Remembering the Braves

The memory is green, 55 long years later, of that unforgettable spring of 1953 which began like most any other spring in those relatively palmy times.

The news trickling back from Sarasota, where the Red Sox were unlimbering, and Bradenton, where the Braves hung out, was happy and hopeful, as usual. Nor did it much matter that the previous season one team had finished sixth and the other seventh while the experts were advising, “Don’t expect much improvement.” Otherwise, there was no hint of anything untoward, let alone something that in the world-view of an impressionable 14 year-old would suggest impending doom.

It’s hard to explain the attraction of the dear old, and still not forgotten, Boston Braves. They had been a sorrowful franchise much of their existence. In all of the 20th century, there had been only two lonely moments of triumph: 1914 when George Stallings, in concert with two spunky brigands named Johnny Evers and Rabbit Maranville, introduced the far-fetched concept of “the miraculous” to the subject of games, and 1948, when Billy Southworth wove something equally magical from the wiles and guiles of Messrs. Spahn, Sain, Elliot, Holmes, the robust Jeff Heath and, yes, Sebastian “Sibby” Sisti.

Otherwise they’d been cannon fodder, famed for being an “original” franchise formed in 1876 but little else. Long, painfully arid stretches of horrid play cluttered their history. After the ‘‘miracle’’ of 1914, they finished in the second division 16 of the next 17 years; in last place, five times. A brief rise to fourth in ’33 and ’34 crashed in the spectacular disaster of 1935, when the acquisition of the battered remains of Babe Ruth led to a 38-115 record, the worst in modern baseball history. Ten more consecutive seasons buried deep in the second division followed.

It was the ownership of a group of plucky construction moguls known as the “Three Little Steamshovels” that revived the franchise after the war. They were led by the remarkable Lou Perini, who poured a fortune into the team. Heavy spending was unprecedented in Braves’ annals, although soon enough all that would be conveniently forgotten.

They had in Southworth a superb manager, and in John Quinn, a superior general manager from an illustrious baseball family. It was a progressive organization that would soon introduce the first black player on any Boston professional sports team. They started the Jimmy Fund, launched other charitable works, and opened their gates for mere pennies to kids from city streets and suburban playgrounds. They were generous, savvy and fan-friendly and soon were seen as ‘‘the good guys’’ in town. The operatives of the rival American League franchise, located down the street in Kenmore Square, observed all of this closely. And they were not amused.

More than a half century later it’s still not clear what role the Red Sox played in the ultimate demise of the Braves. But many who were there and observed the story as it evolved insist that Tom Yawkey loathed the Braves, detested the Perinis, resisted any efforts to help them when times got tough, went out of his way to belittle them, and contrived to chase them out of town. Yawkey loved the game -- but not enough to share it.

The Braves were dreadful in ’52, finishing seventh -- 32 games behind the Dodgers. But it was at the box-office that they got really shellacked. They drew only 281,278, an average of about 3,500 patrons a game; far and away baseball’s worst numbers. It was humiliating. Even the St. Louis Browns, an utterly moribund franchise, drew twice as many. Perini’s stated losses were more than $600,000, a huge amount for those times. Only four years after winning a pennant and drawing more than 1.5 million people, they were in free fall and near bankruptcy.

All that winter there were whispers about possible franchise upheavals in both leagues and everyone knew that Milwaukee was lusting for a team while fast building a fancy new ballpark. And yet no one suspected it could happen in Boston. Maybe it was smugness, provincialism, or a bit of both. But that august conventional wisdom held, Athenian Boston could never be renounced in favor of a bush-league town like Milwaukee.

All of which accounts for the shock when, on the afternoon of March 18, 1953, smack in the middle of spring training, the eight National League owners quietly gathered at a quaint little St. Petersburg, Florida hotel, unanimously approving the transfer of the Boston Braves to Milwaukee. It was historic. For a half-century, franchises had been locked in place. The structure was inviolate. It was the end of, not just an era, an age. I was a kid living a pristine and sheltered existence on Boston’s then very peaceful South Shore in a world bounded by baseball, baseball, and more baseball. It was a rude introduction to the realities of hardball, the market place and life.

The Perinis would insist -- and I truly believed them -- that they didn’t want to move, and especially not so abruptly. Lou later said his plan called for giving New England a warning of perhaps a year; one last chance to support the Braves. But then that fabulous rascal Bill Veeck got into the act. As the impoverished owner of the desperate Browns, Veeck was even more determined to move from St. Louis immediately and he had designs on Milwaukee. His first foray earlier that year was rebuffed by the A.L. owners, but he was plotting another charge with the odds in his favor mounting.

Interestingly, the team that led the opposition to Veeck’s Milwaukee plan was the Red Sox. Might Yawkey have been making sure that the Braves would have a place to land once he succeeded in running them out of town, for fear that otherwise they might have to stay? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to reach that conclusion.

The N.L. owners let the Braves move because they were stunned by Perini’s losses and appalled by his plight and had become convinced that Boston was a Red Sox town. But here’s where the irony gets towering: for it may not have been true.

In 1952, the Red Sox themselves were also in marked decline and about to lapse into their wilderness years. They were mighty vulnerable and it’s likely Yawkey, much more of an old fox in business affairs than is widely understood, recognized that. The Braves, on the other hand, had much better prospects.

As bad as they were in ’52, they were strides ahead in a smart re-building program that was moving fast. Such popular but aging stars of 1948 such as Elliot, Holmes, Sain, Heath, Masi, McCormick, and Stanky had been replaced by richly promising kids. Eddie Matthews, Lew Burdette, Gene Conley, Dick Donovan, Johnny Logan and George Crowe all debuted that wretched summer of ’52. Soon to join them were Del Crandall, Billy Bruton and Bob Buhl. Clever trades by Quinn added Andy Pafko, Joe Adcock and Bobby Thomson. All of this centered around the incomparable Warren Spahn, set to author the finest run of pitching mastery seen in the last 55 years. Then, in the crowning touch, Henry Aaron arrived in 1954.

The result was an exciting, colorful and powerful team that immediately jumped to 2nd place in ’53 while setting an N.L. attendance record. They contended fiercely for the next generation and engaged the Yankees in titanic world series showdowns -- winning it all in 1957. Could the Red Sox, who passed the rest of that era wandering in doubt and confusion while trying to resolve their ruinous racial hang-ups, have contended with that?

Had Perini given Boston one more year, as he wanted to do, which team might have left eventually?

History can turn on a dime, or a whim. You can blame Tom Yawkey. Or even Bill Veeck. But don’t blame Lou Perini.

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