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 Tommy 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, Tommy 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, Tommy 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
he 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 Tommy 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, Tommy
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
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 Tommy 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,
he 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, Tommy
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 Tommy 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 Tommy 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. Tommy 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, Tommy 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
Making this dominant showing all the more impressive was what Tommy 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, Tommy 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
Perhaps the most amazing stat of all is that Tommy 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
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.
Tommy 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, Tommy’s 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 Tommy and his fans, his breakthrough summer did not end
with a National League MVP award. That honor went to Cavarretta of the
pennant-winning Cubs, who despite edging Tommy 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. He was named
Player of the Year by
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 Tommy 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 Tommy 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 Tommy 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 Tommy 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 Tommy 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 Tommy
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 Tommy 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. Tommy 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 he 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 Tommy’s
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
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 Tommy 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
Tommy saw his last big-league playing time in a seven-game World Series loss to
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, Tommy personified the
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.