If ever there was a year full of miracles it was 1914. In June a bunch of half-trained adolescents killed a married couple in Sarajevo and all hell broke loose in the form of the First World War. The early part of the war gave us The Angel of Mons (a miraculous winged vision that led a lost British unit to safety), the Miracle at Tannenberg (when a vastly outnumbered German army destroyed a Russian army), and the Miracle of the Marne (when the French stopped the advancing Germans within sight of Paris). By December 1914, a lot of men simply saw it as a miracle that they were still alive.
Baseball had its own miracle, the 1914 Boston (now Atlanta) Braves. The Braves were a dominant force in the National League at the end of the 19th Century, but fell on hard times in the early 20th. Betwen 1910 and 1912 they finished dead last each year. By 1913 they climbed to 5th under new manager George Stallings. Stallings was a former catcher who played 7 games in the 1890s managing to bat an even 100 for his career. He took over a floundering franchise and by 18 July 1914 it looked like the team wasn’t going to stop floundering anytime soon. They were dead last again in the league 13.5 games out of first. According to legend that’s when Stallings installed a platoon system, picked up a handful of has-beens and never-was types, and the team took off. The Braves won 34 of their last 44 games, swept past the New York Giants and won the pennant by 10.5 games. In roughly half a season they made up 24 games.
If that wasn’t shocking enough, they went into the World Series against the defending World Champion Philadelphia Athletics and swept the series. Game one was a blowout (7-1), but the others were close (1-0, 5-4, and 3-1). The Braves outhit the A’s 244 to 172 and had the only home run (catcher Hank Gowdy, who also led all hitters with a 545 average, led the series with 3 runs scored and tied for the RBI lead with 3). The team ERA was 1.15 versus the A’s ERA of 3.41.
OK, so who are these people? Most of them were role players in their own day, and thus don’t become household names passed down through the roughly century since they played. From first around to third, the infield was Butch Schmidt, Johnny Evers (a Hall of Famer primarily known for his work with the Cubs), Rabbit Maranville (also a Hall of Famer), and Charle Deal. The outfield, where most of the platooning took place was Possum Whitted, Les Mann, Joe Connolly, Josh Devore, and Ted Cather (the latter two came over in midseason and helped the run to the top). Hank Gowdy caught with Bert Whaling as his backup. The only other players to notch 50 or more games was Red Smith, another late season add on who spelled Deal at 3rd and Oscar Dugey who seems to have been the primary pinch hitter. The main pichers were Dick Rudolph, Bill James (as far as I can tell, no relation to the modern stats man), and Lefty Tyler. Dick Crutcher was the main bullpen man.
So what happened to make them winners? First, Stallings gets credit for the platoon system. Second, a number of mid-season additions provided a spark that led the team to victory. The pitchers developed. As a staff they allowed the 2nd fewest runs in the league. Rudolph was 14-13 the year before. In 1914 he went 26-10 and lowered his ERA by a half run. James came out of nowhere. He’d played 2 mediocre years previously. The blog ”The On Deck Circle” just did a wonderful piece on One Year Wonders (check it out). He used only the last 20 years to define his people, but if he’d gone back 100, he might have chosen James. He ended with a losing record for his career (and was banned in the gambling scandal that blew up after 1919). Fourth, the hitters were better than an initial look at their stats might show. They were second in the league in OBP, third in slugging, and second in OPS. They were also 2nd in the league in runs. Additionally, the Chalmers Award, an early MVP award, was given for the final time in 1914. The NL winner? Braves second baseman Johnny Evers. I’m not sure why. He hits 279, third on the team, is fourth in stolen bases, 6th in slugging and 5th in RBIs. He does lead the team in runs. Fielding stats show him a decent, but not spectacular 2nd baseman. I presume there is a leadership factor involved that I don’t know about (but am willing to learn about if anyone knows).
All those things taken together can lead to a pennant. For the 1914 Braves it did. They’ve been the “Miracle Braves” since.