- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2005

The postseason meeting of Boston Braves executives was strictly hush-hush, held in the construction company offices of club owner Lou Perini rather than at Braves Field to prevent word from leaking. The day was gloomy, just like a 1952 campaign in which the team had finished seventh with a 64-89 record and drawn a mere 281,278 paying customers at home, or 3,677 a game.

Perini’s message was terse that October afternoon: “We’re moving to Milwaukee.”

Although the transfer didn’t become official until March18, 1953, when the seven other National League club owners approved it unanimously, the major league landscape had been altered for the first time in a half-century.

No club had moved since 1903, when the original Baltimore Orioles became the New York Highlanders (subsequently the Yankees). But after the Braves struck immediate gold in Wisconsin, the trickle became a flood as baseball’s two- or three-team cities vanished like the wind.

In 1954, the St. Louis Browns switched to Baltimore. In ‘55, the Philadelphia Athletics re-emerged as the Kansas City A’s. In ‘58, the Dodgers and Giants forsook New York City for Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. Suddenly, baseball’s traditional map seemed virtually unrecognizable to many fans.

Two of the early defectors would do it again; the Braves went from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966 and the A’s from Kansas City to Oakland in ‘68. Washington would lose two clubs, the original Senators moving to Minnesota in 1961 and the expansion version to Texas in ‘72. The expansion Seattle Pilots would spend exactly one season in the Pacific Northwest before fleeing to Milwaukee, of all places, in 1970.

So much for tradition, for better or worse. And it all started that autumn day in 1952 when Boston lost the Braves, who had existed under one name or another since 1871 in the National Association.

Except for two memorable seasons, the Boston Braves were mostly mediocre during the first half of the century. They made history of sorts in 1914 by sprinting from last place on July4 to the pennant and sweeping Connie Mack’s A’s in the World Series. Thirty-four years later, a veteran Boston club won another unexpected pennant, drawing 1,455,439 in the midst of baseball’s post-war boom. But after 1948, it was all downhill on the field and at the gate. Attendance declined to 1,081,795 in ‘49, 944,391 in ‘50 and 487,475 in ‘51 before the final flop of ‘52.

In those days, clubs relied on gate receipts rather than TV or radio receipts to make a profit, and Perini was taking a financial bath — or maybe a long, cold shower. In his October surprise, he told his executives that the only solution was a move to Milwaukee, where he also owned the Class AAA Brewers and the city’s new County Stadium.

“He told us the Braves couldn’t be competitive in Boston, based on market surveys, and that the future there was bleak,” recalled Chuck Patterson, Perini’s administrative assistant. “Then he told us not to say a word to anyone, not even our wives.”

Perini kept his own mouth shut. Said his son, David, then 15: “He never discussed the move at the dinner table that winter. As a business decision, it made sense, but I know it was the hardest decision of his life.”

The reason for all the secrecy was that Browns owner Bill Veeck, who had run the Brewers earlier, also had designs on Milwaukee. But Perini needn’t have worried. When Veeck applied for permission to move there that winter, his fellow American League owners turned him down flat. Irritated by Veeck’s creative, sometimes wacky ways of promoting attendance, they figured one more year of galloping red ink in St. Louis would force him to sell. Which, of course, it did.

So the Boston Braves became the Milwaukee Braves less than a month before the start of the season. Infielder Sibby Sisti got the news at a St. Petersburg, Fla., TV station where he was about to film a Gillette commercial with Braves ace Warren Spahn.

“I saw the bulletin on a ticker that we were moving,” Sisti recalled. “So I walked over to the guy who was producing the commercial and told him Spahnie and I would have to change the ‘B’ on our caps or not wear any at all.”

Switching that ‘B’ to an ‘M’ was the only change the Braves made on their uniforms, which traditionally featured the team nickname underlined with a tomahawk on the jerseys. But other changes proved to be immense. For one thing, a young and talented team featuring future Hall of Famers Spahn and Eddie Mathews, improved by a whopping 27 games, zooming all the way to second place with a 92-62 record.

For another, Milwaukee went totally bonkers over its new ballclub. Sellout crowds turned County Stadium into a daily madhouse, at first cheering even ground balls hit by the Braves. A crowd estimated at 60,000 welcomed the team to town from Florida on April 8, and players that season were given so many freebies they could have left their wallets at home.

For 77 home games, the Braves drew 1,826,397, an average of 23,719 in a ballpark not yet completed. The club would top 2million in each of the next four years, but it was an ominous sign when attendance dipped slightly in 1959 even though the team was fighting for its third straight pennant. As so often happens, this love affair cooled almost as quickly as it had bloomed. By 1965, crowds were down to 555,584 as Atlanta crooked its finger. But in the cheery glow of ‘53, such a fate would have seemed unimaginable.

After the welcoming parade, two exhibition games at County Stadium against the Boston Red Sox — who else? — were rained out. The Milwaukee Braves opened their first season April 13 with a 2-0 victory in Cincinnati’s traditional early opener. The following day, 34,357 screaming meemies jammed County Stadium, which required temporary outfield bleachers to accommodate even that many.

The Braves’ starting pitcher was Spahn, who would rebound from a 14-19 season in ‘52 to go 23-7 with a 2.10 ERA on his way to becoming the winningest left-hander in baseball history with 363 victories. When he delivered the first pitch to Solly Hemus of the St. Louis Cardinals, the crowd unleashed a primal roar that prompted one reporter to write, “Milwaukee County may never again witness such a display of emotion.”

Not for a couple hours anyway. The teams were tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 10th when Cardinals pitcher Gerry Staley “threw me a knuckleball, and I liked the looks of it,” Braves leadoff man Billy Bruton said. He liked it so much he hit the pitch toward the 4-foot-high chain-link barrier in front of the temporary seats in right field. Enos Slaughter got his glove on the ball, but it popped over and into the crowd.

Bedlam ensued. As Bruton circled the bases, the crowd yowled his name, and teammates waited to mob him at the plate. The game was over, and baseball’s new era had begun.

In Boston earlier that month, a different sort of occasion took place at Braves Field. As two IRS agents looked on, a club employee threw more than a million tickets valued at $2.5million out of an office window. They were trucked to a spot near the outfield and set ablaze as National League baseball in Boston literally went up in smoke.

The date was sort of poignant: April Fool’s Day.

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