On January 17, 1953, the Braves acquired Andy Pafko from the Brooklyn Dodgers in exchange for Roy Hartsfield and $50,000.00. On February 16 we got Joe Adcock and Jim Pendleton as part of a four-team trade involving the Braves, Phillies, Dodgers and Reds.
Lou Perini and two of his brothers had begun thinking of moving the team to Milwaukee as far back as 1951. In that plan the move would take place in 1954. The Perinis had been aware for some years that the Red Sox were the fair-haired team in Beantown. In 1948, when the Braves won the pennant, the Red Sox still drew bigger crowds – Braves’ promotions, gimmicks and new players hadn’t changed that fact. On March 11, Bill Veeck, brilliant and eccentric owner of the floundering but lovable St. Louis Browns made a pitch to National League owners to move the Brownies to Milwaukee. He was stymied in three ways: The Perinis had “Territorial Rights” because the Braves owned the American Association Milwaukee Brewers; other owners felt Veeck’s shaky fiscal status would make for a bad move; and, finally, Veeck got absolutely no support from the very powerful Fred Miller, President of the Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee. Veeck quickly shifted gears and turned his attention to Baltimore (the Browns would become the Orioles for the 1954 season). On March 13th, Lou Perini announced his intention, contingent on permission of National League owners, to move the Braves to Milwaukee. Boston fans and sportswriters were in shock. Milwaukee fans and sportswriters were in shock…and deliriously happy!! On March 15th, the brand spanking new Milwaukee County Stadium was opened to the public. Some 10-15,000 fans braved cold and wind to visit the new home of their new team. The headline of the Milwaukee Sentinel: WE’RE BIG LEAGUERS! On March 18th, at a St. Petersburg, Florida spring training exhibition, Commissioner Ford Frick and the National League owners gave Lou Perini and the Braves their approval for the first Major League franchise move in 50 years. In Milwaukee, Mayor Frank Zeidler declared a week of celebration…and…it was less than a month until opening day. Ticket requests flooded in from everywhere!!
The players were in Bradenton, Florida for spring training as usual. They’d heard rumors and talk but nothing substantial. As far as anyone knew Mr. Perini liked Boston and would probably keep the team there. When the Sporting News printed an article saying the team would play the 1953 season in Milwaukee, everyone was surprised.
Forgive a moments’ digression: A couple important points about that brand spanking new stadium. It had first been suggested by the head of the Milwaukee County Park District in 1909. Not much actually came of it except a seed was planted in the minds of some city council/county board members and a couple of possible sites were suggested. The 1930’s found the stadium idea re-visited. Again, for various reasons, not much happened, although the Story Parkway Stone Quarry – the ultimate site – was among site suggestions. By the mid ‘40’s talk was concretized into proposals and, in the summer of ’49, the Milwaukee County Board and the city council in separate votes and resolutions agreed on the Story Quarry site. Ground was broken in the fall of 1950 and construction got under way – in spurts – and jumps. A steel shortage as a result of President Truman’s “Police Action” in Korea, various union issues and street and road access issues kept some guessing whether it would actually get built or not. But, it did… and by March 1953, Milwaukee County Stadium was ready for its big league team. It was the first major league stadium built with lights and the first to be built with public monies. Cost of construction was $5 million. Seating capacity in 1953 was 35,911 (counting portable bleacher seats). Additional seating was available on Mocking Bird Hill next to the V.A. hospital. These freebie seats looked in toward home plate from above the right field parking area. Original dimensions were 320 feet down the left-and-right field lines, 404 feet to dead center and 355 feet to left-center and right-center field. It was 60 feet from home plate to the backstop and outfield fences were only four feet high. Grassold and Johnson were the consulting architects; Osborn Engineering of Cleveland, Ohio – the structural design team – did the drawings and blueprints. The stadium also featured 11 refreshment stands – that number was increased almost immediately; 20 public telephones; 14 restroom areas; 51 public address speakers; 20 ticket windows and 20 ticket turnstiles. Critics would babble about the relative beauty and grace and character of various stadia – in Wisconsin in 1953, no one cared about such banalities: Milwaukee County Stadium was the Home of the Braves!!! Hooraaaay!!! Thus far the digression…
On April 8th, the Braves arrived at the downtown Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Station. They were greeted by at least 12,000 chilled but cheering fans. As the team got off the train, they were led by manager Charlie (Jolly Cholly) Grimm who was already a fan favorite. The American Association Brewers of ’51 had won the pennant and the Little World Series and were in first place in May 1952 when Grimm was called up to manage Boston. Some 60,000 wildly enthusiastic Milwaukeeans lined Wisconsin Avenue for the parade from the railroad station to the Schroeder Hotel. At the hotel they were showered with gifts and gave interviews to practically everyone.
On April 9th some 10,000 fans braved (heh heh) inclement weather to attend a welcome reception at the arena (the basketball venue) downtown. The Governor spoke, Lou Perini spoke, Fred Miller spoke (he got the loudest ovation). The players were introduced individually to rousing cheers. It appears that a wonderful time was had by all!!
On April 10th the Red Sox arrived to play the first exhibition game in the new stadium. Temperatures were around 30 degrees and freezing rain forced them to stop play after two innings. The 10,000 hardy souls were warmly invited back again the next day. April 11th was worse yet – and the game was cancelled… still no “first home game” in County Stadium…
The first Braves game of the 1953 season was an April 13th road game – at Cincinnati. The crowd – 30,000+ – was more appropriately dressed for sledding than for baseball – the thermometer hovered around 30 degrees. Max Surkont pitched a complete game, three hit shutout, 2-0. Billy Bruton, a speedy rookie outfielder (…andlead-off hitter), got the historical first hit, promptly stole the first base (second base, actually…) and scored the first run on Sid Gordon’s single. The second run came in the fifth inning on a double by catcher Del Crandall followed by a single by second baseman, Jack Dittmer. To add to the day’s excitement (even if not to the score), Surkont and new first baseman, Joe Adcock, had doubles and Bruton had a triple. Bruton also had a gorgeous running, leaping catch against the centerfield fence in the third inning with two on and two out. And there it was: The first win by the first franchise move in 50 years and the first win by a franchise that would never have a losing season…and they still hadn’t played their first home game!
April 14, 1953 – Opening Day – Inaugural Day – Holiday!!! Fans started arriving at the park at 7:30 AM – it was barely daylight – a grayish day. Hats, scarves and overcoats were the fan’s uniform-of-the-day. Hundreds were in fairly orderly, cheering lines when the turnstiles were opened. Some 34,357 – a sellout crowd – roared approval as the teams were introduced and lined up along the first and third base lines. After the ceremonial first pitch, Walker Cooper handed the ball to Mayor Frank Zeidler – and – it all began!!! The first batter was Solly Hemus. The first pitcher was Warren Spahn. The first run was scored by Joe Adcock. Spahn took a no-hitter into the fifth inning but the Cardinals tied the score. One of the games most exciting moments came in the sixth with Stan Musial of the Cardinals at bat with two on and two out. Stan hit a shot to right center that looked certain to score at least two runs. Bruton took off after the ball. Milwaukee fans roared encouragement at Bruton – they had seen his speed in ’52 when he played for the American Association Brewers. Some said Bruton accelerated so fast it looked like he was flying. Hank Aaron, very fast in his own right, has been quoted to the effect that watching Bruton run gave him an inferiority complex and that he (Aaron) looked “like a Raggedy Ann doll in comparison”. Bruton timed his reach and his leap perfectly and caught Musial’s drive. The crowd went wild, the Braves bench went wild. It was a discerning moment! In the eighth, with two out, Bruton hit a triple into the wind over Enos Slaughter’s head in right field. Gerry Staley walked Johnny Logan and Eddie Mathews to load the bases. Sid Gordon hit a slow little topper down the third base line. Bruton scored standing up. The Cards tied it up again in the ninth and they went into extra innings. Spahn shut the Cards down in the top of the 10th. With one out in the bottom of the 10th, Bruton once again came to bat against Staley who, to this point, had judiciously scattered only five hits. Bruton hit a fast ball into the wind in right. Slaughter was playing him a little bit deeper but it was still over his head. At the fence – the four foot outfield fence – Slaughter leaped, stretched his glove out over the fence and the ball hit his glove…and fell into the stands. Umpire Lon Warneke signaled a ground rule double but quickly reversed himself and ruled it a home run. It was the only home run Bruton would hit in ’53. It didn’t matter – at that moment – in that great pandemonium – he probably could have run for President!! It was a foreshadowing of what was yet to come. Commissioner Ford Frick is said to have remarked “This is only the beginning of good times for Milwaukee”. The good folk of Milwaukee would have been ecstatic to host the team that had finished seventh in 1952. Instead they get a bunch of guys who might be much more. Who were these guys?
As an aside – a little editorial comment: Any person who made it to the majors prior to expansion was one heckuva extraordinary player. He was among the best of the best. Even if he didn’t get much playing time or was a “Cup of Coffee Guy”, don’t get fooled – he was still the best player in his town or area. Of course there were guys who – to borrow from the music industry – were “one hit wonders” – who got injured, who couldn’t hit a curve ball, who for whatever reason couldn’t sustain the level of play that got them to the big show. But, none the less, whether they were up for part of a season or only one season, these were tremendous athletes who had clearly demonstrated abilities commensurate with Major League standards and should be accorded appropriate respect! Thus far the soapbox…
Some 31 different players appeared in an official at-bat or mound appearance during 1953. It seems only fair to introduce these 31 in alphabetical order since even the players agree that the fans cheered wildly and indiscriminately over every single player as well as every little thing.
Joe Adcock – 1st Baseman – was a six-foot four inch, 210 pound strongman from Coushatta, Louisiana. Toward the end of April he would hit a blast into the centerfield bleachers in NY’s Polo Grounds – at least 483 feet. Solid as a rock, Adcock played in every game maintaining a .991 fielding average.
Johnny Antonelli – Pitcher – was a “Bonus Baby” right out of high school in ’48 – spent ’51-’52 in military service. He did have a good year in ’53: 12-12, 3.18 ERA with 131 strike-outs.
Vern Bickford – Pitcher – tenacious dude – Part of ’52 Boston starting rotation. Vern would be 2-5 in ’53; not at all indicative of his ability (he was 64-51 in his five previous seasons in Boston).
Billy Bruton – Outfielder – “Bullet Bill” – they nicknamed him that the first year. He led the league in stolen bases with 26 and would again in ’54 and ’55. He was dangerous at bat and on the base paths and a flying vacuum cleaner in the outfield. An instant fan favorite!!
Bob Buhl – Pitcher – a 6 foot 2 inch rookie with a dandy fastball who returned from military service in ’51-’52. Played for Charlie Grimm in Texas and was impressive. He went 13-8 with a 2.97 ERA for the ’53 season.
Lou Burdette – Pitcher – the Braves got him from the Yankees for Johnny Sain – JOHNNY SAIN! – in August of 1951. Who knew? He would go 15-5 with a 3.24 ERA on the season and never have a losing season with the Braves.(P.S. – Lou is spelled L-O-U!!)
Paul Burris – Catcher – comported himself very well as a back-up catcher in Boston…appeared in 55 games in ’52. He wouldn’t see much ’53 on-field action with Del Crandall back from military service; but a good player.
Dave Cole – Pitcher – was used mostly as a reliever. Was a young guy on a terrific pitching staff. In only 14.2 innings averaged about a strike-out per inning and a walk per inning. If he coulda got more work…?
Walker Cooper – Catcher – one of the seasoned veterans – very strong – had a distinguished career – would play a very solid 53 games behind Crandall and help out some of the younger players.
Del Crandall – Catcher – in 1953 Crandall was back from 2 years of military service – a bright man, team leader and terrific catcher and hitter. Team captain – terrific athlete.
George Crowe – 1st Baseman – a part of Boston’s “All-Rookie” infield. At 6 foot 2 inches he also played pro basketball – bright guy, great athlete. Will back up Joe Adcock, get in 47 games and hit .286 with a .476 slugging average.
Jack Dittmer – 2nd Baseman – got 9 letters (baseball, football, basketball) at the University of Iowa, Big 10. He was another member of the ’52 “All-Rookie” infield at Boston. In 138 games hit a very respectable .266. He and Johnny Logan would finish 2nd in the National League with 169 double plays. He was a former American Association Brewer and all around great guy and great athlete.
Sid Gordon – Outfielder – was a veteran slugger in his 11th year in the bigs. Dedicated hard-hitting professional…with a sense of humor: He and Spahn had a lot of “Nose” jokes…great athlete: Able to play any infield or outfield position.
Harry Hanebrink – Utility Infielder – was very capable in the outfield also – good hitter with a good eye at the plate – a very tough out. He would get in 51 games and hit .238.
Joey Jay – Pitcher – big rookie right-hander: 6 foot 4 inches and 215 lbs. He won his first (and only) game in ’53 by shutout. He was the first Little Leaguer in ML Baseball.
Virgil Jester – Pitcher – used almost exclusively in relief. Had the misfortune to be a real good pitcher on a club of really, really good pitchers. Had good stuff but would have no win/lose record in ’53.
Ernie Johnson – Pitcher – Remember?? He was the only Braves pitcher with a winning record, 6-3, in ’52. Used mostly in relief, was very effective. Was just 4-3 but with a 2.67 ERA. Another big guy, 6 foot 3 ½ inches; was too often under-valued. He was a stalwart of the bull pen.
Dave Jolly – Pitcher – another terrific rookie reliever. He finished the ’53 season with a 3.52 ERA…and he added a nasty knuckleball to his repertory of pitches. He was also a pretty fair hitter.
Billy Klaus – Infielder – had been a rookie in Boston in ’52. He had quite a reputation as a marvelous infielder in the minors. Unfortunately he was accorded only two pinch-hitting opportunities in ’53 – fortunately ’54 and beyond had many opportunities.
Don Liddle – Pitcher – another guy (lefty) from the ’52 American Association Brewers: 17-4, 2.70 ERA, 159 strike-outs. Not a particularly big guy: 5 foot 10 inches, 165 lbs. He would be a reliable 7-6 with a 3.08 ERA in 128 innings in ’53.
Johnny Logan – Shortstop – the best shortstop in the majors in ’52, ’53, ’54 and the argument could be made – maybe best in all the NL in the ‘50’s! At the same time it could be argued, “Best Clutch Hitter”. He was part of the ’52 “All Rookie” infield at Boston… except he’d been a rookie in ’51. He was a great hitter, great fielder and a great guy.
Eddie Mathews – 3rd Baseman – the other member of the ’52 “All Rookie” infield. He would lead the league in home runs- 47; slugging average – .627(tied with Snider); 2nd in total bases -363; 2nd in RBI’s – 135. He played in every game and wound up with a .302 batting average. He was probably the third-fastest runner on the team.
Andy Pafko – Outfielder – from Boyceville, Wisconsin, this was a kind of homecoming for this 11 year veteran and owner of two World Series rings already. Well-respected for his hitting and fielding, he would end the season with a .297 batting average, a .455 slugging average and a new Cadillac as the ’53 Braves Most Popular Player and all-around good guy.
Jim Pendleton – Outfielder – was an infielder if needed. Good athlete – second-fastest man on the team – would hit three consecutive home runs in an August record-setting Braves home run binge. He appeared in 120 games in ’53, hitting .299 with a .462 slugging average – often used as a pinch-runner.
Mel Roach – Infielder – was a rookie “Bonus Baby”. Still just 20 years old and attending University of Virginia in off-season. He would only get two official ’53 at-bats, one vs. Robin Roberts. He was a good ball player.
Ebba St. Claire – Catcher – was a rookie in Boston in ’51. He was a fine back-up catcher behind Crandall and Cooper. He struggled with an asthmatic condition. He would play in 38 games in ’53 and was another fun guy.
Sibby Sisti – Utility Everything – this 12 year “Pepperpot” veteran could play every position. He was only in 38 games in ’53 but kept people on their toes in the dugout and locker room. A really nice, straight-ahead guy, Sisti, has a wonderful sense of irony and humor.
Warren Spahn – Pitcher – the sky-kicking, left-handed linchpin of the four man rotation. By ’53 he’s already something of a legend. “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” in ’48. Already had 122 wins and led the league in ’53 with 23 wins and a 2.10 ERA…and it’s only the beginning…
Max Surkont – Pitcher – another fan fave fun guy!! He was a rookie in ’49, came to Boston in ’50. He had his best season ever in ’53, going 11-5 and set a Major League record by striking out eight consecutive Redlegs – in one game.
Bob Thorpe – Outfielder – a rookie in Boston in ’51. He was very fast with a cannon for an arm. Injured much of the ’52 season and played a back-up outfielder and pinch-hitter role in ’53 – in 27 games.
Jim Wilson – Pitcher – at least as well-known for line drive injury comebacks – a skull fracture in ’45 and broken leg in ’47 – Jim would appear in 20 games in ’53, go 4-9 with a 4.34 ERA in 114 innings pitched. ’54 will be even better!!
It only seems fair to mention the manager and the coaches – we’ve got some really good ones.
Charlie Grimm – Manager – Jolly Cholly played for 20 years: Mostly in the NL and mostly first base for the Cubs. He’d managed the Cubs for 13 years prior to coming to Boston in 1952. His philosophy involved having fun playing baseball. He hung out with the guys, played the banjo left handed and sang songs…and was an excellent manager!!
Johnny Cooney – Coach – is a whole other story by himself. He has two separate sections in The Baseball Encyclopedia: One in the “Player Registry”, one in the “Pitcher Registry”. He started as a pitcher, got hurt, out for four years, came back as a .286- lifetime-batting-average-outfielder. Respected by baseball-at-large and by the players. He had an impressive understanding of the game.
Bob Keely – Coach – played briefly in the ‘40’s as a catcher. He had been coach and bullpen catcher since 1946. Highly respected especially by the younger guys – he helped them with the new responsibilities and pitfalls of being full-time ball players.
Bucky Walters – Coach – an outstanding pitching coach, started out as a third baseman with the Braves in 1931. He went 27-11 for Cincinnati in ’39 with a 2.29 ERA. He managed the Reds in ’48-’49. He also managed the American Association Brewers to the pennant in ’52.
It would be a gross injustice to fail to mention the fans of the Milwaukee Braves. These are not only fans from Milwaukee itself but of the surrounding towns, the entire state of Wisconsin and significant parts of upper Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. This is by no means intended to short-change those Braves fans from even farther away…and there were (…and are) was a bunch of those, too. Braves fans were of all sizes, shapes, sexes, ages and colors. They simply swooned over their team!! They chartered airplanes (a special route was arranged by Capital Airlines between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Milwaukee), trains (there were combination fare, hotel and ticket deals available) and buses (sometimes as many as 40 per day). They (whole towns) bought tickets in blocks of 500 or 2000 or 4000 for a single game or weekend. Local retailers bought huge blocks of tickets before they knew they had a team that might finish in the first division. Store windows had signs that advertised items and/or cheered for the Braves. Fans at the games were deliriously enraptured with every guy in a Braves uniform – they cheered almost indiscriminately: for foul balls, cap adjustments, tying of shoelaces. They cheered as passionately for the bench guys as for the starters. Sibby Sisti said, “They treated all of us like we were gods”. Merchants became fans. The players got free food, free groceries, free dry cleaning, free cars, free clothes (Andy Pafko went to buy a suit and was told “I’m glad to have your business, but I can’t take your money”), free furniture ( the Brutons found an unfurnished apartment; when a local merchant heard that, he had it furnished – free), free beer (Jack Dittmer said a truck came by every week to deliver how ever much beer you wanted), free appliances, free car washes, free sporting goods, free toys and babysitting for the children of the players. Retail associations estimated an annual increase in business between $2 and $5 million. The Milwaukee Sentinel figured circulation went up by 10-12,000 new subscribers; the Journal noted “hundreds” of new out-of-town and out-of-state subscribers. The Post Office cancelled stamps with a red logo “Milwaukee-Home of the Braves”. Taxi business boomed. Restaurant business boomed – they played the game instead of muzak. It changed daily life in Milwaukee; civic and business meetings, bridge clubs, parties, weddings, local sports events were re-scheduled so they wouldn’t conflict with the Braves game. Some experienced the “Psychological Lift” of winning and the gloom of defeat. The police chief reported that Milwaukee was experiencing less crime perhaps because fathers and sons were going to or listening to the game together. One retailer is quoted as saying, “The Braves are the greatest thing that’s happened to Milwaukee since beer”. The fans should get their share of credit – they helped it happen. The fans didn’t just come to games, they brought gifts – when they found out Max Surkont liked Polish sausage, he got pounds and pounds of it. In general the players were quite visible in the community – out shopping or eating – usually they weren’t allowed to pay. Charlie Grimm had two separate but telling comments regarding coming to Milwaukee and the Braves fans. The first was, “It was like coming home”. What a warm, wonderful compliment. The second had to do with being on guard “so the fans don’t smother us in kindness, beer and sauerbraten”. Yeah…but…
The Braves had an ingenious public relations plan that they brought along from Boston. A friend of Lou Perini’s, Hal Goodnough, traveled all over Wisconsin (and upper Michigan) as the Braves goodwill ambassador – he traveled in a Nash Statesman (how’s come not an Ambassador…ah, well…). Printed on both sides of the car were “Thank you, Wisconsin” and the “Milwaukee Braves” logo. Goodnough would stop to speak any city, town, village venue that requested. He would speak at men’s and women’s clubs, service organizations, business and civic groups. He logged over 7000 miles during the first eight weeks of the ’53 season. His message was one of thanks for support plus personal, human stories of the team. Eventually he had picture postcards of the car to leave as souvenirs. I believe it was he who reported that an Algoma, WI restaurant served not a hamburger but a “Bravesburger”. The Braves and their fans increased attendance in other NL parks as well. These rabid fans were not satisfied to attend only home games. They traveled: singly and in groups – some pretty large groups! Some 500 people charted an airplane to attend a series against Brooklyn. However, the most consistently fanatical group was the Milwaukee Braves Boosters. Under the able guidance of General Chairman, Jim Bird, these fans organized trips to all the other National League cities. And…they were organized – they had membership cards, name buttons, pins, itineraries, luggage tags and their own specially printed menus on trains. They incorporated sightseeing and other activities into their trips. At the games they had props and cheers and they were loud. When the team arrived back in Milwaukee after a road trip, there was always a substantial crowd waiting at the Chicago & Northwestern station – day or night. They were joyous and encouraging. They had signs and placards of cheers and congratulations. News and sports reporters all across the country were astonished, in awe and yet curious over this joyous phenomenon, this wondrous kinship between the Milwaukee Braves and their fans. Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler had a very straightforward comment, “Sophisticated people wonder why we have a big celebration every time the team comes home. The answer’s simple: Milwaukee never had as much fun as now”. You may have heard it said that events are like dropping a stone in a pond and seeing the ripples go out from it – if you’re reading this maybe you still feel the ripple…
I know this is long, however, since we are fans and collectors, I want to just mention some obvious and, maybe not so obvious collectibles. This will not be in any particular order and I welcome input and/or correction.
We could start with the stadium: Seats, bleachers, signs, turnstiles, bricks, railings, toilets, ticket windows and a whole host of other stuff. We could start with stuff you could buy or get at the stadium: Dolls, balls, bats, pennants, buttons, mugs, glassware, pins, megaphones, scorecards, yearbooks, et al. We could start with the advertisers in the scorebooks and yearbooks…or newspapers…or the stuff advertisers sold/gave away: cards, pins, buttons, pennants, booklets, pamphlets, balls, bats, caps, and gloves. We could start with baseball cards (do you call Spic & Span issues “cards”…?). What about food-related items: Coca-cola, bread, canned vegetables, Dixie lids/Premiums, Quaker Oats…is beer and beer-related stuff foodstuff? What about the gasoline companies? Tobacco: R.G. Dun, Red Man…Schedules: Lots of those! How about magazines and periodicals? Actual team, player, franchise-related: autographs, memos, letters, pictures, equipment (balls, bats, gloves, uniforms, caps and shoes).
I’m stopping at that point. There are dozens of other Braves things to collect; however, niche collectors don’t really care and those who collect the broader spectrum are finding new areas regularly. I’m interested in hearing from you…what do you collect? Why? How long have you been collecting? You can reach me at email@example.com.
When I began this project I thought I was going to sort of methodically march through the history of the Milwaukee Braves from 1953 to 1965. Right off the bat (very small pun…!) it was requested that I do some background on the Braves franchise – so I started – last month – from 1869…instead of 1953. Just recently I’ve gotten the opportunity to share some other areas. So next month I hope to include-or add- an interview with a guy I think is one of the most interesting Braves collectors I know.
Go Get’em Braves !!
Please stay tuned…!!