Kelly was the subject of a pop song (“Slide, Kelly, Slide!”) and, in 1927, inspired a movie of the same name. He also wrote baseball’s first autobiography. He was truly larger than life — even the rules of the game bent to his will. “Sometimes he’d cut from first base across the infield to third,” says Johnson. “And with the crowd egging him on. And sometimes he’d get away with it! It was wild stuff.”
In the teens, then again in the ’30s, the Braves were home to another eccentric and talented Hall of Famer. Springfield’s own Rabbit Maranville — just 5’5” and 155 pounds — was one of the game’s most beloved clowns. He was “the Ozzie Smith of his day,” says Johnson. “He would sit on the second base bag, take a relay toss, and fire strikes to home plate from a sitting position. People went crazy! They loved it. He was a showman.” (“After a few drinks,” reads one bio, “he became the hotel-ledge walker, the goldfish swallower, the practical joker.”)
The team’s players weren’t the only characters. George Stallings, who managed the Braves for eight years — including the season of their highly improbable World Series victory in 1914 — was the son of a Confederate war hero. He dropped out of Johns Hopkins medical school to pursue a professional career as a catcher, playing exactly four games at that position, (for the 1890 Brooklyn Bridegrooms). Stallings became a manager fairly young, and could be seen on the bench in a natty suit instead of a uniform — one he would not change for as long as the team was on a winning streak. And while skippering the New York Highlanders — later to be renamed the Yankees — he employed some rather innovative techniques. “He had a guy stealing signs with a telescope from an apartment window,” says Johnson, “telegraphing him the information.”
There were other Hall of Famers. Cranston, Rhode Island’s greatest center fielder, Hugh Duffy (1892–1900). The lefty workhorse Warren Spahn (1942–1964). The slugger Eddie Matthews, who was in the Hub for just his rookie season in 1952 but is the only man to have played for the team in all three of its home cities.
There were famous-by-proxy players, such as strikeout-prone Vince DiMaggio. Vince played his first two seasons here (1937 and 1938) while his brother Joe was becoming a superstar in pinstripes, and two years before his other brother Dominic patrolled center field for the Red Sox.
Then there was a slugger named George Herman Ruth, who was enticed in 1935 to return to Boston in the gloaming of his career with a promise from the team’s owner, Judge Emil Fuchs, that he could manage the team upon his retirement. The 40-year-old Sultan of Swat ended up playing just 28 games, many marked by sloppy fielding, but did clout six home runs, including one in his first at-bat of the season, off the great Carl Hubbell.
Nonetheless, it was a star-crossed pairing. By that point, Johnson says, the Bambino was aging in “dog years.” He did have one last heroic performance — a 4-4, six-RBI, three-homer game in Pittsburgh that May — but by June, he had retired. The pledge to make him a manager was never kept. And, in a sad irony, Ruth’s short stay with the team coincided with the Braves’ worst season ever: a pitiful 38-115 campaign. “It was a bittersweet return,” says Johnson.