Hello – my name is Dave Klug and I’m a Milwaukee Braves collector. In the weeks and months to come this column will be 99 and 44/100% devoted to the Milwaukee Braves: their memory, their history, their fans and the unmitigated joy of collecting their memorabilia. No franchise, ever, in the history of sports has enjoyed a deeper, more public, longer-lasting devotion by its fans than the mostly unsung bunch of ball-players who stepped off that Milwaukee road train in March 1953. Magic or not, the way the people of Milwaukee itself, the state of Wisconsin, parts of Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois took to this team was extraordinary!! More on that as we go…!!
The Braves moved to Milwaukee when I was 12 years old – how impressionable are you at that age? I was a rural kid in central Wisconsin about three hours north of Milwaukee. My Mom and I (and, sometimes, other family members) listened to the Braves games every day on the radio. The disembodied voices of Earl Gillespie and Blaine Walsh created and colored my earliest impressions of “Beautiful Milwaukee County Stadium”, “Bratwurst-loving Max Surkont”, “High-leg-kicking Warren Spahn”, “Jack Dittmer from Elkader, Iowa”, “Handy Andy Pafko from Boyceville, Wisconsin”, “Scrappy-young-shortstop Johnny Logan”, “Speedy Billy Bruton patrolling centerfield” and all the rest of the cast of characters in this almost daily radio melodrama. It was wonderful!!!
In the hinterlands I collected what I could. Baseball cards, both Topps and Bowman, could usually be found and traded. I may have had one or two Spic & Span cards and a pennant from cousins who lived in Milwaukee. Dixie lids and their 8X10 premiums were around but mostly with movie stars. I managed to get a couple of the Wheaties tin pictures but none of them were Braves. In retrospect probably the best thing I had going for me was a pretty regular supply of Sport magazine. I read those babies cover to cover. I cut out the gorgeous full-page, full-color pictures and covered my bedroom walls with them…plus a few of Gina Lollobrigida, Rita Hayworth and Sophia Loren. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that it was the genius of Ozzie Sweet in those Sport Magazine pictures…but I did know they looked great in my room!!
I’m a fan and a collector; I’m not a dealer. This column will be from the perspective of a fan and collector. Whatever small measure of expertise I might have is, first, experiential and, second, as a result of the research I have done to gain a greater insight or “perspective of place” of some item I’ve found. I like to know how things “fit”…Who made it? Is it a team-issue or from some retailer and/or advertiser? When was it available? Could you buy it at the stadium or did you have to send away for it? Sometimes I’m able to find some of the answers to some of those questions. I’m always willing to share what I know. It’s even better when you tell me what you know.
Early on I met two general types of Milwaukee Braves collectors. One type, whose names I’ll never share, appeared (at least to me…) to think they were part of the C.I.A. or some other organization that has a lot of information that they do not readily share with just anyone who asks them. The second type of Braves collectors has not only shared but went beyond and has continued to go far beyond just sharing information. In my earliest days of collecting I got free stuff and new sources and resources from Mike Rodell, Bob Koehler, Artie Rickun, and Gene Hass to name just a few that I am proud to say are still great friends and founts of collectibles wisdom. I’m only naming these men because they helped me in the beginning…the list of people who’ve helped down the years is very long. Over time I hope to name them all (if they consent), so we can all benefit from each other.
As an aside, I suppose, in the name of all reality, I need to note that I have encountered a few rascals in this great hobby. The positive experiences so far outweigh the negative that my worst experiences were little more than an existential pain in the assets. I am, however, much like the proverbial disgruntled retail customer who tells 12 (or 112) people about the experience…
The Milwaukee Braves collectors that I am in touch with weekly (and often daily) are an extraordinary bunch. A few of us have an informal, loose-knit affiliation coalesced by a mutual love, admiration and a multitude of memories of boyhood heroes. We all joust against each other on Ebay with amazing regularity. Some of us have other Braves-collector-friends not yet part of the “friendly affiliation”. We are all collectors – with greater and lesser levels of tenacity (…fanaticism?). I’m still looking forward to meeting more of those guys who beat me up on Ebay…!! Our diversity is really amazing…some collect Boston Braves, some Milwaukee Braves, some Atlanta Braves, some all three. Some are “niche” collectors: Bats or balls or uniforms or autographs or cards or photos or ephemera or (this list is long!). Some collect stuff related to one particular player-or two or three. Our chronological ages vary: some of us are approximately the same age as dirt; others were born after the team was in Atlanta.
I hope this column will afford more of us the opportunity to talk to more of us. I hope we’ll share information, sources, resources, perspectives and more. I personally hope to be enlightened regarding a number of esoteric issues. Mostly I hope we all get to rave, praise, carry on, wax eloquent and – in general – say in many, many different ways how much we enjoyed (and still enjoy) being Milwaukee Braves fans and collectors.
My infatuation with the Braves truly begins in 1953. Their history from 1869 is readily available from a number of very good sources. As a sort of prologue to the chapters to come, here is a totally-too-brief overview of those years in Boston.
The Braves are the oldest National League franchise. They were officially formed in January 1871. Oddly enough they actually had their beginnings in Cincinnati in 1869. By this time there were numerous, countless organized baseball teams around the country. During the Civil War the game gained great popularity in war camps and in prison camps. With the end of the war, thousands of men took the game home. Soon every little burg – and big burg – had a team. Many of the better teams barnstormed around the country taking on all comers. Most of these teams were amateurs (read “not paid”), but many had a player or a few players who were paid. Apparently the Cincinnati team got beat a lot by teams coming through town. Up until this time the money part of the game was kept fairly hush-hush. Cincinnati announced they would be putting together a totally professional (paid) team. They paid a guy named Harry Wright to put the team together, manage it and play centerfield. Wright and the Cincinnati Red Stockings were incredibly successful in 1869 and 1870. Over disagreements about amateur and professional issues, the team was disbanded. Wright, his brother, George and two other players left immediately for Boston – they’d been from New England originally.
In January 1871 they formed the Boston Red Stockings and in March 1871 they joined the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. The Red Stockings won the pennant four of the five years of the existence of the NAPBBP(1871-1875). In 1876 the Red Stockings joined the newly founded National League (yup-same one as now…). They now called themselves the Boston Red Caps – almost as imaginative of Red Stockings – hmm? They finished fourth in the new eight-team league. Harry Wright’s managerial genius and younger brother George’s crackerjack fielding certainly factored heavily into pennant-winning seasons in 1877 and 1878.
1879 started with grave disappointment at the parting of stellar shortstop George Wright;
Brother Harry followed him two years later. However, Boston bounced back in 1883 to win the NL pennant again as the newly named Beaneaters (but still often referred to as the “Reds”). Except for some exceptional individual efforts fans had little to “write home about” until 1891 when the Beaneaters won three pennants in a row. After three “average’ years, they won pennants again in 1897 and 1898! From 1891 until 1899 new Boston Beaneater manager Frank Selee’s teams won 793 games, losing only 451; an astonishing nine-year winning percentage of .636!
The Beaneaters fared no better than third place from 1900 until 1906. At that point the team was bought by George Dovey and was known as the Boston Doves from 1907 to 1910. Sixth place was their highest finish. (During this same time period, as a kind of “portent of things to come”, the head of the Milwaukee County Park District introduced an idea for a new stadium in that city.) The Boston team was sold to a syndicate headed up by Attorney William Russell. Now known as the Rustlers, they finished seventh. What was supposed to be a highlight of 1912 – the return to Boston of renowned pitcher, Cy Young – was of little consequence. The Rustlers still finished last.
As an interesting aside: The Red Stockings “left” Cincinnati to become the Boston Red Stockings and, five years later, the Red Caps. The Cincinnati Reds re-organized as charter members of the National League in 1876. In 1905, the Boston Pilgrims, fresh from winning the A.L. pennant in ’04, changed there name to the Boston Red Sox – and promptly finished fourth. After 1882 the “Braves” never used “Red” in their name again.
Under new manager, George “Miracle Man” Stallings, the Braves rose to finish fifth in 1913. The “Miracle” Braves of 1914 won only four of their first 22 games. They were still 15 games out of first place in July. However, in miraculous fashion, they won 52 of their last 66 games and beat out second place St. Louis by six and a half games. Continuing their supernatural dominance in the World Series, the Braves beat Connie Mack’s highly touted A’s in four straight games. Boston fans were beside themselves in their exuberance. Hopefully they stored up as much of their celebratory joy as possible – the next 30 years or so would be mostly cheerless. The Braves did finish second in 1915 and third in 1916, but with a couple exceptions in the ‘30’s, they were generally relegated to the second division. The ‘40’s started pretty much the same – a couple 7th place finishes – a couple 6th place finishes: Attendance was pathetic. In 1944 three Boston area contractors, Lou Perini, Joe Maney and Guido Rugo (who would come to be known as the Three Little Steam Shovels) bought controlling interest in the team.
Perini was more of a businessman than a fan. It was his intention to apply good business sense to create a better, more saleable product. The team immediately began improvements to old Braves Field. They had fan appreciation gimmicks, they played night games and – as soon as the war ended – they started buying some new players. Attendance surged from 247,197 in 1944 to 1,455,439 in 1948. The team finished 4th in 1946 and 3rd in 1947. There were several 1947 entries in the “portent-of-things-to-come” column: Jackie Robinson, in his first major league game, went hitless in three at bats against the Braves. Johnny Sain’s pitching totals for the year included 21 wins in 266 innings pitched with 132 strikeouts and a 2.33 ERA. Warren Spahn, in his first full season back from military service, also had 21 wins in 289.2 innings pitched with 123 strikeouts and a 2.33 ERA. Attendance went over a million for the first time in franchise history.
After 34 years Boston’s National League fans had something to cheer about: The Braves won the pennant by 6 ½ games! It was definitely a team effort but this was the year of “Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain”. In September the “dynamic duo” pitched 16 of 26 games. Spahn won four games in 13 days with a 1.22 ERA and Sain won eight of nine with a 2.19 ERA. Rookie Vern Bickford won the pennant clincher. Another high point of the season was the stellar play of Sibby Sisti at 2nd base after Eddie Stanky broke his ankle in July. The World Series loss to Cleveland was a somewhat anti-climatic and disappointing end to a season that was one of the Braves’ best thus far in the 20th century.
It was not to be savored long. Age, injuries and dissension left them 22 games out of first place at the end of the 1949 season. Sain had a sore arm and went 10-17. Spahn led the league with 21 wins in 302 innings pitched. By 1950 it looked, at times, as though the Braves were getting back on the winning track. Johnny Sain won 20 games against only 13 losses. Spahn had a league-leading 21 wins (vs. 17 losses) and 191 strikeouts. Sophomore Vern Bickford was 19-14 and led the league with 311.2 innings pitched. However, Eddie Stanky and Al Dark (big contributors in ’48) were traded to the Giants. Among others they got Sid Gordon in the trade whose slugging average (.557) was fourth in the league. Speedy Sam Jethroe stole 35 bases and was Rookie of the Year. Earl Torgeson had a terrific year. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough. They finished fourth and attendance dropped to 944,391.
The handwriting on the wall started getting more obvious in 1951…the team finished the year 76-78, in fourth place, 20 ½ games out of 1st place. Ted Williams was providing a form of entertainment to Boston’s baseball faithful that just didn’t exist over at Braves Field. Manager Billy Southworth resigned…probably as a stress reliever. Johnny Sain, after going 5-13, was traded to the Yankees for Lou Burdette and some cash. Twenty- year old Chet Nichols was 11-8, led the league with a 2.88 ERA and finished 2nd to Willie Mays for Rookie of the Year. Spahn had 22 wins and a league-leading 164 strikeouts. Sam Jethroe, Earl Torgeson, Sid Gordon and Walker Cooper had good years but, all in all, not enough. Attendance nose-dived to 487,475, almost half of 1950’s totals.
Gary Caruso, in his The Braves Encyclopedia, notes 1952 as both an end and a beginning for the Braves. They finished 64-89, 32 games out of first, with only poor Pittsburgh (at 42-112) lower. Manager Tommy Holmes was fired at the end of May (replaced by Charlie Grimm). Attendance was practically halved again with year-end figures at 281,278. No Braves pitcher (except Ernie Johnson, 6-3) had a winning record in ’52.
From the “beginning” perspective: Spahn led the league with 183 strike-outs. His ERA was 2.98. He pitched 290 innings. Bickford (3.74 ERA-161 innings pitched), Burdette (3.61 ERA-137 innings pitched), Max Surkont (3.77 ERA-215 innings pitched) and Jim Wilson (4.23 ERA-234 innings pitched) were looking pretty good. At times the Braves fielded an All-Rookie infield: George Crowe at 1st, Jack Dittmer at 2nd, Johnny Logan at short and Eddie Mathews at 3rd. Sid Gordon and Eddie Mathews each hit 25 home runs in 1952. In June Hank Aaron’s contract with the Negro American League Indianapolis Clowns was purchased by the Braves’ organization. The end of 1952 had two more allusions to change: first; in November the Perini family purchased the minority stock in the ball club citing facility in decision-making as the reason and, second, the December trade sending pitcher Sheldon Jones to the Cubs for pitcher Monk Dubiel; both appeared meaningless to the majority of Boston Braves fans…one, however, was pregnant with significance…!!!
Next up: 1953… with History-In-The-Making events, unprecedented fan reactions and, perhaps, the greatest sports-related love affair of all time!!
Go Get’em, Braves!!
Please Stay Tuned…!!!