It’s on the verge of happening.
Something that hasn’t happened in the baseball world within the memory of nearly all living baseball fans could (and should) happen sometime this season—and it could happen as early as this week.
What is this mystery event? Simple: The Braves might become nine games over .500 on the year.
Wait, that’s anything but unprecedented. They made it to and beyond nine games over .500 last year. And the year before that. And 18 of the last 20 seasons in all. Who cares if they are nine games over .500 this year?
Well, if they get nine games over this year, it has a larger implication. You see, when the 2011 season began, the Braves’ all-time franchise record stood at 9,945 wins an 9,954 losses, so making it nine games over .500 for this season gets them to the great mid-point in all franchise history—a perfect .500 record.
And that is something that hasn’t happened in quite a long time.
1. Last time at .500: June 3, 1923
Aside from their inaugural season in 1876, the Braves have been at .500 exactly once, when they fell to 3,084-3,084 all-time after losing a shortened six-inning game to Brooklyn 7-6 on June 3, 1923.
To make an obvious point: 88 years, that’s a long time. On that day, Warren G. Harding was America’s president. Vladimir Lenin was still alive. Bob Dole was a fetus. Adolf Hitler had just starting running a marginal reactionary group in southern Germany. Benito Mussolini was the new, young leader of Italy.
In baseball terms, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson still played. Babe Ruth had just inaugurated the 200-home run club. It was so long ago, the Yankees had yet to win their first world championship. That said, the Cubs haven’t won a single world championship in all that time, so in some ways it’s familiar.
2. The longest stretch
OK, so it’s a long time. But is it the longest stretch ever for a club to be under .500?
Nah, the Phillies fell under .500 the year before in 1922 and haven’t been back over since. (And given that they’re still over 1,000 games under .500, they ain’t likely to get over it any time soon).
But the Phillies are merely the NL champs. The Browns/Orioles franchise holds the all-time record, as they have never been at .500. They began their first season on a losing streak and have never been over that hump. (Rather confusingly, they began as neither the Baltimore Orioles nor the St. Louis Browns. They were the Milwaukee Brewers in 1901 and didn’t become the Browns until the next year. Then they moved to Baltimore a half-century later).
The Braves’ current stretch is the fourth-longest ever by a team under .500. They also trail the Senators/Twins, who last hit .500 on July 26, 1901.
3. Longest stretches that have ever come to an end
But the above is a little beside the point. The noteworthy thing about Atlanta’s quest for .500 isn’t that they’ve been under it for so long, but that they’re on the verge of breaking through. What’s the longest time a team has spent under .500 and made it back to baseball’s equator?
Well, not surprisingly, the current record is nowhere near 88 years. In an upset, though, the record holder is an expansion team, the Houston Astros.
In Houston’s inaugural season of 1962, a loss on April 26 gave the Colt .45s (as they were known back then) a record of 6-6. They next had a franchise record at .500 almost exactly 44 years later on April 18, 2006, when a win propelled them to 3,507-3,507 all-time.
Among non-expansion teams, the Dodgers possess the longest stretch under .500 to be overcome. They hit .500 in July 1909 and stayed under for 38 years until July 24, 1947. They’ve been over .500 ever since.
A young John Smoltz was the losing pitcher when the Braves reached their
4. Brave low point: April 20, 1991
In the 88 years the Braves have been under .500, they’ve predictably had their ups and downs. They’re downest down didn’t come that long ago, though.
On April 20, 1991 they dropped a game 3-0 to the Reds when Tom Browning and Rob Dibble combined to throw a four-hit shutout.
That dropped the Braves’ all-time record to 526 games under .500 (8,105-8,631).
Immediately after that game the Braves won three in a row and five out of six.
They ended up winning 94 games that year and finishing in first place, making the Braves one of the few teams to have their all-time low come in a really good season.
Usually, for obvious reasons, it doesn’t work like that.
It’s surprising that their low point would be so recent. Then again, if they hadn’t been so low in the 1990s, they would’ve made it over .500 previously given how good they’ve been in the last 20 seasons.
5. Boston bottoming out
On the other hand, it is rather surprising that the Braves’ all-time low point came in Atlanta because they were so very bad for so very long in Boston. Do you know why they left Boston? Because they couldn’t draw fans. Do you know why they couldn’t draw fans? Because they were frequently terrible.
In their last half-century in Boston, they had as many 100-loss seasons as they had winning seasons: 11 each. They once lost 100 games four consecutive years. Another time, they did it three straight seasons.
Their low point in Boston came on July 11, 1946, when their ninth loss in a dozen games put the franchise record at 4,596-5,120, which is 524 games under .500.
In other words, the Braves’ all-time low in 1991 ever so narrowly broke the old franchise mark. For all intents and purposes, the Braves played .500 ball for 45 years, caught fire in the Bobby Cox era, and are now finally on the verge of crashing through their disastrous Boston inheritance to cross the magic .500 border.
6. Brave high point: April 23, 1903
Noting how incredibly awful the Braves were in Boston raises a question. If they were that bad for that long (and they were), how come they bottomed out at “only” 524 games under .500 in Boston? After all, if the current Braves could overcome a 526-game deficit in just 20 years, shouldn’t they have fallen lower in a half-century of frequent failure?
Well, the key is to realize they played in Boston a lot longer than a half-century. They lasted a little over three-quarters of a century, actually. That first stretch was a glory stretch for them, so when they fell apart, they weren’t beginning at .500, but far above.
The Braves won two of the first three NL pennants, and in the 1890s had one of the greatest stretches by any team ever, claiming five pennants in seven years. In 1892, they became the first team ever to win 100 games in a season. Six years later, they became the second team ever to do so.
When things went wrong for them in the 20th century, they stayed wrong for quite some time, but their early run kept them comfortably over .500. They peaked at 1,833-1,310, a record 523 games over .500. It’s rather odd how their best and worst records are almost identical: 523 up at the start of the century, 526 down towards its end—and 524 down at the mid-century.
They’re the only team ever to be 500 games above and below 500.
7. The Boston Braves miracle
When the Braves fell apart, they really fell apart, averaging exactly 100 losses per year from 1905-1912. When you play that bad, it’s easy to fritter away a 523-game inheritance.
Just 11 years after their all-time high, they looked poised to fall under .500 as a franchise. After 11 straight losing seasons, 1914 looked like it would make it an even dozen consecutive campaigns of futility. They hit the ground thudding, dropping 16 of their first 19, and looked like they would be lucky to make it to seventh place.
Their season bottomed out on June 8, 1914, when a loss to the Reds put them 12-26 on the year and 2,437-2,398 for their franchise history. (For those interested, that means they went 604-1,088 since their peak, for a .357 winning percentage. That’s equivalent to a team going 58-104 over a season nowadays. Yeah, that was a bad 11 years they had).
In just 11 years they’d blown all but 39 games from their once lofty perch 523 games over .500. At the 12-26 rate they were playing, they would fall under .500 altogether before the end of 1914. Even if you expect a little regression to the mean, they still should’ve fallen under .500 by the next season barring an unforeseen miracle.
But a miracle is just what they got. The 1914 squad is known as the Miracle Braves because they did the impossible: After being left for dead and in last place as late as the Fourth of July, they roared to first place and won the pennant. By 10.5 games. Yeah, that ain’t bad. After starting the year 12-28, they went 82-31 the rest of the way. There’s a reason they’re called the Miracle Braves.
They also played pretty well the next few years. A win over the Giants on April 20, 1917 gave them a franchise record 132 games over .500 (2,695-2,563), which provided some breathing room.
However, the club soon fell back on hard times, and gasping for air used up all that breathing room. Three consecutive 100-loss seasons from 1922-24 put them under .500, where they’ve remained to this day.
8. Their nearest approach to .500 since 1923
Since falling under .500, the Braves have had their ups and their downs, just as they had on their road to .500. The first 20-25 years was little more than a litany of failure, leading to their low point in 1946. Earlier, I said they basically played .500 for the next 45 years, and while that’s true on the whole, they were rarely a .500 team in any given season.
The team won a surprise pennant under manager Billy Southworth in 1948, and were normally respectable in their final years in Boston, allowing them to leave town “only” 480 games under .500.
Then they went to Milwaukee and had their greatest stretch since the 1890s. The 1950s Milwaukee Braves were anchored around stars Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and Eddie Mathews, winning two pennants and narrowly missing a few more in that decade. They had a winning record 14 seasons in a row, including all 13 they were in Milwaukee.
Yet the Milwaukee years were only enough to erase half of their deficit, from 480 games under to 224 when they left Wisconsin. The Braves happened to peak right when the NL was arguably peaking. It integrated much more aggressively than the AL, and was by far the superior league. Thus, as great as the Braves were, they never won more than 95 games in a season in the 1950s.
Really, this is a sign of how consistently good the modern Braves have been. Improving a team’s record by over 500 games in 20 years is nearly impossible.
But the Milwaukee years had cut down most of the deficit, and when they came to Atlanta, the Braves were more bad than good in their first years. A victory on June 4, 1970, put them 6,629-6,819 for the franchise’s history, just 190 games under .500.
Heyward: Can he get (and keep) the Braves over .500?
9. Long walk backwards
And then the worm turned on Atlanta again. There’s a reason why no team has ever overcome a 500-game deficit to make it to .500. You have to churn through an entire roster once or twice and keep winning.
They were never as bad as they had been in the pre-Miracle Braves days but, then again, no one plays that badly anymore.
From 1975-1990, they posted three winning seasons in 16 years, and one of those was a just-over-the-border 81-80 mark.
They peaked at 89 wins in 1982 while losing 90 or more games 10 times. In all, they went 1,110-1,416, wiping out 30 years of progress for the franchise.
Then came their modern glory run, putting them in contention to get on the good side of .500.
10. Can they stay over?
First off, they have to get over. They still haven’t done that. Their odds are really good, though. They were expected to do well by most entering this season and so far have played decently.
On May 17, they reached six games over .500 after just 44 games played, so they should be able to go three games over in the next 118.
I guess I should have some bold, visionary statement, but crystal ball reading is just guesswork. I like them to play good ball for the foreseeable future, but no one really knows what the future holds. As the saying goes, that’s why they play the games.
References & Resources
I downloaded all the seasonal gamelogs from Retrosheet into Excel, and got computer help from original THT Vinay Kumar to figure out how to determine the club’s all-time record after each game.
The column’s format comes from the “10 Things I Didn’t Know Last Week” pieces Boss-man Studenmund used to do.
One final inspiration: When the Royals all-time record fell under .500, Rob Neyer wrote a column about it, and that has stuck with me ever since.