A new Major League Baseball season is just hitting its stride, and fans are crowding into Miller Park to catch the Brewers, who again are showing they'll be a force for teams to contend with in the National League's central division, including my Cubs.
But for older Wisconsin baseball fans, nothing today will ever compare to 1953, the year that the Braves came to Milwaukee and were welcomed with open arms by not only the people but the entire community, from mom-and-pop businesses to the city's largest corporations.
There have been several books written about the all-too-short 13 seasons that the Braves spent in Milwaukee, but for those of you who can't get enough of the remembrances, the new book "Home of the Braves" is a must read. Written by Patrick W. Steele, a Concordia University professor and a member of the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association, the book isn't about the "miracle" team and stars like Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews, but a revealing look at the ownership manipulations and the underhanded politics of Major League Baseball that wound up stealing a team from a city that poured its heart — and money — into its initial success, only to watch it disappear for greater riches in Atlanta.
But Steele doesn't place the entire blame on the Braves' ownership, which took a turn for the worse when after the 1962 season industrialist Lou Perini, who had moved the Braves from Boston to Milwaukee in '53, sold the team to a group of Chicagoans headed by a man who soon became a villain to Milwaukee, William Bartholomay.
He writes that the Milwaukee County Board, which had built and owned the stadium that was the Braves' home, made enough missteps in dealing with the club to give it the excuses it needed to convince other baseball owners it needed to move. Blustery comments by the County Board's chair, Eugene Grobschmidt, who insisted that the new ownership was purposely sabotaging attendance, didn't help either.
I was a teenager when the Braves came to town and naively never knew, for instance, that fans were allowed to carry in their own beer for the games. Milwaukee County retained all the parking revenues and after the first amazing years — including a World Series championship in 1957 and a trip to the Series in '58 — began asking the Braves' ownership for a greater share of the take.
In fact, Steele points out, some baseball people think it was that unexpected quick success that saw Milwaukee set all-time attendance records — the "Milwaukee Miracle" it was called — that were impossible to maintain when the team's on-field performances declined in the early '60s. Steele also blames the Braves' original owner, Perini, for failing to recognize the value of television in promoting baseball. For years, Perini refused to allow any live telecasts of Braves' games, even on the road.
Meanwhile, Atlanta was offering the moon — control of its own beer concessions, parking revenue and a gigantic TV rights contract that included six Southern states, all devoid of Major League Baseball.
Steele documents the Milwaukee business community's attempts to keep the Braves in Milwaukee when rumors began that the Bartholomay group was talking to Atlanta officials to move the team. A who's-who list of Milwaukee business execs, the chamber of commerce and the beer giants all joined in an effort to increase attendance to prove Milwaukee was still an incredible baseball town.
But the fans were turned off by what they felt was a double-cross on the part of the "Chicagoans" who had bought the team, and where they once flocked to the park, they now stayed away in droves, adding fuel to the fire of why the team needed to move.
The Braves had hoped to move to Atlanta for the '64 season, but the courts ruled that the team's contract with the county included 1965 and it was forced to play its last full season in Milwaukee. Further court suits, including antitrust charges filed by Attorney General Bronson La Follette, all were defeated and County Stadium, which was delightedly filled by more than 2 million people in each of four seasons and in its 13 seasons in Milwaukee still ranked second in attendance, trailing only the Los Angeles Dodgers, now sat empty.
It took five years — some claimed Major League Baseball was punishing Milwaukee by not including it in its expansion plans for dragging baseball through the courts — but Bud Selig and a consortium of city business leaders succeeded in buying and moving the expansion Seattle Pilots to County Stadium in 1970.
The new Milwaukee Brewers, the name of the Triple A minor league team that played in Milwaukee until the Braves came in 1953, is now in its 49th season and for the past 18 seasons is in a modern retractable-dome stadium called Miller Park, paid in part with taxpayers' money, but under control of the team.
Still, writes Steele, it could have all played out quite differently.
Published by the University of Wisconsin Press, "Home of the Braves" is available at most bookstores.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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