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April 22, 2009
You Could Look It Up
At this time of year, early hot streaks push unexpected teams up in the standings, like the Marlins, the Blue Jays, and, momentarily, the Orioles. The question then becomes whether or not the good start is legitimate. Should we get excited? Since the Rays advanced from their seemingly permanent spot in the basement to the World Series last year, everyone is on the lookout for the next club to take the Great Leap Forward; if you're going to jump on a bandwagon, it looks better if you get on early. The truth, however, is that teams like the 2008 Rays, the ugly ducklings that become swans, don't come along early, and many a solid early-season record turns out to be little more than a tease.
Many teams over the years have gotten out in front of the league only to rapidly fall back. Christina Kahrl recently compared the Marlins to the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers, a team that opened the season 13-0, then cooled off to a 91-71 record, finishing third in a competitive AL East which (obviously) featured three teams that won 90 games or more, and another (the Yankees) that won 89. Those Brewers were ultimately a talented club, with a number of solid players like center fielder Robin Yount, and a top starter in lefty Teddy Higuera. It was a good team that got off to a great start. Perhaps more interesting is a bad team that gets off to a great start, fooling its fans for a week or two before rapidly collapsing.
The game offers many examples of this kind of team, but perhaps none more eccentric than the 1929 Boston Braves, a team deeply immersed in poverty and a culture of losing, a team that hadn't taken a pennant, or even come close, in more than a dozen years. It was the oldest team in the league, one with just two stars, and it didn't have a manager-it had a judge. Nonetheless, the Braves awoke on May 4, 1929 with a league-leading 8-2 record. Like the Marlins, who have played six of their first 13 games against a weak Nationals club, the Braves benefited from having six of their ten games against an equally weak Dodgers team that would finish with a 70-83 record in '29. Yet even that little spasm of winning was unlikely, given where the Braves had come from.
The Braves franchise, a National League original going back to 1876 and the winner of five pennants in the 1890s, had been stuck in the second division almost continuously during the 20th century, with just five top-four finishes since 1900. One of those, though, had been special-the "miracle" team that had gone from 69-82 the previous year to win 94 games and the World Series in 1914. However, that club had burned itself out by 1917, and except for a 79-74 fourth-place finish in 1921, the club had been a consistent doormat. From 1922 through 1924, the Braves lost an even 100 games a season. There were 10 such seasons in the Braves' record book just in the years prior to 1929. The 1924 team was populated by a number of superannuated ex-New York Giants. Its best offensive regular was outfielder Casey Stengel; he hit .280/.348/.382, and couldn't find a major league job the next year.
Into this mess came attorney Emil Fuchs, known as Judge Fuchs for a temporary magistracy he had once held in New York. He was the Giants' attorney, a former amateur player, and an avid baseball fan. In 1923, the owner of the Braves was looking to bail out on the sinking team, and he enlisted Giants manager John McGraw to help him. McGraw tapped Fuchs, and Fuchs, in turn, put together a partnership to buy the team because he wanted to give ex-Giants ace Christy Mathewson, in retirement and slowly wasting away from tuberculosis, something to do. Big Six would run the club, and Fuchs would continue to be a New York lawyer, commuting to Boston part-time. Unfortunately, Mathewson's illness moved faster than anticipated, and claimed him on the day of Game One of the 1925 World Series, leaving Fuchs to run the club on his own.
Due to spending so many years in the second division, the Braves had become a financial sieve, and that was true even with the Red Sox also experiencing a lost decade. Part of the problem may have been the super-sized field in which they played. Opened in 1916, not only was Braves Field the majors' largest (prior to Yankee Stadium) in terms of seating capacity, but it was the largest on the field as well, with huge, homer-killing dimensions. It was years before any home runs were hit there at all, and between 1916 and 1927 (the last year before Fuchs tried to shrink the field by constructing additional stands), only three Braves had hit even 10 homers in a season. The franchise single-season high for the period was 12, by center fielder Ray Powell in 1921. Seven of those were hit on the road, but note that he hit 14 of 19 triples at home. It was that kind of ballpark.
The 1928 Braves proved to the very few far into the future who were curious about the very obscure that, yes, you can lose 103 games despite having a regular post an adjusted OPS of 200 or an Equivalent Average of .374. Second baseman Rogers Hornsby, dumped on the Braves by the Giants that January (the Giants sent a lot of their refuse north to Fuchs, which explains Stengel's presence on the 1924 roster) after the Rajah had had one of his inevitable personality conflicts with McGraw or ownership or the traveling secretary or all three, batted .387/.498/.632, and though the park's dimensions had been altered, the cold wind off of the Charles River still made the stadium a tough one for hitters. This wasn't just Roaring Twenties-style inflation, it was legitimate. Another Hornsby inevitability took place when he annexed the manager's job 31 games into the season; the club was 11-20 at the time. Fuchs asked Hornsby if the club would improve on his watch. "Not with those humpty-dumpties," the club's new leader of men replied.
Hornsby went 39-83 and the club was still broke, so Fuchs dealt the slugger to the Cubs that November for five mediocre players, the best of whom was pitcher Socks Seibold, who managed one decent season in the short remainder of his career. Hornsby's replacement at second base, Freddy Maguire, arrived in the deal, a glove man whose career EqA would be .208, quite a comedown from the Hall of Fame slugger who preceded him. That didn't solve the problem of who would take over for Hornsby on the bench. Fuchs was advised by his main partner/creditor to skip taking on the additional salary that the manager would have required, and take the job himself. This Fuchs did, and he hired Johnny Evers to act as a kind of coach/shadow manager along with him. "If I don't make good, no one will realize it quicker than I," Fuchs said, "and it will be perfectly simple for me, as president, to remove myself as manager."
When McGraw got word of Fuchs' decision, he jokingly sent him a pair of pants with a leather seat, maybe because McGraw would be regularly kicking that seat in the upcoming season. Fuchs didn't wear them, sticking to business attire while on the bench. This had a dual downside: first, the suit emphasized how out of place Judge Fuchs seemed to be, and second, it prevented him from going out on the field during games to make pitching changes or argue calls. As such, he had the appearance of passivity.
Many stories have been told of Fuchs the distracted manager, many likely apocryphal. The best was that with a runner on third in a close game, he asked the bench for strategic advice. Someone suggested calling for a squeeze. "A squeeze? No," he supposedly said. "Let us score our runs in an honorable way." Given how much baseball Fuchs was supposed to have watched over the years, and he stayed connected to the game both before and after his Braves ownership, it is very, very doubtful that he was quite so na´ve. This is especially true given the roster he had; the Braves had no power, hitting just 33 homers as a team, and were forced to bunt a league-leading 197 times. They led the league by 21 sacrifices, and some of them were undoubtedly squeezes.
The Fuchs-led, Hornsby-free Braves had two future Hall of Famers among their position players. Unfortunately, 36-year-old George Sisler's .326/.363/.424 (two home runs; his EqA was .260) was no great shakes given that the league as a whole hit .294/.357/.426 that year, and 37-year-old shortstop Rabbit Maranville, who had been around long enough to star on the 1914 team, leave for eight years, and come back, still had the chops with the glove, but had long since retired his bat (.241 EqA). The club had a few other solid players. Thirty-seven-year-old left fielder George Harper, another McGraw refugee, led the team with 10 home runs (eight on the road) while batting .291/.389/.433. Left-handed pitcher Big Ed Brandt, 24, would be a decent pitcher for the team in the future, but wasn't in 1929, though he did avoid one indignity from his rookie year the previous season, in which he lost 21 games. On the whole, the pitching staff was miserable, posting a 5.12 ERA-4.44 in their spacious home, and a ghastly 5.88 on the road.
Nonetheless, they outlasted the Dodgers 13-12 on Opening Day, just stifling a Brooklyn rally in the top of the ninth. The next day they played a Patriot's Day doubleheader, and the Braves took both ends, winning the morning game 6-5 before an announced crowd of 900, and then seeing Brandt beating Dazzy Vance in the nightcap. One of the great strikeout pitchers of his day, Vance had been hit on the elbow during batting practice, but he pitched anyway and did not whiff a single batter. Thus are unlikely winning streaks kept alive.
Vance had his revenge a few days later as the season continued at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers taking both ends of a two-game series there. The Braves then headed for the Polo Grounds, where Fuchs had the joy of taking both halves of a two-game series from McGraw, the first in an offensive explosion keyed by Harper's third home run of the season, the second when four errors by the home team led to a crucial unearned run. Returning to Brooklyn, they took a rain-shortened, six-inning win from the Dodgers. Two days later in Philadelphia, they beat the Phillies 14-12, Harper hitting homer number four to help overcome Brandt's shellacking. Finally, they returned home to face a good Pirates team. There Seibold earned a complete-game, three-run win despite allowing home runs to Paul Waner and Boots Grantham.
Just like that, the Braves were 8-2. It was the high point of the season, and everyone knew it. A reporter approached Fuchs, "Why don't you quit now?" he asked, "You're leading the league." Fuchs agreed, but plans for Maranville to take over the club foundered on the Rabbit's insistence on a five-year contract. Fuchs officially stayed on, though he was frequently off in New York trying to keep his law practice going-with an average attendance of 4,836 a game, the man had to find ways to pay the bills. It was Fuchs' name in the manager register, but it was Johnny Evers who managed many of the remaining games, the club going 48-96 the rest of the way to finish in last place.
The rest of the Fuchs/Braves story is not easily condensed. Fuchs hired Bill McKechnie to manage in 1930, probably the best decision he made during his custodianship of the team. McKechnie was an excellent manager whose focus on defense perhaps made him a good fit for a team in a pitchers' park. Things got better on the field as they became worse in the front office, with the team reaching .500 in 1932 and even making a late feint at second place in 1933, holding the spot for 10 days in late August. They were decent again in 1934, but then it all collapsed, as the Braves endured one of the worst seasons in history at 38-115. Fuchs lost the club, drowning in debt, with a vague promise to Babe Ruth that he would replace McKechnie, and the suggestion that the team should be moved to Fenway Park so that Braves Field could be rented out for dog racing.
Fuchs lived until 1961, long enough to see the Braves finally win a pennant in '48, relocate to Milwaukee, and win a World Series. His name lives on in baseball through the Judge Emil Fuchs Memorial Award, endowed by his family and given out each season by the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Recent winners include Dick Berardino, Peter Gammons, Lenny Merullo, and Marvin Miller, and the current commissioner of baseball.
Baseball Prospectus's Rany Jazayerli did fine work on the predicative power of team records back in 2003, and found that it is not until the 30-game mark that a team's season record is predictive of what it's going to do over the rest of the season. Thus, Marlins fans, Blue Jays fans, Padres fans-just stay frosty until the middle of next month, and try not to think about Judge Emil Fuchs. Sometimes a fast start leads to the World Series. At other times, it's only a path to financial ruin and a trophy for Bud Selig. It's better to wait and see which it's going to be before becoming emotionally committed.