Atlanta Braves

You may remember the Atlanta Braves for their outright dominance back in the 1990’s. True, they only won the World Series once, but they played in it five times, and that ain’t nuthin’. But you have to wonder where this wunderkind Braves team came from, because it seemed like they were pretty happy leading an inauspicious existence before then, huh? Well, maybe that’s been true if you’re my age or older. But before then, the Braves had a history worth talking about. Granted, it wasn’t worth talking about the way the Yankees’ history is worth talking about, but there’s plenty that a Braves fan can arm themself with in a one-upsmanship contest.

One of the N’s classic teams and one of baseball’s true originals, the Braves were founded in 1870 after the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first professional team, dissolved in 1870. So yeah, the origins of the Atlanta Braves can be traced back all the way to that. Except for the part about them being in Atlanta. And the part about them being called the Braves. What happened was that Cincy’s player-manager Harry Wright bolted to Boston right after everything in Cincinnati was done and wrapped up to join the founders of a proper Boston Red Stockings club, Ivers Whitney Adams and George Adams. That makes the Braves the oldest continuously-running operation in professional sports. The new Boston team also lured a pair of young studs, Al Spalding and Ross Barnes, over to the new team.

Together, they led the Boston Red Stockings in absolute domination of the National Association at the time. They won four of the league’s five titles, and that made them perfect material to be a charter team in the National League in 1876. In the first year of the National League, Boston had a somewhat lousy year. But they came right back and took the titles in 1877 and 1878. Although they had an identity crisis during the 19th Century – they were called the Red Caps and the Beaneaters at various points – they were quite a dominant team. They won a total of eight Pennants during their 19th Century existence, and their 1898 squad ran up a record of 102-47. That was the team record for almost a century.

Unfortunately, professional sports has this way of making teams compete for players’ contracts, and when that NEW Boston Red Stockings team set up shop in the newly-created American League in 1901, they offered many of the old Boston NL players shiny new contracts. Since Boston NL apparently thought it would be the cool older brother no matter what, it never bothered to match any of the AL team’s offers. That resulted in the NL players telling the team to go fuck itself and jump ship. Suddenly one of the most dominant teams of the 19th Century was a shell of itself, and the Boston Beaneaters enjoyed all of one winning season between 1900 and 1914. In that time, they also managed to lose 100 games five times. While the Beaneaters were getting accustomed to basement life, their AL counterparts – now called the Boston Americans – won a couple of Pennants and a couple of contests in that new-fangled contest between the American League Pennant winner and the National League Pennant winner that was now taking place at the end of every season, this “World Series.” As a final humiliation, the Beaneaters temporarily wiped the red color off their uniforms completely because their manager had gotten the idea that the red dye could infect wounds. That may not seem like such a big deal now, but at the time, the Americans decided they wanted an alternative name to their current one because “Americans” was so generic. And hey, they also wore red! That little absence of red from the Beaneaters’ outfits was all the Americans needed to make their color into their identity, which was how the Boston Americans adopted the name they are still known by today, the Boston Red Sox. The white uniforms of the Beaneaters, meanwhile, got people calling them the Dovers, while the press experimented with referring to them as the Rustlers. But the team didn’t actually end up adopting a formal name until 1912, when they decided to call themselves the Braves.

It was in 1914, though, that the Braves gave their fans a season for the ages. Maybe I mean that in a bad way. Maybe I mean it in a good way. Then again, it could even be both at the same time! See, they started 4-18, which is usually a write-off destined for last place. On July 4, they lost both games in a doubleheader against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Those two losses set their record at 26-40, which meant last place, and destiny looked like it was going to be fulfilled. They were 15 games behind the New York Giants, who were leading the league. July 5 was a day off, though, and it proved to be just what the Braves needed to give their entire season a reboot. From July 6 to September 5, the Braves went on the mother of all tears. Going 41-12 across that span, the Braves were all set for a big early September showdown against the Giants. On September 7 and 8, the Braves won two of three games they played against the league leaders, completing their haul from the basement and taking first place. They stayed hot through the rest of the season, going 25-6, while the deflated Giants went 16-16. Winning the Pennant, the Braves walked into the World Series slated to lose to Connie Mack and his vaunted Philadelphia Athletics. But surprise surprise, the Braves knocked off the Athletics in the first true sweep in World Series history. (The 1907 World Series, between the Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers, ended with the Tigers not having won any games. But they allowed tie games back then, and the Tigers managed to save a little face by tying one to prolong the Series.)

Although that jump start got the Braves into contention for most of the next couple of years, they dropped back into their role as Boston’s beta losers for the next decade and a half. From 1917 to 1932, they only posted winning records twice. Now, that’s not to say no one was trying. In 1923, the attorney of the Giants, Emil Fuchs, bought the team and immediately committed to building it into a winner. He also wanted to get his friend, pitching legend Christy Mathewson, back into the game. Of course, this wasn’t going to be the dangerous and destructive Mathewson of the olden days mowing down batters like blades of grass. No, he had already been retired for years by then, so he was intended to take a new role as partial owner of the Braves. Unfortunately, there proved to be a sad catch with Mathewson: He was a veteran of The Great War, and had taken a few sniffs of gas. That had given him tuberculosis, and he never managed to fully recover. By the end of the 1923 season, it was obvious he wasn’t going to be able to fulfill his duties in any capacity, so he turned his position over to Fuchs and went home to enjoy his retirement. He died two years later.

As for Fuchs, committed as he was, he couldn’t seem to find a good solution to the team’s chronic losing. In 1928, he made a trade which netted him Rogers Hornsby, who only played that single year for the Braves. Although he batted an incredible .387 to take his final batting title, he left the Braves after the year and moved to the Cubs. Hornsby went on to play another nine years before leaving baseball, even though 1928 was the last year he won any major accolades. The Braves didn’t start to look competitive until manager Bill McKechnie got them on track in 1933 and 1934, but the Braves were still getting stung even then because The Great Depression had hit at the time and the team had no money. That led Fuchs to one of the team’s biggest moves ever: Needing money and just a single piece to try to make a real run to a Pennant, he punched out a deal with the New York Yankees to bring Babe Ruth back to the city that started his big league career! (Ruth, remember, started out as a pitcher for the Red Sox.) Fuchs named Ruth the team’s vice president and assistant manager, promising him a share on all the team’s profits and to have him consulted on every player transaction, and suggesting he might have a chance at his longtime goal – managing – once McKechnie stepped down!

The Braves looked all set to compete in 1935. Ruth looked like a keeper after he had a hand in every run the team scored in a 4-2 victory over the Giants on Opening Day that year. That Opening Day victory, though, proved to be the only time that year the Braves had a winning record. And Ruth? An illusion. Ruth started his big league baseball career back in 1914. This was his 21st year in the game, and Ruth had famously spent the vast majority of those 21 years being one of those high life rollers. It’s safe to assume that the reason the Yankees were willing to part with him was because those years of life in the fast lane started catching up with him a few years before. And in the first month of 1935, Ruth finally said “fuck it” to his conditioning, and the Braves went 4-20 in May, ending whatever dreams of contending they had. Ruth was the perfect player for the Braves that year, because his deterioration and the team’s deterioration perfectly reflected each other. While Ruth had made his name on his ability to hit, people forget that during his prime, he was a hell of an athlete – he was a speedy runner and a fielder who could nab anything that came his way. But by now, his speed was gone, he could barely even run, and his fielding was so bad that three of Boston’s pitchers threatened to strike if he was still in the lineup. But in a perverse way, Ruth was merely giving Fuchs what Fuchs gave to Ruth; Ruth learned that his vice president and assistant manager roles were glorified titles. As for his share of the team profits, well, you know that rich person country club stereotype where they raffle off a thousand dollars or some pedestrian amount of money like that, call the winner, and the winner immediately gives the check back to the club? THAT summed up Ruth’s “stake in ownership:” He was expected to invest some of his money in the team.

Ruth saw the team in complete chaos early in the season was wanted out by early May, but Fuchs convinced him to stick around long enough to at least play in every National League park. Ruth decided to be a good sport and complied. And in one fine late May afternoon, Ruth showed the younger generation a shadow of what he had once been. The Braves lost 11-7, but Ruth went four for four in at-bats. Three of those hits were home runs, and the last one went sailing out of Forbes Field – it was the first time someone sent one flying out of Forbes. Those home runs were numbers 712, 713, and 714 – the final three of his career. While Ruth was urged to call it quits right there, he had given his word to Fuchs about playing in every National League park. Six days later, that promise fulfilled by then, Ruth hung up his glove and bat for good. As for the Braves, they ended the season at 38-115, one of the worst seasons for any team in baseball history. The .248 winning percentage is still the third-worst in baseball history, and the second-worst in National League history behind the lunatic tornado that was the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

Bad, badder, and baddest, Fuchs was finally forced to relent control after that season. The new owners spent the next few seasons trying to sell everyone on a name change to the Bees. It didn’t end well. The team’s fortunes weren’t any better, so when construction magnate Lou Perini got the team five years later, he changed the name back to the Braves. Fortunately, Perini managed to finally bring a ray of sunshine to the team. Pitchers Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn won a total of 39 games between them in 1948, and the team kickstarted to life. The Braves won 91 games, taking the Pennant by six. In the American League, the Red Sox rolled through the league, and there was a strong possibility of an all-Boston World Series. Unfortunately, the AL didn’t have any clear front-runners that year. The Red Sox fought through the season against the Yankees and Cleveland Indians, and when the dust cleared, the Red Sox and Indians had to duke it out in a single-game playoff to decide the Pennant. Cleveland won, spoiling the T series, then beat the Braves in the World Series.

That was the last shining moment in Boston for the Braves. After four more lackluster seasons, attendance dwindled, and the better and more consistent Red Sox were firmly established as THE team in Boston. With the country starting to change rapidly, baseball believe it now had a sacred duty to turn every two-team city into a one-team city. The St. Louis Browns faced the axe a few years earlier and had been forced to move to Baltimore after a failed attempt to move to Milwaukee. Baseball REALLY wanted Milwaukee, though – the only reason the Browns didn’t move there was because the establishment hated their owner – and the Braves already had one of their top farm teams there. So Perini bought out the rest of his investors and moved the team, and that’s how the Boston Braves became the Milwaukee Braves.

Wouldn’t you know it… Milwaukee welcomed the Braves with absolute lunacy! They drew 1.8 million fans, and returned the love by winning 92 games! It seemed like the move was a great one for the team. Beleaguered in Boston and plagued with on-field issues, the Milwaukee Braves managed to sort everything out. That 92-win Welcome-to-Milwaukee year was only the first of a lot of memories the Braves created as Milwaukee’s team. As the decade progressed, the team kept getting better. By 1956, they finished second. Sluggers Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron – you’re going to want to remember his name because it’s going to become important soon – and power hitter Joe Adcock led the offense while Spahn and Sain, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl hammered opposing batters. In 1957, Aaron was voted the MVP and the Braves won the Pennant. Facing the Yankees of Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, they fought a seven-game duel and emerged victorious with their second World Series title. They gave Milwaukee an encore the next year, repeating as NL Champions, and facing the Yankees once again. The World Series went the distance again, but the Yankees won that last game after coming back from a 3-1 hole in the series. And in 1959, Milwaukee’s 86 wins placed them in first again. This time, though, they had a bit of added competition in the form of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who also won 86 games. The AL Pennant winner was the Chicago White Sox, and fans in both Chicago and Milwaukee were holding their breath for that White Sox/Braves Fall Classic since the cities are only about 75 miles apart. The Dodgers won the one-game playoff and spoiled it, though, and went on to win the World Series.

The 60’s started with the Braves in that first-round playoff hell. Or at least they would have if baseball had playoffs back then. Yeah, they were bumpy, but still competitive. They never exactly fell out of contention, and they always posted winning records, and hell, they had highlights to spare too: Two no-hitters in 1960 (Burdette and Spahn), Spahn’s 300th win and second no-hitter in 1961, Aaron hitting 45 home runs in 1962 (his high in Milwaukee), then hitting 44 with 130 RBI the next year while Spahn went 23-7. They didn’t have a very good team around them to boost that production into more wins, though, but the somewhat-mediocre team used the newly-created Houston Colt .45s and New York Metropolitans to fatten its win numbers. Perini, meanwhile, managed to sell the team in 1962 to an owner who wanted to be in a strong TV market. When word of that leaked out, the Mayor of the fast-growing city of Atlanta – who wanted to bring baseball to the city and had already failed to get the Kansas City Athletics to move there – built a 52,000-seat stadium to get the Braves’ attention. Long story short, it worked. The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966. In the time the Braves were in Milwaukee, they won two Pennants and the World Series, and are the only team in Major League Baseball to have never posted a losing record.

The Braves were merely average by the time they got to Atlanta. In fact, the move came almost just in time to keep the Braves from having a losing record in Milwaukee. That finally happened in 1967. They went 77-85 for their first losing record since Boston. They did rebound in 1969, though, and they did capture something: Their division! 1969 was the year divisions were introduced, and so being at the top of the pile at the end of the season merely entitled teams to something called a League Championship Series, not necessarily the Pennant. As it happened, the Braves lost the Pennant in that series to the famed Miracle Mets team which won the World Series.

After that, things got BAD. The Braves started losing as chronically as some of the old Boston teams. Sucking and sucking some more, the Braves became known for wacky promotions and stunts to get fans to take themselves out the ballgame. Ostrich racing, tightrope walking, and ice cream dives were commonplace, but none of them did quite as much to draw attention to the team as the hitters. The team’s park was hitter-friendly, so it produced batting champions in Rico Carty and Ralph Garr, and in 1973, three of the team’s hitters hit at least 40 home runs: Darrell Evans, Davey Johnson, and Hank Aaron. Aaron’s season was particularly noteworthy because at the end of 1973, he had 713 career home runs. Babe Ruth’s record was 714. Everyone knew Ruth’s record wasn’t going to last a whole lot longer. What’s more was that Atlanta was in the South. Throughout the winter and in the buildup, Aaron faced unfathomable racism and threats from white southerners who believed the home run record needed to belong to a white man. At one point, he received a photo of his family with a note saying something to the effect of that if he cared about the people in that picture, he would end the home run chase. Even journalists who gave positive press coverage to Aaron started getting threats and racist taunts. Things got so bad that even Claire Hodgson, Ruth’s widow, came forward to say that if Babe was still alive, he would have supported Aaron and cheered him on. (Ruth was frequently subjected to racist taunts himself for having “black features.” One of the taunts they used was “nigger lips,” because he had big lips.) Aaron weathered the storm and, on April 8, 1974, he hit home run number 715 off Dodgers pitcher Al Downing in the fourth inning. The crowd went wild, and two college student surprised him by jumping out of the stands to jog around the bases with him. There weren’t any incidents, and on October 2 of that same season, Aaron hit home run 733. It was his last as a Brave; he was traded to Milwaukee’s new team, the Brewers, after the season.

In 1976, Ted Turner bought the Braves, but he was as cash-strapped as any of the team’s other owners. He did weird things, like nickname a player to promote his channel and take over as manager for a game, but the Braves still kept losing. In 1978, they hired manager Bobby Cox, who put Dale Murphy into the lineup. Murphy could hit home runs, but he struggled on defense, so Cox moved him to the outfield, where he showed an incredible range and throwing ability. In 1980, that was enough to get the Braves a winning season. Even so, Cox was fired in 1981 and replaced with Joe Torre, who took them to a division title. Murphy won an MVP and a Gold Glove. In 1986, Cox was brought back, this time as the general manager. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn the Braves around. They were still defined by how bad they were. Then in the middle of the 1990 season, manager Russ Nixon was fired and Cox took over the position once again. And everything changed.

While the Braves finished with baseball’s worst record in 1990, they also had a deadly trio of pitchers waiting to take over the National League: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. They also had the first overall pick in the Draft that year, which they used on Chipper Jones. With additional talent in David Justice, Ron Gant, and MVP and batting champion Terry Pendleton, the Braves started 39-40 but won 55 of their last 83 games of the year. Taking the division, they beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS and took the Pennant. The worst-to-first run stopped in the World Series, though, despite going the distance against the Minnesota Twins. That basically defined the Braves in the 90’s. They were more than good; they rolled through the National League every year. Their pitching rotation was their anchor; throughout the decade, they won a total of six Cy Youngs: Glavine won two, Maddux won three (four if you count the one he reeled in with the Cubs before heading to Atlanta), and Smoltz won one. They also won five Pennants. But they earned comparisons to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills for their inability to close when it counted. Of all the teams they faced in the Series, they were only able to beat the Indians in 1995. Of the others, they lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992, and got flattened by a reborn Yankees dynasty in 1996 and 1999. (What, did you think it would be the Arizona Diamondbacks?)

The Pennants stopped coming in after 1999, but the Braves won division titles well into the millennium. In fact, they won 14 division championships in a row, which is still the MLB record. The 2005 team earned a special place in the hearts of fans because the team started a ton of rookies, and many players had grown up in and around Atlanta. Their visit to the NLDS was cut by the Houston Astros, but that series involved a five-hour, 50-minute, 18-inning epic that Houston’s Chris Burke ended with a home run off Joey Devine.

Longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzone left after the 2005 season, and the Braves dynasty walked out with him. The team struggled, and in 2010, Cox also decided he was finished. Chipper Jones retired after 2012. A retooling of the offense brought BJ Upton to Atlanta while Chris Johnson took over for Jones at third. The Braves managed to hit their way to a division title in 2013, but that was a brief reprieve. Although the Braves seem to know what they’re doing, they’re also in full rebuild mode, and it’s difficult to tell how that will go right now.

The Braves have retired 11 numbers: Dale Murphy, Bobby Cox, Chipper Jones, Warren Spahn, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Phil Niekro, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, and Tom Glavine. You’ll notice that at least six of those are from the 90’s, but hey, team contributions are team contributions, right? The Braves were awesome during the 90’s. The one name that really jumps out is Aaron, of course, because he hit 755 home runs over the course of his career. He was a Brave when he surpassed Ruth, and he hit 733 homers for them between Milwaukee and Atlanta. He got his attention for that talent, but he also led the league in fielding percentage several times and won three Gold Gloves. Playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, he surpassed Babe Ruth’s record for RBI. (Of note: Ruth was once a Brave too. Until Barry Bonds broke the home run record, the two greatest home run hitters ever had both played for the Braves at some point.) Mathews was the only player in the history of the team to play for the Braves while they were in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. Of slightly lesser note, Warren Spahn was arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history. He won 363 games, which is good for sixth-most in MLB history. His ERA was 3.09.

One of the Braves’ primary identifiers is also one of the most unusual in sports: They’ve won the World Series three times, all while calling a different city home. The first title came in Boston, the second was in Milwaukee, and the third was in Atlanta. I think only the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams are the only other team with an accomplishment like that, and theirs has a couple of asterisks. The first is the fact that the Rams returned to Los Angeles a couple of years ago after a spell in St. Louis, so they’re more or less on their fourth city. The second is that two of their titles were won before the Super Bowl era, so a lot of fans tend to discount them. But they won their first title as the Cleveland Rams the year before they moved to Los Angeles. They won their second in the 50’s there as one of the league’s marquee teams, then they won their Super Bowl as the St. Louis Rams in the 1999 season.

The owner of the Braves for many years was Ted Turner. While Turner was simply the owner and owners frequently have no bearing on fan loyalty, Turner was an owner of note because of his devotion to the Atlanta area. And he made his fortune as the owner of a television station or two. The Braves have been one of the most nationally televised teams in MLB since the start of TBS back in 1976, and they were a cornerstone of the superstation’s broadcasts right up until 2007. That’s a long time, and it took the Braves through Hank Aaron’s home run chase and the great teams of the 90’s. While other teams got featured on Fox Saturday Baseball on Saturdays, the Braves carried cable TV and that allowed them to cultivate one hell of a national fanbase. The TBS cable presentation was in fact called Braves TBS Baseball, and it was produced by Turner Sports itself starting even before the creation of TBS. Braves TBS Baseball was started in 1973, and Ted Turner aired it on his station back when he was still calling it WTCG. Turner was adamant about promoting his station at one time; he tried to get one of his players, Andy Messersmith, to use his jersey to promote the station. Messersmith wore number 17, and Turner thought it would be cute to give him the nickname “Channel” and put that nickname on the back of Messersmith’s jersey instead of his real name. Therefore, one of Atlanta’s starting pitchers would have been “Channel 17.” MLB didn’t like that idea and quickly dumped it before it was able to take off.

Although the partnership between cable TV and the Braves isn’t as strong as it used to be, it made enough of an impact to turn the Braves into America’s Team. The Braves helped create a large base of baseball fans in a part of the country which was pretty far removed from Major League Baseball for a long time. Even now, teams aren’t particularly close to the deep south. The St. Louis Cardinals sort of straddle the edge, and they’re about the most culturally south baseball is. What else is there? The Houston Astros and Texas Rangers are far removed the from the southeast, which means a fan in Georgia or Alabama might have no access to them. The Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays were both created in the 90’s and haven’t created any identifying loyalties. The Baltimore Orioles are in northern territory, and the Washington Nationals are also in northern territory and were stolen from Montreal very recently.

The Atlanta Braves are one of the oldest teams in baseball, so it makes sense that they would have accomplished so much. Yeah, their lack of titles may set fans aback, but if it’s titles they want, they’re probably fans for the wrong reasons anyway.

Pros

Get wide coverage despite being in a not-prominent media market; have won the World Series in every city they’ve called home; can lay claim to two of the three greatest home run hitters of all time; have brought baseball to those redneck relatives in the south you’re ashamed of; minimal Native imagery

Cons

Can easily be mistaken for Cleveland’s MLB team; Native imagery will make people who hate sports call you racist; when they suck, they really SUCK; have had some notable trouble actually winning the World Series when they’ve played in it

Should you be a fan?

If this was most other teams, this would be a definite yes. But people are going to ask you to defend the team’s use of Native images – even though you, the fan, have nothing to do with it – and that may be worth a second thought. Fortunately, the criticism in the case of the Atlanta Braves – while existent – has been relatively subdued because the far more tasteless Cleveland Indians have more attention on that issue.

 

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