The first half having mathematically drawn to a close, you might be wondering, as I have been, how the offensive heroics of the 2023 Braves might compare to some of their historic forebears.
The four highest-scoring teams in club history are all 1890s Beaneaters squads, which allows me to do two of my favorite things: completely sidestep the ill luck of bragging about the current team, which, as we all know, hasn’t won anything yet; and write about ancient baseball history!
So here are all the teams in the entire history of the franchise that have scored more than 850 runs:
1894 – the best offense in Braves history?
The highest-scoring team in club history, the 1894 squad, is actually the highest-scoring team in Major League history, but they also set the record in the highest-offense season of all time. Those Beaneaters scored 1220 runs in 133 games, 9.2 runs per game – and they finished in third place behind Ned Hanlon‘s brilliant Baltimore Orioles (9.1 runs per game – the third-most runs scored in baseball history – and also a much better run differential), and Monte Ward’s second-place New York Giants.
Turns out that scoring 9.2 runs a day won’t win you all the games in the world when your yokels on the mound are letting in 7.5 runs each blessed afternoon themselves. Kid Nichols couldn’t pitch every day; he started just 46 of the team’s 133 games, putting up a career-worst 4.75 ERA that still led the staff.
The other 87 games were mostly started by Jack Stivetts, Harry Staley, Tom Lovett, and George Hodson, whose collective ERA was nearer, my God, to 6.00. And that was league average. Lovett’s 5.97 ERA was good for an ERA+ of 99; Nichols’ 4.75 ERA was good for an ERA+ of 124.
The 1894 Beaneaters were one of just 32 clubs in baseball history to give up more than 1000 runs. At the top of that list of infamy, of course, is the 1899 Cleveland Spiders squad, which yielded 1252 runs in 154 games. The only two postwar teams to give up that many came at the height of the Steroid Era, as the 1999 Rockies gave up 1028 runs, and the 1996 Tigers somehow gave up 1103 runs, even though they didn’t play an inning at Coors Field. (Interleague play didn’t start till the following year!)
Those Boston clubs of the Nineties were led by a group of Hall of Famers. The principal three were Nichols, manager Frank Selee, and outfielder Hugh Duffy. Also in the outfield was another Hall of Famer, Tommy McCarthy, who was principally inducted because he’s credited as the inventor of the hit and run; he wasn’t nearly in their league as a player. Later in the decade, the team traded for Sliding Billy Hamilton, already a star from his time with the Phillies; he now wears a Boston ‘B’ on his cap in Coopertown.
In 1894, Hamilton was still with the Phillies, and he hit .403/.521/.523 and stole 100 bases, and nevertheless he was probably the third-best hitter in his own outfield, next to two other Hall of Famers in Ed Delahanty, who hit .405/.477/.585, and Sam Thompson, who hit .415/.466/.696. The Phillies’ fourth outfielder was Tuck Turner, and he hit .418/.458/.539, too. It was the only time a major league club has ever had four .400 hitters in its outfield, and I daresay that’s a record that will stand the test of time.
While those four Phillies hit over .400, the best hitter in the league was probably Duffy of Boston, who hit .440, leading the league in average, as well as in home runs (with 18) and total bases (374). Including the National Association and the Negro Leagues, Duffy’s .440 average in 1894 is the sixth-highest mark in major league history:
- .492, Levi Meyerle, 1871 Philadelphia Athletics (National Association)
- .471, Tetelo Vargas, 1943 New York Cubans (Negro National League)
- .466, Josh Gibson, 1943 Homestead Greys (Negro National League)
- .466, Lyman Bostock, 1941 Birmingham Black Barons (Negro American League)
- .451, Charlie Smith, 1929 New York Lincoln Giants (American Negro League)
- .440, Hugh Duffy, 1894 Boston Beaneaters (National League)
Even amid the many extraordinary performances that season, Duffy’s mark remains eye-popping.
So what the heck happened in 1894?
The decade was a high-scoring era, but the 1894 season in particular was the greatest offensive explosion of all time. The league, as a whole, hit .309 that year. (The league’s pitchers had a collective 5.33 ERA, which is bad – but perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that the league R/G was another two runs higher.)
There was a lot going on in that decade. One of the biggest changes occurred between 1891 and 1892, as the league expanded from eight teams to twelve, absorbing four teams from the old American Association. But while expansion is often a catalyst for offense, by far the biggest change occurred on the mound: it got moved back by about five feet, establishing the modern pitching distance that has been in baseball for the subsequent 13 decades.
As John Thorn explains, the mound move was maybe the final and most significant of a series of changes brought to improve offense and end a serious deadball era in the 1870s:
National League batting averages declined every year from 1877 to 1880, falling from .271 to an alarming .245. The number of strikeouts nearly tripled as pitchers perfected the curves and slants introduced only a decade before. The league ERA was 2.37.
After the 1893 season, the league finally adopted the mound distance that had been proposed in the early 1880s, five feet further back than it had previously been. Not only did pitchers have to throw further, but as the general quality of play improved, they had to throw with greater exertion, and they tired more easily, as Thorn writes:
The 1890s were a hitter’s heyday. Pitchers throwing breaking pitches at the new distance tired more quickly than their predecessors of the 1880s had; staffs now typically featured three and sometimes four starters where two had sufficed in the 1880s and one had been enough in the 1870s. The pitcher’s craft was advancing, but refinement created a new level of physical exertion. The curveball of the 1890s was no longer the roundhouse or schoolboy curve that featured only a lateral break, and the better pitchers had learned to throw a slow ball (change-up) with the same motion as the fast one, making it just as taxing on the arm. Hoss Radbourn threw for 679 innings in 1884, but he would not have been able to do it in 1894, when no pitcher exceeded 450 innings.
The Past and the Future
The pendulum would swing back in the other direction soon enough, of course, and a new deadball era would quickly take hold. We’ve seen very similar pendulum swings in more recent years, from the neo-deadball era in the 1980s, to the Steroid Era, to the strikeout frenzy a few years ago, to the extraordinary home run heroics of the 2023 Braves, hitting tape-measure shots at a greater frequency than ever before.
The 1894 explosion helps illustrate just how significant a difference a rule change can make. In the league office, Rob Manfred and Theo Epstein have indicated a willingness to make major changes to the rulebook to try to create a more exciting game. Clearly, the history of the game reveals that they have plenty of precedent for doing so.
As a matter of fact, the league batting average was .243 last year, and it’s .248 this year, right around where it was in 1880.
But caution is warranted. I don’t think any baseball fan would enjoy watching the kind of ERAs and defense that it would require in order for the 1894 Braves’ record to be broken.
Just two years ago, Manfred suggested moving the pitchers’ mound back by one foot, and began piloting the move in the Atlantic League. A year later, the experiment ended, with inconclusive results, and that’s a blessed relief. Based on the 1894 season, I think that lengthening the distance from the mound to the plate is one rule change that should remain in the past.
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