Saturday, 26 July 2014

THE RISE AND FALL OF THE MILWAUKEE BRAVES



1955 Bowman baseball card of Hank Aaron
(United States Public Domain)
Following the 1952 season, the National League Boston Braves had no choice but to leave Massachusetts. Boston was really a one-team baseball town, with Ted Williams and his Boston Red Sox getting the attention. Besides, the Braves had been in steady decline since their pennant-winning 1948 season when they had attracted 1.4 million hometown fans. By 1952, they finished a distant seventh with only 64 wins and a pathetic home attendance of 281,000 at Braves Field.

Owner Lou Perini, who had already made his fortune in the family construction business of Perini Corporation, saw the writing on the wall. Lots of ups and downs had come his way since purchasing the team in 1945, but nothing close to the depths of the 1952 season. Perini was no stooge. Now he had to make a baseball business decision. Following some inquiries, he got the bug to GO WEST YOUNG MAN. And he did just that--setting his sights on a place crying for major league baseball, the beer brewing town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and its new County Stadium, a park with 36,000 seats with room to expand to 40,000-plus.

On 13 March 1953, in the midst of spring training, Perini announced his intention for permission to move his Braves to Milwaukee, a city of 600,000. Five days later, the National League owners okayed the move by a unanimous 8-0 vote, allegedly led by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley who wanted a favor down the line and got it when he and Horace Stoneham’s New York Giants received league permission to take their teams to the West Coast a mere four years later. The old…you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The move to Milwaukee was the first MLB team franchise shift in 50 years. Little did Perini know he’d be starting an avalanche of team transfers in the next dozen years.

The city of Milwaukee went absolutely nuts in 1953, accepting the Braves with open arms. Sixty thousand fans lined the streets for a parade the moment the team officially came to town. That first year, the new Milwaukee Braves passed the previous year’s attendance in Boston by 20 May, in only their thirteenth home game. The team went on and topped out at 1.8 million fans--a new National League attendance record--and a 92-62 mark, good enough for second place, eight games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers. Pitcher Warren Spahn led the league in wins with 23 and third baseman Eddie Mathews chased Babe Ruth’s single-season 60 homers, but fell short, eventually reaching 47 homers, though. Not bad for a 21-year-old kid about to become a local hero in only his second major league season. The next spring, Mathews made front cover of the prestigious Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook. In an article inside, he was already being compared to the Babe.

It only got better after that for the Milwaukee Braves, soon to be the showpiece franchise of the entire major leagues. In the 1955 Street and Smith’s, an article stated, “After two years in Milwaukee, the Braves still are wondering if their main purpose is to win a pennant or draw fans.” As it turned out, they did both.

For six straight years from 1953 to 1958, they were number one in attendance for both leagues, breaking their own National League attendance record with 2.2 million in 1957, when they had their best season at 95-57, and won their first pennant. League MVP Hank Aaron led his circuit with 44 homers, 369 total bases, 118 runs scored and 132 RBIs, while Cy Young winner Warren Spahn led the league’s pitchers with 21 wins and 18 complete games. The Braves then went on to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series in seven games.

The 1957 Braves hold a soft spot in my heart. I’m a big APBA fan. For those of you who aren’t familiar with APBA, it’s the sports simulation game that’s been around since 1951. In 1962, when I was 11 years old, a cousin on my dad’s side gave me his 1957 card set, complete with dice, boards and assorted material to play the game. Although I was a big Yankee fan—Mickey Mantle was my favorite--I could see on paper that the 1957 Braves were a great ball club and an even match for the Yankees. I still have the original set, by the way, with the cards protected in individual plastic sheets.

In 1958 came another Brave pennant, a seven-game loss this time to the Yankees in the Fall Classic, but still 1.9 million saw their way through the turnstiles. Then came the gradual decline in attendance, although the Braves were still contenders in the standings. By the 1960s they had lost their glitz and their gate. They just barely reached the one million mark in 1961, putting them ninth out of 18 teams. Then 766,000 in 1962, followed by 910,000 in 1964.

By then the team was still competing but were not the best in the National League any more, being replaced in different years by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. Milwaukee fans didn’t care to support a team in the middle of the pack. Season ticket sales dropped to as low as 6,000 in 1962, the worst since leaving Boston, and down 50 percent from 1959. There were other factors. There was very little Braves TV coverage to interest the fans who couldn’t make it to County Stadium. And, starting in 1961, a new city ordinance forbid fans from bringing their own beer to the park, which annoyed many individuals.

The Braves seemed to be trapped--two Chicago teams to the south and Lake Michigan to the east. Once the Washington Senators moved to the Twin Cities, the new Minnesota Twins began to take away the Braves enthusiastic fans from Western Wisconsin who used to make packed bus trips to Milwaukee to catch weekend games. Also, the high-powered Green Bay Packers, coached by Vince Lombardi, who played half their home games in Milwaukee for the bigger gate, were the talk of the National Football League, and stealing a lot of the Braves thunder.

Then Lou Perini sold the Braves after the 1962 season for $5.5 million to a group of Chicago investors. Almost immediately rumors were afloat that the new gunslingers in town were planning a move to Atlanta. And…the rumors were eventually true. In two years they made it known they were looking at making such a move South, where they could draw uninhibited from a much wider area than was available to them in Wisconsin.
1954 Bowman baseball card of Eddie Mathews
(United States Public Domain)


The new ownership were all set to pack up and flee after the 1964 season with a brand new state-of-the-art stadium waiting for them, except for Bud Selig--yes, that Bud Selig--who, as a minority Braves stockholder, arranged for a court order to keep the team in Milwaukee for the 1965 season. With his hands tied, the judge could only do one more season. Once the local fans heard this, they stayed away on a grander scale than before. Who wanted to watch a team that wouldn’t be sticking around? The Braves drew only 555,000 fans in 1965, then became the Atlanta Braves for 1966. Four years later, Selig was directly responsible for bringing a major league team back to Milwaukee, this time in the form of the American League Brewers.

For the 13 years in Milwaukee, the Braves always had winning ways. Their worst season was 1963, when they finished 84-78. For a span of a few years in the 1950s they were the talk of baseball and sports in general. They were the darlings of Milwaukee. They had stars Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, Joe Torre, and  Rico Carty. But it still wasn’t enough to draw the fans.

Here’s a piece of trivia for you…who was the only player to wear the uniform of all three Braves teams during their time in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta? Try…Eddie Mathews.

Lou Perini died in 1972 at age 68, 10 years after selling the Braves. His business still survives today as Tutor Perini Corporation, one of the largest general contractors in the United States, with an annual revenue of $4 billion in 2012.

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