Most of the time I focus entirely on the history of Kansas City baseball. Primarily the Royals, but sometimes the A’s and the Monarchs. While I enjoy this, it also leaves a lot of fertile ground uncovered. Occasionally, I’ve ventured off the Royals ranch with stories about people like Rocky Bridges and Al Gionfriddo. Recently, I was talking to a long-time friend of mine, David, and the topic of baseball came up. Even though we’ve known each other for over twenty years, I had no idea about his passion and history for the game. I convinced him to let me tell his story about a time when baseball, and our lives, were much simpler. A more romantic time when men wore three-piece suits and hats to games and people rode trolley cars to get there. A time before television and certainly the internet, a time when people knew everyone in their neighborhood. A time when ballparks had names like Ebbets Field, The Polo Grounds, Sportsman Park and The Baker Bowl. Back in those days, there were only 16 teams: 8 in each league. There were no teams west of St. Louis. New York was home to three teams. Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Boston each had two. David, who had a distinguished career as a history professor that spanned nearly four decades is 81 now and the stories poured out of him like water from a faucet.
David was born in 1941 and as a child lived briefly in Boston. During those years, he became a fan of the Boston Braves and would attend games at Braves Field with his family. His family moved to Milwaukee in 1953, the same year that Braves owner Louis Perini, frustrated by declining attendance and competition from the Red Sox, decided to move his team to Milwaukee. Milwaukee had been the home of the Braves AAA team, called the Milwaukee Brewers. The city of Milwaukee had just recently built a new stadium, Milwaukee County Stadium, in hopes of luring a major league franchise. The stadium was publicly funded and was the first stadium built with lights. Several older stadiums had lights retrofitted into their infrastructure, but County was the first with lights in the initial build. As David says, “the stadium was built in the Menominee River Valley in a somewhat run-down industrial area, which had been home to rail yards and World War II era factories. County was built near the Wood Veterans Home, which sat on a bluff overlooking right field. The club soon erected bleachers so that injured soldiers could sit outside and enjoy the game. In later years, when Interstate 94 was built, it split the Wood National Cemetery into two pieces, one on the north and the other on the south side of the highway. Prior to County, the AAA Brewers had played their games at Borchert Field, which was on the city’s northeast side. (The site of the old ballpark is now part of Interstate 43)”. The final game at Borchert was September 21, 1952, a Brewers loss to the Kansas City Blues in the American Association playoffs. With the Braves coming to town, the Brewers moved south to Ohio, becoming the Toledo Mud Hens, who became the favorite team of Corporal Max Klinger.
“I started attending games in that first season. Most games I attended were on Sundays. After church, my parents would drop me off at the ballpark. I’d bring in a sack lunch and my ball glove. Most Sunday games were double headers, so I got a lot of baseball for the price of a .50 cent seat in the left field bleachers. After the games, I would hang around and collect autographs of the players. I had signatures from all the players, Aaron, Matthews, Spahn. Even Earl Gillespie, the Braves famed broadcaster. Then I would take the streetcar and bus to our home in South Milwaukee. Milwaukee was a safe city in those days, and I would often take the bus all over the city.”
“I had a really nice book of autographs and a baseball card collection starting in 1951. Unfortunately, when I went away to college, my younger brother sold my autograph book and card collection. There were some hard feelings about that!”
“I can still recall from memory the starting lineup of those Braves. Third base was Eddie Matthews. Matthews was one of my favorite players, but he was kind of cocky. I remember one time he tried to catch a foul ball behind his back... and missed. Second base was Jack Dittmer, who was from Elkader, Iowa. Danny O’Connell took over second in 1954 and became my favorite player. Johnny Logan was the shortstop. Logan lived in our neighborhood, just a couple of blocks away. First base was Joe Adcock. Adcock was a slugger. I remember listening on our radio to the game on July 31st, 1954, against Brooklyn at Ebbets Field when Adcock hit four home runs (Adcock also had a double, seven RBI’s and an amazing 18 total bases in that game). Sid Gordon was the leftfielder, Andy Pafko played in right. Pafko had the widest batting stance I’d ever seen. Billy Bruton was the centerfielder. Del Crandall was the catcher. Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl were the pitching stars. Bobby Thompson (yes, that Bobby Thompson) came over in a 1954 trade with the New York Giants and played some games in left field, before the Braves decided that 20-year-old Henry Aaron was ready for the job. I was at the game when Aaron made his debut. (This was a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 15th, 1954. Aaron doubled off Vic Raschi in his first at-bat). I saw Henry hit many home runs. He had the most beautiful and unique swing. Besides O’Connell and Matthews, Henry was my favorite Brave. I also enjoyed seeing Duke Snider play. Brooklyn was another team that I always enjoyed seeing play. Over the years I was fortunate to see a lot of really good players, including Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. One year, I was standing near the left field fence, watching the Reds warm up. A ball came over the fence and I was lucky enough to snag it. I was standing there with my new prize when the Reds Ted Kluszewski, who was known for wearing uniforms with the sleeves cut out, to show off his guns, came over and growled at me, “Hey kid, throw me that ball.”
“Even though Milwaukee was a smaller city, we rarely saw the players around town. One exception was Gene Conley, who used to play pick-up basketball with us at the Y.” Conley was hard to miss, a 6’8 Okie who also won three NBA titles while playing with the Boston Celtics from 1952 to 1961. Conley was only one of two athletes (the other being Otto Graham) to win championships in two of the four major sports.
“Milwaukee was crazy about the Braves. We led the league in attendance for the first six years and the team never had a losing season in Milwaukee. (The Braves drew 281,278 fans in their final year in Boston. They drew a then record 1.8 million in their first season in Milwaukee and busted the 2 million mark in 1954).
Those early Brave’s had some good teams: 92 wins in 1953. 89 wins in 1954 followed by 85 and 92 wins the next two seasons. Matthews, Aaron and Spahn were all-timers and are in the Hall of Fame. Aaron and Matthews still hold the record for most career home runs by two teammates. Adcock hit 336 career home runs. Pafko, Crandall, Adcock, Burdette and Bruton all had career WAR between 26 and 36. It was Adcock’s home run (later changed to a double, when Henry Aaron ran out of the base path) that ended Harvey Haddix’ almost 13 inning perfect game, a game that many consider the greatest game ever thrown by a pitcher. Bottom line, the Braves of this era had some solid players.
Unfortunately for them, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the famed Boys of Summer, were a mini-dynasty in their own right and stood in the Braves way. Milwaukee finished one game back of the Bums in 1956 then finally toppled the Dodgers in their magical 1957 season.
Says David, ”The Braves won the pennant in 1957 with 95 wins. They met the Yankees in the World Series. I was 16 at the time and watched every game on television, which was still a fairly new thing at our house. We didn’t get our first TV until I was in 8th grade and my mom limited the number of hours that I could watch television, so I probably watched some of the games at a friend’s house. The entire city was crazy about that Braves team. (The team drew 2.2 million fans to County that season, which is amazing since the Milwaukee metro population was roughly 580,000). The Braves beat the Yankees in seven games to become World Champs. Lew Burdette won three games in the series. The city had an enormous parade, right down Wisconsin Avenue”.
That 1957 team also had an 18-year-old bonus baby on the roster, named Hawk Taylor. Taylor appeared in seven games that season. He finished his career with the Royals in 1969 and 1970. Think about Taylor’s summer of ‘57. Graduate from high school in May, sign with the Braves, watch Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn all summer, then get a front row seat to the World Series! Amazing.
Aaron was 4th in the 1954 Rookie of the Year vote, behind the Cardinals Wally Moon, Ernie Banks and his own teammate Gene Conley. Aaron won his only MVP award in 1957, a fact that still boggles my mind. Henry should have won in 1956. And 1961. And 1967 and possibly in 1969 and 1971, but voters in those days valued different metrics. Plus, Aaron had to compete with other demi-gods such as Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Willie Mays among others.
The Braves nearly went back-to-back, losing the 1958 series to New York in another seven-game classic. The Braves had control of that series, jumping out to a 3 games to 1 lead, before losing the final three. The crusher was a 4 to 3, ten inning loss in game six. Whitey Ford and Ryne Duren outdueled Warren Spahn that day. The game was tied at two after nine. Gil McDougal hit a leadoff home run in the 10th to give New York the lead. Bill Skowron added an RBI single off reliever Don McMahon to stake the Yanks to a 4 to 2 lead. Henry Aaron hit a two-out single to score Logan to tighten things up. Joe Adcock followed with another single moving Aaron to third. With over 46,000 fans on their feet, reliever Bob Turley got Frank Torre on a blistering lineout to second baseman McDougal, to send the series to the 7th game.
Game seven was knotted at two until Skowron delivered the dagger with a three-run jack to deep left-center off Burdette. The Braves had no answer and the Yanks had won another series. The Braves drew well until 1963, when attendance slipped below one million for the first time. Their final season in Milwaukee came in 1965. The team finished 86-76 but attendance had slipped to 555,584. That team still had plenty of star power at the plate, what with Aaron, Matthews, Felipe Alou, Rico Carty and Joe Torre.
Perini had sold the team after the 1962 season, and the new owners, itching for a change, moved the team to Atlanta. ”I was crushed when the Braves moved,” said David. ”I still talk about how Atlanta stole our team.” Believe me, old timers around Kansas City know that feeling well.
“In addition to seeing the Braves play, the Green Bay Packers would also play several games each year at County that we would go to. The Packers had been in the dumps but were getting better. When they drafted Bart Starr, everyone was like, “who is that guy?” Eventually, they started winning with guys like Paul Horning, Jerry Kramer and Starr. Baseball was missing until the 1970 season. That’s when Bud Selig bought the bankrupt Seattle Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee. Selig had been the largest Ford dealer in the Milwaukee area. When baseball came back to County, some friends and I were there. I was living in Madison at the time, so we drove over. April 7th, 1970, Milwaukee and California Angels”.
One of the great things about writing these essays are the stories you get to hear from people like David. It amazes me to think about the baseball history he was witnessed. Hank Aaron’s first game. Seeing the early Packers dynasty develop. The Brewer’s first game. He and his son attended a game in Tiger Stadium during the last season it was open. All of us baseball fans should be so fortunate.