Atlanta Braves: All Time Greatest Team

Atlanta Braves (1966-Present)

Milwaukee Braves (1953-1965)

Boston Braves (1871-1952)

Also known as the Boston Red Stockings, Boston Red Caps, Boston Beaneaters, Boston Rustlers, Boston Doves, Boston Bees

National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (1871-1875)

National League (1876-Present)

National Association of Professional Base Ball Players Champions: 1872, 1873, 1874 1875

National League Champions: 1877, 1878, 1883, 1891, 1892, 1893, 1897, 1898, 1914, 1948, 1957, 1958, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1999

World Series Champions: 1914, 1957, 1995

The Boston Red Stockings were the first dynasty in Major League Base Ball. In 1871, Harry Wright ditched the Cincinnati Reds and jumped to the Boston Base Ball Club, joined eight other clubs to form the first major league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (1871-1875). Boston won 4 of the five championships, then the stronger clubs from the Association conspired together to force out the weaker clubs, the National League was created in 1876.

The Red Stockings continued their dominance in the new league, winning the championship in two of the first three years. It helped that they had the best player in baseball at shortstop, Harry Wright’s younger brother George. Boston was the most successful franchise during the 19th century, winning six championships in the 1870s one in the 1880s and five more in the 1890s.

The 20th century would not be as kind to the franchise. When Frank Selee, who led the team through the 1890s, left Boston for Chicago in 1901 the Beaneaters (as they were then called) got very bad. After finishing with a losing record every year from 1903 to 1913, losing more than 100 games seven times and never finishing closer than 31 games from first place and were as many as 66 games out. Then in 1914 they won the most unexpected pennant in Major League history (sorry fans of the 1969 New York Mets), surging  from last place on the 4th of July to a 10 ½ game lead at the end of the season. Not only that, but they shocked Connie Mack’s powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series 4 games to none. The “Miracle” Braves would be the Braves’ last National League Champion until they squeezed out one last championship in Boston in 1948, before moving to Milwaukee.

Ten years later the Braves, now in Milwaukee, would have two superstars in their everyday line-up, and a third every fourth day on the mound (Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn). They would win back to back National League Pennants in 1957 and 1958. The Braves would remain competitive for the next ten years, but would not win another National League Championship until 1991.

Managed by Bobby Cox and led by the Hall of Fame pitching trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine , and John Smoltz, Atlanta would go on a historic run that would lead to 14 division titles, 5 NL flags, and a World Series Title between 1991 and 2005. A truly remarkable run from a vagabond franchise that remains one of the most iconic clubs in baseball history.

Catcher

The choice here is close. Del Crandell (1949-1963) was the on field leader of the Milwaukee Braves’ team that won back to back NL Pennants in 1957 and 1958. A solid defensive catcher who could also hit, but we’ll go with Javy Lopez (1992-2003). This quality  backstop who handled the greatest pitching staff ever. He was also a marginally better offensive player than Crandell. Again, not an easy choice.

First Base

We know that Freddie Freeman (2010-Present) is the current occupant of the position for the Braves, but who else can it be? Joe Adcock (1953-1962) was a genuine hitter in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but his glove work was marginal, and his managers tended to lose faith in him. Fred Tenney (1894-1907, 1911) was good around the turn of the 19th century, but nothing in his record elevates him above Freeman. David Justice (1989-1996) played first off and on during his time, but Freeman has probably already passed him. The Braves just have never had a Hall of Fame caliber first baseman. Maybe Freeman will be the first.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – April 5: Freddie Freeman #5 of the Atlanta Braves makes an out at first base during the Atlanta Braves Vs New York Mets regular season MLB game at Citi Field on April 05, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Second Base

Too bad Chipper Jones didn’t play second base. The Braves Franchise just hasn’t produced any all time greats at second. It’s slim pickings, but we’ll go with Bobby Lowe (1890-1901), the second baseman on the 1890s Beaneaters’ team that won five NL Championships.

Third Base

Chipper Jones (1993-2012) was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, and he earned it. It’s too bad that he wasn’t a second baseman or a shortstop, because he would be an easy selection as the #1 man at both positions. But he wasn’t, and unfortunately for Jones he’s in competition with someone who many say is the greatest third baseman of all time. We don’t place Eddie Mathews (1952-1966) that high. We think he’s the third greatest third baseman in history, behind Mike Schmidt and George Brett, but that’s still a few spots ahead of Chipper Jones.

Shortstop

George Wright (1871-1878, 1880-1881) was the best player in baseball from about 1867 to 1875. From 1871 to 1878 he played shortstop on six league championship teams in Boston. We know that he played in the very infancy of Major League Baseball and the quality of play was very suspect. But what Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Shortstop was better? Herm Long (1890-1902)? Long was the shortstop 20 years after Wright. He was very good, but he’s not in the Hall of Fame, and nobody ever considered him the best player in baseball.  Walter “Rabbit” Maranville (1912-1920, 1929-1935) is in the Hall of Fame. He was the premier defensive shortstop of his time, but his career batting average was .258, on base percentage of .318 and his slugging percentage was .340. This was during the 1920s and 1930s, the biggest offensive years of the 20th century. He was a pathetic offensive player. Wright was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937, the first year that the Hall enshrined players from the 19th century. The first four players selected from the 19th century? Cap Anson, Buck Ewing, Old Hoss Radbourne and GEORGE WRIGHT! Even in 1937 he was still considered a great player. He was the first shortstop in franchise history, he was also the best shortstop in franchise history, period.

Left Field:

The top two Brave outfielders are easy. Right Field belongs to an all time great. Center Field belongs to a two time MVP. This leaves us three other center fielders for the third outfield spot in Left. Because all three are better than the best Left Fielder, we’ll shift one of them there. The peak Andruw Jones (1996-2007) reached with the Braves does not approach the peaks of the other two contenders Hugh Duffy (1892-1900) and Wally Berger (1930-1937). He did patrol the Atlanta outfield magnificently for 12 years, ten times winning the Gold Glove for his defensive prowess. Hugh Duffy was the best everyday player on the great Boston teams in the 1890s, probably the best player in baseball in 1894. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945, his one drawback is he was in Boston only nine years compared to Jones’ twelve. Wally Berger is the definition of an under rated ballplayer. Playing in a pitchers park during a hitters era he put up some astonishing numbers that are completely dismissed by modern writers because he accomplished them in the run happy 1930s. He led the league in Home Runs and RBI in 1935. This was not his only big year, since he drove in over 100 runs three other times and hit as many as 38 home runs in a season. He was doing this for the worst team in the National League, in the worst hitter’s park in baseball. Three times he hit more home runs than the rest of his teammates combined (1930, 1931, 1933). In 1935 he drove in 130 of the Braves 575 runs, that’s 22.6% of his teams runs, the record is 22.7%. The main concern about him was the performance of his team. They were worse than the 1962 Mets. He also only spent eight years with the Braves. Despite that, we’ll go with him anyway.

Center Field

Dale Murphy (1976-1990) was the National League MVP in 1982 and 1983 and finished in the top ten of the MVP voting two other times. He won five Gold Gloves in Center Field and was one of the true superstars of the 1980s. An easy choice.

Right Field: Henry Aaron (1954-1974), Any questions?

Pitchers:

The pitchers for the Braves franchise are very impressive. #1 and #2 are easy, with even their order a simple task. Warren Spahn (1942-1964) won 356 games for the franchise, and is also on the short list as the greatest southpaw in baseball history. A solid #1. Kid Nichols (1890-1901) was the best player on The Boston Beaneaters powerhouse club in the 1890s, winning more than 300 games in his twelve years with the team. No other franchise’s top two starters can match these two. Add in their #3 Greg Maddux (1993-2003), who won four straight Cy Young Awards between 1992 and 1995, the last three while hurling for the Braves, and you have a top three that includes three of the top 15 pitchers of all time. The #4 pitcher is a much more difficult choice. Not because there are no worthy candidates, but because there are so many. Two 300 game winners, Phil Niekro (1964-1983) and Tom Glavine (1987-2002), plus a third who may have joined them as a 300 game winner if he hadn’t been used as the Brave’s closer for four years in the middle of his career, John Smoltz (1988-2008). Add in Albert Spalding (1871-1875), who went 204-53 for the Red Stockings in Boston’s four straight championships in their National Association of Professional Base Ball Players’ days and the decision is a tough one. Ultimately we’ll choose Phil Niekro (1964-1983). Depending on his fluttering Knuckleball Phil won 268 of his 318 games on a Braves team that rarely played .500 ball, and only twice made the playoffs. Are we sure Niekro is the correct choice? The simple answer is “no”, but we had to choose one of them.

Manager

This is the toughest call of all. It comes down to the three managers who led the club during their three glorious runs as the best team in the baseball. The legendary Harry Wright (1871-1881) led them to six league titles in seven years between 1872 and 1878, cementing his legacy as the father of professional sports. Frank Selee (1890-1901) put together five National League Championships in the 1890s, before bolting to the Chicago Cubs where he would create another dynasty in Chicago in the 1900s. Bobby Cox (1978-1981, 1990-2010) was the skipper when the Braves dominated the National League between 1991 and 2005, winning 14 division titles, five National League Pennants and the World Series in 1995. But with his pitching staff only 1 World Series win?

In the end the choice is Harry Wright (1871-1881). Quoting Bill James in his book Baseball Managers, “Harry Wright was, in essence, the only successful manager of the decade (1870s), the completely dominant manager.” No other manager dominated a decade like Wright did in the 1870s. His long term influence on the game was also unprecedented, again quoting from Bill James’ book, “Harry Wright made changes in the game far more far reaching and profound than those of any other manager.” A man of true vision, he is the best manager in franchise history.

MVP

Just to make it interesting we could make an argument for George Wright or Kid Nichols or Warren Spahn as the greatest player in franchise history, but we won’t. The reason we won’t is because the answer to this question is very obvious…it’s Henry Aaron, and it’s not close. One of the ten best players in baseball history.


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