequently, as Stallings ripped the team on the bench, listing out all of their inadequacies, Maranville would add, just loud enough for Stallings to hear but not at sufficient volume for him to identify the speaker, “and the bull died.” If Stallings attacked an umpire, shouting that he was blind and calling strikes on pitches a foot outside, there would be that voice with its fatal also: “And the bull died.”

Nevertheless, it was Stallings’ leadership that was credited with transforming what Stallings had first viewed as “a baseball horror” into a championship team. “Stallings is the Miracle Man,” F.C. Lane wrote in Baseball Magazine. Collier’s magazine held out the manager as an exemplar for leaders nationwide: “Stallings ought to mean something to our manufacturers and politicians and employers of labor generally.”

Yet, it wasn’t his imprecations that turned around the season but a combination of changes to the team’s abilities, some of which he authored, while others were down to timing. “Never in all my life have I seen a club up against such a run of luck,” he said early in the season. “ Evers has been sick all spring. Maranville has had a bad case of tonsillitis and is way off form. The raw weather has left my pitching a staff full of sore arms, and there isn’t a pitcher on the club that can come within 10 feet of home plate. It will be another month before we get going and get back into shape. But when we do you’ll see a ball club out there hard to beat at every start.”

That was a good portion of what happened. Evers and Maranville recovered to give the team the league’s best double-play combination and two of its best all-around players—they finished tied for sixth in the league in WAR (4.7). His successful usage of the pitchers gave him the second-(Rudolph, 6.2), fourth- (James, 4.3), and eighth-best (Tyler, 3.4) pitchers in the league by wins above replacement. Further, two in-season trades helped change the fate of the club. On June 28, the Braves traded pitcher Hub Perdue to the Cardinals for utility man Possum Whitted and outfielder Ted Cather. These were platoon and depth parts that allowed Stallings to protect the club from some of its offensive weaknesses. In August, Stallings took advantage of Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson’s falling out with slugging third baseman Red Smith by purchasing him. Smith responded by hitting .314/.401/.449 in 60 games (148 OPS+) before badly breaking his leg in the ninth inning of the season’s second-to-last game.

These moves were Stallings’ doing as much as anything he said or the rabbit’s foot he rubbed raw over the course of the season, and he deserves full credit for them. In fact, he deserves credit for them in excess of any yelling he did, artistic or otherwise. However, this is not the way the history of this miracle team has come down to us.

Since division play began, miracle teams have become common enough that they don’t seem all that miraculous. With fewer clubs to climb over, teams are more likely to overcome an early slump. In most or all cases, these comebacks represent a similar change in capabilities of the teams as that undergone by the Braves. Sometimes the change happens quite rapidly, such as that experienced by the 1987 Detroit Tigers, who began the season in an 11-19 slump. They overcame an early injury to Kirk Gibson, signed Bill Madlock to designated hitter, and, halfway through August, traded prospect John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander. Things improved.

Similarly, the 2018 Oakland A’s were 29-28 at the end of May. They’ve gone 67-35 since and will go to the playoffs as a wild card team. Their pitching innovations will receive much of the credit, but their offensive improvement is even more impressive—through the first third of the season, the A’s scored 4.3 runs per game. Since then, they’ve scored 5.4. It doesn’t account for the whole difference, but on July 4, Matt Joyce (.203/.311/.359) made his last start of the season until September 25. Subsequent left fielders have been much superior with the bat. If the A’s have experienced a miracle, it was that of Matt Joyce’s Back, which is not a miracle at all.

Teams are built, broken, and repaired by human beings. Miracle teams are a lie, one that prevents us from observing the true reasons, the trades and adjustments, that allow teams to make sudden, unexpected improvements. That said, sometimes it’s comforting to believe in magic. We grant miracle teams the power to amaze us, and they grant us the power of hope.

References and Resources

  • Baseball Magazine, various issues, 1914
  • Baseball-Reference
  • The Boston Globe, various issues, 1914 and 1929
  • The Brooklyn Eagle, various issues, 1914
  • Gary Caruso, The Braves Encyclopedia
  • Colliers, various issues, 1914
  • John Durant, Baseball’s Miracle Teams
  • Harold Kaese, The Boston Braves
  • Martin Kohut, “George Stallings” (SABR Bio Project)
  • Tom Meany, “The Miracle Man” (from Baseball’s Greatest Teams) in The Fireside Book of Baseball, Charles Einstein, ed.
  • Edwin Pope, Baseball’s Greatest Managers

Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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5 years ago

“Miracle teams are a lie, one that prevents us from observing the true reasons, the trades and adjustments, that allow teams to make sudden, unexpected improvements.”

Interesting philosophical argument about the nature of probability. You’re essentially arguing that unlikely events are impossible, that any previously thought unlikely event that happens has some kind of underlying cause that made it happen. It’s a strong version of a frequentist argument that says that any probability we have is really an already determined event with yet unobserved parameters. In such a way, if we only observed more, we could have perfect weather forecasting instead of talking about percentages, etc. At a certain level, however, we know that God does in fact play dice, but perhaps that is only true at that submolecular level, and statistical mechanics shakes it out. Still, I’m a bit more of a Bayesian than you are, it seems, I allow some room for unlikely events to still have been unlikely. (But you must be in the camp that says that, e.g., Trump was always going to win, it was a failure of models to see hidden variables, not the case that an unusual event happened.)

There are some basic possibilities for a team that is very bad then very good. They may have suddenly gotten better for certain reasons. If not, then from the same mathematical reason that motivates reversion to the mean, it is somewhat more likely that they played worse than expected at the beginning and better than expected later, rather than the worse level be their true ability, and then something even more extremely unlikely occurred. (Their exact record and your prior about their ability can affect this.) While you assume that the former occurs, and I agree that it is the approach to take when making a scientific inquiry and looking for factors, one should not rule out the null hypothesis that perhaps the team did get lucky.

5 years ago

“sports is inextricable from politics”

Twaddle. Nonsense. Balderdash. Any proper sport has no politics. Zero. None.

There are horrible people in this country these days who would politicize everything, including sports. I can’t even begin to explain how much this irritates people like me, to whom sports is a valued escape from all of 24/7 non-stop BS media partisan politics.

5 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

This itself is a political statement, proving the point the author was making. Sports and politics cannot be separated due to the fact that both things exist in society.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago
Reply to  Chris

like it or not, sports and politics have always intersected for better or worse. You think Frazier/Ali was just about boxing? Or Jackie Robinson crossing the color barrier? Or better yet, Curt Flood was looked upon as a radical trying to upend the baseball world by wanting to be a free agent. i am sure if you could enter the Time Tunnel to 1970, the bars in any white enclave would be cursing him and Ali for mixing sports and politics.

5 years ago

I was a bit disappointed to find that the bulk of this article seems to be about why George Stallings was not a great man and shouldn’t get credit for the 1914 Braves pennant drive. I didn’t know there was a movement about to give him credit. Oh yeah, and miracles don’t happen. An article that explained how the 1914 Braves were able to turn around their season so unexpectedly, and perhaps any similarities on how the current A’s have done the same, would have been more enjoyable. Instead this is barely touched on at the end. The title does not accurately present what the main topic of the article is about.