The Boston (Braves) Marathon of 1928

In his renowned poem, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot asserted that “April is the cruelest month.” Well, the beginning of April marks the end of spring training, and for players who are cut right before opening day, “cruel” might be an apt adjective. But I don’t think that’s what Eliot was talking about.

I’m guessing that Eliot was not a baseball fan, but not for lack of opportunity. Born in St. Louis in 1888, Eliot might have seen some Browns or Cardinals games while growing up, and when he went on to Harvard, he had his choice of Red Sox or Braves games. By 1927, however, Eliot had left America and become a British subject. A pity, because had he stayed in Boston one more year and witnessed the Braves’ fortunes that summer, he might have swapped out April for September.

Top-heavy is the word for the National League in 1928. Six teams finished above .500, two teams below .500—way below .500. The Braves and the Phillies each lost more than 100 games. The Braves finished at 50-103, 44.5 games out. The Phillies were even worse at 43-109 and 51 games out.

The two teams also finished at the bottom of the league in attendance. The Braves drew a mere 227,001 spectators. Cincinnati, the team immediately ahead of them in NL attendance, drew more than twice as many fans (490,490). The Phillies logged (or should I say slogged) in at 182,168 fans.

Since the Miracle Braves of 1914, the Boston Nationals had been a pretty forgettable franchise. In the 13 seasons since that triumph, the Braves had only finished in the first division once (fourth place in 1921). The 1928 Braves, however, suffered indignities no team should have to bear. What had been a dismal season became excruciating during the final month of the season. Atlas himself might have caved in if he’d had to bear the burdens of the Boston Braves during September of 1928.

Given their record, we can safely conclude that the Braves were not overloaded with talent, but they did have one shining star. Rogers Hornsby led the league in average (.387), walks (107), on-base percentage (.498), and slugging percentage (.632). After 31 games, he was named player-manager.

Perhaps the Braves’ top brass felt his offensive prowess would carry over to managing. It didn’t. As manager, Hornsby’s record was just 39-83, registering an even lower winning percentage (.320) than Jack Slattery, the man he replaced (11-20, .355).

Aside from Hornsby, George Sisler, who started the season with the Senators, chipped in with a .340 average (matching his lifetime average), and Lance Richbourg, something of a late bloomer, hit .337with 206 hits at age 30.

Despite the outstanding seasons of Hornsby, Sisler, and Richbourg, the Braves scored just 631 runs, last in the league. Their team ERA was 4.83, far behind sixth-place Pittsburgh at 3.95, and ahead of only the relentlessly hapless Phillies, who clocked in at 5.61.

The Braves started the season with a three-game losing streak and never were able to reach the .500 mark. As bad as their prospects may have appeared in April, the reality in September was even worse, and not just because they were buried deep in the second division. The elements had conspired against them.

April showers have always created problems in baseball scheduling. Usually, rained-out games were rescheduled for off days or tacked on to regularly scheduled games as double-headers. Given the multiple trips made by each team to each city during the era of eight-team leagues, it usually was possible to rearrange the schedule to the satisfaction of both teams.

But the Braves’ weather problems persisted throughout the season. A review of their schedule shows numerous two-day gaps, two three-day gaps (June 27-29 and August 5-7), and even one four-day gap (April 22-25). The end result was a scheduling bottleneck that resulted in a plethora of double-headers. Out of 153 games played, only 89 were single games. When the Braves played their first twin bill on April 29, they would never have guessed that it was just the first of 32.

Thanks to the adverse weather, the Braves did not play their 100th game until August 14. So with six weeks go in the season, they somehow had to squeeze in 54 games. They played three double-headers during the second half of August, so by September 1, they had played 118 games. The Braves had four weeks to play 36 games. A washout of their Labor Day double-header only compounded the problem.

When all was said and done, the Braves played 14 double-headers during the month of September (if you include the August 31 double-header against the Phillies, they actually had 15 within a one-month span) and just seven single games. One game against the Pirates got lost in the shuffle, but since neither team was involved in the pennant race, the game was written off.

The Braves’ most trying stretch was from Sept. 4 through 15 when they played nine consecutive double-headers, alleviated only by off days on the 6th, 9th, and 12th. They enjoyed a couple of relatively easy days, single games against the Cubs on Sept. 17 and 18 (the latter featured a National League record for combined double plays by both teams—eight). Then the siege of double-headers continued with four in a row from the 20th through the 24th with one off day on the 23rd.

Remarkably, of the 15 double-headers the Braves played during a period that spanned fewer than four weeks, only two were on the road. The toughest stretches were double-headers on three consecutive days, which occurred twice, September 13-15 and September 20-22.

When all was said and done, the Braves set the record for most consecutive double-headers with nine. Even less enviable was their record for most consecutive double-header losses (five).

The 15 twin bills played out like this:

Aug. 31 - Philadelphia			        Split
Sept. 1-   Philadelphia		                Split
Sept. 4 -  Brooklyn			        Lost both 
Sept. 5 -  Brooklyn			        Won both 
Sept. 7 -  at Philadelphia	                Split
Sept. 8 -  at Philadelphia	                Lost both 
Sept. 10-  New York		                Lost both 
Sept. 11 - New York		                Lost both 
Sept. 13 - New York		                Lost both 
Sept. 14 - New York		                Lost both 
Sept. 15 - Chicago	                        Split
Sept. 20 - Cincinnati		                Split
Sept. 21 – Cincinnati		                Split
Sept. 22 -  Cincinnati		                Won both 
Sept. 24 -  Pittsburgh		                Split

Add them up, and the record is 11 wins and 19 losses. Given the Braves’ overwhelming home-field advantage, this is hardly anything to write home about. On the other hand, given the fatigue factor, not to mention the Braves’ lack of talent, it could have been worse. Their .367 winning percentage over this stretch of double-headers is actually slightly better than their season-ending winning percentage (.327).

By far, the most depressing stretch of the month was Sept. 10-14, when the Braves played four straight double-headers against the Giants … and lost every game, even though all of the games were played at Braves Field. For the Braves, this was the lowest ebb of a dreary season. Before that, the Braves had held their own, winning six of 14 against the vastly superior Giants.

For the Giants, the games were morale boosters, no matter how weary they might have been. After their four double-headers with the Braves, the Giants had gained ground on the Cardinals. Thanks to the eight-game sweep, New York was 83-56, just one game behind St. Louis (84-55). The Cardinals, however, won the pennant by going 13-4 the rest of the way, finishing two games ahead of the Giants.

Surprisingly, September was not the worst month for the Braves. Their .286 winning percentage (based on a 10-25 record) was only slightly worse than their performance (8-19, .296) in July, but their June record (4-20, .167) was by far their worst monthly showing.

The Braves finished off the season with relative ease: four single games, all of which they lost, one to Pittsburgh and three to St. Louis. Perhaps the Braves could be forgiven if they staggered, rather than sprinted, to the finish line.

For the 1928 Braves, September definitely was the cruelest month … but October likely was the sweetest.

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Comments

  1. Jim G. said...

    Nice article Frank. You only discuss some of the star hitters of the team, and while I suspect there’s little star power on the pitching staff, I’m curious how the staff was handled during that stretch. Were there any heroic “innings-eaters”, or did the Braves trot out the kitchen sink to get through?

    After losing both games to the Phillies going into the stretch against the Giants, it had to be completely demoralizing to lose 10 games in 6 days!

  2. Cliff Blau said...

    I like that phrase, “relentlessly hapless”.  BTW, the Braves finished second in 1915 and third in 1916 before falling into the second division.

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