(This is Part II of my three-part report on the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves.)
By Glen Sparks
The Braves swept into Milwaukee from Boston with all the buzz and excitement of a blazing fastball. Not too many years later, though, that fastball looked like a lazy breaking pitch.
Fans set attendance records, and the team won a championship in the early years. That was then. Later, the Braves routinely played in front of middling crowds and faded fast from pennant races. Owner Lou Perini complained that his ballclub was a money pit; he finally sold his share. Would the new ownership group keep the team in Milwaukee or move it to Atlanta? The rumor mill opted for the latter.
The future of Milwaukee Braves baseball looked grim. That brings us to the court case that Marquette University law professor J. Gordon Hylton writes about on the school’s blog. Plaintiffs filed a criminal complaint, Wisconsin vs. The Milwaukee Braves, in Milwaukee County Circuit Court following an announcement that the Braves would indeed be moving to Atlanta for the 1966 season.
I’ll See You in Court
According to the complaint, the Braves and other National League teams were conspiring to deprive Milwaukee of baseball, both by moving the team and by not selecting a replacement franchise. The defendant, according to the complaint, had violated Wisconsin’s anti-trust laws.
At first removed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, the case was later remanded to the state circuit court. Just hours before the start of the 1966 season, Judge Elmer W. Roller ruled that the defendants had in fact acted “in restraint of trade” and had violated the state’s anti-trust act.
The judge fined the defendants $55,000 plus court costs and prohibited the Braves from playing the 1966 season anywhere except Milwaukee unless the National League agreed to put a new team in the city in 1967. To help the N.L. get an expansion team ready, Roller stayed (delayed) his judgement until mid-June.
Not surprisingly, the defendants appealed Roller’s decision to the state Supreme Court. On July 27, the court overturned Roller 4-3, using two arguments. Some judges said that baseball’s exemption from federal anti-trust laws also applied to state anti-trust laws. And even if baseball was not exempt from state anti-trust legislation, other judges said, Roller’s solution ran contrary to the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause.
The state had another chance. It appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Dec. 12, though, the Court rejected the state’s petition for certiorari (a written order seeking judicial review. Basically, the judges voted not to hear the case). Legal challenges being endless as long as a petitioner can keep paying attorney’s fees, Wisconsin asked the Court to reconsider. On Jan. 23, 1967, the court once again denied the cert. That was that. The Braves would be staying in Atlanta.
(Hylton offers plenty of nitty-gritty legal detail in his article about the case. Not being an attorney, I’ll refrain from passing on more information here. Hylton does speculate a bit on what the court may have decided had it taken the case.)
Did the Braves Really Wish They Were in Dixie?
The Braves went down South with less than hospitable results. Over their first 13 seasons, they finished above .500 just five times, plunging to an embarrassing 61-101 in 1977. (Remember, the Braves played 13 seasons in Milwaukee and never ended up with a losing record.)
One big early exception was 1969 when the club won 93 games and took the N.L. West (Yes, the fact that Atlanta, a convenient drive from the Atlantic Ocean, played in the West made no sense. That is a post for a different day.) Aaron hit 44 home runs, Orlando Cepeda added 22 and Rico Carty batted .342; Phil Niekro won 23 games with a 2.56 ERA (142 ERA+). The Braves finished three games ahead of the second-place San Francisco Giants.
Aaron, of course, became the face of the Atlanta Braves’ franchise. He won the home-run crown twice, with 44 in 1966 and 39 in 1967. (No. 44 hit exactly 44 home runs in a season four times.) Hammerin’ Hank broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run mark April 8, 1974, off the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing, who wore, you guessed it, uniform No. 44.
Ted Turner bought the Braves in 1976. The tycoon and yacht skipper also brought some eccentricity to Atlanta, pulling stunts like appointing himself the team’s manager for one day on May 11, 1977 (The Braves lost 2-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates.) The early Turner teams weren’t very good, but, thanks to the hiring of Bobby Cox as manager in 1978 and an enriched farm system, things began to turn around. Slowly.
The Braves returned to the playoff in 1982, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. Under Manager Joe Torre, Atlanta won 89 games in the regular season, beating out the Dodgers by a game. Dale Murphy (36, 109, .281, OPS+ 142) and Bob Horner (32, 97, .261, OPS+ 132) provided much of the team’s offense, while knuckleballer Niekro (17-4, 3.61) again led the pitching staff. Even so, the years of malaise had not ended. Between 1985-90, Atlanta finished last or next-to-last every year.
The team’s great run of success began in 1991. For the next 15 seasons, the Braves wound up in first place every season except 1994 when they were second. Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tommy Glavine, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez became WTBS superstation T.V. stars for what would be known by many as “America’s team.” The Braves won a World Series in 1995, knocking off the Cleveland Indians in six games.
Attendance in the much larger Atlanta market didn’t add up for many years. The Fulton County Coliseum looked and sounded more like the Fulton County Mausoleum at times. The Braves didn’t draw 2 million fans until 1983 and had a sub-1 million year as late as 1990. Atlanta enjoyed its first 3 million year in 1992 and now draws about 2.5 million fans every season.
Turner Field, located at 755 Hank Aaron Drive near downtown Atlanta, opened for Braves baseball in 1997, replacing Fulton County Stadium. In 2017, the Braves will be moving to new SunTrust Park, northwest of Atlanta in neighboring Cobb County. Yep, the Braves will be on the move again.