The 2018 Red Sox continue to flirt with the remarkable possibility of a .700 winning percentage. Never before has any team in franchise history eclipsed that impressive number in a season.
But the same can’t be said for all Boston baseball teams in Major League history. The 1912 Red Sox came close (with a record 105-47, and a winning percentage of .691), but the 1897 Boston Beaneaters reached the magical .700 plateau.
Before becoming the Braves, and moving to Milwaukee and eventually Atlanta, one of Boston’s original baseball teams played in the National League and was (from 1883-1906) known informally as the “Beaneaters.”
Playing in a era before the American League or the (modern) World Series, the team has largely been relegated to the periphery in Boston’s baseball memory.
Given that their name eventually changed, and that the franchise subsequently left town in the ’50s, it’s probably understandable that memory of the 19th century Beaneaters has dimmed.
Still, Boston’s baseball team in the late 1800s carried recognizably modern traits. The Beaneaters were not only successful (winning five pennants in the final decade of the 19th century), but also had a passionate fanbase. They were the original subject of Royal Rooter support, a group that would become synonymous with the Boston Americans (later the Red Sox) only a few years afterward.
The early 1890s saw a three-peat of Beaneater pennants, but it was in 1897 that Boston saw its most dramatic baseball achievement to that point. With no World Series, the best regular season team in the National League was the champion. It was an era when the pennant was still the major prize.
Despite starting 1-7, Boston found its stride in May before an electrifying 22-2 record in June. Backed by four future Hall of Famers, current fans would find more than a few similarities with the 2018 Red Sox.
The pitching staff was anchored by a clearcut ace, Kid Nichols. The righthander led the National League with 31 wins in 1897, posting a 2.64 ERA over 368 innings pitched.
Then as now, Boston had a dominant outfield. Rookie Chick Stahl hit .354, while Billy Hamilton hit .343 along with stealing 66 bases (a strangely shared trait with the 21st century player of the same name). Anchoring the lineup was fellow outfielder Hugh Duffy, who – in a testament to the dead-ball era – led the league with 11 home runs (driving in 129 runs).
Collectively, the 1897 Beaneaters hit an astounding .325, leading the league.
And, in a further parallel to the modern iteration of Boston baseball, a rival made for an exciting pennant race.
Between 1891-1898, Boston and Baltimore accounted for every pennant won in the National League. Having watched the Orioles equal their feat from earlier in the decade by winning three in a row, the Beaneaters fought desperately to hold off their rivals in the summer of ’97.
Like Boston, Baltimore was a team stacked with talent. Five Hall of Famers dotted the roster, including batting champion Willie Keeler (who erupted that season with a .424 average) and future New York Giants manager John McGraw playing third base.
A measure of the close competition between the two juggernauts was the evenness of their games. In six clashes that season, each won three. And each scored exactly 75 runs.
Boston, buoyed by a 17-game winning streak in June, usurped Baltimore’s league-leading position that month. A desperate chase from the Orioles finally resulted in capture on the final day of August. From then until Sept. 10, the race was either tied or within the microscopic margin of a single game.
The pendulum swung back in Baltimore’s favor over the next 10 days, as the Orioles clung to a half-game lead before the two teams met in a three-game showdown in the penultimate series of the season. In an unprecedented move, more than 300 Royal Rooters traveled to Baltimore to support Boston.
Wearing badges framed with American flag hangers to distinguish their membership, the Rooters departed via train.
With fan support bellowing encouragement, Boston won the first game, 6-4. Representative John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, grandfather of future President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was on hand after taking the short trip from Washington D.C.
The Orioles battled back, winning the second game 6-3. The league leaders were within half a game of each other, Boston (90-38) with a .703 winning percentage, and Baltimore (88-37) with a .704 winning percentage.
The finale proved an anticlimax, as Boston decimated Baltimore 19-10 in a “masterful” display of hitting.
“The havoc wrought by the Bostons, today, with the Baltimores, is something awful to contemplate,” read the lead of the Boston Globe’s recap.
Two more wins in the following days against Brooklyn ensured the pennant came back to Boston. With a 93-39 record, the 1897 Boston Beaneaters finished with a .705 winning percentage. It remains a record among Boston baseball teams, and something for the 2018 Red Sox to aim for. That is, until the playoffs start.