A brief recap of 1953: Our heroes finished 2nd behind the Dodgers – 13 games out of first…and while it may not seem so, it was a dogfight!! Eddie Mathews led the league with 47 home runs followed by Duke Snider with 42. Roy Campanella had 142 RBI’s; Mathews was next with 135. Mathews led in Home Run % with 8.1 followed by Campy (7.9) and Snider (7.1). Mathews and Snider tied for Slugging % at .627. Snider had 370 Total Bases, Mathews was second with 363. Billy Bruton led the senior circuit in Stolen Bases – 26; followed by PeeWee Reese – 22, Junior Gilliam – 21, Jackie Robinson – 17 and Snider – 16. Gilliam had 17 Triples, Bruton was second with 14. The Braves were second in Team Batting Average – .266 – to Brooklyn’s .285. The team tied for third in Double Plays – 161.
In the pitching department Braves hurlers were right in the thick of things. Warren Spahn was second only to Brooklyn’s Carl Erskine (.767 to .769) in Winning Percentage. Spahn had 23 Wins to lead the league (tied with Robin Roberts) against only seven losses. Spahn finished fifth in strike outs with 148. Spahn led in Fewest Hits Allowed per Nine Innings with 7.15; he was second in Innings Pitched with 266. The sky-kicking lefty led in ERA at 2.10; Bob Buhl was third at 2.97; young Johnny Antonelli was fifth at 3.18. Spahn pitched 24 Complete Games (2nd), five of which were Shutouts (2nd). Antonelli finished third in the league with Most Strike Outs per nine innings: 6.72. The staff led the league in Runs Scored Against (lowest #) – 589 – and total number of shutouts 14. The team ERA of 3.30 also led the National League. They were second in strikeouts – 738 – and complete games – 76. They surprised their fans, they surprised the front office, they surprised the league and, for awhile anyway, they even surprised themselves.
And the celebration continued unabated: In the blue-collar beer town of three quarters of a million people: it was tumultuous, boisterous. A man was hit in the head by a foul ball – bleeding from his scalp (tiny pun?), ushers take him to the nurse’s station – she tells him he’ll need stitches, he says “not now – just put a bandage on so I don’t get blood all over – I’ll get it stitched tomorrow; I have to get back to the game now.” Or, another day: It’s been raining – a driving, pouring, wind-whipping, cold rain – all day…however, at game time 1500 cars, 5000 fans show up: “Just in case…” they said!! At one game general manager John Quinn (often referred to as “Gentleman John Quinn” by radio play-by-play announcers Earl Gillespie and Blain Walsh) is outside the gates and happens upon a man who is heart-broken because he’d driven 300 miles to see “My Braves” play and has just been informed the game is sold out. “If I had an old orange crate, I’d sit anywhere just to see the game” he tells Gentleman John. After a little searching Quinn finds a crate of some sort and the guy gets to see “His Braves”. If there’s any change from’53 – fans (and retailers/merchants) have managed to ratchet UP the fervor – the fever of fandom. Variously the media have referred to the uninhibited mutual-admiration-society-relationship between the players and the fans as wildly enthusiastic, frenzied, an amazing demonstration of affection and as baseball’s new Never-Never Land. The city of Milwaukee had had freeway plans in and out of committees for many years – fandemonium galvanized them to action. This unabashed enthusiasm was not just in the city of Milwaukee. The city of Beloit took out an ad in one of the Milwaukee papers looking for workers; it listed as a perk “Only 90 miles from County Stadium”. Many, many towns and villages all around the state had signs of every kind and size proclaiming their town or business as “The Home of the Braves”.
The off-season, form ’53 to ’54 brought a considerable number of changes. Let’s start with personnel changes – these will be of value to collectors of team-signed baseballs…especially in determining whether a team ball is from 1953 or 1954.
On December 7, 1953 the first personnel change was the acquisition – for cash – of outfielder George “Catfish” Metkovich from the Cubbies. Is Catfish Metkovich a great baseball name or what? Metkovich had one of his best years ever (in a ten year career) hitting a solid .276 and playing outfield or first base. Nineteen days later – the day after Christmas – the Braves traded Sid Gordon(outfielder), Max Surkont(pitcher), Sam Jethroe(outfielder-minors), Curt Raydon, Fred Walters, Larry LaSalle(all minor league pitchers) plus $100,000.00 to the Pittsburgh Pirates for second baseman, Danny O’Connell. The trade was a shock, something of an earthquake in paradise. Every one of these gus (well, not so much the minor leaguers) was a fan favorite!! Lets face it, every guy on the ’53 team was a fan favorite!! Sid Gordon – for gosh sakes – an old pro, a veteran, one of our home run hitters. And Max Surkont – are you kidding me? – a big Polish sausage eater… and he was 11-5 last season!! …plus three minor leaguers and all that money…!?! The organization felt O’Connell would fill the “hole” at second base. Many thought Jack Dittmer was far more than a “hole” in the infield. In 1953 Jack hit a very respectable .266. In ’54 O’Connell would hit .279; however, his average over the next two plus years would be – .233. Many agree with Joe Reichler’s assessment (The Baseball Trade Register): This was one of the Braves worst trades.
…And they were about to make another one…On February 1, 1954 the Braves traded Johnny Antonelli(pitcher), Don Liddle(pitcher), Ebba St.Claire(catcher), Billy Klaus(infielder), and $50,000.00 to the New York Giants for Bobby Thomson(outfielder) and Sammy Calderone(catcher). Again, at the onset, it was startling!! Once again these were guys who had become like family, like friends…Johnny Antonelli was young but, obviously, had great promise. He’d gone 12-12 in 175 innings with a .18 ERA in 1953. Don Liddle had been a rookie in ’53 – but you knew he could bring it – he went 7-6 in 128 innings with a 3.08 ERA. You had to love Ebba St.Claire – and a lot of fans did – he was a big, strong catcher and, at the same time you really knew he wasn’t going to get a lot of playing time behind Del Crandall. Billy Klaus was in a similar situation; he wasn’t going to get in a lot of games staying in Milwaukee.
In spite of my consternation regarding those guys leaving Milwaukee, my heart leaped into my throat at the prospect of having Bobby Thomson on “Our” team. My memory of him goes back to 1951 – I was 10 years old. If you got to hear Russ Hodges call of “The Shot Heard Around the World” – “The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant” as Bobby hit a bottom of the ninth, three run home run to put the Giants in the World Series; if you got to hear it, you probably still remember. My only earlier sports memory was August 1948 when Babe Ruth died – I still remember where I was and who was there…anyway…
At some point it all starts to get a little odd, weird, strange…Bobby Thomson breaks his ankle in spring training – the Braves give his outfield spot to a rookie, converted second baseman, named Henry Aaron. Instead of the 25-30 homers we’d expected from Thomson – Aaron only hits 13. Johnny Antonelli goes 21-7 for the Giants, leads the league in winning percentage (.750) and ERA – 2.30 in 258 innings. (Try not to imagine those numbers in the Braves column). Liddle has a substantial, if less spectacular, year going 9-4 with a 3.06 ERA in 126 innings. But, he does have a role in a spectacular play: He serves up the pitch that Vic Wertz hits to deep center in the Polo Grounds giving Willie Mays the opportunity to make “The Catch”. 1954 will be Ebba St.Claire’s last year playing Major League Baseball. Sammy Calderone will hit .379 in a back-up backstop role and this will be his last year playing Major League Baseball. Billy Klaus (“Maybe the best third baseman in the minors”) will play another nine years – four really good years with the Red Sox. Two decades will pass before Henry Aaron hits even close to 13 home runs again.
It was an off year for Vern Bickford in 1953 – it was not a huge surprise when he was traded to Bill Veeck’s Orioles for back-up catcher Charlie White. It would be Vern’s final year in the Majors…He got cancer and passed away in 1960. The last trade in ’54 sent young, tough, inexperienced Dave Cole (and some money) to the Cubs for shortstop Roy Smalley.
So then – your absolute key signatures on your ’54 team ball are Aaron, Thomson, O’Connell, Calderone (only there in ’54), Metkovich (only there in “54), Smalley (only there in ’54), Charlie White, Chet Nichols (back from military service) and six guys up from the farm system: Gene Conley, Ray Crone, Charlie Gorin, Billy Queen (only there in ’54), Dave Koslo and Phil Paine. Special mention should be made of several good players who were no longer with the Braves after the ’53 season: Paul Burris, Virgil Jester and Bob Thorpe retired. Walker Cooper was put on waivers and played for the Pirates, the Cubs and the Cardinals and, then, retired after the 1957 season. George Crowe and Harry Hanebrink were sent back down for “More Seasoning” and will be back in Milwaukee later on. So…if you find any of these guys on a Braves team ball, it’s probably not from 1954.
Speaking of changes… Milwaukee County recognized the need for additional seating quite early in the 1953 season. So by 1954 new sections of grandstand were added that increased grandstand seating by 8,148 seats. In doing so, they lost a few of the portable stands but were still able to increase total seating from about 36,000 to 43,394. Other improvements included more food stands, more restrooms and about half again as many lights.
Memorabilia and collectibles proliferated profusely!! In no particular order, let’s look at some of the cool stuff you could find in 1954. The Marshall Merrell Portfolio – a series of 8×10 black and white lithographs featuring 21 different Braves – was sold at County Stadium during the 1953 and 1954 seasons. Four players appear to have been favorites of the artist or, in his/her perception, favorites of the fans and so appear in two different poses. Thus, to the best of my knowledge, the set consists of 25 lithos. If anyone has additional information about this set or the artist…please let me know.
No discussion of Milwaukee Braves Memorabilia would be completely without considerable discussion of Spic and Span Dry Cleaning. Spic and Span had a number of locations in the Milwaukee area. I still remember seeing pictures of the Braves in their store windows and begging my Dad to stop and buy some…even ONE…!! I couldn’t/wouldn’t get it through my head that you got a picture when you picked up your dry cleaning. Spic and Span, as they say, really had it going on!! In 1954 they had those bags (paper in those days – plastic now) that went over the hanger that your freshly cleaned suit, dress, sport coat hung on…and on the side of that bag were litho-likenesses of (at first) Chet Nichols, Johnny Logan, Jack Dittmer, Lou Burdette, Joe Adcock, Del Crandall, Danny O’Connell, Warren Spahn, Bob Thomson, Andy Pafko, Robert Buhl and William H. Bruton. A later version added a third row: Dave Jolly, Hank Aaron, Jim Wilson, Edwin L. Mathews, Jr., Gene Conley and Ernie Johnson. It is curious to note that the likenesses that appear on the bags seem to be the same as the pictures in the set that Sports Collectors Digest’s Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards refers to as the “1954 Spic and Span Braves”. This set apparently was done by an artist named “Warmuth” and is a little different from other Spic and Span sets as it is in Blue ink on a yellow stock. From information passed along by other Braves collectors, it appears this set was not as widely distributed as the rest of the Spic and Span collective. If you have more info on the artist, the set, the distribution or lack thereof, please let me know. By 1954 Spic and Span had at least three other sets available to Braves fans and appears to have some connection to a fourth set. Using the Sports Collectors Digest Standard Catalog…designations, the first set is called the “1953-55 Spic and Span Braves”. These are the sort of post-card-sized pictures with a facsimile autograph on the front and a little “message” plus their logo on the back. A very similar set (same front-blank back) was available at the local WISCO 99 gas stations – they gave free gasoline to the Braves players. Don’t know any connection between Spic and Span and WISCO 99… do you? Another ubiquitous set (“…they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere…”) is the “1953-57 Spic and Span Braves 7×10 Photos”. The set I own came with an extra picture of County Stadium. It, unlike the set, is on light yellow stock with the stadium in black ink and an Indian head and the advertising logo in red ink. There are mixed opinions about whether or not the stadium piece was issued as part of the set – do you know? The last of the Spic and Span sets out in ’54 really is a set of 4×6 postcards. This set, in black and white and shades of gray, is the drabbest of the Spic and Span sets and is fairly readily available.
There are two versions of the 1954 Braves yearbook: One without Hank Aaron and one (noted as “Second Edition” on the cover) with him. There are also two versions of scorecards with regard the Home Run King. When Hank came up from Jacksonville, Joe Taylor issued him uniform number 5; an infielder’s (2nd base) number. Tommy Ferguson who handled the visiting clubhouse duties tells the story best. Tommy was fresh out of military service, it was early May and a week-end series with the Cubs. Joe Taylor’s Mom had passed away so Tommy had to handle both clubhouses. Aaron – superstitious, dissatisfied with his performance, who knows? – came to Tommy and said he didn’t want number 5 anymore, he wanted a number in the forties. Well, this really wasn’t Tommy’s area – it was Joe Taylor’s area – but Joe was gone. So, Tommy found number 44 in white with the right sizes in shirt and pants and, finally, found it in road gray, as well. He got some heat from Don Davidson the next morning because number changes had to be reported to the National League office and the scorecard printers also needed to make the change. So… it’s pretty cool to run into one of those early ’54 scorecards listing number 44 as number 5…
The Braves, who had worn uniforms from the Horace Partridge Company since the 1920’s, stayed with those same uniforms in ’53 and ’54. The only difference between the ’52 Boston uniform and the ’53 Milwaukee uniform is the player’s number was added to the front of the shirt – Boston had no number on the front. This is only noted here because 1955 will bring a change in uniform suppliers.
Card collectors realize ’54 is a biggie year because it’s Aaron’s rookie season. Topps, for whatever reason will use the same photo on his ’54 rookie card and on his ’55 and ’56 cards…it may not have driven any of the other kids crazy… Although it’s not Aaron – related – and a year late, Topps did have a ’54 Topps Scoops issue noting the Braves move to Milwaukee-card #130. Bowman did not have an Aaron rookie. An Aaron card that used to be overlooked was the 1954 Johnston Cookies Card (Cookie Rookie…?…). These are the funky 2×3 7/8 narrow format cards – one of my all-time fave sets! Cool note: He’s card #5. They’ll change that next year…
Plankinton Packing Company made available 11×17 posters on “How to Play Better Baseball”. These came in packages of hot dogs folded about four times so they were little 2 ¾ x 4 ½ booklets. Charlie Grimm was on the coaching one. Gene Conley (6-8 rookie) and Spahnie gave out tips on pitching. Adcock, O’Connell, Logan and Mathews each had one on playing infield positions. Pafko, Bruton and Thomson helped with outfield pointers. Crandall taught catching and Joe Taylor gave additional insight into being the assistant team trainer. Plankinton also had a 10 ½ x 8 ¾ cardstock cut-out with a hole for hanging that advertises “Plankinton’s Baseball School for Kids”. It has about 22 facsimile autographs on a big hot dog. My guess is that these went out to retailers who sold Plankinton products.
The Golden Guernsey Dairy Company Co-operative of Milwaukee and Waukesha provided Braves players with free milk and dairy products. They provided collectors/fans with score sheets (9 x 12 folded in quarters – with scoring instructions). They also had color posters in stores to advertise: “Drink the Milk the Braves Drink – Golden Guernsey”.
Tobacco cards were among the very earliest of baseball collectibles. After a long dry spell, Red Man Tobacco began issuing cards in 1952 and continued through 1955. The 1954 set includes six Braves: Crandall, Pafko, Spahn, Logan, Mathews and Burdette. Red Man Tabs could be redeemed for a cap. Various other advertising pieces were also available from Red Man.
Preferred Products Corporation of Milwaukee issued (in ’54) a series of twelve 8 x 10 “Autographed Portraits”. These were sepia prints on a fairly substantial cream-colored stock, copyrighted by Scott Douglas (the presumed artist). These were packaged at least two different ways, both list the 12 players featured. One was a clear, but printed cellophane packaging that had a gold and brown “frame” around the picture with other information on the back. Interestingly, this package says “…and others” after the list of 12. The second package is an 8 3/8 x 10 ½ manila envelope with “Back Your Braves”, “Braves Team Autographed Portraits”, The names, “All Rights Reserved”, the company name and address and, in the lower left, a small copyright sign followed by “Scott Douglas”. Preferred Products also made 4 ¾ round felt patches also Sepia on cream but with red “stitching” added to look like a baseball. There were also t-shirts, apparently in a similar style – I have never even seen one!! Can you help?
A terrific collectible from 1954 is the very first issue of Sports Illustrated (8/16/54) with Eddie Mathews on the cover. This has an even broader fan base than just Braves Collectors. It’s an important piece for sports magazine collectors, Sports Illustrated collectors and, remember, it came with 27 beautiful ’54 Topps cards on the inside. Another fun collectible from 1954 is Dixie lids…or if you just collect Braves stuff…Dixie lid. There was only one Brave in Dixie’s ’54 offering…and, to my knowledge, no more premiums – bummer! Variations collectors can have a blast anyway because many, many retailers carried Dixie Cups and put their advertising in the other side. I’m afraid I know zippo about Red Heart Dog Food (“The Big League Dog Food”) except that in 1954 they had a couple of series of cards that you could send away for – Warren Spahn was in the green series…not too tough to find…Wilson and Company, Inc. makers of Wilson CERTIFIED Franks issued a series in ’54. Packaging-of-food laws must have been somewhat different then as cards were packed with meat and many/most have grease/juice stains. The only Brave was Andy Pafko – Best of luck in your quest for a stainless Handy Andy card!!
One last area of fun (and pretty easy) collectibles: The great variety of schedules. By 1954 it seemed like the dogcatcher put out a Braves schedule. There were schedules from beer & liquor businesses, gas stations, banks, restaurants, newspapers, the Team itself, meat packers, bars, fuel companies, the National League and numerous other retailers/merchants. They were every size, shape and color. There were matchbook covers, little 2 ½ x 3 pocket schedules – some with home games only – some with 2 or 3 or 4 folds with home and away and advertising. Some had multiple pages (booklets) with every National League team’s schedule. Some were big enough to hang on the wall – some were on calendars that hung on the wall. There was a widely distributed (I already used “ubiquitous” …) variety of placemats – usually with some kind of advertising that showed up in almost any kind of place where you might sit down to eat. I hope (maybe just after the first of the year) to feature a friend’s collection of more Braves schedules than I ever thought existed. I used to think I had a few schedules – maybe a hundred…my friend Mike has some 300-400 (just Braves’) schedules.
All in all, 1954 was a terrific year for the Braves. Some things didn’t look as good as they’d hoped for: Bob Buhl was good but not as good as he’d get in the future; Chet Nichols ERA never approached his ’51, pre-military 2.88; Bobby Thomson’s broken ankle didn’t help; the Dodgers had almost everyone back from ’53; the Giants got gifts in Antonelli and Liddle and Willie Mays back from the service. It was a real three team race almost the whole year. The Braves finished in third place, eight games behind the first place Giants, three behind the second place Dodgers. There was a definite power shift – however inadvertent: Antonelli went 21-7 with a win and a save in the World Series; Liddle went 9-4 with another of the World Series wins; Mays led the league hitting .345; he also hit 41 dingers. These aren’t excuses; the Giants had a great year…They went on to the World Series and beat the Indians vaunted pitching in four straight!!
Spahn was 21-12 with a 3/14 ERA in 283 innings pitched. Lou Burdette was 15-14 with a 2.76 ERA in 238 innings pitched. Young Dave Jolly pitched very well with an 11-6 record, 2.43 ERA in 111 innings. Young, tall Gene Conley was “Mahvelous Dahling” with a 14-9 finish, a 2.96 ERA with 194 innings pitched. Jim Wilson (told ya so!) finished 8-2 with 127 innings pitched. Solid citizen Ernie Johnson was 5-2, mostly in relief with a 2.81 ERA.
On offense Bullet Bill Bruton played in 142 games, hit .284 and pilfered 34 bases to lead the league in that category. Johnny Logan was solid as a rock offensively and defensively. He played all 154 games at shortstop: His 5.4 Total Chances per Game and .969 fielding average led the league for shortstops. He hit .275 with a .339 On Base Percentage and a .373 slugging average. Joe Adcock: Loquacious, Louisiana, Long-baller hit 23 homers and yet hit for average – .308. Joe’s crowning day in ’54 was July 31 against the Dodgers – he hit four home runs and a double – a total bases record that stood for 40-plus years. Of course, the very next day he was beaned by Clem Labine. They had to carry him off the field, but, in spite of a fairly sizeable lump on his bean, he was back in the line-up the next day. On September 10th, Adcock hit his 9th homer of the year in Ebbets Field – a National League record. The next day Newcombe “stuck one in his ear”- that ended Adcock’s season. Del Crandall, too often overlooked, hit 21 homers and led the league in put-outs (665) and assists (79). Eddie Mathews continued as media darling and fan fave. He hit .290 with 40 homers and 103 RBI’s. He improved his less-than-wonderful fielding skills and led the league among 3rd baseman with 28 double plays. Constant media commentary and conjecture regarding Eddie becoming the next “Babe” was met with quiet modesty: “Naw, I never think about it. I just go out every day and try to do my best”. Mathews never got spoiled by fan adulation. He was good-natured, good-humored and never “choked” under pressure. He learned the game from his Mom and Dad: His Dad pitched to him; his Mom chased down his earliest home runs. Eddie worked hard in the off-season and in spring training. He improved his defensive play dramatically ( 30 errors in ’53 – 13 in ’54); he also learned to hit certain pitches to left field – his theory: “Maybe less home runs – maybe more…hopefully less outs!” In spite of a 15-14 season, Lou Burdette really started coming into his own in ’54; he knocked his ERA down from 3.24 in ’53 to 2.76 (second in the league to Antonelli) and had 13 complete games. The Nervous Notable of Nitro (West Virginia) was a tireless workhorse; he could start, he could relieve. Even in hot, humid weather, he never “coasted”, he bore down on every pitch. He never had a sore arm, never got tired, was often referred to as “Iron Man”. Off the field he was a carefree guy with a great sense of humor, often involved in gags, pranks and practical jokes…and often in cahoots with Spahn. As a pitcher he was no friend to the Dodgers. Competitive, aggressive – in August he knocked Roy Campanella down and words were exchanged – no fists this time…and Campy struck out and words continued to be exchanged. After the game reporters, looking to get or make a story, came to Burdette for his take… his only comment: “This is not a tea party”. Gene Conley, the 6’8” rookie Okie from Muskogee had a fine year. He finished 14-9 with a 2.96 ERA (fifth in the league) in 194 games. He was third (behind Antonelli – 7.27 – and Robin Roberts – 7.73) with Fewest Hits per 9 Innings: 7.92 and showed a lot of people why he had (twice!) been named The Sporting News’ minor league player of the year!!
So…1954 was a good year for the Braves and for Braves fans everywhere. Existentially, who could know? However, in retrospect, we can see a continuing transformation…this team is getting used to winning. The Mecca of Malt as a city hasn’t come down one iota…This is the home of the Braves!!! In Chicago last week another Braves fan shared a story that I’ve heard more than once before…growing up in Milwaukee thinking that the end of the Star Spangled Banner was “O’er the land of the free and the home of the Braves”…I know I did until my Dad corrected me – Are you sure, Dad?
Keep those cards and letters coming – and those emails – you know I need comments, questions, information – mbravesdude @yahoo.com. Oh yeah – please encourage your friends to subscribe to mearsonline…!!! Next time really, REALLY we’ll do a feature on Fireman Mike Fuss’ Eddie Mathews collection.
Until then…Stay Tuned…
Go Get ‘em, Braves!!