I really hate the history of baseball before the modern era. It tends to screw up the continuity of my teams series. How many teams have I written about so far that can be considered the oldest continuously operating something or other? I'm losing track, because here's another one: The Atlanta Braves.
The Atlanta Braves have been up and running in one form or another since their founding in 1870. They signed on as a charter member of the National League - known as the National Association back then - in 1870, immediately following the dissolution of the first professional sports team in the country, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. After the Red Stockings left the professional world, player-manager Harry Wright was invited to Boston along with his brother George by Ivers Whitney Adams, the founder of a new team called the Boston Red Stockings. The (other) Wright brothers, along with two other former Cincinnati players, created the nucleus of the new Red Stockings redux operating in Boston. They also picked up a pair of other players from the Forest Citys of Rockford, Illinois in second baseman Ross Barnes and pitcher Al Spalding (who later founded a popular chain of sporting goods stores).
The Boston Red Stockings immediately rose to domination, winning four of the five championships the National Association would ever award. When the National League became the somewhat recognizable shell of the league it eventually grew into in 1876, the Red Stockings were there. Since a new Cincinnati Red Stockings team was also part of that league, the Boston Red Stockings also came to be known as the Red Caps to keep a difference between the two. In 1883, they came to be known as the Boston Beaneaters. Anyway, they were a little bit stripped of talent by 1876, but bounced back to win the 1877 and 1878 Pennants. All in all, the Boston Beaneaters were one of the dominant teams of the 19th century. They won eight Pennants, and the team they fielded in 1898 went 102-47, thus setting a team record for victories that stood for almost a century.
In 1901, the American League set up shop as a direct competitor to the National League and began raiding the senior league's rosters. The Beaneaters were busy running on the cheap, so when the new Boston Americans began offering better contracts to the Beaneaters players, the Beaneaters did little more than wave and say , "See ya, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out." In 1907, the Beaneaters also eliminated the color red from their uniforms because their manager had concocted the crazy idea that red dye caused infections in wounds. It was that time that the Boston Americans - named for being the Boston team in the American League - pounced to change their name to the less generic Boston Red Sox. (The Red Sox' informal nicknames, like the Plymouth Rocks and Pilgrims, were actually very rarely used at all. Pretty much everyone called them the Americans.) The Beaneaters also went in for a name change. In 1907, they were the Boston Doves. By 1911, they changed to the Boston Rustlers. The team's owner, James Gaffney, happened to be one of the Tammany Hall politniks out in New York City, and Tammany Hall used an Indian chief as their symbol. So in 1912, the Braves followed suit and became the Boston Braves.
Name changes and performances are two different things, so the change did little to affect the team's then-stagnant diamond showings. In 1914, it was business as usual over in Boston. The better Red Sox were three-time Pennant winners and two-time World Series Champions by that point, and they might have been three-time World Series Champions if the New York Giants hadn't refused to play the 1904 World Series. They also made a certain signing that year of a particularly talented lefty pitcher named George Herman Ruth, who became important right off, stayed that way upon becoming an outfielder, and eventually became a part of Braves history as well. The Braves were expected to keep languishing in the second division like they were usually doing these days, hopefully staying a few games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies to make themselves look better than they were. After finishing the previous season with a 69-82 record, how much damage could they possibly do?
Quite a bit, as it happened, although you wouldn't know it at the halfway point of the season. The Braves started 4-18 that year. On July 4, they lost a doubleheader to the Brooklyn Dodgers. That made their record by then 26-40, good enough for last place, 15 games behind the New York Giants. The thing to do then would of course be to take a day off to get your shit together. That's what happened for the Braves, and from July 6 to September 5, they went on an incomparable tear which saw them reel off a 41-12 record in that span. Early on in September, the Braves took two games of three in a series against the Giants which put them in first, a spot they wouldn't relinquish. Through September and October, the Braves continued this unprecedented push, going 25-6 while the Giants played average baseball which resulted in their going 16-16. It was one of the most incredible comebacks in baseball history; the Braves were in last place on July 18, and they became the only team to win the Pennant after being in last that late in the season. In the World Series, the opposing Philadelphia Athletics were heavy favorites, but the Braves swept them right out.
The following two seasons, the Braves continued contending, but in 1917 they were back to their losing ways. From 1917 to 1932, they only finished twice with winning records. The single glimmer of hope which came during that time came from the team changing ownership. Judge Emil Fuchs bought the team in 1923 because he was friends with Christy Mathewson. He wanted to get Mathewson back into baseball; not as a pitcher, because Mathewson's career as a player had decisively ended years before, but as president. Sadly, Mathewson died of tuberculosis in 1925, leaving Fuchs in full power. Fuchs wanted to build a winner, but the prior damages taken by the team took a bit of time to get over. They got competitive again in 1933 and 1934 again under manager Bill McKechnie, but the Great Depression was on and revenue was depleted. Looking for any way to bring in a little bit of profit, Fuchs worked a quick little deal with the New York Yankees: Remember that Red Sox pitcher, George Herman Ruth, that I mentioned earlier? Yeah, now the biggest star in the country, universally known as Babe Ruth, Fuchs brought him in hoping he was the final piece of a good team; a great team, even! Unfortunately, by then Ruth's status as the country's biggest star was as literal as it was figurative. Ruth was made vice president and promised a share of the profits. Fuchs had even made the promise that Ruth could manage the team as early as 1936. Sounded like a good deal to The Babe, who had wanted to manage for a long time. On Opening Day in 1935, The Babe had a hand in driving in all four of Boston's runs in a 4-2 victory. It was the last time all year the Braves were tied for first. Babe could still hit, but he was to old and big to do anything else. He couldn't run; he was so shitty in the field that three pitchers threatened to strike in he was in the lineup. (An early case in favor of a designated hitter, one could say.) Fuchs also expected Ruth to invest some of his money back into the Braves. The team was chaotic, and while largely uneducated, Ruth was able to see the writing on the wall in Boston. On May 26 that year, Ruth hit three home runs, displaying to a younger generation of fans a hint of the power he had wielded while once turning the Yankees into a juggernaut. They were home runs 712, 713, and 714 for his career - the final three, before The Bambino hung everything up for good six days later.
As far as the way the team's performance went that year, Babe's retirement really didn't affect anything. The Braves stunk up the diamond everywhere they went and finished with a putrid record of 38-115, the worst in Braves history. The 1935 team's winning percentage is fourth-worst in baseball history. Only the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, 1890 Pittsburgh Pirates, and the infamous walking disaster known as the 1899 Cleveland Spiders were worse. Fuchs ended up losing control of the team in August that year. The new owners tried to change the team's image by renaming them the Boston Bees, which was their official name for five years and didn't do anything for them except sound stupid. After five years, the team fell into the lap of a new owner, construction magnate Lou Perini, who restored the Braves name.
Perini also started trying to rebuild the team. World War II was taking a lot of talent, but he did manage to dig up a new pitcher named Warren Spahn despite everything. Spahn is one of baseball history's marquee pitchers and considered by many to be the game's greatest southpaw. He took the Braves to good seasons in 1946 and 1947, along with a reliable right hand in Johnny Sain. In 1948, the duo won 39 games between them, and the Braves rode them to a Pennant. They lost the 1948 World Series to the Cleveland Indians in six games, in large part because the rest of the team's pitching was so bad that in September, Boston Post writer Gerald Hern wrote a quick, catchy little poem about the two of them: First we'll use Spahn Then we'll use Sain Then an off day Followed by rain Back will come Spahn And followed We hope By two days of rain The poem is now paraphrased in baseball lexicon as "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain." It wasn't meant as a compliment, although the Braves ironically had a better record that year in games the duo didn't start than in the ones they did. Any way it goes, 1948 was the last good year the Boston Braves ever experienced. The team then had four mediocre seasons buoyed by dwindling attendance. With the Boston Red Sox forever being the darlings of the city, in 1953 Perini decided it was time to move.
Perini's immediate target was Milwaukee. By then, the only reason Milwaukee didn't have a team was because the the MLB brass hated Bill Veeck, who had tried to move the Saint Louis Browns there earlier. Milwaukee loved the Braves at first sight, and the Braves responded by finishing was a record of 92-62. As the decade move forward, the Braves got better and better, anchored by a rotation which still had Spahn, as well as Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl and a hitting lineup that included Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron. In 1957, the Braves won the Pennant again, with Aaron winning the MVP for leading the league in home runs and RBI. They defeated the Yankees in seven games, a hell of a feat considering these were the Yankees of Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford. They won another Pennant in 1958 and faced the Yankees in the World Series again. They jumped out to a 3-1 lead this time, but that just served to piss the Yankees off, and they stormed right back and won their god only knows how manyeth World Series title. In 1959, the Braves tied the year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, only to fall in a best of three playoff against them.
The next several years were a more up and down time for the Milwaukee Braves. In 1960, they finished second to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1961, they were fourth. Fifth by the following season. They were pretty mediocre for much of the 60's, in fact, but the expansion New York Mets and Houston Astros at least gave them a new pair of whipping boys they used to fatten up and prevent themselves from dropping to an actual losing record. That was the thing about the Milwaukee Braves; some of their seasons were better than others, but the whole time they were in Milwaukee, they never endured a genuinely bad season. They're the only baseball team to have the distinction of playing more than one season without having a losing record.
Anyway, Bob Perini sold the team to a Chicago group in 1962. Their new owner, William Bartholomay, saw great potential in this new medium called television and started shopping them around for a larger market to exploit it. Meanwhile, the city of Atlanta, Georgia was beginning to grow with an influx of new wealth it hadn't seen since The Civil War and wanted to show off. Atlanta built a big new stadium in the hopes of attracting an NFL team - hell, at least an AFL team - and/or an MLB team. The city had dangled the bait out to the Kansas City Athletics previously, but they didn't go for it. After that, the Braves announced their intention to move to Atlanta for the 1965 season, but Wisconsin filed an injunction to keep them in town for one last year. That minor inconvenience was just delaying the inevitable, and in 1966 the move was completed, and the team was now the Atlanta Braves. Milwaukee got a new team in 1970 when it heisted the Seattle Pilots, creating the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Braves were a steady , decent team for their first few seasons in Atlanta. In 1969, MLB created divisional play, which meant a playoff institution for the first time. The Braves actually won their division but were promptly swept by the New York Mets Amazin' team. It was their 1967 season, though, that was more of a sign of things to come. The Braves went 77-85 that year. It had been their first losing record since Boston. The 1969 run proved to be more a fluke than anything, and the Braves ceased to be a factor and got more used to their old cellar home from the Boston Days.
Ted Turner's buying the Braves in 1976 didn't help anything, at least not on the diamond. Turner needed to get asses in seats in a real hurry, because he was strapped. The 70's marked the beginning of The Hope Era for the Braves. No, the team's performances had nothing to do with that little nickname, which I created for it just now. It had everything to do with their promotional genius, who was named Bob Hope. (No, not the comedian.) Wild and wacky promotions were more and more common in baseball in that era. Bill Veeck based his entire reputation on them. The Cleveland Indians relied on them a bit too, but no other team did quite as much to add fun and unpredictability to being a fan than Bob Hope and the Atlanta Braves. It was Bob Hope who had daredevils regularly brought in to jump or walk tightropes. Hope created an event featuring fans who dived into giant vats of ice cream. Hope made the ostrich races part of baseball. (Don't ask.) Hope, inventor of wedlock and headlock night. Bob Hope even invented that mainstay of men's bars, the wet T-shirt contest, as a way of bringing in fans to see the Braves. Ted Turner was more than happy to include a few tricks of his own, even if he wasn't so deliberate. He participated in a few of Hope's wacky race promotions. He also once fired a manager, then started managing himself, a stunt which MLB stopped after a day. He also randomly picked pitcher Andy Messersmith to promote his TV station, which he did by assigning Messersmith the new nickname "Channel" and giving him the number 17. MLB didn't like that one very much, either.
The fans were happy to watch Hank Aaron, though. He was putting up such numbers as a slugger that people began to think that he maybe, just maybe, might have a shot at Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, the most sacred record in baseball. Aaron was a class act, so he tried to downplay the record. In 1971, Aaron became only the third player to hit 600 home runs. In 1972, he surpassed Willie Mays, and the chase was on. By the end of 1973, Aaron had 713 home runs to his name. Aaron also had a bit of the problem: He was a black man in the south, where racist white people were hysterically jumpy about the mighty Bambino's greatest record falling to a man who was, you know, black. As he weathered out the winter that year, Aaron received all form of hate mail and death threats. One letter had a picture of his family and a message saying that if Aaron wanted his family to live, he would quit pursuing Ruth. Sports Illustrated summarized what Aaron went through: "Is this to be the year in which Aaron, at the age of 39, takes a moon walk above one of the most hallowed individual records in American sport…? Or will it be remembered as the season in which Aaron, the most dignified of athletes, was besieged with hate mail and trapped by the cobwebs and goblins that lurk in baseball's attic?" Aaron did receive an outcry of public support in response to the bigotry, too. Cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, wrote a Peanuts series in which Snoopy tried to break the record, only to be flooded with hate mail. Babe Ruth's widow, Claire Hodgson, also supported Aaron by mentioning that Ruth would have enthusiastically supported Aaron. Ruth, see, had been free of prejudice, probably in part because he had been ruthlessly taunted during his younger days by people who suspected that his looks had "black features."
In 1974, Aaron's pursuit of the record caused a small controversy. The Braves opened on the road in Cincinnati, and Aaron was benched because management wanted him to break the record in Atlanta. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that he at least had to play two of the three in Cincinnati. During the series, Aaron hit 714 during his first at-bat. The team then returned to Atlanta for a homestead against the Dodgers, and on April 8, 1974, the inevitable happened. Aaron hit number 715 off pitcher Al Downing. Cannons were fired in celebration, and a pair of white college students climbed onto the field and ran partway around the bases with him. Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully addressed the lack of racial tension in the building that day: "What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly Henry Aaron… And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what is must have been like to live with for the past several months."
In 1978, the Braves had endured three straight losing seasons, and so they hired a new manager named Bobby Cox. Although he took the Braves to a winning season in 1980, he was fired in favor of Joe Torre, who took them to a division title in 1981. Still, remember Cox, because he's soon going to become important. The Braves didn't get any better in the 80's, and they in fact only averaged about 65 wins per season.
So, remember that guy I just mentioned, Bobby Cox? That wasn't too difficult, was it? Anyway, Atlanta re-signed him as general manager in 1986. In 1990, the team manager, Russ Nixon, was cut in the middle of the year, and Cox was once again put into the dugout. The Braves finished 1990 with the worst record in baseball at 65-97. In the meantime, they began developing an army of young pitchers like Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz. They also picked up a player named Chipper Jones in the draft. Meanwhile, positions were anchored by the likes of David Justice, Ron Gant, and Terry Pendleton. In 1991, the Braves pulled off what was arguable a second miracle run. They started 39-40, but won 55 of their last 83 games. It was a classic worst to first story. They won their division, then fought the Barry Bonds/Bobby Bonilla Pittsburgh Pirates in a seven-game NLCS, which they won on a last-minute comeback in game seven, sending molasses-slow Sid Bream on an ill-advised trip home. They lost the World Series to the Minnesota Twins in seven games; the Twins were another worst to first team that year.
In 1993, the Braves signed Greg Maddux from the Chicago Cubs. Their formidable rotation allowed them to dominate throughout the 90's in a way few baseball teams ever have. Three Braves pitchers were given six Cy Young awards throughout the decade.They won Pennants in 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, and 1999. Of all of those, the only World Series title they were able to bring to Atlanta was in 1995, when they ousted the Cleveland Indians in six games. The other four were losses - to the Twins in 1991; the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992; and the Yankees for 1996 and 1999. A lot of critics called the Braves the Buffalo Bills of baseball because they could get to the title round but never close. The 1996 and 1999 losses were vexing to knowledgeable fans, because those Yankee teams were managed by former Braves manager Joe Torre.
Although the Braves last won the Pennant in 1999, they continued to win divisional titles well into the millennium. 2004 marked their 14th consecutive division title, a record. By 2006, it was time to rebuild, and the Braves struggled until 2010. The Braves surprised onlookers that year by winning the Wild Card spot, but they went down in four games in the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, who eventually won the World Series. Bobby Cox retired, and was given a standing ovation by the fans, and the players and coaches from both teams. The Atlanta Braves, despite his loss, look like they're rebounding. In 2011 they went 89-73 but missed the playoffs. Last season, they won 94 games and a Wild Card spot, but lost it to the Saint Louis Cardinals.
The Braves' greatest player is easily Hank Aaron. Yeah, everyone knows Babe Ruth held the home run record until Hank Aaron broke it. What they don't know is that he also holds the records for most RBI with 2297, most extra base hits with 1477, and most total bases with 6856. He was an all-star 25 times, was an excellent fielder who won three Gold Gloves, won two batting titles, and was the 1957 NL MVP. The Hall of Fame Braves don't feature a lot of people of note until Milwaukee. Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn are in the Hall based on Milwaukee, and Aaron and Phil Niekro are in based on performances in Atlanta. Seven players are in based on the Boston years, but the list of former Braves who aren't in based on time with the Braves is more impressive. It includes Rube Marquand, George Sisler, Cy Young, Johnny Evers, and Babe Ruth. The team retired nine numbers, not including Jackie Robinson: Dale Murphy, Bobby Cox, Warren Spahn, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Phil Niekro, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, and Tom Glavine.
The Braves' major rivalries are with the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, but fans of those two teams don't seem to hate the Braves as much as they hate each other. The Mets rivalry wasn't defined until the two teams were moved to the same division. The Phillies rivalry has gotten dominant in the last decade. It's tough to pick defining aspects of the Braves. They had that trippy, whacked-out era during the 70's, then absolute dominance in the 90's, accented by lots of losing. The 1914 Miracle Braves team is still one of their defining characters, as is their whole time in Milwaukee. The 70's, however, did have Hank Aaron as a bright spot. The racism Aaron faced was very real, and Aaron was classy and graceful throughout the ordeal.
With the greatness of today's Braves, people are starting to let their past losses fall out of mind. Their identity is based in part in being so dominant over the last couple of decades. More than that, though, they're still known as Ted Turner's team. They've been called America's Team, because Turner's promotions and showing their games on his TV stations created a large national fanbase. Those five Pennants the Braves won in the 90's probably helped along a little bit in that respect, but people everywhere appear to love the Braves. They've won 17 Pennants and three World Series titles, and are the only baseball team to have won a title in three different home cities. That's impressive.
The Braves have a lot going for them. No matter what, even if everything peters out from here onward, they'll still always be the team of Hank Aaron.
One of the classic baseball teams, and the National League team of the 90's. Even though they only won the World Series once in the 90's, the still won four Pennants and are the only team to have ever won the World Series in three different cities.