Inside the main entrance to County Stadium in Milwaukee there is a bronze plaque that is dedicated "To the finest fans in all baseball." The plaque is dated September 20, 1953, and it is signed by Lou Perini, the owner of the Milwaukee Braves.
Perini had good reason for emblazoning his gratitude in bronze. That spring he had transferred his team from Boston to Milwaukee, baseball's first franchise switch in 50 years. In Boston in 1952 the Braves had drawn only 281,278 people. In Milwaukee the next year the Braves multiplied that figure by seven, drawing 1,826,397 for a National League record. In the next four years attendance went over two million each season, capped by 2,215,404 in 1957, the year the team won a pennant and a World Series. It was, in fact, this enormous success by the Braves in Milwaukee that erased the inhibitions of other owners about moving their clubs into untapped areas. Now everybody rushed to join the Braves at Sutter's Mill. The Browns moved to Baltimore, the Athletics to Kansas City, the Dodgers and Giants to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the Senators to Minnesota.
But ever since the high-water year of 1957, "the finest fans in all baseball" have been disappearing. In 1958, when the Braves won a second straight pennant, attendance dipped slightly under two million—not surprising since fans seem to lose some of their interest when their team becomes an overdog. But next season the figure shrank to 1,700,000, dropped again to 1,400,000 in 1960 and last year fell all the way to 1,100,000. This year the crowds are off again and it appears unlikely that the Braves will draw more than 800,000. The men in the front office call the decrease "a return to normalcy," and point out that there are other clubs in worse shape. What they really mean is that they are worried sick.
To appreciate the quixotic change in Milwaukee as a baseball town one must recall the circus atmosphere that existed in the early years. Perini's decision to move the Braves to Milwaukee was announced on a Friday in March 1953. By Sunday, cars began parking outside County Stadium, thousands of them, filled with people from in town, out of town, and out of state who simply wanted to sit in the stands, eat their picnic lunches and stare at the field. Everybody was there except the Braves.
When the team arrived from spring training a crowd of 15,000 was at the train depot, where a red carpet was spread for the players to walk on. After their majesties had been paraded through the streets in open cars, they were taken to their hotel and inundated by gifts.
For God and the Braves
Now the rush was on for tickets. The town of Cedarburg, Wis., with a population of 2,500, ordered 3,000 tickets to one game and filled every seat. A preacher in Portage told his congregation: "I want you to support the Braves, but don't forget us." A firm advertising for young engineers included this key phrase: "Only 90 minutes from County Stadium." Local hamburgers became "Bravesburgers," and soap wrappers in the Hotel Schroeder in downtown Milwaukee carried the message: "Take Me Out to the Braves Game."
The players couldn't spend a dime. Merchants gave them food, wristwatches, cars, beer, anything they wanted. A group of Italian fans gave a special "day" for Sibbi Sisti, German fans gave one for Warren Spahn, Jewish fans for Sid Gordon, Negro fans for Billy Bruton and Lutheran fans for that noted Lutheran, Andy Pafko. A Polish group gave Pitcher Max Surkont a year's supply of kielbasa, a Polish sausage. (Surkont, who was 9-1 at the time, promptly ate himself out of shape and won only two more games all season.)
Now, nine years later, the long, wild party is over. It has been six years since Milwaukee fans gave a "day" for a player. Billboards no longer show Eddie Mathews drinking a certain milk, and there are no Brave stickers or team pictures in the local taverns. It is almost as if the town, stuffed full with the Braves and baseball, decided to give them up completely.
"We used to be packed tight on weekends," said a clerk at the Hotel Schroeder, where the soap wrappers are now labeled "soap." "Not a room available. We never fill anymore. And tickets! I saw $1.80 tickets go for $10. Now you can't give them away."
There are almost as many reasons for the declining Milwaukee attendance as there are empty seats in County Stadium. The Minnesota Twins, a new team last year, are luring away out-of-state fans. Many Milwaukeeans resent the rise in ticket and parking prices, and the trading of the popular Bill Bruton (who won Milwaukee's first home game in 1953 with an extra-inning home run). But the unkindest cut was last year's law prohibiting fans from carrying their own beer into the park. The law, now repealed, was a master stroke of public relations ineptitude in a town that likes to think that it invented beer.
The Braves' front office feels that the most important factor is the team's sixth-place standing in the National League. "We're selling a bad product," said Bill Eberly, the team's business manager. "If the team put together a winning streak and got back into the pennant race, the other reasons would disappear."
It is doubtful that Eberly's hypothesis will be put to the test this year or even in the next three or four years. The Braves are yesterday's team, an old champion fighting with too-old skills. Warren Spahn, Del Crandall, Ed Mathews, Joe Adcock and Lou Burdette were all with Milwaukee in 1953. Hank Aaron arrived a year later. All were heroes in the pennant-winning years of 1957-58 and all are still with the Braves, forming the nucleus of a team. The new faces on the Braves are really just old faces from other teams. This spring the Braves promoted a slogan—"Something New in '62"—meaning fresh, bushy-tailed troops from the farm system into which the Braves have poured so much money over the years. But none of the young players has come through.
With attendance slipping, there have been rumors that Lou Perini will move his team again. This seems unlikely, although recently Perini said, "You can't compete in the market for players with clubs that consistently outdraw you, as Walter O'Malley said when he took the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles." But Milwaukee has proved that it can support a major league team in grand style when it wants to and, perhaps more important, there are no longer many places left to go. Charles Finley openly covets Dallas-Fort Worth as a new nesting place for his Kansas City Athletics, and has been so clumsily blunt about it that Senator Edward Long of Missouri charged him with sabotaging attendance in Kansas City so he would have a good excuse to move. The Los Angeles Angels will soon move to San Diego to escape the Dodgers and the high tariff Walter O'Malley charges the Angels for playing in Chavez Ravine. Bill DeWitt, now that he owns the Cincinnati Reds, would like to move somewhere else—Cincinnati's attendance is hardly better than Milwaukee's—but there is really no place left for him to go. And so it is with Milwaukee.
What can Lou Perini do? Well, he can sell the Braves, plaque and all, and he probably will, despite statements that "the Braves are not for sale." Perini is 58 and for some years now his wife has been urging him to get out of baseball, which she feels is too strenuous for him. The sudden death of Perini's younger brother Charlie last year is said to have affected him greatly.
It is also possible that Perini may be urged by his board of directors to unload the Braves purely for business reasons. The team is a part of the vast Perini Corporation that deals in construction and real estate, among other things. When shares of the Perini Corporation were made public in June 1961, the prospectus said that the Braves "have had an outstanding financial and competitive success." But last year the Braves lost money, about $79,000, and this year they will probably lose money again, despite strict economies. These losses might not matter if the Perini Corporation were booming, but the price of the stock has dropped from $12 to $6 a share and the dividend of 25¢ a share recently was cut in half.
If Perini does sell the Braves, whoever buys them (one possibility is the Uihlein family, makers of Schlitz beer) must face the problem of coaxing people back to the ball park. "The thing that puzzles us," says John McHale, president of the Braves, "is that so many people just don't seem to care anymore. In the beginning a lot of people came out to see and be seen. Now we're down to our hard-core fans. But," he adds hopefully, "attendance is always a matter of peaks and valleys."
The Milwaukee peak was established in 1957 at 2,215,404. What McHale, Lou Perini and all of baseball are wondering is just how deep the Milwaukee valley will be.
IN HAPPIER DAYS, shown in a photograph used as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S first cover on August 16, 1954, Braves' Third Baseman Ed Mathews hits against background of packed seats.