Doug's Diggings: Do you remember the Milwaukee Braves?
With a new baseball season nearly on us, a new book caught my attention last week.
First, remember that I was a baseball fan long before the Twins came to Minnesota (1961) and the Brewers came to Milwaukee (1970) - what I'm trying to say is that you probably have to be within 10 years of retirement age to appreciate this new book!
The title is "Milwaukee Braves - Heroes and Heartbreak" written by William Povletich and published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
The Braves, of course, came to Milwaukee in 1953 and hit about every high and low possible before leaving the city and moving to Atlanta in 1966.
I remember every one of those highs and lows. I remember listening to the radio on Sept. 23, 1957, when Hank Aaron hit an 11th-inning home run and the Braves won the National League pennant (there were no playoffs in those days). The 4-2 win over the Cardinals vaulted the Braves into the World Series against the heavily favored Yankees. I remember the Braves winning Game 7 of the World Series 5-0 at Yankee Stadium.
I didn't realize it at the time - but 1957 was the top of the mountain for the Milwaukee Braves.
The Braves won the pennant in 1958 but lost the World Series. After building a 3-1 game lead, Milwaukee dropped the last three games, including the last two at County Stadium in Milwaukee. In 1959, the Braves tied the Los Angeles Dodgers for the title and lost two straight games in a best-of-three playoff to break the tie.
From there things went downhill fast and the Braves announced after the 1964 season that they would move to Atlanta for the 1965 season. Milwaukee, via lawsuits and lease pressures, forced the Braves to stay in Milwaukee one more year and the Braves began play in Atlanta in 1966 - the deepest valley in the history of the Milwaukee Braves or, as Povletich says, "one of the ugliest divorces between a city and baseball franchise in sports history."
I had more than a passing interest in the Milwaukee Braves - in fact I was an owner of the team! I bought three shares in 1963. I scraped together about $30 shoveling sidewalks etc. and made my big purchase. I was envious of fellow classmate Larry Dittloff - he bought six shares!
I didn't know it until I read the book, but the stock offering turned out to be a bust. The owners offered 115,000 shares of the team at $10 per share in the first few months of 1963. The ownership hoped to not only raise cash, but also reinvigorate fan interest. By April 7, 1963, only 13,000 shares had been sold and the offer was taken off the table. But I had my three shares and when the Braves moved to Atlanta, I got something in the neighborhood of $78 - considering how things are going today, it was probably the best stock I ever bought!
The stock was widely advertised and largely ignored - one club official said that if the stock had sold, the Braves would probably still be in Milwaukee.
Povletich's 222-page book is filled with every detail of the entire 13-year saga. The book also has 220 photographs and illustrations.
The Braves, of course, moved to Milwaukee in 1953 after having played in Boston for the team's entire existence, beginning in 1876. The Braves became the first team to move a franchise to seek greener pastures in over a half a century. Povletich's descriptions of the baseball frenzy created in Milwaukee are wonderful.
In Boston, the Braves were unable to compete with the Red Sox and in 1952, the Boston Braves drew a paltry 281,278 fans - an average of 3,677 per game. Owner Lou Perini came up with a plan to move to Milwaukee. But, no announcement was made and the Braves went to spring training in Florida with the apparent intentions of playing in Boston in 1953.
A fact I did not know until I read Povletich's book was that the St. Louis Browns (later to become the Baltimore Orioles) had announced intentions to possibly move to Milwaukee. Perini, however, owned the minor league Milwaukee Brewers (from where the now major-league team got its name) and had "territorial rights" to Milwaukee and essentially blocked the Browns' move to the beer city.
Milwaukee citizens, of course, were upset with Perini for stopping major league baseball from coming to Milwaukee. Losing in the court of public opinion, Perini and major league baseball announced on March 18, 1953, that the Braves would play the 1953 season in Milwaukee. The official 1953 Milwaukee Braves team photo showed the team with a mixture of hats, some with a "B" for Boston and some with an "M" for Milwaukee.
Milwaukee became a city in love with baseball - thousands of people lined the streets to welcome the team. Milwaukee had just completed County Stadium (hoping to attract a major league team, but expecting the minor league team to play there in '53) and were able to open the season with a sell-out crowd of 34,357.
The Braves were an almost instant success on the field, finishing second in 1953. Despite a seventh-place finish in Boston in 1952, the Braves had a great nucleus of players including Warren Spahn, Joe Adcock, Lou Burdette, Del Crandall, Johnny Logan, Eddie Mathews, Andy Pafko (Boyceville native) and many more. In 1954 they added the name Henry Aaron to the roster.
An interesting Povletich story about Hank Aaron: The Braves were trying to upgrade their roster in 1954 and traded for Bobby Thompson (of 1951 fame when he hit the home run for the Giants over the Dodgers in a playoff game - the shot heard 'round the world). In a spring training game against the Yankees in 1954, Thompson broke his ankle sliding into second base. Manager Charlie Grimm stuck little-known prospect Aaron into the lineup and - the rest is history.
In his book Povletich wrote: When Thompson was carried off the field on a stretcher, the Braves were forced to turn to rookie Henry Aaron. "I didn't realize it then. Heck, I wasn't mature enough to realize anything but sunup, sundown and meal time," Aaron remembered. "Anyway, that was my ticket to the big leagues going by me on the way to the hospital."
The Braves set a new National League attendance record in Milwaukee in 1953, drawing 1,826,397 - that despite having no pre-season notice that there would be a baseball team in Milwaukee. The Braves continued to set new records for several more years, drawing over 2 million fans for the next four seasons, capped by the 1957 season with 2,215,404.
As I said before, the 1957 season was the top of the mountain. In 1958, despite winning the pennant again, attendance dropped to 1,971,101 and continued to drop each year thereafter until drawing only 766,921 in 1962. It went up just a bit in 1963 and 1964 and then bottomed out at just 555,584 in the lame duck season of 1965.
The drop in attendance may have had something to do with the team not performing as well in the early '60s, but here is another little-known fact that I did not remember until I read the book. The Braves never had a losing season in Milwaukee. The worst year was 1963 when the team finished 84-78, but still six games above .500.
If you are one of us who was around for the Milwaukee Braves' roller coaster, this book is a must read. Every event is covered in great detail -- in both copy and photographs -- and will bring back a truckload of memories.
The book can be obtained locally at Back to Books, 520 Second St.