The move that made Milwaukee cry
It was a love affair of epic proportions. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was over.
In 1953, the Milwaukee Braves, fresh off their relocation from Boston at the behest of owner and construction magnate Lou Perini, drew a then-National League record 1,826,397. Just one year later, they shattered the 2 million fan attendance barrier, a mark they would also surpass in each of the next three seasons. The star-crossed romance between city and team was at its zenith in 1957 when 2,215,404 fans crammed into Milwaukee County Stadium and were rewarded with Wisconsin's only World Series Championship.
"I didn't realize it at the time," Hall of Famer Hank Aaron said. "But after we won the seventh game of the 1957 World Series, everything started to go downhill."
Aaron, in speaking to authors Bob Klapisch and Pete van Wieren for their book "The Braves, an Illustrated History of America's Team," could not have foreseen the greatest sports success story instantly become the most tragic seemingly overnight.
The question of "where did it all go wrong" has lingered amongst Milwaukee Braves fans for generations. How could a team go from the highest of highs to extinct in just 13 years?
Some assert that the beginning of the end wasn't actually in October of 1957, but rather three winters earlier, on an icy Wisconsin evening, not long after the Braves broke the thought-to-be-impossible 2 million fan barrier.
"If Fred Miller had not died in a plane crash on December 17, 1954, he would have put together an ownership group in Milwaukee to buy the club from Perini," noted Milwaukee Braves historian Bob Buege says. "Fred Miller was Milwaukee's last true civic hero, in my judgment."
Ironically, the man who Buege says he despised, the man responsible for moving the Braves to Atlanta, Bill Bartholomay, agrees. "Frankly, if Fred Miller hadn't died in that tragic accident, he would have been the perfect guy (to keep the Braves in Milwaukee). (He was) one of the most wonderful people in Milwaukee at the time."
Frederick C. Miller was a giant of a man, both literally and figuratively. Captain of Notre Dame's 1928 football team, he returned to his native Milwaukee after college with the world at his fingertips. His father was a lumber, real estate, and mortgage mogul; his mother was heir to one of the most successful breweries in the country. In 1947, Fred Miller succeeded his uncle, Fredrick A. Miller, as President of the Miller Brewing Company. The younger Miller, a visionary, saw synergy between his product and sports. Through his efforts, both the Milwaukee Arena and Milwaukee County Stadium were built in the early 1950's. Miller then pushed hard for a Major League team to call County Stadium home, and helped convince Boston Braves owner Lou Perini that Milwaukee was perfect for his struggling ballclub.
For the rest of his short lifetime, Fred Miller was quite astute in his assessment of his hometown. Milwaukee was perfect. Some wondered if he was turning over in his grave a mere decade later, as his beloved Braves were pulling up stakes for the land of peaches and pecans.
The Milwaukee Braves never had a losing season. They appeared in two World Series, winning one of them. They had broken attendance records throughout the 1950's and averaged over 88 wins per season in the 13 years they were in Milwaukee. However, attendance was in a steady decline. Fans had become accustomed to winning not merely games, but championships.
"Attendance had been steadily declining in Milwaukee since the Braves' 1957 World Series victory," William Povletich, author of Milwaukee Braves, Heroes and Heartbreak says. "Fan apathy was further reflected in slow season ticket sales with many former Braves' fans caught up in the beginnings of Vince Lombardi's championship dynasty in Green Bay."
Further leading to a dwindling fan base was owner Lou Perini steadfast refusal to allow television of either home or even road games, despite other teams throughout the game reaping handsome advertising revenues by showcasing their teams in the emerging new media. Perini felt that if fans were allowed to see games for free, they would be less likely to come out to the ballpark where they had to pay to watch their heroes play.
One of the final tipping points that led to a full-on fan revolt in the spring of 1961 was the Milwaukee County Board banning carry-in in beer. Since Milwaukee County owned and operated the stadium, they felt they could make more money in concessions by forcing fans to purchase their favorite drink only within the confines of the ballpark.
Instead of buying beer at the game, fans simply stayed home, even after the ban was lifted the very next year. Attendance plummeted from 1.4 million in 1960, to 1.1 million in 1961, to just fewer than 767,000 in 1962. After turning an eye-popping profit of $7.5 million during the franchise's first nine years in Milwaukee, the Braves posted their first financial loss in 1962.
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