THE BEST SEASON IN BOSTON'S BASEBALL HISTORY

Tommy Holmes was among the most popular performers in Boston baseball history, and during his career with the Braves, from 1942 to 1952, nobody enjoyed the type of unabashed love he received from the denizens of the 1,500-seat, stand-alone bleachers situated behind his right-field playing spot. Dubbed the Jury Box by a sportswriter who once counted just 12 fans seated there in leaner times, the section with its wooden benches was filled during the club’s contending years with a crew of regulars who developed a friendly give-and-take with their hero. “How many hits you gonna get today, Tommy?” a patron might yell, and Holmes would shout back a reply or hold up however many fingers he deemed appropriate. There is no record of his accuracy in forecasting, but the Pride of the Jury Box had plenty of clutch blows at the ballpark -- none bigger than his eighth-inning single off Bob Feller that gave the Braves a 1-0 victory in the opening game of the 1948 World Series.

A .302 lifetime hitter, who set a then-National League record with a 37-game hitting streak in 1945 and was one of the toughest men in history to strike out.

Two days after the Pearl Harbor attack, on December 9, 1941, Holmes was sold to the Braves for undisclosed cash and players to be named by the New York Yankees. The Yankees received first baseman Buddy Hassett a week later as part of the deal, and on February 5, 1942, Boston outfielder Gene Moore was sent Bronx-bound to complete it. The trade still ranks as one of the finest in Braves history; while Hassett played just one more season in the majors and Moore three subpar campaigns, Holmes was among the NL’s top hitters for much of the next decade.

With a tight budget, a no-frills ballpark, and a club mired deep in the second division, the Braves were the polar opposites of the aristocratic Yankees. Boston was coming off a 62-92 season and a third straight year in seventh place under manager Casey Stengel, and Tommy instantly found himself with a starting center-field job for 1942.

Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II made for a long winter, but Holmes was still all smiles come spring. When the Braves started their season at Philadelphia on April 14th, Tommy donned jersey No. 1 (which he’d wear his entire career) and batted leadoff in his major-league debut, going 2-for-5 against future teammate Si Johnson in a 2-1 Boston victory. And although the Braves wound up seventh yet again under Stengel, there were two future Hall of Famers on the playing roster all year for the rookie to learn from. Slow-footed catcher Ernie Lombardi hit .330 to capture the league batting title, and former Pirates great Paul “Big Poison” Waner played alongside Holmes in right field. Just a .258 hitter at age 39, Waner still had the knowledge of a man with three batting titles and a lifetime average of .330-plus under his belt. When he collected his 3,000th hit that year during his one full season with Boston, he was just the seventh big leaguer to achieve the feat.

For Holmes, Waner was nothing short of a revelation. Big Poison preached pulling the ball to right field, and in this curious rookie he had an apt pupil.
The rookie learned his lessons well. Batting leadoff most of the year, Holmes hit .278, second only to Lombardi among Boston’s regulars, and struck out just 10 times in 558 at-bats. He went 10-for-19 in one August stretch against the Dodgers and Giants, broke up two no-hit attempts, and compiled a .990 fielding average to tie for second best in the league. Having not gotten his first big-league shot until he was 25 years old, he was making up for lost time. Even when he dipped a bit to .270 in his sophomore season, he led the league with 629 at-bats and collected 33 doubles and 10 triples. He was above .300 much of the season, often batted third, and later claimed that focusing on learning to pull the ball cost him 50 points in his batting average. It proved a worthwhile sacrifice.

Of course Tommy’s mind was likely on more than baseball that summer. With the war in Europe and Japan heating up, married players like Holmes were starting to be drafted, and he got a call in March 1944 to leave spring training and report to Brooklyn for his Navy physical. Although it was widely reported that he had passed and would be reporting for duty that summer, the call never came. Later, Holmes described an induction scene where examining doctors determined him unfit for duty due to lifelong sinus problems that they feared could be life-threatening in the European climate.

One of a dwindling number of strong young ballplayers left on big-league rosters, and fresh off a winter spent working in the Brooklyn shipyards, Holmes posted his first super season in 1944. Third in the NL with 195 hits, 93 runs scored, and 42 doubles, he also finished 10th in hitting at .309 after staying near the top (and above .330) into late summer. His power totals took a big leap as well: after hitting four and five homers in his first two years in the majors, he slugged 13 homers, ninth in the league. The introduction of the wartime “Balata ball” had hampered slugging league-wide, but Holmes hit the heavier spheres better than most.

Making the feat more impressive was the ballpark Tommy called home. Braves Field was a cavernous park built during the inside baseball era of 1915, just before Babe Ruth ushered in the home run age. Its center-field fence was originally built 550 feet from home plate, and with the wind blowing in off the Charles River just beyond its walls, few on the club had ever managed even 20 homers. Now, seeing that Holmes had some pop in his bat, Braves management brought the 345-foot right-field fences in by 20 feet midway through the ’44 campaign to give him an easier target.

Even with this move, what transpired next took the most optimistic of fans by surprise. Holmes got off to a hot start in 1945 that never let up, and Paul Waner’s star pupil reached his peak. Although the Braves stumbled to yet another second-division finish, Tommy astonished the baseball world by leading the major leagues with 28 homers, 224 hits, 47 doubles, a .577 slugging percentage, 81 extra-base hits, and 367 total bases. He batted .352 finishing second in the NL to Phil Cavarretta of the Cubs in a race that went down to the final day, and was also runner-up to Brooklyn’s Dixie Walker, with 117 RBIs. His 125 runs scored placed him third in that department, and he even stole 15 bases, fourth most in the NL, for good measure. Moved to right field to make room for Carden Gillenwater in center, Holmes played in all 154 games and had 13 assists, to the delight of the Jury Box fans now seated just behind him. (Tommy’s throwing arm was never considered a strong suit, but he did manage 10 or more assists in seven seasons.)

Making this dominant showing all the more impressive was what Holmes did in the middle of it, establishing a new NL record with a 37-game hitting streak. He started the stretch in scorching fashion with 10 total hits in back-to-back doubleheaders on June 6-7, and kept up the torrid pace into July. He tied and broke Rogers Hornsby’s old mark of 33 straight games against the Pirates in another doubleheader that featured rainy, hurricane-like conditions at Braves Field and a homer, single, and four doubles by the man of the hour.

The hits kept coming right up until the All-Star break (which he entered with a major-league-best .401 average), but in his first game after the three-day layoff, Holmes was stopped by Hank Wyse of the Cubs on July 12 at Wrigley Field. All told, he batted .433 during the streak, which lasted as a record for 33 years before being broken by Pete Rose. Even today, while Tommy’s breakthrough season has been largely (and unfairly) forgotten by all but fervent baseball historians, his hitting streak still stands as the ninth longest in big-league annals.

Perhaps the most amazing stat of all is that Holmes stepped to the plate on more than 700 occasions in 1945 (636 official at-bats plus 70 walks), and left it a strikeout victim just nine times (once swinging). This gave him the distinction of being the first man ever to lead the majors in most homers and fewest strikeouts in the same season, an incredible display of contact hitting in keeping with his career averages. Holmes never struck out more than 20 times in a season, and had more homers than strikeouts on a record-tying four occasions (Ernie Lombardi, Lefty O’Doul, and Ted Williams also accomplished this feat). In fact, Holmes’ 122 lifetime strikeouts in 4,992 career at-bats are fewer than many current major leaguers notch in just one season of less than 600 at-bats.

Unfortunately for Holmes and his fans, Tommy’s breakthrough summer did not end with a National League MVP award. That honor went to Cavarretta of the pennant-winning Cubs, who despite edging Holmes for the batting crown finished far behind him in every other major offensive category. The native Chicagoan hit just six home runs, missed 22 games with assorted injuries, and as a first baseman did not hold down a crucial defensive position. Still, perhaps overly influenced by the finishes of the Cubs and the sixth-place Braves, writers gave Cavarretta 15 first-place votes to second-place Tommy’s three. Holmes was named Player of the Year by The Sporting News and Boston sportswriters, however, and the team’s management and fans chipped in to buy him a new Packard automobile in a Tommy Holmes Day ceremony at Braves Field on September 2nd. He celebrated, naturally, by slugging a home run.

With Holmes established as a top star by the end of ’45, new Braves president Lou Perini and his ownership group began following through on Stengel’s dream of surrounding Tommy with a strong team. Ace manager Billy Southworth (a three-time pennant winner) was brought in from the St. Louis Cardinals, and the war’s end along with blockbuster trades brought many new faces onto the 1946 roster, including Warren Spahn, Johnny Sain, and Johnny Hopp. The result was a leap to third place, and Holmes had another standout season with a .310 average, 35 doubles, and a 20-game hit streak. The Jury Box crowd so adored him that when Tommy swapped positions with left fielder Johnny Barrett for one day that year, fans showered Barrett with boos and insults.

Despite Tommy’s 28 home runs and teammate Chuck Workman’s 25 during 1945, team statisticians saw that more opponents than Braves sluggers had been taking advantage of the closer right-field target. When the fences went back out, the result was just six homers and 79 RBIs for Holmes in ’46. The Pride of the Jury Box would never crack as many as 10 homers again, but Perini and Co. were finding other big bats to do the bashing.

Bob Elliott came on the scene in 1947 and in addition to crushing 22 homers finished just ahead of Holmes in the National League batting race, their .317 and .309 marks placing them in second and seventh place respectively. Tommy’s 191 hits topped league MVP Elliott and the rest of the senior circuit, and one of his rare home runs was particularly meaningful, a ninth-inning shot to beat the Giants on August 10th.

Everything came together for the Braves in 1948, and Holmes was a big factor as leadoff man for the NL champions. He placed third in the league with a .325 average (his fifth straight year in the top 10), was second with 190 hits, and made his second All-Star team. The Three Troubadours, a trio of musicians who serenaded players at Braves Field on trombone, trumpet, and clarinet, played the Irish tune “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” when Holmes stepped to the plate. The answer was more folks than ever, as the Braves set an all-time attendance mark of 1,455,439 that summer even as the Red Sox were drawing 1,558,798 of their own while battling for an American League pennant down the road.

And although Holmes batted just .192 in the World Series against Cleveland, he had arguably the biggest hit of the fall classic. With Johnny Sain and Bob Feller locked up in a scoreless pitchers’ duel in the eighth inning of Game One at Braves Field, Tommy’s roommate, Phil Masi, appeared to be caught snoozing off second base when Feller and Cleveland shortstop Lou Boudreau pulled a pickoff play they had been practicing. It was clear in still photographs taken at a variety of angles that Boudreau had indeed tagged Masi on the shoulder before he could slide back into the bag, but umpire Bill Stewart (a Fitchburg, Mass., native) saw it differently and called Masi safe. Sain lined out, but then Holmes hit a ball past Ken Keltner at third to drive in Masi with the game’s only run and send the chilly home crowd of 40,135 into a frenzy. Feller wound up a 1-0 loser despite his two-hitter, and the Braves had a quick edge in the World Series. It was a heady time for the underdogs, but it was short-lived. Boston went on to drop four of the next five games and the series, with Holmes ending the 4-3, Game Six finale at Braves Field with a fly out. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Tommy had to head to the hospital the next day for an appendectomy. Then it was back to Brooklyn for his newest offseason job, selling televisions.

Braves management was confident that their team could contend for years to come, but in 1949 the Braves quickly fell back to fourth place. Talk of dissension rocked the club starting in spring training, as players reportedly grumbled about Southworth driving them too hard and seeking too much credit for the previous year’s accomplishments. Players later said the disharmony was largely a figment of the press, but there was no denying the dramatic decline in performance by many on the club. Holmes was among them; he batted less than .300 for the first time in six years (dropping all the way to .266), and began getting platooned on a semi-regular basis. He got his average back up to .298 in 1950, when the Braves again contended much of the season, but by then Tommy was practically splitting time with Willard Marshall. Even though Holmes showed a bit of his 1945 pop with nine homers in just 322 at-bats, his playing career was winding down. The organization had other things in mind for him.

As a player Holmes was popular with his teammates, the coaching staff, fans, and reporters, so it seemed only natural that he might make a success as a manager. He was asked to take over the Braves’ farm club at Hartford as player-manager for the 1951 season, and he enthusiastically accepted the challenge. By midway through the year Billy Southworth’s health and the big league team’s record were both floundering, and with Southworth’s stunning resignation on June 19, another request came Holmes’ way: How would he like to manage in Boston? He had likely thought it would be years before such an opportunity came, so it was no surprise that Tommy again said yes.

In many ways, his appointment was an experiment doomed to fail. Suddenly the youngest skipper in the big leagues at just 34, Tommy took over an underachieving club mixed with veterans like Elliott, Spahn, and Earl Torgeson who had been his teammates the previous year, and raw youngsters like Johnny Logan and Chet Nichols who were getting their first taste of the majors. It was hard for him to establish authority under such circumstances, and his mild-mannered approach and lack of training didn’t help. While there were some high points, including a 9-0 victory by Spahn over the Cubs in Holmes’ managerial debut and a midsummer stretch in which the club won 14 of 18 games, by year’s end his record was a mediocre 48-47 for a team that finished 76-78 overall.

The worst was yet to come. In 1952 the Braves got off to a poor start, and Tommy (cover boy on the first edition of the team scorebook that season) became a convenient scapegoat. Newspaper columnists who had spent a decade praising his playing skills now attacked his tactical moves and coaching prowess at third base, and on May 31, with the club in seventh place at 13-22, he was fired in favor of Charlie Grimm, whose managerial résumé already included 13 big-league seasons and three pennants. General manager John Quinn said Holmes simply needed more experience to be a successful skipper, an odd comment considering that he now had a year more of it than when they had given him the job.

In the end, there was a bright spot to the season for Tommy. He signed on two weeks later as a spare outfielder with his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers, and on June 29 he beat the Braves with a pinch single before Boston’s second biggest home crowd of the season (13,405). Brooklyn wound up winning the pennant, and Holmes saw his last big-league playing time in a seven-game World Series loss to the Yankees.

Although it frustrated his fans that Tommy didn’t get a chance to stick as manager long enough to help the Braves flourish after their move, they leaped to 92 wins in 1953, and claimed a World Series title over the Yankees by 1957. In retrospect his exit while the club was still situated in New England seems appropriate. Perhaps more than any other player, Holmes personified the underdog, determined Boston Braves. And despite how his career with the team ended, his numbers still shine through. He averaged 185 hits, 36 doubles, and 86 runs scored during his nine seasons as a regular, and ranked among baseball’s Top 10 during the 1940s in hits and doubles.