Thursday, December 22, 2016

Seasons in Time: 1914 (Part 5 of 5)

(In this series, I will recap in a series of posts one season of Braves baseball from Boston-to-Atlanta and everything in between. If you have a particular season you'd like to see reviewed, let me know in the comments.)

Part 1 - Prologue
Part 2 - The Road Trip that Wouldn't End
Part 3 - Finding Their Footing
Part 4 - Unfazed on the Biggest Stage

Part 5 - Epilogue

John F. Riley | Library of Congress
The 1914 Braves were a team of destiny. During the summer and fall, everything seemed to go their way. Yet, the 1914 Braves were not a collection of standout talent that was put together for a big run. Only two players off that team would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame - 32 year-old Johnny Evers and 22 year-old Rabbit Maranville. The rest of the team was full of young players whose rise to fame was nearly as sudden as their fall.

In 1915, the Braves were always good enough to be in the mix, but never good enough to push the Philadelphia Phillies for first place. After May, the closest they were to the top of the NL was 2.5 games. Boston finished 83-69 and in second place - eight games back. Evers broke down during the season and only played in 83 games. With their captain struggling to stay on the field, the rest of the squad cobbled together the third best offense in runs scored on the heels of the best on-base percentage in the NL. The pitching staff remained very good, though Bill James only was able to throw 68.1 innings. 31 year-old Pat Ragan and 22 year-old Art Nehf stepped in, but Boston was simply not the class of the league anymore.

The offense worsened in 1916 and Boston fell to third place. By 1917, the team fell under .500 and with the exception of 1921, they remained under .500 until 1932.

George Stallings was dismissed following 1920. The team's offense under Stallings went from bad-to-brutal after 1915 and the war effort in Europe took many players away. The Big Three were broken up in 1915 after James' arm shut down. Just 24 years-old, James was likely suffering from a torn rotator cuff and it would be many more years before the medical field could fix such an injury. James tried to come back in 1918 and 1919 with him appearing in one game for the '19 Braves, but that would be the only major league game he pitched in after 1915.

D. Rudolph's Grip | Library of Congress
Lefty Tyler pitched for Boston until 1917 when he was dealt to the Cubs for a pair of players and cash. Dick Rudolph played a few more years with Boston as the last remaining member of The Big Three, but his arm was giving out on him. After missing 1921, he pitched only seven times over the next two years. He briefly made it back in 1927 for one game, but his career was effectively over after 1920. While Boston would cycle in pitchers left-and-right to keep the team competitive in games, none were as dominant as the Big Three had been in 1914.

While the pitching staff remained decent, it was the offense that pushed the Braves back toward the bottom of the NL. Evers played in 139 games in 1914 while earning an MVP, but would never play in more than 80 games for the rest of his career - which didn't last long anyway. He was waived and joined the Phillies in 1917. Joe Connolly hit .306 with an .886 OPS in 1914, but his OPS fell a hundred point in 1915 before falling another 160 points the next year. His short four-year career in the majors was over.

Hank Gowdy shined in the World Series for Boston  with a .545 batting average, five extra base hits, and five walks to just one strikeout. The backstop would play for Boston until 1923. That doesn't include time he missed as the first active major leaguer to enlist to fight in World War I. Gowdy was gone from the Braves for most of three years while missing 1918 completely as he fought on the Western Front. Once back as a full-time major leaguer in 1920, Gowdy struggled to stay on the field. However, his bat never left him and that was especially apparent after the Braves traded him back to the Giants in 1923. It was with the Giants he got back to the Fall Classic. In Game Seven of the '24 Series, Gowdy tore off his mask to catch a foul pop-up with nobody on and one out. However, he stepped on the mask and couldn't reach the ball. The batter doubled and scored the winning run as the Senators beat the Giants. He later rejoined the military as an athletic coach during World War II and Fort Benning's Gowdy Field is named for him.

Other important players from the 1914 Braves faded away either because of performance or being moved to other teams. When the first Stallings-less Braves took the field in 1921, outside of Gowdy, they didn't look a thing like the '14 Braves.

The sudden rise and fall of the '14 Braves and their surprising upset of the more favored Athletics have led some people to find parallels between the 1914 World Series and its counterpart in 1919. In the latter case, the best team in baseball and the heavy favorites to win it all, the Chicago White Sox, conspired to throw the Series. Was the '14 Series fixed? Many conspiracists have argued that it was, but the proof seems limited to the belief that the Braves couldn't have possibly beat the A's.

That theory ignores that the series, while a sweep, was still competitive. The Athletics were in position to win Game 2 and Game 3, but simply failed to execute whereas the Braves did. In so many ways, that was a microcosm of the 1914 Braves - they executed when others couldn't. They don't win the NL without help and the Giants going 32-34 after July was a big part of the reason the Braves were able to even to reach the World Series. The fact that there were no other NL contenders to stand in Boston's way was also a big assist.

In the World Series, Eddie Collins had three singles while Wally Schang had just two hits. Home Run Baker, who led the AL with nine homeruns, managed just four hits including a pair of doubles. He was their best option on offense during the four game sweep. Boston's Big Three, who threw all 39 innings during the series for the Braves, had a 1.15 ERA with 28 strikeouts.

Unlike the Chicago White Sox in 1919, who committed 12 errors over the eight game series, the Athletics didn't boot the ball around. They committed just two errors - or half as many as Boston did. Philadelphia ran into a buzzsaw. Bill James, Dick Rudolph, and Lefty Tyler were pitching the best baseball of their career all at the same time. Hank Gowdy destroyed the ball during the series and Johnny Evers was always on base. As were Rabbit Maranville and Possum Whitted.

Boston fell back to Earth because their run was unsustainable. They weren't better than the A's or the Giants when it came to talent. They didn't have to be. They needed only to be the best team in baseball for a few months. When it came to that, they pulled it off and shocked the world.

Seasons in Time: 1914

Part 1 - Prologue
Part 2 - The Road Trip that Wouldn't End
Part 3 - Finding Their Footing
Part 4 - Unfazed on the Biggest Stage
Part 5 - Epilogue

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