Tuesday, May 21, 2013

May 20- Atlanta Braves

Speaking of storied franchises, how about the Atlanta Braves? This hat was one of the first ones I picked up in the 2012 Stars and Stripes series at Just Sports (@JustSportsPDX) when I worked there this last holiday season. In fact, when I picked it up it was part of a two for $22 deal we ran on them for a weekend. A deal like that, you know I wasn’t just going to pass it up.

The Braves franchise has been in existence since 1870 when they resided in Boston and went through a series of name changes from then until 1912 when they landed on the Braves until 1935. But, they changed the names briefly again in 1936 to the Bees before changing it back to the Braves at the start of the 1941 season. At the end of the 1952 season the Braves moved to Milwaukee until 1965 before finally setting up shop in Atlanta where they still reside today. With 144 years to work with, I found a few solid names which I’ll go into detail about below.

For the last few years the Braves have been teaming up with Emory University in Atlanta for BraveHeart: Welcome Back Veterans Southeast Initiative, which provides veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan access to mental health and counseling services. The Braves have been one of the few teams to be at the forefront of support and personal involvement with the men and women who serve in the armed forces by doing additional relief work overseas and within the community by visiting VA hospitals, hosting parties and providing tickets to active and retired members of the military.

Since 1971 I didn’t really find any patterns on Memorial Day, but I did come across a few things that I think are interesting. Over that timeframe the Braves have gone 23-18 while only missing one date in 1985 due to traveling. In 1976 the Braves lost to the San Diego Padres; however, the bit of note I found a bit peculiar is that the Braves played a doubleheader the day before… and another one the previous week… and two more the previous week… and another the week before that… and one more the week before that. That’s right; the Braves played five doubleheaders in the month of May including a final one right before Memorial Day. I can only imagine the players from that team were a bit spent. Other than that, their best streak came from 1993-2002 when they won 10 straight games on Memorial Day, four of which came against the Chicago Cubs consecutively from 1994-1998. The Braves have gone 5-1 against the Cubs on Memorial Day, followed closely by the Montreal Expos at 3-1. A little tidbit about the Expos is that they beat the Braves on their first Memorial Day meeting in 1990 and lost the next three in 2001, 2002 and 2004, but won in 2005 when they relocated and changed their name to the Washington Nationals.

#21*363- Warren Spahn had his career interrupted by World War II. Unlike Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, who was already famous when he was drafted, Spahn achieved notoriety after the war. Span had what ball players call “a cup of coffee” (a brief appearance in the majors) in 1942, pitching just four games before he was drafted. The lefty had a far rougher World War II experience than most big-leaguers, who spent the conflict out of harm’s way with gloves instead of guns, but before entering the fray he too got to play some ball. Pitching in the summer of 1944 for the Gruber Engineers, with Reimann as his catcher, Spahn won his first 10 games -- seven on shutouts -- and struck out 186 batters in just 80 innings. The winning streak was snapped when he uncharacteristically committed three throwing errors in a 7-1 loss to the semipro Atlas Electrics of Tulsa at Texas League Park on July 30, 1944. He may have had a lot on his mind, because Spahn was shipped to Europe aboard the Queen Mary on November 9, 1944. As a staff sergeant in the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, he arrived in France a few weeks later, and survived for about 10 days on peanut butter sandwiches provided by friendly British soldiers.

Spahn’s 9th Armored Division, which preceded much larger groups of Allied troops, was charged with repairing roads and bridges. Spahn fought in the snowy, frozen Battle of the Bulge, getting nicked by bullets on the abdomen and back of the head. Crossing France and Belgium, his division arrived at the Rhine River and the Ludendorff railroad bridge at Remagen on March 7, 1945. While retreating, the Nazis had destroyed every intact bridge but the one at Remagen. The demolitions were in place, but for some reason they had never pushed the plunger. The bridge’s defense was crucial to the Allies for delivering men, vehicles and equipment to the German heartland. On March 9, Sergeant Spahn and the 276th were ordered to the bridge to remove the demolitions, repair the bridge, maintain it, and construct a second span for two-way traffic. Working furiously to maintain the girders, Spahn and Co. were bombarded by V-2 rockets while troops, tanks, and trucks crossed above them. A biographer, Al Silverman, later described the scene:

While the bridge vibrated and twanged like banjo strings, swaying precariously as marching infantrymen tramped across each catwalk, and tanks rumbled across the planked railbed, the units patched holes, bolstered the bridge with heavy supports, repaired damaged flooring and cratered approaches.”

Ten days after the first successful crossing, Spahn received an assignment at a meeting over the center of the bridge and walked off to explain to his platoon that they’d be taking over the bridge’s security at 4 p.m. At 3:56 a platoon member shouted, “Look at the back! The bridge is falling down!” Possibly overloaded, certainly bombarded, the span slipped into the river, leaving 28 soldiers dead, 93 injured, and Sergeant Spahn with shrapnel in his left foot. Having crossed the Rhine, however, the Americans were able to protect a second bridge and other smaller pontoon bridges they built. Surgeons removed Spahn’s shrapnel. On June 1, 1945, he was the only ballplayer given a battlefield promotion, from staff sergeant to second lieutenant. In all, he earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a battlefield promotion, and a Presidential citation. That made him the most decorated ballplayer in World War II. (Like Spahn, Hoyt Wilhelm earned a Purple Heart, but Spahn alone received the Bronze Star.)

Aged rapidly by his battle experiences into a partially bald and fully-grown veteran, Spahn also built up stamina, concentration, and discipline during this period. “After what I went through overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work,” he insisted. “You get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy-threatened territory. The Army taught me what’s important and what isn’t.”

Typically, Spahn found humor in the grimmest of situations. Because German spies would wear American uniforms, he said, “Anybody we didn’t know, we’d ask, ‘Who plays second for the Bums?’ If he didn’t answer ‘Eddie Stanky,’ he was dead.” Spahn had no use for being labeled a hero. “The guys who died over there were heroes,” he told his son, Greg. Nor did Spahn cotton to the view of baseball historians who estimated that he lost 30 or 40 wins to service time. “I matured a lot in those [war] years,” he said. “If I had not had that maturity, I wouldn’t have pitched until I was 45.” (A statement like that says much about character. By contrast, the querulous Bob Feller says that if it weren’t for his wartime service, “I’d have won more games than Warren Spahn.”)

Unaware that the war would end just two months later after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Spahn accepted the battlefield promotion, which forced him to remain in the service until the next May and miss the start of the ’46 baseball season. Instead, he became the hottest pitcher in Germany that spring; working for the 115th Engineers Group, he allowed one run and struck out 73 batters in four games. And when he returned stateside, the Braves immediately promoted him to the majors, on June 10, 1946. “This is the first time in years I’ve reported to anybody without saluting,” he told new Boston manager Billy Southworth. - Jim Kaplan, SABR

Spahn played for 21 years in the Major Leagues, 20 of which came with the Braves while they were in Boston and Milwaukee. Following the 1964 season, after 25 years with the franchise, Spahn was sold by the Braves to the New York Mets. Braves manager Bobby Bragan predicted, "Spahnie won't win six games with the Mets." Spahn took on the dual role of pitcher and pitching coach. Spahn won four and lost 12 at which point the Mets put Spahn on waivers. He was put on waivers on July 15, 1965 and released on July 22, 1965. He immediately signed with the San Francisco Giants, with whom he finished the season. With the Mets and Giants combined, he won seven games for the season—his last in the major leagues. His number would be retired by the Braves later that year. Shame too, he was one year away from playing in all three cities the Braves had been affiliated with.

Spahn is hands down one of the Top-three greatest left-handed pitchers in the game, but for sure the winningest. His 363 wins by a lefty isn’t even close to be matched. Throughout his career he made 14 All-Star Game appearances, led the League in strikeouts four times (1949-1952), led the League in wins eight times (1949-1950, 1953 and 1957-1961), finished 23rd or better for the National League MVP award 14 times, won the NL Cy Young award in 1957 and a World Series champion in 1957. Spahn was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 on the second ballot. No, it’s not what you think. Spahn’s first time on the ballot came in 1958 for reasons I have yet to figure out. At that time he received 0.4% of the votes; however, when elected in 1973 he received 83.2% of the vote. At the end of the 1965 season the Braves retired his number.

41- Unlike Spahn, Eddie Mathews did in fact play in all three of the cities the Braves resided. Born in Texarkana, Texas, on October 13, 1931, Mathews signed with the Boston Braves in 1949 on the night of his high school graduation in Santa Barbara, California, for $5,999. Turning down college football scholarships and more money from other big-league teams, Mathews chose to sign with the Braves after careful consideration (and advice from his father), knowing that he would soon have a job replacing the Braves' aging third baseman, Bob Elliot.

Mathews spent his first two seasons in the minors, perfecting a swing that even baseball great Ty Cobb described as "perfect." In 1950 the Korean War (1950-53) forced Mathews to leave the minors and enlist in the navy. He was soon released, however, because of his status as an only child and his father's battle with tuberculosis. Due to him being an only child he was listed as the “sole provider;” therefore, Mathews was allowed to go back to the Braves in order to make a living for he and his mother. Mathews returned late into the 1951 season and spent the rest of the season in the minors with the Atlanta Crackers (AA) and the Milwaukee Brewers (AAA). On April 15, 1952 Mathews made his MLB debut as the starting third baseman for the Braves. This would be the first of many starts for Mathews.

Mathews’ Major League career with the Braves lasted until the end of the 1966 season, their first year in Atlanta, before finishing out his last two seasons with the Houston Astros (1967) and Detroit Tigers (1967-1968). Mathews made nine All-Star Game appearances, finished in third place for the 1952 NL Rookie of the Year award (.242/25/48), finished in second place twice for the NL MVP award in 1953 and 1959 and won a World Series ring with Spahn in 1957. Mathews hit 512 home runs for his career, the second-most by a third baseman behind Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies. It took five attempts, but Mathews was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978.

#1- If there was ever player in MLB history who looked the most like his name it has to be Rabbit Maranville. Maranville had served in the Army during World War I; however, I’m having a very difficult time finding any other specific details on his military history.

From 1912-1920, 1929-1933 and 1935 he donned a Braves jersey in Boston. At 5’5’’, Maranville was a surprisingly great baseball player. He’s one of roughly 20 players have 10,000 or more plate appearances (11,256), not to mention he held the record for most consecutive seasons played (23) which was broken in 1986 by Pete Rose. He finished in 17th or better for the NL MVP award seven times throughout his career, the best of which was a second place finish in 1914 when he batted .246 with four home runs, 78 RBI and 28 stolen bases. His teammate Johnny Evers won with only a slightly better batting average (.276).

He retired having compiled a .258 batting average, 2,605 hits, 1,255 runs, 28 home runs, 884 RBI and 291 stolen bases. As a shortstop, he finished his career with a positional record 5,139 putouts. He won his only World Series championship in 1914 as a member of the Braves, and won his only other National League Championship in 1928 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Maranville was known as one of "baseball's most famous clowns" due to his practical jokes and lack of inhibitions. When he was appointed manager of the Chicago Cubs in 1925—one of their worst seasons ever—he did not change his behavior. One night he went through a Pullman car dumping water on sleeping players' heads, saying, "No sleeping under Maranville management, especially at night." Not long after that, he was out on the street outside Ebbets Field in Brooklyn mimicking a newsboy hawking papers. He cried out, "Read all about it! Maranville fired!" And so he was—the next day.
Maranville was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1954, along with Bill Terry and Bill Dickey, in his 14th year of eligibility. His election came just months after his death at age 62.

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