THE BEST SEASON IN BOSTON'S BASEBALL HISTORY

Alvin Dark played in 14 major-league seasons with the Boston Braves, New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, and Philadelphia Phillies before returning to the Braves, then in Milwaukee, to finish his career. A three-time All-Star, he started at shortstop for the National League in the 1951 and ’54 contests. He was 24 years old when he broke into the big leagues with the Boston Braves on July 14, 1946, but was already nationally known for his collegiate exploits on the diamond and gridiron. A lifetime .289 hitter with 126 home runs and 757 RBIs, Dark, nicknamed the Swamp Fox, played on pennant winners with the 1948 Braves and ’51 Giants, and also helped win a World Series title for New York in 1954. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1948 and was captain of the strong Giants teams of the 1950s.

With World War II raging, Dark in 1943, joined the Marine Corps’ V-12 program, which allowed him to continue his education for another year. The Marines sent him to the Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette, where he played for the greatest football team in the school’s history. Undefeated at 4-0-1 (most Southern schools did not play a full schedule during the war), SLI beat Arkansas A&M University 24-7 to capture the inaugural Oil Bowl. In that game, played in Houston, Dark ran for a touchdown, passed for another from his tailback slot, and kicked three extra points and a field goal. In addition to playing football in the 1943-44 school year, Dark was a member of SLI’s track, basketball, baseball, and even golf teams. His Marine V-12 obligations prevented him from playing the entire baseball season, but he made the most of his limited at-bats, going 12-for-26 (.462). After completing basic training at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, Dark was commissioned at Quantico in January 1945 and was destined for service in the Pacific Theater. As he awaited orders at Pearl Harbor, he tried out for the Marine Corps baseball team, earning a berth on the lower-division squad.

In the end Dark never saw combat, but he still faced a pretty dicey situation. After the declaration of an Allied victory in the summer of 1945, he was sent to China that December to support the Nationalists against the Communists. He was dispatched to an outpost south of Peking (now Beijing) to guard the railroad and help transfer supplies to another station. Although his platoon did not know it, they had to pass through a Communist-controlled town to complete their mission.

When he returned home to Lake Charles, Dark learned that he had been drafted to play pro football for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. His first love was baseball, however, and Ted McGrew, a scout for the Boston Braves, had been watching Dark play in college. McGrew, who had helped engineer the trade of Pee Wee Reese from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, admired young Dark for his tenacity and competitive spirit in all sports. Spurning reported interest from several clubs, Dark signed with the Braves for $50,000: a $45,000 bonus and $5,000 to complete the season with Boston. The date was July 4, 1946.

Dark’s obligations to the Marines prevented him from joining the Braves until July 14th. That day, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field, he pinch-ran for catcher Don Padgett in the ninth inning of a 5-2 loss. A month later, on August 8th, Dark got his first hit, a double off Phillies’ pitcher Lefty Hoerst at Philadelphia. Once again the Braves were defeated, as the Phillies triumphed, 9-8.

Dark played 15 games for the fourth-place Braves in 1946. Although he had just three hits in 13 at-bats, all were doubles – a nice harbinger of things to come (he wound up hitting 358 big league two-baggers). At spring training in 1947, Dark pleaded with manager Billy Southworth to retain him as a regular player. Southworth preferred to keep veteran Sibby Sisti as his starting shortstop, however, and optioned Dark to Milwaukee.

That summer, his only season in the minors, Dark hit .303 with 10 home runs, 7 triples, 49 doubles, 186 hits, and 66 RBIs. He earned American Association honors as All-Star shortstop and Rookie of the Year, and finished third in the Most Valuable Player balloting. Playing for manager Nick Cullop, Dark led the league in at-bats, runs, putouts, assists, and, dubiously, errors. His fielding, however, was considered solid; while not the flashiest of shortstops, he had good range and would become a good double-play man.

After the 1947 season Dark returned to Southwest Louisiana Institute to complete his degree in physical education. Although he wanted to compete in collegiate athletics, his request was denied because he had signed a professional contract. He did, however, serve briefly as the football coach’s athletic assistant.

Dark made the Opening Day varsity for the Braves in 1948, but was relegated to the bench as veteran Sisti continued as the regular shortstop. Nevertheless, Dark persevered. His contributions as a reserve player eventually won him the starting job, and he wound up fourth in the National League in batting with a .322 average. He contributed 3 home runs, 39 doubles (third in the NL), and 48 RBIs from his No. 2 spot in the order, while fielding his position strongly (a .963 fielding mark, well above the league average). Initially, his tenure in 1946 disqualified him from the Rookie of the Year ballot. However, the Baseball Writers Association of America ruled that year that players with 25 games or less in previous seasons would qualify for the ballot. This allowed Dark to win Rookie of the Year honors for 1948, the last season both leagues combined to acknowledge one freshman player. He also finished third in the vote for NL Most Valuable Player, but was a letdown in his first World Series by batting just.167 with one double in 24 at-bats. The Braves lost to the Cleveland Indians in six games.

Dark’s outstanding rookie campaign was augmented by the exploits of his keystone partner, second baseman Eddie Stanky. Known as “The Brat,” Stanky had been traded to the Braves by the Dodgers during spring training. Not only were Dark and Stanky a great double-play combination for years to come, but they became close friends and roommates. Dark considered Stanky and Danny Murtaugh as his greatest mentors.

Their strong double-play duo notwithstanding, the Braves had a disappointing 1949. They fell to 75 wins against 79 losses, good for just fourth place. Dark’s batting average fell as well to .276.

Just behind the Braves in the 1949 standings were the New York Giants, who finished a pedestrian fifth place at 73-81. New York manager Leo Durocher and team president Horace Stoneham attributed the shortcoming to inadequate speed and defense. To improve in these areas, the Giants traded outfielders Willard Marshall and Sid Gordon, shortstop Buddy Kerr, and pitcher Sam Webb to the Braves on December 14 for Dark and Stanky.