(This is Part 1 of a three-part report on the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves.)
By Glen Sparks
Warren Spahn and Eddie Mathews were on their way to Milwaukee. Hank Aaron was almost ready.
Wisconsin’s largest city became a major league baseball town, at least for a while, on this date in 1953. Lou Perini, owner of the Boston Braves, announced the move, the first franchise shift in the majors in 50 years.
The Braves put together quite a run, albeit a short one, in Milwaukee. They captured two National League pennants, plus a World Series championship in 1957. Even more impressively, in their 13 seasons in Brew City, the Braves never muddled through a losing campaign.
Those three future Hall of Famers led the way. Left-handed ace Spahn, a 20-game winner four times as a Boston Brave, added seven 20-win seasons in Milwaukee. Mathews, a slugging third baseman, smashed at least 30 home runs 10 times, leading the N.L. in 1953 (47) and ’59 (46).
Aaron, of course, began his assault on the all-time home run record when he came up to Milwaukee in 1954. The rightfielder finished atop the homer leaderboard twice (44 in 1957 and ’63). He led the league in total bases six times, RBI three times and batting average, runs scored and slugging percentage two times apiece.
Fans packed in Milwaukee County Stadium. The Braves set a National League attendance mark of 1.8 million in 1953, despite playing in one of baseball’s smallest markets. Attendance topped 2 million the next four seasons, double the league average.
A college student named Allan “Bud” Selig counted himself as one of the Braves’ biggest fans. He especially admired Aaron, one of the game’s most complete players. Selig talked to Gary D’Amato of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal about following the team during its championship season in Aaron’s MVP year of ’57.
Besides blasting 44 home runs that year, Hammerin’ Hank drove in a league-high 132 runs and finished fourth with a .322 batting average. He could do it all. Against the New York Yankees in a seven-game Fall Classic, Aaron hit .393 with three homers and seven RBI. Selig remembers that season like it was this morning.
“Henry Aaron in ’57 was, well, he was a player for the ages,” said Selig, who bought the Milwaukee Brewers in ??? and served as the game’s commissioner from 1992-2015 (more on Bud later in this series). “I have never seen a hitter like him. Forget our relationship. I’m telling you in the ‘50s, when you watched Henry Aaron, you knew you were watching something really special. And I want to emphasize that.”
Milwaukee looked like a great baseball success story. But then … the team was gone, off to Atlanta, following the 1965 season. What happened? What made the Milwaukee Braves, the only team in baseball history to play multiple seasons in one city and not suffer a losing record in any of them, decide to move south? Why did attendance plummet—from 2.1 million in 1954 to barely a million in 1961 and then go even lower?
Gordon Hylton, a faculty member at the Marquette University School of Law, goes into detail about the assorted problems that the Braves faced in Milwaukee and about a court case filed to make the team stay put.
More about the case later. As to why attendance dropped so far and so fast (down to 555,584 in 1965, next to last in baseball), Hylton offers some theories. “Fan exhaustion,” he writes, might have been one reason. The Braves outdrew the local population several times. In 1960, Hylton writes, the Braves attracted nearly 1.5 million fans, the equivalent of 130 percent of the Milwaukee metropolitan area. The Yankees, meanwhile, attracted the equivalent of just 11 percent of the New York City metropolitan area in 1960. Milwaukee probably could not keep the boom going forever.
Also, Hylton writes, the later Milwaukee teams did not fare as well on the field as the early ones did. The Braves finished in fourth place or lower in each of their final five seasons after winding up in first or second place in seven of their first eight years. The fair-weather fans may have begun to stay home, even if the team was still playing better than .500 baseball.
Bring Your Own Beer?
This being Milwaukee, now we come to beer. In this case, city leaders passed a bill prohibiting fans from bringing their own beer into the park. This was an unpopular move, although most teams already did not permit fans to pass the turnstiles, six pack in hand. Anyway, Hylton doubts that the new restriction hurt concession sales or attendance too much. According to a report he cites, the Braves of the 1950s had “the highest per capita concession sales in the major leagues.” Braves fans didn’t mind buying ballpark beer.
Finally, Hylton notes that the Washington Senators left the nation’s capital in 1961 and set up shop in Minneapolis-St. Paul as the appropriately named Twins. This probably cut into the Milwaukee fan base in pockets of Wisconsin and Minnesota, Hylton writes, but it was hardly a death blow. Lots of open land and plenty of lakes separate the two cities. Minneapolis is nearly 350 miles from Milwaukee.
(Hylton does not mention anything about the Green Bay Packers in his article. In the comments section after his post, reader David Asahina makes a case that the beloved football team’s resurgence may have hurt the Braves, if just a bit. The Packers had fallen on hard times by the late 1940s. Their skid continued for much of the 1950s, leading to the hiring of Vince Lombardi as head coach in 1959. Green Bay finished 7-5 in Lombardi’s rookie year and then went a combined 61-18-3 from 1960-65, playing in four NFL championship games and winning three. This return to past glory probably siphoned off at least a few baseball fans, especially in such a small market, Asahina speculates.)
Whatever the exact reason, and they all probably played some part, owner Perini nervously watched as his profits dropped. He cut the payroll, raised ticket prices and signed a deal to broadcast some road games on television. Attendance kept going down. The team sold 6,000 season tickets in 1962, half what the team had sold in 1959. Finally, Perini did what he felt he had to do. He sold the team to some Chicago investors in late 1962.
The rumors began right away and picked up in a hurry. This new ownership group, so it was said, wanted to move the team to growing Atlanta, which was indeed building a multi-purpose stadium. The Milwaukee Braves were lame ducks.
U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wisc., introduced legislation that would have forced major league teams to pool their radio and TV revenue, much like in today’s NFL. Small-market cities like Milwaukee would have been given an additional revenue stream. Proxmire’s bill, though, never made it out of committee. It looked more and more like the Braves were headed to Atlanta.