- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tommy Holmes, a major league star during World War II but almost forgotten today, is one of those guys whose chances of making the Baseball Hall of Fame were doomed by a too short career.

Holmes, who died last week at 91 in Boca Raton, Fla., batted .302 over 11 seasons for the old Boston Braves, was a fine defensive right fielder and, by all accounts, was one of the game’s most popular and decent people.

Yet after being named playing manager of the Braves during the 1951 season — a job he held for less than a year — he appeared in a total of just 58 games for the Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers that season and the next before hanging up his spikes at 35.

Holmes had two considerable claims to baseball fame, fleeting as it was. He set a National League record with a 37-game hitting streak in 1945, a mark that stood for more than three decades before Pete Rose surpassed it in 1978.

And in the opening game of the 1948 World Series, Holmes drove in the only run with a eighth-inning single off Bob Feller that scored Phil Masi after Masi apparently had been picked off second base. Although photos plainly showed Masi was out, umpire Bill Stewart blew the call, allowing Holmes to do his thing.

There was a fascinating aftermath, too. In 1962, when he spoke at a meeting of the Alexandria Club of Grandstand Managers, Holmes was reunited with the bat he used for his big hit.

As Braves Field erupted, the bat was picked up by team farm director Harry Jenkins, who then gave it to Roger Doulens, an airlines executive and rabid Braves fan. Fourteen years later, Doulens was a member of the Grandstand Managers and presented it to Holmes.

“This is a terrific thing to have,” Tommy replied in typically understated fashion. “I always wondered what happened to that bat.”

If Holmes was lucky that night, it made up in small part for his poor timing as manager of the Braves. He had a 61-69 record for parts of the 1951 and 1952 seasons, but when the club started 13-22 the second year, he was abruptly fired by owner Lou Perini. In other words, what have you done for us lately?

The Braves ultimately finished seventh in 1952 with a 64-89 record and drew 281,278 fans at home. But in 1953, the year after Tommy left, the club moved to Milwaukee, attracted 1,826,397 to County Stadium and zoomed to second place with a 92-62 record under Charlie Grimm.

There’s no question 1945 was the best season for Holmes, a left-handed contact hitter who often batted leadoff. Tommy had 28 home runs, 117 RBI and a .352 batting average — one of five straight seasons in which he topped .300 — in a year when many top pitchers were still in military service. And, oh yes, he struck out nine times in 154 games (and only 122 times in 4,992 at-bats during his career).

All this didn’t help the Braves much. They finished with a 67-85 record, 30 games behind the pennant-winning Chicago Cubs, and drew only 374,178. That season, as nearly always, the Braves were a distant second to the Red Sox in the affections of most New Englanders.

Despite his relatively brief playing and managerial careers, Holmes was a baseball lifer. A native of Brooklyn who had the same name as a well-known sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle, he played in the New York Yankees’ farm system before being traded. After retirement, he spent 30 years working in community relations for the New York Mets. But at heart, he remained a member of the Boston Braves long after the club moved to Milwaukee and then Atlanta.

“Tommy represented what the Braves were about,” said Saul Wisnia, a member of the Boston Braves Historical Society. “[He was] a non-flashy, working-class player who conversed with fans during the games and signed autographs in his street clothes afterward.”

Fellow historical society member George Altison put it this way: “Tommy Holmes is as beloved to Braves fans as Johnny Pesky is to Red Sox fans.”

And that love was reciprocated. Homes son, Tommy Jr., said his dad kept his Braves uniform and cap, adding, “He loved every minute of his time in Boston.”

Unfortunately for their remaining fans, the Braves departed Beantown more than half a century ago in the first shift of a major league franchise since 1903. Now one of their most notable players, along with Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, is also gone.


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