By Glen Sparks
Hod Lisenbee beaned Carden Gillenwater with a pitch in the minor leagues. That knock in the noggin may have provided Gillenwater with his big chance.
The U.S. Selective Service folks declared Gillenwater 4-F, or unfit for service, during World War II. Supposedly, the beaning had led to permanent hearing loss for the outfielder. Another story is that Gillenwater had suffered a serious head injury while making a catch during an exhibition game. Whatever the real reason, he could keep playing baseball. The Army didn’t want him.
Gillenwater, born May 13, 1917, in the farming town of Riceville, Tenn., spent parts of five seasons in the majors (1940, 1943, 1945, 1946 and 1948). He accumulated 1,004 at-bats; 517 of them in 1945. Gillenwater batted .260 lifetime with a .359 on-base percentage. He hit 11 home runs and drove in 114.
The St. Louis Cardinals had signed Gillenwater out of Knoxville High School in Tennessee. Branch Rickey Jr., whose genius father ran the Cardinals, saw Gillenwater playing summer ball and invited him to a tryout camp. Out of the approximately 1,500 young men who hurled fastballs and took their cuts, only Gillenwater and one other player came home with a contract to play pro ball.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Gillenwater reported to the Class D Kinston, North Carolina, Eagles in the spring of 1937. There, he batted .301 and knocked 14 home runs. Impressed, the Cardinals promoted him to the Double-A Rochester, New York, Red Wings of the International League. Gillenwater spent a few more seasons in the minors, including one stop with the New Orleans Pelicans. A writer in the Big Easy saw Gillenwater this way: “(He) covers center field like a circus tent. He’s as fast an antelope and can go far back to snag long flies.”
In late 1940, St. Louis called up Gillenwater to the big club. He came to bat 25 times and hit safely only four times. Injuries and a lack of power kept Gillenwater in the minor leagues for the next few years. The disappointed Cardinals sold their one-time hot prospect to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. Gillenwater went 3-for-17 in his eight games with Brooklyn. So far, he was 7-for-42 (.167) in the majors.
More and more ballplayers were volunteering for the military or getting the call from Uncle Sam. Stars such as Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Warren Spahn, did their duty. Feller signed up as soon as heard the news about the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. Greenberg enlisted Dec. 9. As the battles raged on, teams had to think of creative ways to fill their rosters. It wasn’t easy. More than 4,000 minor leagues also went to war.
Brooklyn sold Gillenwater to the Boston Braves following the 1944 season. Gilly promptly won the starting job in center field. Over 144 games in 1945, he hit .288 (.379 on-base percentage) with seven homers and 72 RBI. But, Gillenwater did an even better job on defense. He led the National League in putouts (451), assists (24) and range factor (3.43).
World War II ended for the United States on V-E Day, May 7, 1945. Fighting in the Pacific concluded a few months later, on V-J Day, Sept. 2, 1945. Returning service men, including lots of ballplayers, looked forward to life—and their jobs–back in the States.
Gillenwater played in just 99 games in 1946 and hit only .228 in 224 at-bats. He was a minor leaguer once again in 1947 and got into 77 games with the Washington Senators in ’48, hitting .244. After a few more seasons of riding buses from one small town to another, Gillenwater retired. He and his wife, Marian, eventually moved to Clearwater, Florida, and opened some retail fabric stories.
Carden Edison Gillwater died May 10, 2000, from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) just three days away from his 83rd birthday. Marian Gillwater said this of her husband: “It didn’t matter if it was marbles, golf, tennis, or baseball, sports was all he knew. He was a great person, my best friend. Just a really good guy who loved sports.”
By Glen Sparks
The Fighting 42nd marched into northeastern France in March of 1918. U.S. soldiers from the Rainbow Division settled into those terrible trenches. Hank Gowdy was among the doughboys.
Gowdy, born Aug. 24, 1889, in Columbus, Ohio, signed up to serve in the Ohio National Guard on this date in 1917, the first Major Leaguer to do so. A catcher and first baseman with the Boston Braves, Gowdy already was in his eighth season and had been one of the heroes of the 1914 World Series against the Philadelphia A’s.
The right-handed batter went 6-11 in the Series as Boston swept Philly. He hit three doubles, a triple and a home run. He also drove in three runs and just missed hitting for the cycle in Game 1. (Gowdy hit his home run in Game 3. No one has ever hit for the cycle in a World Series game.)
Gowdy came up with the Giants in late 1910 as a 20-year-old and recorded three hits in 14 at-bats. Early in the 1911 season, the Giants traded him, along with Al Bridwell, to the Braves for Buck Herzog. Over the next few years, Gowdy split time between the minors and the big leagues, trying to improve his hitting as well as his catching skills.
In that pennant-winning season of 1914, Gowdy finally saw significant time with the big club. He only hit .243, but he got into 128 games for a Boston team that finished 94-59, 10 ½ games over the second-place Giants.
Following his big World Series, Gowdy settled in with the Braves as the team’s starting catcher for the next few years. He batted .247 in 1915 and .252 in 1916.
The Great War had broken out in the summer of 1914, shortly after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28. By the end of summer, just about every country in Europe had taken up arms. Later, the war spilled into Asia and Africa. Much of the world turned into a bloody mess.
The United States stood on the sidelines even after a German U-boat blasted a torpedo into the RMS Lusitania, a British liner, on May 7, 1915. The explosion killed nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans. German U-boats continued to sink U.S. merchant ships, and Congress declared war on April 6, 1917.
Enemy cannon hit Gowdy and the Rainbow Division hard. Artillery shells pounded the soldiers. Inside the trenches, war was horrific. Besides enemy fire, the men battled dysentery, trench foot and other diseases. The Rainbow Division suffered thousands of casualties.
An article in baseball-almanec.com reports on Gowdy the ballplayer as well as the soldier. Col. B.W. Hough, commander of the 166th, said, “Every outfit ought to have somebody like Hank. The boys idolize him and he gets them all stirred up with his baseball stories. He helps ‘em forget about the terror of war.”
Gowdy missed much of the 1917 season and the entire 1918 campaign due to the war. He arrived back in the United States as a hero and went back to baseball. For the next few years, he continued to catch for the Braves, batting .317 in 1922.
The Giants re-acquired Gowdy in 1923. New York Manager John McGraw used his veteran player wisely as a part-timer. Gowdy hit 328 in ’23 (122 at-bats), .325 in 1924 (191 at-bats) and .325 in 1925 (114 at-bats).
Despite those high batting averages, the Giants released Gowdy, who promptly reported to the minors. Gowdy finally made it back to the big leagues as a player-coach for the Braves in 1929. He batted .438 (7-16). In 1930, as a 40-year-old, he went 5 for 25 (.200) and called it quits as a player, a .270 career hitter. Gowdy later coached for the Giants and the Cincinnati Reds.
The old soldier didn’t leave his Army days behind in the trenches of World War I, either. When the United States entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, Hank Gowdy declared himself fit for duty. The Army commissioned him as Maj. Gowdy. The former ballplayer served faithfully as chief athletic officer at Ft. Benning, Ga. Even today, soldiers can play baseball on Hank Gowdy Field at Ft. Benning.
(Gowdy died Aug. 1, 1966, age 76, in Ohio.)
By Glen Sparks
Coach gathered everyone together after a tough round of hitting and fielding practice.
We were the minor Dodgers of the Santa Monica (Calif.) Little League, a group of boys with big league dreams. We took practice seriously. Someday, baseball would need us to hit line drives and pitch two-hitters in front of big crowds.
“Go home and watch Henry Aaron hit a home run,” Coach said.
It was April 8, 1974. Aaron came into the season with 713 home runs, one short of Babe Ruth’s all-time mark, the greatest record in sports. The Atlanta Braves slugger tied the Babe on April 4, in his first at-bat of ’74. Hitting clean-up, he belted a Jack Billingham pitch out of Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.
The hate mail had been pouring in for more than year. Some people did not want Aaron to break the record. They made that clear in the most vile ways. Even death threats popped up. Supposedly, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution prepared an Aaron obituary story just in case.
“All that hatred left a deep scar on me,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography I Had a Hammer.
I knew about Aaron. I had a few of his baseball cards. He was a great baseball player, I knew that. But, I didn’t know about that hatred.
Hammerin’ Hank, as some people called him, enjoyed a career for the ages. He hit at least 38 home runs in a season 11 times. In 1973, at age 39, he belted 40 homers in just 392 at-bats.
Coach drove me home from practice that day. I sprinted up the steps to my home and opened the door.
“He just did it!” my mom said.
OK, so I got to see history on instant replay. It was still good. Aaron belted a 1-0 pitch off the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing (No. 44, just like Aaron) in the fourth inning. The ball sailed toward the Braves’ bullpen in left-center field. Dodgers’ outfielder Bill Buckner nearly climbed the fence to catch the drive, but came up short. Tom House, an Atlanta reliever, snagged the ball in the ‘pen.
Aaron, who would finish his Hall of Fame career with 755 home runs, circled the bases. You’ve probably seen the video dozens of times. A crowd of nearly 54,000 stands up to cheer. Some fans rush onto the field. A couple of college students meet Aaron halfway for a few moments. Aaron flicks his elbows at them, but that’s all. He keeps rounding the bases.
Aaron’s mom and dad also ran onto the field. Later, his mom said she wanted to protect her son. Fortunately, a celebration ruled the night. Baseball had a new home run king. I thought that was pretty cool.
This is the first of a two-part follow-up to my three-part series on the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves. (Yep, the math gets crazy sometimes.) You can read parts I, II and III here. This post reports on the franchise shuffling in major league baseball that followed Boston’s departure to Milwaukee. My next post will cover the Seattle Pilots-Milwaukee Brewers drama/fiasco.
By Glen Sparks
Next stop …
The Boston Braves’ move to Milwaukee in 1953 ushered in a round of franchise relocations that lasted more than a decade. Suddenly, owners were looking at U.S. maps, trying to swap problem markets for shiny, new ones. The following is a rundown on the relocations that followed the Boston-to-Milwaukee move, the first one in major league baseball since the Baltimore Orioles moved to New York in 1903 and became the Hilltoppers, (later, the Yankees).
The St. Louis Browns. Oft-forgotten in a city with the powerful Cardinals and usually buried in the standings, St. Louis’s American League franchise called in the moving vans in 1954. In this case, a bit against the prevailing grain, those vans headed east rather than south or west. The rechristened Baltimore Orioles played to great success following some early struggles.
The Philadelphia A’s. The team had fallen on hard times after winning five championships under legendary manager Connie Mack. Following a 107-45 campaign in 1931 and a 94-60 one in 1932, the A’s suffered through six 100-loss seasons (plus six with at least 95) over the next 20-plus seasons. They moved to Kansas City in 1955. The Midwest’s version of the A’s never had a .500 season and lost at least 100 games four times in 13 years.
Brooklyn Dodgers/New York Giants. You could write an entire book on this, and many people have. The bottom line is this: Major League baseball was going to be in Los Angeles at some point. Dodger owner Walter O’Malley negotiated with New York City officials—faithfully or not—and couldn’t come to an agreement. L.A. officials opened their arms and offered O’Malley some premium property on a hill north of downtown. The Dodgers needed another team out west and invited the Giants, who were playing in the dilapidated Polo Grounds. The teams began play in L.A. and San Francisco in 1958. Each franchise draws more than three million fans every year. That’s the very, very short version. Roger Kahn can give you the long version. Be careful, though. He had a dog in this race.
Washington Senators. “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.” That’s what many people said about Washington, D.C., and Senators baseball. The team that once boasted the great pitcher Walter Johnson, that won back-to-back World Series in 1924-25 and that took the pennant in 1933 (losing to the Giants in the Series) crashed hard. Plenty of losing seasons were wrapped around a few winning ones in the years following the ’33 campaign. Owner Calvin Griffith moved his club to Minneapolis-St. Paul before the 1961 season and changed the team name to the Twins.
Milwaukee Braves. The fun didn’t last forever. Before long, the team fell both in the standings and in the stands. The team left for Atlanta in 1966. Read more about it more in Part II.
Kansas City A’s. Like the Braves, the A’s played in their new home city for 13 seasons. The A’s, though, didn’t enjoy nearly as much success as the Braves did. Attendance in Kansas City topped out at nearly 1.4 million, in the team’s inaugural season of 1955, and began on a gradual slope downward after that. Eccentric owner Charles O. Finley took his team to Oakland in 1968. The result: 16 division titles, six A.L. pennants, five World Series titles and an organization synonymous with Moneyball.
Seattle Pilots. It didn’t work out. (More about this in my next post.)
Washington Senators II. The nation’s capital got a new team as soon as the old one left. From 1961-71, the latest version of the Senators lost an average of 90 games every season. Two cool things: Frank Howard, all 6-feet-7 of him, hit some monstrous home runs. The so-called “Capital Punisher” won two home run titles. Also, former Red Sox great Ted Williams managed the club for a few years. His tenure including an 86-76 (.531) campaign in 1969. The team still finished fourth, but it was the best year for a Washington Senators Part II squad. Before the 1972 campaign, the team left for Arlington, Texas, in suburban Dallas and became the Rangers.
Since then, just one baseball team has left its home city. The Expos departed Montreal for Washington, D.C., in 2005 to become the Nationals, the third team since 1900 to make a go of it in the District.
(This is Part III of my three-part report on the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves, done in clearly non-linear fashion. Truth is, I’ll be posting something next week that will in effect be Part IV. It will cover some of the franchise relocations that followed the Boston-to-Milwaukee move, as well as the return of major league ball to Suds City.)
By Glen Sparks
They were the Boston Red Stockings first, founded in 1870. They became the Red Caps in 1876 and the Beaneaters in 1883. That worked until 1907, the year they were renamed the Doves, in part due to the all-white uniforms they wore for a few seasons. They were only the Rustlers for one season (1911), but the Braves for more than 20 (1912-1935).
It looked like they had at last settled on a good, solid nickname. The Braves, though, turned into the Bees from 1936 through 1940, following a vote by writers and fans. Finally, in 1941, Boston’s National League team settled on the old Braves moniker for good.
Boston fans can argue that their franchise is the longest continuously playing team in U.S. professional sports. The Cincinnati Red Stockings (later, simply the Reds), founded in 1869, sat on the sidelines in 1871. The Chicago Cubs (first, the White Stockings), who began play in 1870, quit for two seasons due to the Great Chicago fire of 1871.
The Red Stockings were a charter club in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the forerunner of the National League. Some of the other teams included the Cleveland Forest Citys, the Ft. Wayne, Ind., Kekiongas and the Troy, N.Y., Haymakers. (Great names. And, yes, “Citys” is spelling correctly in this case.)
Boston led the way. Thanks to Harry and George Wright, Albert Spalding (the future sporting goods tycoon) and Ross Barnes, the Red Stockings took home four of the first five National Association championships. In 1876, the Red Caps joined the newly formed National League. (The Red Stockings changed their name to avoid any confusion with the Cincinnati ballclub, also an inaugural National League member.)
Boston won eight pennants before the turn of the century. Frank Selee managed the club for much of that time. Seleee, a New Hampshire guy, knew talent and how to develop it. Later, while managing the Cubs, he put together the famous (Joe) Tinker to (Johnny) Evers to (Frank) Chance combination. His 1898 Boston team finished a dashing 102-47. Sour times were ahead, though.
The Boston Americans (in time, the Red Sox), the team founded to compete in the fledgling American League, spoiled all the fun for the, now, Beaneater ballclub. Several Beaneater players moved over to the Red Sox. Boston’s N.L. team, minus skipper Selee at this point, suffered through mutiple losing seasons and dropped at least 100 games five times.
It’s Going to Take a Miracle
In 1914, things turned around a bit for the team that was now, at last, the Braves again. Following another slow start, the club caught fire. Boston is still the only baseball team to win a pennant after looking up from last place on the fourth of July. Joe Connolly led the team in home runs with nine; Walter “Rabbit” Maranville drove in a club-high 78 runs. Pitchers Dick Rudolph and Bill James won 26 games apiece.
The so-called “Miracle Braves” swept the favored Philadelphia A’s in four games in the World Series. Catcher Hank Gowdy batted .545 (6-11) with six walks and three runs scored. He also hit the Series’ long home run. James and Rudolph both won two games.
Boston contended again in 1915 and ’16 after that improbable run to glory. Between 1917 and 1932, however, the team managed just two winning seasons and wound up above .500 just four times between 1933 and 1945.
Warren Spahn, a lefty with a big leg kick, helped turn things around for the Braves. Spahn, with an assist from fellow pitcher Johnny Sain, put Boston on the winning path in the late 1940s. This was the era of “Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain.”
In 1948, the Braves made it to another World Series. This time, though, they came out on the losing end. The Cleveland Indians, led by player-manager Lou Boudreau, beat them in six games.
Boston’s highlight reel ended after the Series, save, of course, for the continued great pitching of future Hall of Famer Spahn. Owner Lou Perini watched as his team tumbled in the standings and at the gate. The Braves, who had attracted nearly 1.5 million in 1948, drew fewer than 500,000 in 1951 and not even 300,000 in 1952. Perini wanted out of New England.
Milwaukee would be his savior. At least for a while. It was the first time a major league franchise had moved since the Baltimore Orioles left for the bright lights of New York City. First called the Hilllanders, they became the Yankees in 1913. (And, we know the rest of the story.)
The Braves stayed for 13 seasons in Milwaukee, starting in 1953. They played in front of large crowds during the first half of their tour and much smaller ones in the second half. The team, which won a World Series in 1957, also struggled in the standings near the end. (See Part I of this report.)
Perini sold his stake, and the new owners left for Atlanta, to Dixie apathy for the longest time, despite the prowess of hard-hitting future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. (See Part II of this report.)
(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.
(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.