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Mudville: April 13, 2024 9:26 am PDT

Straight Outta Boston

“If Lou Perini can move a mountain with a steam shovel, which he has done, he can probably move the Braves to Milwaukee in one weekend.” – A Boston businessman

Those ominous and prophetic words about the owner of the Boston Braves were published only a few days before the team began the exodus of franchises relocating when the construction magnet Perini pulled up stakes for points west in 1953. It was the first franchise relocation in half a century. After the season, the St. Louis Browns said they were leaving for Baltimore. Following the 1954 season, the Philadelphia Athletics announced they were moving to Kansas City. A month before the 1957 season ended, the New York Giants told the world they were leaving for San Francisco. A month after the 1957 season the Brooklyn Dodgers proclaimed they were going to Los Angeles, and after the 1960 season the Washington Senators revealed to fans they were leaving the nation’s capital.

For a year or more, New Englanders heard and read reports the Braves could be leaving. As the team was halfway through spring training in Bradenton, FL, it’s likely fans thought it was possible – maybe even probable – the team would be in Boston for the upcoming season.

Surprise!

On March 14, a few weeks before the season was to start, Braves officials announced the team was relocating to Wisconsin. The news caught many people off guard: from executives at baseball card companies, to players and coaches, to ticket office employees at Braves Field and, of course – to fans.

“Boy, this is a surprise to me,” said Charley Grimm, the Braves manager who took over from Tommy Holmes 35 games into the season prior. “The first I heard of it was yesterday. This is the fastest thing that has happened in baseball in years.”

While the rumors of a move abounded, star pitcher Warren Spahn and his investors felt confident enough to spend the offseason preparing for the grand opening on Opening Day 1953 of Warren Spahn’s Restaurant, an ill-fated diner situated at 966 Commonwealth Ave., across from Braves Field.

According to a SABR biography of Johnny Sain by Jan Finkel, “Perini did go ahead and solicit season-ticket packages for the 1953 season in Boston and printed the tickets for the entire 1953 campaign. The team also issued a Boston Braves 1953 Press, Radio and Television Guide for use during spring training. Dual Red Sox-Braves pocket schedules (the usual format over the years) for 1953 had been printed for distribution and had to be hastily stamped on the Tribe side ‘Left Town.’ Only 420 season tickets had been sold when the shift to Milwaukee was announced.”

Braves players were treated like royalty when they arrived in Milwaukee, even though they had no place to stay at first. In the age of one-year contracts, players rarely bought homes in the cities where they played because they didn’t know for certain if they’d remain with them the next year.

After making housing arrangements for the upcoming season in Boston, the players arrived in Milwaukee without having places to live. The team put the players in hotels for the first weeks of the season until living arrangements were made.

Then there were the uniforms. Braves caps had a B on the front, but needed ones with an M.

“Baseball card manufacturers (Topps and Bowman) also were surprised by the move and issued some of their 1953 cards with Boston Braves photos,” said Bob Brady, a member of the Boston Braves Historical Association (BBHA). “A Wisconsin sports card dealer much later uncovered ‘53 spring training photos of individual Braves taken while still wearing a “B” cap.  He issued these photos in a collectors’ set called the “1953 Boston/Milwaukee Braves.”  One of the cards is a team photo hastily taken after the announced move which shows the team with a mix of “M” and “B” caps.  A version of that photo also appeared in the first Milwaukee Braves magazine program sold at County Stadium.”

A color postcard from around 1940 shows an aerial view of a night game in Braves Field in Boston.

Brady added, “To the best of my knowledge, the jerseys NEVER had to have an “M” sewn on them.  In Milwaukee, they continued the tomahawk style with no city name or initials that they had used in Boston both at home and on the road.  The only change to the jersey style was to add the player’s numeral to the front of it.  This change in design emanated from Boston and was to be debuted there on opening day.  The jerseys were not remade for Milwaukee in 1953 as there wasn’t enough time or interest to do so.

“During the Tribe’s time in Wisconsin before going to Atlanta, the ball club NEVER used a home or road jersey with an ‘M’ for Milwaukee or Milwaukee script on it, again to my knowledge,” said Brady. “The only concession mandated by the move was to change the cap from a ‘B’ to an ‘M.’  The ‘M’ version was identical to the cap used by the 1952 American Association Triple-A Braves affiliate, the Milwaukee Brewers.”

The departure from Boston happened only four seasons after one of the franchise’s most successful campaigns. In 1948 the team won the National League pennant, drawing more than 1.4 million fans, but lost the World Series to Cleveland in six games.

During that season, one of baseball’s best lines of “poetry” was conceived, when Boston Post scribe Gerry Hern in the paper’s September 14, 1948 issue summarized the team’s best chances when starters Spahn and Johnny Sain did not pitch:

First we’ll use Spahn, then we’ll use Sain,
Then an off day, followed by rain.
Back will come Spahn, followed by Sain
And followed, we hope, by two days of rain.

 

Sain (24-15 with a 2.60 ERA) and Spahn (15-12 with a 3.71 ERA) started 74 of the team’s 154 games that year.

For the next three seasons the Braves finished in fourth place, but attendance dropped precipitously: It drew 400,000 fewer fans in 1949, 100,000 fewer in 1950, 64,000 in 1951. The club finished seventh in the National League with a 64-89-2 record and were last in attendance with only 281,278 fans coming to Braves Field.

Why such a fast decline?

Charlie Bevis, who grew up hearing stories about the Braves from his father and older brother, wrote Red Sox vs. Braves in Boston: The Battle for Fan’s Hearts, 1901-1952. There were many reasons that led to the Braves leaving the city, but he said recently there were several key ones.

“The biggest problem was the Red Sox had Ted Williams and the Braves didn’t really have a home run hitter or a star,” said Bevis. “So you had the Ted Williams factor.

“Braves Field was situated on the Charles River, and the Braves inaugurated night baseball in Boston, but it wasn’t a great place to go for night games because it got cold even in the summer. And apparently there was a mosquito problem with the river there as well,” continued Bevis, who is also a member of the BBHA.

The Boston Braves famous pair of pitcher, Warren Spahn, left, and Johnny Sain do an arm exercise before a game at Braves Field in 1947. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

“The ballpark was relatively old. Fenway Park had been completely renovated in 1934, so it was a fairly ‘new’ park. It was a better place to see a game. Plus, you were also closer to the field (at Fenway). At Braves Field the seats were set very far back.

“What I think was the tipping point was when after the 1950 season, or I should say up to the 1950 season, the radio and TV broadcasters were the same for both teams,” said Bevis.

“Jim Britt, who was the major broadcaster, did both the Braves and the Red Sox home games and they didn’t really do road games.  So the Braves decided in 1951, ‘We’re gonna hire Jim Britt and he’s gonna do both our home and away games,’ thinking they were going to get a lot of the Red Sox fans get more interested in the Braves. It backfired on them because the Red Sox hired Curt Gowdy, who was then the number two announcer for the New York Yankees behind Mel Allen. Gowdy was wildly popular and, as it turns out, more people wanted to listen to the Red Sox games on the radio when they were on the road than go to Braves Field and see the Braves in person. I think that was the tipping point, and then obviously 1952 was a disastrous season attendance wise.”

Bevis said his older brother still talks about the Braves.

“’When I went to Braves field. We did this and we did that,’” said Bevis. “So, yeah, that’s my connection and I just got more interested in it.”

Because the Braves had great success when they first moved to Milwaukee, Boston fans then and now think if the team had stayed in Boston for another year or two, things might have been different. Bevis said his older brother and other fans believe this.

“It’s like, ‘Well, wait a minute, why did the Braves leave Boston?’ It was a two-team city. Everybody likes to point out Henry Aaron was coming up through the minors, and he eventually played for Milwaukee in 1954. Milwaukee did gangbusters, had great teams. If they had only waited, but the owner of the Braves was trying to talk the owner of the Red Sox, Tom Yawkey, into jointly financing a new ballpark in the suburbs; he didn’t have any luck doing that. So it really wasn’t fair to say, ‘Oh, if they could have just waited it out a little bit more.’ Lou Perini was right. He really needed a suburban ballpark in Boston to make it,” said Bevis.

“The move to Milwaukee was so successful because County Stadium had just been built a few miles outside the center city, there was tons of parking. Parking in Boston is terrible to this day. It was horrible in the forties and fifties because there were no highways. You had to take a two-lane road into Boston. I remember talking to my brother about this. He could tell me exactly the route that they would have to take to drive in. We grew up 30 miles outside of Boston and getting into Boston – especially to see a night game – was just horrible, so the Braves couldn’t have waited it out. Besides the fact they were losing a ton of money,” he stated.

Aerial view of County Stadium in Milwaukee during the 1957 season. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

From the book, Braves Field: Memorable Moments at Boston’s Lost Diamond, edited by Bill Nowlin and Bob Brady, Brady wrote about the “greatest steal of home” at Braves Field:

“Some people certainly took the move hard, of course. A group of local teens who called themselves the Mountfort Street Gang broke into the deserted stadium one night, shortly after the move was announced and “using nothing but their bare hands, they dug home plate out of the clay. Mind you, it was sunk 17” into the ground, and they had only their hands! … All these years, it was hidden in cellars, in attics, under beds, and then, all of a sudden, this guy brings it out and presents it to us [at the 40th reunion of the 1948 pennant winners in 1988]!”

On April Fool’s Day 1953, some 1,274,216 now useless tickets to Braves home games were torched in a bonfire in the former major-league ballpark’s outfield. Supposedly, the IRS ordered the tickets to be destroyed, probably ruling the Braves could not sell them as souvenirs. Several hundred fans, however, came and took tickets for keepsakes.

Boston Braves fans did get a chance to say goodbye to their team when the Milwaukee Braves returned to Boston to play the Red Sox at Fenway Park as part of the pre-move commitment to the annual pre-season exhibition series. A Boston Globe headline on April 11, 1953 proclaimed, “No Fanfare Today as Braves Play Sox at Fenway” when the teams flew into town from their Florida spring training sites. The teams split the two games, and as the Braves won the second game 4-1 a group of Boston Braves fans sat behind the visiting team’s dugout at Fenway cheering their former team on.

Another BBHA member, Jonathan S. Fine, recalled, “I never saw the Braves when they were in Boston. I was too young. However, when I first learned about baseball I was growing up in a neighborhood where there were many Boston Braves fans and it was only natural that I became a Braves fan as well. Being a member of the BBHA brings back fond memories of those days.  As for the decline in attendance between 1948 and 1952, I can only assume that the decline in attendance matched the decline in the team’s performance.  The team faced the additional burden of being the “second” team in town.  The Red Sox were clearly the favored team in Boston. “I do not recall hearing any complaints from my neighbors, probably because they were resigned to the Red Sox being number one,” said Fine.

Portrait of baseball team club President Lou R Perini, of the Boston Braves, 1946. It originally appeared in the team's commemorative yearbook, 'Boston Braves Sketch Book.' (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

When the move was announced, the Braves were only four weeks away from starting the season in Cincinnati on April 13 for the traditional first game of the season. Behind Max Surkont’s three-hit shutout, the now Milwaukee Braves beat the Reds 2-0. A day later, they played their first-ever game at County Stadium in Milwaukee before 34,357 fans. Warren Spahn pitched 10 innings to defeat St. Louis 3-2. Center fielder Bill Bruton, who had made his major league debut the day before homered in the bottom of the 10th inning off of Enos Slaughter’s glove and over the fence for the game-winning hit.

The next day’s Boston Globe had a front-page Associated Press story on the Braves and Warren Spahn taking the field in front of a sold-out stadium. In the paper’s sports section, a story reported how furniture from the Braves’ offices at Braves Field was being loaded onto trucks bound for Milwaukee.

Pete Filicetti, a Boston native and rabid Red Sox fan said, “I went to a Braves game about two or three times as a  youngster, but did follow them on the radio. The things that stick out to me was that it was a spacious field and a stadium that did not have the enthusiastic fan base as the Red Sox.

“Going to Fenway Park was a much more enjoyable experience than going to Braves Field,” he continued. “Another thing that stuck out to me was the Braves had a player, Alvin Dark, who used a black bat. I do not remember any other player using a black bat. He became one of my favorite players and I was sorry to see him traded to the Giants. He was a better shortstop than (Phil) Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese who both were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“I remember after 1948 the Braves did very poorly, and the fan base fell dramatically. By 1953, they had difficulty with their fan base and led to Lou Perini (moving) the club to Milwaukee.  I continued to follow them since they still had Spahn and a youngster by the name of Aaron,” said Filicetti. “I went to college at Holy Cross with the son of Lou Perini, David, who later in life became the CEO of the (family’s) construction company. David used to get a lot of ribbing about his father moving the team, but always indicated that they had no choice financially.”

In 1948, the Braves batted .275 as a team. The following season they hit .258 and fell from first to fourth place with a 75-79-3 record.

The Braves pitching staff led the American League in 1948 with a 3.38 ERA. A year later, the staff allowed more than half a run for a 3.99 ERA, good for fifth in the league.

The beginning of the end for the Boston Braves as a competitive team probably started when it traded two of its best players – Eddie Stanky and Alvin Dark to the New York Giants. One account says the pair were the team’s “clubhouse lawyers” and that’s why they were traded.

The Boston Braves were not a storied franchise; for the most part, they were not a successful one. They had many losing seasons, yet there were some important events at Braves games: Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line on April 15, 1947 in Brooklyn against the Braves. In 1935, Babe Ruth ended his career with the team. In 1922, the club played nine consecutive doubleheaders with a few days off in between, but on one of those days they played an exhibition in Connecticut. Then there were the “Miracle” Braves of 1914.

Boston was in last place on July 15,1914 at 33-43-1, 11 games behind the first place New York Giants. From July 16 through the end of the season, they started a remarkable stretch of winning baseball, going 61-16. Their two top starters, Bill James and Dick Rudolph, were 35-2 for the rest of the season, and Boston won the pennant by 10.5 games ahead of the Giants.

Despite their incredible run, they were given little chance in the World Series against Connie Mack’s powerful Athletics, who between 1910-and 1914 won four pennants, two World Series titles and were heavy favorites to win their third championship during that time span – but the Braves stunned the baseball world by sweeping the A’s in four games.

The Boston Braves also hold a few unusual records, such as the most franchise names: Boston Red Stockings (1871–1875); Boston Red Caps (1876–1882); Boston Beaneaters (1883–1906) Boston Doves (1907–1910); Boston Rustlers (1911); Boston Braves (1912–1935); Boston Bees (1936–1940) and back again to the Braves from 1941 to 1952.

In 1922, the team played nine consecutive double headers. They had three days off during that stretch, but on one of them, they traveled to Connecticut to play an exhibition game.

Only two franchises have moved twice: the Braves (to Milwaukee and Atlanta) and the Athletics (to Kansas City and Oakland). If, as reported, the A’s move to Las Vegas, then that’s a record the Boston Braves will no longer have, and that might be some comfort to their fans.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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