Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: Baseball's Greatest Comeback (2014)

By J. Brian Ross

One hundred years later, we still remember the "Miracle Braves." For the ten decades since then, teams that have gotten off to poor stars - meaning sitting in last place at the start of July - have been looking to that Braves team as an example that just about anything is possible.

The 100th anniversary of that team's fabled rise is as good a time as any to refresh the memory of that story. J. Brian Ross takes up the cause by retelling the tale of the Braves' season with "Baseball's Greatest Comeback."

The Braves dug themselves a huge hole in the first two months of the season, getting off to a 10-24 start. That put them well out of the National League pennant race, and a month later they were 15 games behind the New York Giants and still sitting in last.

On July 7, the Braves stopped in Buffalo for an exhibition game with the minor league Bisons. The author doesn't note that manager George Stallings had worked in Buffalo from 1902 to 1906 and in the 1911-12 seasons, winning two championships there, and thus had some incentive to play well in a game that didn't count. Afterwards, Stallings and the rest of the Braves weren't happy about getting thrashed by "bush leaguers," and maybe that loss threw a switch. Or, maybe the Braves simply started living up to their potential.

Whatever the reason, the Braves went from 26-40 on July 4 to 69-53 at the end of the season - a record of 43-13. Boston went from eighth to first to win the division, and unexpectedly swept the mighty Philadelphia Athletics to win the World Series. More modern fans might remember how the New York Mets went on a huge run in the last six weeks of 1969's regular season to win the division, and then raced through the playoffs. This was even more unexpected, since it was a "worst-to-first" story.

Stallings became famous for his work in that season, but he obviously had help. The Braves had a Hall of Fame double play combination in Rabbit Maranville and Johnny Evers, a fine catcher in Hank Gowdy, and two 26-game winners in Dick Rudolph and Bill James. The team also made a couple of relatively important in-season moves that helped improve the roster.

Author J. Brian Ross obviously put in some time doing research, checking over newspaper accounts of games and looking over other sources of material. He even uses some new-age statistics (OPS and WAR) every so often along the way. The back of the book is jammed with notes.

Therefore, there's a lot of information here about the team that's useful. Even so, it comes across as a rather dry literary effort that includes a few redundancies along the way.

Part of it might be Ross' academic background. There's not much enthusiasm expressed to carry the reader along, so it's a little hard to get caught up in the story. Ross also wants to make a connection between the team and the Progressive Era in American history, represented by the reforms started by Teddy Roosevelt and carried forward into the next decade. But the ties aren't really explained fully and seem a little forced. I should add here that the author's use of raising events from the start of World War I in 1914 do supply some context to events on this side of the ocean, as baseball must have seemed quite frivolous to those on the Western Front.

In addition, it would have been nice to have seen a good breakdown between what went wrong at the start of the season and what went right at the end. There are a few statistics mentioned, but the story could have used more analysis.The writers of the time often credited Boston's "fighting spirit," but obviously the long winning streak (19-1) by pitcher James - which came out of absolutely nowhere - was a little more helpful. James, by the way, never came close to matching his 1914 performance.

The story checks in at less than 170 pages including the introduction, and that includes short biographies of some other large baseball personalities who didn't play for the Braves - Cy Young, John McGraw, Connie Mack, etc. That's not much for a book listed at $38. It might have been nice to read an epilogue on what happened after the World Series victory - individually and collectively. The Braves remained good for a couple of years after the Miracle, but didn't win anything.

"Baseball's Greatest Comeback" supplies well-documented information on the 1914 Boston Braves, and those looking for the basic story of the team will find it here. Even so, I found myself using an old analogy when thinking about the publication - all of the notes are there, but there's not much music.

Three stars

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