Sally Hoffman knew she was going to get married twice: first, to the love of her life, Michael Crescenzo. Then she married baseball. It was a package deal.
“I had no interest in baseball,” said Sally, now 92 years old and a neighbor of mine. “He introduced me to baseball.”
A Milwaukee native, she met Michael when he was in the Air Force. “It wasn’t love at first sight,” said Sally, “but there was a connection.”
They were sitting on the stoop of her home, discussing the future. She thought Michael would go back to his home in Philadelphia and marry a nice Italian girl, and she’d stay in Milwaukee and marry a nice Jewish boy. Shortly after that, they got married and moved to his hometown in 1954.
They raised two children, and Michael pursued several business ventures. One was a pizza shop in southern New Jersey near a college.
“There was a TV in the kitchen,” recalled Sally. “Always had to have a TV on so he could watch the games. And me, too.”
While Michael was from Philadelphia and followed the Phillies, he was also a big fan of the New York Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves. It was a good time to start following the Wisconsin team: they were starting to get very good.
They had moved from Boston in 1953, and the city went gaga over them. Their first season in Brewtown they finished first in attendance in the National League. The following year, they were the first National League team to draw two million fans.
Henry Aaron won the 1956 batting title when he was only 22 and led the league in home runs and RBIs the next season. Eddie Mathews was 21 when he swatted 47 home runs, more than anyone, in 1953. Del Crandall had been selected to the All-Star team four times in five years by the time he was 27. Joe Adcock and Frank Torre hit well sharing first base and were 27 and 25 respectively in 1957.After finishing a game behind the Dodgers for the pennant in 1956, they won the title by eight games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals, to face the perennial champions, the New York Yankees. (I forgot to ask Sally who Mike rooted for….) While New York was favored, the Braves won in seven games.
Five years after arriving in Milwaukee, the Braves were World Champions and played in a town that was mad about baseball. They had great players, a new ballpark, and a productive farm system. It was supposed to last. Eight years later, the Braves were gone, lured by the prospect of bigger riches in Atlanta (backed by the inexhaustible funds of Coca-Cola, headquartered in the southern city.)
So what happened? I wondered about two things: why did that team – loaded with talent – win only one World Series, and why did they stay in Milwaukee only 13 seasons?
“Money… everything comes down to that, which is why the Braves left,” said Bob Buege, author of The Milwaukee Braves: A Baseball Eulogy.
The life-long Milwaukee resident said, “They got too good too soon; they were a victim of their own success, I’d say. People came to expect them to win, to win every game, and it just can’t work that way.”
The team never had a losing season while in Milwaukee, he said. “The owner, Lou Perini was making money hand over fist, not that he needed it, he was a very wealthy man (from a construction business).”
Spring training, Bradenton, Florida, March 1957. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
By 1952, it was apparent Boston was unable to support two major league teams, and Perini moved the club. (In an eerie portent, the Braves were in spring training in 1953 when the announcement was made the team was relocating. There had been rumors, but Perini said he was staying in Boston. The club went through spring training believing it would return to Boston. Then the announcement came: they were moving. The news was sprung on them so fast there weren’t uniforms with an M for Milwaukee on them. The Braves had printed a million tickets for Boston games, but the IRS ruled they had to be destroyed, and they were burned in a bonfire at Braves Field. When they arrived in Milwaukee, players stayed at the Wisconsin Hotel until they found permanent housing. By the way, Eddie Mathews is the only Brave to play in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta.)
Milwaukee had been a minor league city for decades (Connie Mack was a player coach for the club in the late 1890s).
“The fact that Milwaukee was getting a big league team was a big deal,” said Buege. “You can imagine if you’re a AAA farm club town for half a century, all of a sudden you’re moving to the big leagues, people went crazy.”
The players were treated like heroes, like the French celebrating their liberation from Germany by the Allies in WWII.
A car dealer let each player have use of a car for the season for free. But, as Buege points out, the dealer then sold the cars, advertising they had been driven by a Braves player, which let him jack up the price. (Money again, he said.)
So again, what happened?
Pitchers Lew Burdette #33, Warren Spahn #21 and manager Fred Haney #2 of the Milwaukee Braves sit in the dugout during a Spring Training game circa March, 1958 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)
The victimization of their success began in October 1958. The Braves again won the pennant, again faced the Yankees in the World Series, and took a 3 games to 1 lead.
“We were down 3-1 in games, and the Braves were gushing with confidence and real cocky,” wrote Yogi Berra in Ten Rings: My Championship Seasons.
“(Lou) Burdette was saying after we were down 0-2 that we couldn’t even play in the National League,” Berra wrote. “A couple other of their guys, Johnny Logan in particular, said the Yankees were washed up.”
One publication said the series was over. New York apparently didn’t read the story – and came back to win three straight games and the championship.
The pitching staff was getting older. In 1957, the starting rotation was anchored by 36-year-old Warren Spahn – in the midst of six consecutive 20-win seasons – along with Lew Burdette (30) and Bob Buhl (28), who were acquired by General Manager John Quinn.
And the Braves lost more than the series. Quinn, the architect of the club, left in January 1959 to work for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was replaced by John McHale.
“John Quinn really did a good job in the 1940s and 50s,” said Buege. “And he did well for Milwaukee, but after the ’58 world series, which they lost of course, he felt he was being blamed for not winning the World Series again – and didn’t get the credit he deserved in ’57, so he pulled out. Why blame him? I don’t know. Quinn wanted more money, he felt he was underpaid for his two pennant years. Again, it was money. Perini had a lot of it, he should have just paid him.”
Speaking of money, when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley saw how much of it Perini was making after moving his team, he thought he could do the same on the west coast. So did New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham. Following the 1957 season, both clubs relocated to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.
The Dodgers finished seventh in 1958 – but that didn’t stop fans from seeing them. They were second behind the Braves in attendance.
(Original Caption) Toting their lumber up to home plate for batting practice are sluggers (L-R) outfielder Hank Aaron and third baseman Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves. The Braves opened full squad spring training on March 1st.
In the spring of 1959, Florida was inundated with rain. Many games were cancelled. In his autobiography Once a Bum, Always a Dodger, Don Drysdale wrote the team convinced General Manager Buzzie Bavasi to take the club to Cuba so pitchers could get their work in. It turned out to be a great idea. The Dodgers won 15 more games and tied the Braves at the end of the season with 86 victories. Drysdale said the trip to Cuba was a big reason they finished in that tie.
The Dodgers finished last in both team batting average and team ERA. So how did they win all those games? Led by stalwarts Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Charlie Neal, along with newcomers Wally Moon and Don Demeter, they were second in home runs behind the Braves, and their defense was solid.
Milwaukee fans must have thought there was no way Los Angeles could beat the Braves in the best-of-three playoff. They did, however, winning the first two; and then went on to face and defeat the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.
The 1960 Braves won two more games than they did in 1959. Again, they led the league in home runs and were second in runs scored and team batting average, but they finished in second place – eight games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. They finished fourth in attendance, the first time since moving to Milwaukee the team did not finish first or second in that category.
While the lineup remained potent in the early 1960s, the team’s pitching, particularly relief pitching, was not as effective.
Spahn defied expectations by pitching well into his late 30s and even 40s. But McHale traded Juan Pizarro, a younger pitcher with promise to the Chicago White Sox. He went on to win 61 games from 1960-64. McHale traded the 32-year-old Buhl to the Cubs early in the 1962 season. A year later, he dealt 36-year-old Burdette in mid-season 1963 to St. Louis. They might have been on the downside of their careers, but McHale was unable to replace them satisfactorily in the rotation.
Aaron and Mathews were untouchables, but many of the players who first came to Milwaukee were gone, as Adcock, Crandall and others were traded. Still, the team was able to produce quality hitters, like Rico Carty, Felipe Alou, and Frank Torre’s younger brother Joe, who by 1963 became the everyday catcher.
Joe Torre #9 of the Milwaukee Braves looks on during an MLB baseball game circa 1965. Torre played for the Braves from 1960-68. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
It probably didn’t help that the Braves had five managers – Charlie Grimm, Fred Haney, Chuck Dressen, Birdie Tebbetts, Bobby Bragan – in their time in Wisconsin.
The Braves won more than they lost each season in Milwaukee partly because they feasted on the expansion teams, the New York Mets and Houston Colt ’45s (later Astros). But their attendance kept dipping. Then Perini sold the team to a group of Chicago investors and McHale, who said they had no plans to move the franchise. But in 1963, rumors of a relocation began circulating.
“Conclusion jumpers at the recent All-Star game in Cleveland decided that an Atlanta-based delegation had arrived to make a pitch for the Indians. They had, but for a different baseball tribe it has been learned,” wrote Bob Broeg in the August 3 edition of The Sporting News.
A baseball writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he added, “Atlanta wouldn’t turn up its Dixie (nose) at the Lake Erie Indians, but it would prefer the Lake Michigan Braves.”
Broeg went on to write the team’s attendance had dropped sharply since 1957, that it had hung on to too many of its aging stars too long, and they lost good will among its fans when the county government prevented them from bringing beer into the ballpark.
The owner of the NBA St. Louis Hawks, who had moved the team from Milwaukee, told Broeg, “Baseball is bleeding that town, putting nothing in and taking everything out. Milwaukee is a strange place. When the Braves begin to lose and the novelty wears off, the absolute bottom will fall off.”
(Coincidentally, the Hawks moved from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1968.)
Said Buege: “Initially the Braves denied they were leaving, denied up until the day they left.” He said he remembers McHale saying something along the lines of “’We’re going to be here in Milwaukee today and tomorrow and as long as we’re wanted,’ and of course everybody knew he was lying – and he was.
“The biggest villain in all this, as far as the public was concerned, was John McHale. He was not very popular around Milwaukee,” said Buege. “The manager was Bobby Bragan at that time, he very openly aligned himself with Atlanta, said (he’d) rather get rich in Atlanta than whatever in Milwaukee. He was a big villain, every time he left the dugout that season the people booed unmercifully.”
Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Bragan (10) and Pittsburgh Pirates manager Harry Walker (3) on field for player introductions before Opening Day game at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. This was the first Braves game after moving the franchise to Atlanta from Milwaukee. (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
After the 1964 season, the Braves sold Warren Spahn to the New York Mets, a sign if not an omen the end was coming.
It was generally accepted 1965 would be the Braves’ final season in Milwaukee. The team finished in fifth place with an 86-76 record, but drew only 555,584 fans, placing them last in the league. The team’s final home game was on September 22 in front of 12,577 spectators who saw the Dodgers win 7-6.
The city of Milwaukee and others brought suits against the move, and a judge initially ruled in their favor, but the decision was overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
For Tom Kaminski, the departure was particularly painful. He was friends with the team’s traveling secretary, and he would assist players on trips. He occasionally would accompany the club when it went on road trips.
The team moving “was a disaster,” he said. “I had a l lot of friends over there, people like Johnny Logan. I figured they were gone forever. That was a real killer.”
Five years later, the expansion Seattle Pilots relocated to Milwaukee and became the Brewers.
Did that help salve the wounds of Braves fans who saw their team leave?
“Not at the time, but gradually yes,” said Buege. “The Brewers, they were terrible, an expansion team. Over the years, people started to get over it. I’m almost over it now; took a few decades, but I’ve accepted it. The Brewers got a nice team, not great, but entertaining, and they have a nice ballpark, so yeah, people have gotten over it.”
For Kaminski, he took solace in how the Chicago White Sox played exhibition games there to fill the void. The Brewers, he said, “were some consolation. They came from Seattle and weren’t very talented, not like the old Braves. They were still major league, but not the same.”
A one-time treasurer for the Milwaukee Braves Historical Society, Kaminski does attend Brewers games. “Not as many as the Braves, but yes, I do,” he said.
So the story of the Milwaukee Braves comes down to two mainstays of professional baseball: pitching and money. The team wasn’t able to produce enough of either after the glory days of 1957-58.
Sally still subscribes to a Jewish newspaper from Milwaukee. She doesn’t follow baseball the way she did when her husband was still alive.
In 2010, Mike learned he was dying, and told his doctors he wanted to go home. Sally said he passed away in his bed, surrounded by children and grandchildren, watching the Phillies’ home opening night game on television.
“My daughter is an avid baseball fan, and they go at every opportunity,” said Sally. “Another granddaughter is a fan beyond belief.”
Mike Crescenzo’s love of the game lives on.