Braves by Decade: 1950s Boston/Milwaukee Braves

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The 1950s. A decade of overall prosperity for the United States. Times were beginning to change. By the end of the decade, the country would see the first steps towards racial equality. Music was changing as well, as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley swept around the nation. The rapid evolution was not lost on the game of baseball, either. Multiple franchises changed locations, and the sport became a television phenomenon. Yes, change came to America’s game slowly, but surely.

Even the Braves shifted, though it was rather monumental. It involved 1,000 miles as the team moved from Boston to Milwaukee. They tapered off in Beantown and found themselves in Wisconsin. It wasn’t without cause, either. The team went from mediocre to terrible in its final few seasons in Boston. So, going with the theme of the decade, a change was announced. Yes, it was a large movement. But, it also helped lead to one of the greatest successes in franchise history.

Braves by Decade: 1950s Boston/Milwaukee Braves

A Bad Start for the Braves

The team looked to rebound after a disappointing campaign in 1949. In stark contrast to later years, they did not change much. 1950 saw Billy Southworth return as manager. Tommy Holmes, Earl Torgeson, and Bob Elliott continued their play. Finally, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain held down the rotation. But, there were a few new faces. Veteran outfielder Sid Gordon helped lead the offense (.304/.403/.557, 27 HR, 103 RBI, 156 OPS+). Sam Jethroe took Rookie of the Year honors (.273/.338/.472, 18 HR, 58 RBI, 35 SB, 159 H, 109 OPS+). This was significant, as Jethroe was the first black player in Braves franchise history.

Unfortunately, all of this success could not cover the failures. The bullpen was a travesty. Closer Bobby Hogue only managed seven saves with an ERA of 5.03. The ‘pen’s highest individual ERA+ was 87. Thankfully, Spahn, Sain, and Vern Bickford combined to complete 77 contests. Warren led the team with 21 wins, a 122 ERA+, and a 3.16 ERA. It all added up to an 83-71 record and a fourth-place finish.

Tough Times in Beantown

1951 produced even more mediocre results. Southworth led the team to a 28-31 start. Then, he was ousted and replaced with Holmes. The offense was solid enough, and Spahn had another fantastic season (22-14, 2.98 ERA, 124 ERA+). He was supported by breakout southpaw Chet Nichols (11-8, 2.88 ERA, 128 ERA+). Unfortunately, the rest of the pitching staff was nowhere near as good. Even Johnny Sain fell from grace. In short, the team finished 76-78.

The next season saw the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Holmes was let go after a 13-22 start and replaced by Charlie Grimm. The team wound up 64-89. Everyone had a huge decline, even Spahn. Despite an ERA of 2.98, he only won 14 games. However, his ERA+ was still a terrific 122. The offense fell to a .233 average and an OPS+ of 81. But a light shone through in the form of a young third baseman named Eddie Mathews. He and Sid Gordon tied for the team home run lead with 25. However, it wasn’t enough to overcome a bad pitching staff.

The Big Move

Needing a change, the team moved to Milwaukee. Once there, they found immediate success. In 1953, ’54, and ’55, they finished in the top three in the National League. Mathews helped lead the way. In all three seasons, his offense exploded (.294/.414/.611, 128 HR, 339 RBI, 457 H, 171 OPS+). In 1954, he was joined by a young player named Hank Aaron. The dynamic duo combined for 68 of the Braves 182 homers in 1955. The pitching continued to be anchored by Spahn, winning 61 games over the three seasons. He also posted a combined 2.83 ERA and a 135 ERA+. His best season was 1953 (23-7, 2.10 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 1.058 WHIP, 188 ERA+). In short, the pendulum was rapidly swinging in the Braves direction. Yet, there were always one or two teams better than them.

A Return to Relevance

Then, 1956 rolled around. The team finished 92-62, just one game shy of a pennant. Grimm, who’d managed the team back into relevance, was let go after 46 games. He was replaced with Fred Haney, who helped the team win 68 of its final 108 contests. The offense was one of the most powerful in baseball. Mathews, Aaron, and slugging first baseman Joe Adcock combined for 101 homers. To put that in perspective, the team hit 177. Former New York Giants hero Bobby Thomson added 20 of his own.

Meanwhile, Spahn headed up the best pitching staff in the league. He posted a 20-11 record with a 2.78 ERA and a 125 ERA+. He was supported by right-handers Lew Burdette (19-10, 2.70 ERA, 129 ERA+) and Bob Buhl (18-8, 3.32 ERA, 105 ERA+). The bullpen was a brick wall when needed, and the entire team seemed like a machine. But, the Brooklyn Dodgers were simply one game better.

A World Title…and a Regression

1957 changed all that, as the team went 95-59. They punched their ticket to the Fall Classic by eight games. Once again, the offense was the most powerful in the game, led by MVP Aaron (.322 avg, .600 slugging, 44 HR, 132 RBI, 198 H, 166 OPS+). The pitching was dynamite, though Burdette slipped just a little bit. Spahn posted another 20 win season with an ERA+ of 130. Backed by Buhl and Gene Conley, the staff posted a 3.47 ERA and a 101 ERA+. They would defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series, 4-3. Burdette was a series hero (3-0, 0.67 ERA, 2 ER in 27.0 innings), while Aaron led the offense (.393 avg, 3 HR, 7 RBI, 1.200 OPS).

However, as with the 1914 team in Boston, the Braves slipped a bit after winning the title. In 1958, they went 92-62. Aaron had another brilliant season (.326/.386/.546, 30 HR, 95 RBI, 153 OPS+). The pitching staff was headed up by Spahn and Burdette. They combined to win 42 games, and Burdette posted an ERA under three. The team returned to the World Series but found defeat at the hands of the Yankees. Then, in 1959, they went 86-70, finishing second in the league. Despite more outstanding work from Aaron, Mathews, Spahn, and Burdette, the team went south. Little did they know it, but this was only the beginning of the slide.

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