The year was 1871, and for most Americans the options for a good
time were few: a stroll through the park or maybe a night in the
saloon or dance hall. There wasn't any sports culture as we know
it today, only a curious pastime that was slowly but surely
gaining strength in the Northeast. "Base Ball," it was called.
Eighteen players, a tiny ball, wood bats ... maybe the saloon
This is an article from the Oct. 31, 1995 issue
In Boston the sport was being showcased by a dozen or more young
men, most of them mustachioed. They were named the Red
Stockings, but everyone called them the Reds for short. Over the
decades they would be named the Red Caps, the Beaneaters, the
Nationals, the Doves, the Rustlers, the Bees and the Braves.
They've been the Boston Braves, the Milwaukee Braves and, now,
the Atlanta Braves--the 1995 world champions.
But all of those teams are part of a 124-year history as rich as
the sport itself.
Interestingly, after the club won eight National League pennants
between 1877 and 1898, the Boston era was the least successful
for this franchise post-1900: It won only two more National
League pennants and one world championship in 52 years, and that
four-game sweep of the Philadelphia A's in the 1914 World Series
ranks as one of the biggest upsets baseball has ever known. By
that time the club was owned by James Gaffney, a New York
contractor with strong ties to Tammany Hall. Tammany--a
political society dating back to 1789--had taken the name of a
legendary Delaware Indian chief, Tamanend, and through the years
Tammany trustees were known as sachems, or chiefs. So Gaffney's
players were his braves--thus they became the Braves in 1912,
with the profile of an American Indian chief and an Old
English--style B on their uniforms.
In 1913, after four straight years of finishing in the National
League cellar, the Braves got a tough new manager, George
Stallings, who had skippered the New York Highlanders--later
known as the Yankees--for two seasons, including 1910, when the
club finished second in the American League. Stallings
immediately went about remaking the Braves, acquiring many of
the players who would help Boston make it to the World Series
the next season. Stallings added righthanded pitchers Dick
Rudolph and Bill James, a rookie; outfielders Joe Connolly and
Les Mann, another rookie; and infielders Charlie Deal and Butch
Schmidt. They joined Boston veterans like catcher Hank Gowdy,
shortstop Rabbit Maranville and pitchers Otto Hess and Lefty
Tyler in helping to lift the Braves to fifth place in '13.
In 1914 the final piece of the puzzle arrived in second baseman
Johnny Evers, the middleman in the Chicago Cubs' famed
Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double-play combination. Still, the
Braves started slowly in '14 and were stuck in last place as
late as July 4, when they were 15 games behind the New York
Giants. But from mid-July through the end of the season, the
Braves won 60 of 76 games as a three-man rotation of Rudolph,
James and Tyler combined to go 49-10. Boston blew past the
Giants and won the pennant by 10 1/2 games--a shocking 25 1/2-game
turnaround in half a season--not bad for a club that batted .251.
But the real test was still ahead. The Miracle Braves, as they
came to be called, would be facing the powerhouse A's in the
World Series, and if the experts predicted a fast, ugly exit for
Boston, who could blame them?
After all, Philadelphia owner-manager Connie Mack had future
Hall of Fame pitchers Chief Bender, Herb Pennock and Eddie Plank
on his staff. He also had an infield that featured Frank (Home
Run) Baker at third base, Eddie Collins at second and Stuffy
McInnis at first. Nevertheless, Stallings phoned Mack in front
of a group of baseball writers and told him, "We'll still beat
you four straight."
The Philadelphia players openly mocked their Boston
counterparts. Their ace, Bender, hadn't even bothered to scout
the Braves in the final weeks of the season, even though Mack
had dispatched him to New York for precisely that purpose. "Bush
leaguers," Bender called Boston, but he got his comeuppance soon
enough. The Braves rocked him in Game 1 at Philadelphia's Shibe
Park, prompting Mack to take a long, slow walk to the mound in
the sixth inning. Mack took the ball from Bender and asked
pointedly, "Guess they're not so bad for a bunch of bush
leaguers, huh?" Boston won 7-1.
In Game 2, James outpitched Plank to win 1-0, and many of the
nearly 300 fans who had followed the Braves to Philly--not a
small undertaking, considering the cost and difficulty of travel
in those days--took to the streets shouting, "Four straight! Four
straight!" Stallings fueled the hysteria by ordering that the
Braves' road uniforms be shipped back to Boston. "We won't be
coming back," he said confidently, figuring there would be no
need for a Game 5 in Philadelphia.
The Braves won Game 3 as predicted, 5-4 in 12 innings, and
Stallings was so sure he could outmanage Mack that he told the
Boston road secretary to cancel the Braves' travel reservations
for Game 5 in Philly. "If we could win that game [Game 3]," he
said, "we can't possibly lose tomorrow." Sure enough, Rudolph
beat the A's 3-1, with the winning hit supplied by Evers. It was
the first four-game sweep in postseason history, and in 1950,
in an Associated Press poll of sportswriters, the '14 World
Series was easily voted the biggest upset in any sport since 1900.
But as quickly as they had ascended, the Braves plunged back
into obscurity for the next 20 years. Then, in 1935, owner Emil
Fuchs, who was nearly broke as a result of the stock-market
collapse and desperate for revenue, lured Babe Ruth away from
certain retirement to play for Boston. Ruth was fortysomething,
slow and stiff-legged, but he still had a swing that could send
a fastball out of the stadium.
The Yankees had no use for Ruth after he had hit .288 with
22 home runs the year before, but Fuchs had a plan. He promised
Ruth $25,000, made him an assistant manager and offered him
stock in the club. Ruth was thrilled, seduced by the idea of yet
another summer of adulation. However, the dreams of both men
quickly disintegrated. Ruth showed up at spring training so fat
he could barely jog. And the stock he was offered was worthless.
As for managing the Braves one day, Ruth found out he would
never replace Bill McKechnie.
With his flair for the dramatic, Ruth did hit an Opening Day
home run against the Giants' Carl Hubbell, but the Bambino hit
only one more homer the rest of April, and in 28 appearances
that season, only once would he make it through an entire game.
Ruth knew he'd made a mistake in trying to play again; already
in the exhibition season he'd told reporters, "Kids were
striking me out or getting me to pop up on pitches I would have
hit out of the park a few years earlier." Still, there was one
final moment of greatness. It came against the Pittsburgh
Pirates on May 25, when Ruth hit three home runs--the last two
off Guy Bush, who, when he was with the Cubs, had provoked
Ruth's famous "called shot" off Charlie Root in the 1932 World
Series by razzing the Sultan of Swat mercilessly from the
Chicago dugout. The last homer of his career, number 714, left
Forbes Field. Bush told reporters years later, "Ruth was old and
fat, but he still had that great swing. Even when he missed, you
could hear the bat go swish." A week after hitting his final
home run, Ruth retired.
The 1940s were marked by the ownership of Lou Perini and the
early phase of Casey Stengel's big league managerial career. The
Ol' Perfesser, as he was called, was no genius in Boston.
Stengel's Braves--in 1936 the team was actually renamed the Bees
for five years--finished with a sub-.500 record each year from
1939 through '43. In fact, after the 52-year-old Stengel
suffered a broken leg when he was hit by a car just before the
start of the '43 season, the Boston Record commented, "The man
who did the most for Boston in 1943 was the motorist who ran
Stengel down ... and kept him away from the Braves for two
In the late 1940s it was manager Billy Southworth who rescued
Boston. He had just finished a successful run as skipper of the
St. Louis Cardinals, the last four years of which he won three
pennants and two World Series, when Perini offered him a base
salary of $35,000 plus bonuses up to $20,000 for winning the
pennant. Southworth's arrival paid an immediate dividend: The
Braves won 81 games in '46, their most in 13 years.
The following summer, the righthanded Johnny Sain and the
lefthanded Warren Spahn each won 21 games, sparking a debate:
Which one of them was Boston's ace? The rotation was so
dependent on those two in '48, when they combined for 39 wins,
that the motto "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" was born. As
good as Sain was--he won 20 or more games four times in his
11-year career--Spahn was the one who enjoyed more long-term
success, embarking in 1947 on a remarkable run in which he won
20 or more games 13 times before retiring in '65 with the record
for victories by a lefty (363). Finally, in '48, Southworth
ended the Braves' 34-year drought by guiding Boston to the
National League pennant and a meeting in the World Series with
the Cleveland Indians (page 16).
Nineteen forty-eight was a shining moment in Brave history, but
the team's ascent was short-lived. Spahn and his teammates
realized after losing to the Indians in six games that Boston
was no dynasty in the making. The 1948 Braves were "strictly a
one-shot proposition, and nobody talked much about repeating the
next year," Spahn said a few seasons later. "The owners were
going all out to give Boston a pennant. [They] picked a bunch of
players who they'd hoped would have one big year left."
Sure enough, by 1952 the Braves were back in seventh place, with
a 64-89 record. Season attendance fell to 281,278--down from
1.46 million in '48. Spahn himself slumped to 14-19. The only
hope for the future was a rookie third baseman, Eddie Mathews,
who smashed 25 home runs. But the Braves reportedly lost
$600,000, and there were whispers about an exodus--to Milwaukee.
More than 12,000 fans were waiting at the Milwaukee train depot
when the Braves arrived for the start of the 1953 season. The
parade that welcomed the team to the city attracted 60,000 more
fans downtown. So what if these fans had never seen Spahn pitch
or had no idea who hard-hitting outfielder Andy Pafko was. They
already loved the Braves and proceeded to show it with a
National League-record attendance of 1.83 million that first
The Braves spent 13 years in Milwaukee, never making their fans
there endure a losing season. The era was marked by two
highlights: the arrival of Hank Aaron and the satisfaction of
defeating the loathed Yankees in the 1957 World Series. In '53
the 19-year-old Aaron hit .362 with 22 home runs and 125 RBIs in
Class A, and when Bobby Thomson suffered a broken ankle the next
spring, Aaron got a chance to play leftfield for the Braves. He
hit .280 with 13 home runs his rookie year, but the Brooklyn
Dodgers had already started calling him Bad Henry.
Three years later Aaron brutalized National League pitching with
44 home runs, 132 RBIs and a .322 average and combined with
pitchers Spahn (21-11), Bob Buhl (18-7) and Lew Burdette (17-9)
to lead Milwaukee to the World Series against New York. The
Braves and the Yankees split the first two games in the Bronx,
and when the Series moved to County Stadium, the Milwaukee
Sentinel ran an enormous World Series headline that said TODAY
WE MAKE HISTORY. Of course, on the off day between Games 2 and
3, the Soviets launched Sputnik.
The Yankees couldn't be bothered with such Midwestern hysteria.
After arriving in Milwaukee by train, they shooed away a pack of
local reporters who wanted to board the team bus, and otherwise
ignored the World Series festivities. One New York official is
said to have snarled, "Come on, stop acting bush."
The press focused their stories the next day on this slight,
including one overheated headline--BUSHVILLE! During
introductions before Game 3, the Yankees were booed mercilessly
at County Stadium, with the worst treatment reserved for
Stengel, who was somehow blamed for the "bush" comment. Stengel
blew a kiss to the masses. The Braves won two of the three games
in Milwaukee, with Burdette, who had won Game 2, outlasting
Whitey Ford for a 1-0 victory in Game 5.
After New York forced a Game 7 at Yankee Stadium, Brave manager
Fred Haney gave the ball to Burdette with two days' rest.
Burdette, a onetime prisoner in Stengel's bullpen as a Yankee in
1950, threw his second straight seven-hit shutout against his
old team, outpitching Don Larsen to win 5-0 and give the Braves
their first world title since '14. Aaron finished the Series
with three home runs and a .393 average. At a celebratory parade
in Milwaukee, one banner smugly proclaimed BUSHVILLE WINS.
In 1958 the Braves nearly became the second team to beat
New York in back-to-back World Series. They won the first two
games at County Stadium and Game 4 in New York, but the Yankees
again pushed the Series to a seventh game, in Milwaukee. This
time New York defeated Burdette easily, 6-2, and the only light
moment for Brave supporters came late in the game when a drunken
fan in a brown suit ran onto the field and executed a perfect
hook slide at second base.
Milwaukee narrowly missed a third straight National League
pennant in 1959, when they tied the Los Angeles Dodgers for
first place but lost a best-of-three playoff in two games. From
there the Braves gradually fell out of contention. "I didn't
realize it at the time," Aaron had said in 1958, "but after we
won the seventh game of the World Series in 1957, everything
started to go downhill."
The early 1960s featured individual highlights, such as Spahn
winning his 300th game at the age of 40 and Mathews continuing
his streak of hitting 30 or more homers to nine years in a row.
The legendary Ty Cobb was so impressed with Mathews that he
said, "I've seen three or four perfect swings in my time. This
lad has one of them."
Nevertheless, Milwaukeeans had grown tired of the Braves.
Attendance, which had topped out at 2.2 million in 1957, was
less than 800,000 in '62. By '66 the Braves were on the move
again, this time to Atlanta.
The first major league franchise in the Deep South finished no
better than third for the next 16 years--with one exception: When
the majors went to divisional alignments in 1969, the Braves
were the first team crowned National League West champs. But in
the inaugural National League Championship Series, Atlanta had
the misfortune to run into the New York team that would come to
be known as the Miracle Mets. Even in a year in which Neil
Armstrong walked on the moon, more than 300,000 gathered at
Woodstock and half a million Americans descended on Washington
to call for a moratorium on U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War,
the Mets, who had superb pitching, were stunning.
On June 1, Aaron hit his 521st career home run, tying Ted
Williams for fifth on the alltime list. Hammerin' Hank finished
with 44 dingers, bringing his total to 554, but though Aaron
homered in each playoff game, the Braves were dispatched in
three quick losses. The Mets then pulled off the biggest World
Series upset since 1914, beating the Baltimore Orioles in five
Atlanta retreated into obscurity after that; only Aaron stood
out, in his pursuit of Ruth's career record of 714 home runs. In
1971 at the age of 37, Aaron's quick wrists were still capable
of rocketing 47 homers into the seats. By then Aaron had 639
homers and was on the verge of catching a tiring Willie Mays.
The two future Hall of Famers were never close friends, and
Mays made a point of saying that before Aaron could pass Ruth,
"he's got to catch me first." Aaron later said that challenge
served to motivate him even more.
Still, nothing Mays said could compare with the racial hatred
directed at Aaron. "You have to be black in America to know how
sick some people are," he said years later. "My mail was about
75-25 against me, most of it racial. They call me nigger and
every other bad word you can imagine. If I were white, America
would be proud of me."
If he was distracted by the racism directed at him, Aaron was
drowning in the growing national attention and media scrutiny.
"My life was like one big fishbowl," he would say later. Aaron
had to stop eating in restaurants and take his meals in his
hotel room. The Braves were so concerned about his personal
safety, they hired a bodyguard to protect him.
Through it all Aaron kept slugging away. On July 21, 1973, he
hit homer number 700 off the Philadelphia Phillies' Ken Brett.
Aaron finished the season with 713, which meant, in his words,
"all I've got to do this winter is stay alive." With his first
swing of the '74 season Aaron tied Ruth's record, taking
Cincinnati Red righthander Jack Billingham deep at Riverfront
Stadium. The only question that remained was where Aaron would
break the record: on the road or at home?
After the Braves benched Aaron for the second game of the
three-game series with the Reds, commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered
him to play the third game in Cincinnati. He did but didn't hit
the record breaker. Instead, he made history on April 8, 1974,
at Atlanta Stadium against the Dodgers' Al Downing. The tension
was enormous as the game began, but the waiting ended in Aaron's
second at bat, when he crushed a 1-0 pitch from Downing over the
fence in left center. The moment the ball left Aaron's bat,
plate umpire Satch Davidson leaned toward catcher Joe Ferguson's
ear and said, "Fergie, I think this might be it." Los Angeles
outfielders Jimmy Wynn and Bill Buckner converged at the wall,
with Buckner leaping to no avail. Later he said, "We kind of
wanted Aaron to get it over with so he could go back to being a
Aaron left Atlanta after the 1974 season, returning to Milwaukee
to play his final two seasons. The Braves he left behind
plummeted in the stands and the standings, drawing 534,672 fans
in '75 and losing 101 games in '77. Atlanta resurfaced to win
the National League West on the last day of the '82 season under
manager Joe Torre. Champagne flowed freely in the Atlanta
clubhouse, and knuckleballer Phil Niekro told reporters, "I've
always wanted to pitch in a World Series. Hopefully this is the
year it will happen." Not quite. The Braves lost three straight
to the Cardinals in the League Championship Series, and Atlanta
plunged into another downward spiral.
While outfielder Dale Murphy won back-to-back National League
MVP awards in 1982 and '83 and star-crossed slugger Bob Horner
hit four home runs in a single game in '86, the Braves of the
'80s were better known for their eccentric owner, cable TV
magnate Ted Turner. The creative Turner bought the club in '76,
and as the Braves' fortunes sank on the field and at the gate,
Turner transformed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium into the
world's largest p.r. laboratory.
Thanks to aptly named public relations chief Bob Hope, the
Braves introduced fan gimmicks like the Cash Scramble, in which
25,000 phony dollar bills were spread on the field and a
half-dozen fans were given 90 seconds to collect as much as they
could. And who could forget the Frog-Jumping Contest, for which
the Braves urged fans to "bring your own frog"? Thousands of
frogs were carried into the ballpark, and many of them stayed,
hidden in the bowels of the stadium. Players said the croaking
lasted for months. Then there was Wishbone Salad Dressing Night,
in which fans scrambled through an enormous salad bowl at home
plate in search of keys to a new automobile, and Wedlock and
Headlock Night, when couples got married before the game and
wrestlers squared off after it. Wet T-shirt contests were as
routine as Ladies' Day and Photo Day. People laughed at the
Braves, but at the same time Turner was building his media
empire, he was installing a baseball front office that was
assembling a National League champion.
By 1991 the freak shows had ended. The Braves didn't need them
to draw fans anymore--not with Bobby Cox managing a team that
had young Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and Steve Avery on the
mound, and Ron Gant, David Justice and Terry Pendleton in the
lineup. Suddenly the only currency at Atlanta-Fulton County
Stadium was the baseball.