With the world on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have no sports to watch today and no sports to look forward to tomorrow. So why not look back? Here’s what happened in the world of baseball on this date in history.
Everyone knows the Braves play in Atlanta and most people know that, before that, they played in Milwaukee. We’re starting to get to the point now, however, where the people who were of baseball-watching age when they played in their original city are getting up there in years and, eventually, living memory of that team — the Boston Braves — will be gone entirely. But yep, Boston was where the Braves — also known as the Red Stockings, Beaneaters, the Doves, the Rustlers, and the Bees — played from 1876 through 1952.
It was on this date — March 13, 1953 — when Braves owner Lou Perini announced his intention to relocate the team to Milwaukee, citing poor attendance as the primary reason for the move. And it was very, very low attendance: the Braves drew only 281,278 fans for the entire 1952 campaign. The fact that the Braves had, with the exception of a pennant-winning 1948 season, mostly stunk on the previous several years didn’t help matters much. Fans and the press in Boston called that day “Black Friday,” but given how little the city supported the team compared to their in-town rivals, the Red Sox, who had drawn over a million fans to Fenway Park for seven years running, it’s hard to say how many mourners there really were.
It was originally intended for the team to play out the 1953 season in Boston, but mere days after Perini made his announcement he bought out his partners in the team and made the unilateral decision to move to Milwaukee, effective immediately. It was, logistically speaking, pretty easy to do.
Milwaukee, a growing city, had long been a possible target for relocation, and the city and county fathers knew it. To that end they had already begun construction on what came to be known as County Stadium October 1950. Ostensibly the reason was to replace the aging Triple-A ballpark the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association called home, but they knew if they built it big enough that a big league club might come calling. The first to call was Bill Veeck, then owner of the St. Louis Browns. He had the same issue in St. Louis that Perini had in Boston: his team was second-fiddle to a much more popular club, the Cardinals. Veeck’s gambit was shot down, however, because the owner of the parent club of the Brewers vetoed the idea, as was his right.
The owner of the parent club of the Triple-A Brewers was Lou Perini. With Veeck and the Browns out of the way moved his Braves into County Stadium and kicked the Brewers to Toledo.
The Braves, who went 64-89 in their last season in Boston, improved to 92-62 in their first season in Milwaukee. That improvement might’ve been aided by the change in scenery, but it came in much larger part due to fantastic seasons from Warren Spahn, who had faltered compared to his usual standards the previous year, and Eddie Matthews, who broke out in a huge way in his sophomore season as a big leaguer. In 1954 a young man named Henry Aaron would join the club. By the following season it would be clear he’d be a star. Two years after that he’d win the MVP and lead the Braves to the franchise’s first World Series win since 1914. The Milwaukee Braves consistently led the National League in attendance through the end of the 1950s as well, drawing over two million fans for four years running and not drawing fewer than a million between 1953 and 1961.
The novelty, and quality, of the Milwaukee Braves would wear off once the 1960s began. They were still a winning club, but in a loaded National League, they never finished above fourth place from 1961-on. Attendance fell sharply. Perini sold the club in 1962 and the new owner, William Bartholomay, almost immediately began looking for a bigger, more lucrative market. That market would be Atlanta who, like Milwaukee before it, built a new stadium in the hopes of luring a team. The Braves announced their move to Atlanta for the 1965 season but, unlike 12 years before, they couldn’t do it immediately thanks to an injunction filed against them. After playing out the 1965 campaign as a lame duck team — drawing just over half a million fans — they became the Atlanta Braves for the 1966 season. They’d draw 1.5 million that year and would remain at least respectable on the field until Hank Aaron left town — for Milwaukee, once again — following the 1974 season.
From then on we get into the Dale Murphy/Ted Turner/TBS era and then the Glavine/Maddux/Smoltz years and you know the rest of that story.
What else happened on this date in baseball history?
- 1917: During Brooklyn Dodgers spring training at Daytona Beach, Florida, manager Wilbert Robinson, after bragging that he could catch a ball dropped from an airplane, made an attempt to do just that. Depending on who you believe, either (a) Casey Stengel substituted a grapefruit for the baseball as a prank; or (b) Ruth Law, the woman piloting the plane and tasked with dropping the baseball, forgot to bring one and dropped a grapefruit she had in the plane for a snack. Whatever happened, the grapefruit fell, Robinson circled under it and, after just getting a glove on it, had the grapefruit splatter on his chest. As the story goes, Robinson felt the moisture and immediately thought it was blood. He screamed that he was hurt and/or dying before before realizing what happened, at which point the assembled Dodgers laughed their heads off at him;
- 1943 – Due to a shortage of rubber due to the war effort, Major League Baseball introduced a new official ball, the insides of which were made of cork and balata. Officials claimed the ball would behave just like the old ball, but players complained that they could not drive the new ball. What the ball did, statistically speaking, is hard to pin down given that the quality of players had likewise declined in 1943 with so many regular players away for military service, replaced by guys who likely wouldn’t have otherwise made the bigs;
- 1954 – Bobby Thomson of the Milwaukee Braves breaks his ankle sliding into third base in an exhibition game. He’d be out of action until July 14. His injury cleared the way for a young kid named Henry Aaron to make the club. The kid would stick;
- 1960 – the owner of the Chicago White Sox — Bill Veeck, who had obviously moved on from his days with the Browns — sent out his players to the field, wearing road jerseys with their last names on their back in an exhibition game vs. the Cincinnati Reds. A lot of players and even other teams complained about it but the Commissioner’s office said teams could do it if they want. Eventually almost every team did.
And now back to the present.