Cult of personality
The old Braves Field, built in 1915, was bulldozed long ago, but its right-field pavilion still stands, incorporated into the structure of BU’s Nickerson Field. Outside it stands a plaque, which proclaims that “the fans of New England will never forget the exploits of their Braves and the fond memories associated with Braves Field.”
Would that it were so. Several years ago, Johnson, who’s written books about both Boston baseball teams, remembers getting a call from a local sports-media figure who shall remain nameless: “Gee, could you tell me, when did the Braves become the Red Sox?” Johnson was dumbfounded. “It took me 10 minutes to explain that there were two teams.”
The story of the Boston Braves begins in 1870, five years after the Civil War. The Cincinnati Red Stockings of the National Association of Base Ball Players, who’d become the first completely professional team the previous year, voted to disband. So the Stockings’ Harry Wright, an English former cricketer (who more or less invented the job of team manager), his younger brother George (who more or less invented the position of shortstop), and a few other players decided — drawn by the Hub’s renown as a baseball hotbed — to move to Boston.
When the National Association dissolved in 1876, the team became a charter member of the new National League. Tracing its origins back to that first season in 1871 right up to the present-day in Atlanta makes it the oldest continuously playing team in American professional sports.
The team’s early, flashy players — “Grasshopper Jim” Whitney, Charles “Kid” Nichols — helped loosen up stiff Brahmin culture. Their parks — the harborside Congress Street Grounds; the South End Grounds, with its turrets and spires — were unlike anything seen in baseball, which to that point had not contributed mightily to the fields of architecture or public design. And the team was good, winning eight pennants over its first 23 seasons.
Back in their heyday before World War I, Braves fans — including JFK’s grandfather John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald — would convene at Nuf Ced McGreevey’s Third Base Saloon in the South End. “That was to baseball what CBGB’s was to punk rock,” says Johnson. “A gathering place where the baseball tribes would hang out: players, spectators, press, politicians. The city of Boston was the epicenter of baseball. Not just Major League baseball, but baseball culture in this country. And the Braves franchise was at the heart of it. Everything we enjoy now about the game, the DNA is the Braves’ DNA.”
That includes a fascination with players’ personalities and antics, and the Braves had some corkers over their first several decades. One of the first and best was King Kelly, who came to the team in 1887 for what was then an astronomical bounty of $10,000. He was a prodigious run producer — and a prodigious drinker. Purportedly, one game was delayed because he was tippling with some rich swells in the box seats.
DREAM FIELDS: The fanciful South End Grounds (top) were replaced in 1915 by Braves Field in Allston, then the largest ballpark in America.
“He was a wild man!” says Johnson. “He wasn’t just back-page news, he was front-page news. If ever there was a perfect superstar for the city of Boston, it was King Kelly.” (The fact that he was Irish sure didn’t hurt.) According to Kelly’s Wikipedia entry, he “was often accompanied by a black monkey and a Japanese valet.”