The Boston Braves’ move to Milwaukee made history in 1953 as the first franchise shift in major league baseball in more than half a century. When the Braves moved on to Atlanta in 1966, they again made history. The franchise shifts of the previous decade all involved multi-team cities. During the 1950s, when the Braves, Browns, A’s, Dodgers and Giants packed up and moved, Boston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York were left with one franchise. When the Braves left Milwaukee, they left a void.
The city of Milwaukee had been left behind once before. The first major league franchise shift in the 20th century involved a 1902 move of the Brewers to St. Louis, where they became the Browns. That Brewers team played in Milwaukee only one year, the inaugural season for the American League. After a 48-89 season witnessed by a mere 139,034 home fans, the franchise shift was not exactly headline news. Anyway, a minor-league version of the Brewers carried on in the American Association from 1902-1952.
In 1965 Milwaukee was again devoid of major league ball, but this time it wasn’t like 1902. During their 13-year tenure (1953-1965) in Milwaukee, the Braves might have been the ultimate riches to rags story in major league history. The Braves led the NL in attendance from 1953, their inaugural season, through 1958, when they won their second consecutive pennant but failed to retain their World Series title. Their attendance mark of 1,826,397 in their first year enabled them to set a NL attendance record—which they proceeded to break the next year.
Considering the 281,278 the Braves had drawn in Boston the year before, there was no doubt that the franchise shift was warranted. Since the move was not announced till March 18, while the Braves were still training in Sarasota, Milwaukee did not have long to get ready for major league ball. Milwaukee County Stadium, the first baseball park built with public money, was intended for the minor league Milwaukee Brewers, the Braves’ former Triple-A affiliate, who were hastily transferred to Toledo.
From 1954-1957, the Braves drew more than two million fans per season—heady numbers in those days and still pretty good in some markets today. In 1959, they lost a three-game playoff to the Dodgers to decide the NL pennant. The Dodgers, thanks to cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum, were able to out-draw the Braves in the pennant fever sweepstakes that season. The Braves were still a force to be reckoned with, but they had already peaked, though at the time no one would have guessed that.
Though they never had a losing season in Milwaukee, the 1960s Braves were no match for the 1950s version. The County Stadium faithful had been spoiled. A mere winning record was not enough. Attendance declined to disastrous levels. The Braves sank to ninth in the league in 1962 with 766, 921.
But that wasn’t the worst that happened to the Braves. The sale of the team to a syndicate headed by Bill Bartholomay nudged the team away from Milwaukee. Bartholomay had his sights set on Atlanta and the fans were making it easy for him. In 1963 the Braves again finished ninth in attendance with 793,018. There was an uptick in 1964 to sixth place (910,911), but by then it was too late to make a difference.
After the 1964 season, the rumored move to Atlanta was confirmed. When the team’s $500,000 buyout offer to Milwaukee County was refused, the Braves were compelled to remain in Milwaukee for a lame duck season. Understandably, it was their worst year at the gate, as they drew just 555,584, last in the league. The last home game was an 11-inning, 7-6 loss to the Dodgers on Sept. 22. The prospect of seeing Sandy Koufax in his prime on the mound would normally fill up a ballpark. The best Milwaukee fans could do was 12,577.
The franchise shift was especially hard on one minority owner, a car dealer by the name of Bud Selig. A longtime fan of the minor league Brewers, he was a frequent visitor to old Borchert Field, where the locals had witnessed baseball since 1888. He had also followed the White Sox and Cubs via radio. The arrival of the Braves when he was 18 years old had been a dream come true. Their departure (when he was 31) was his worst nightmare. But if Milwaukee had once been a great baseball town, it could be again. Of course, to prove it, the city needed another team.
When it first appeared that the Braves were Atlanta-bound, Selig started recruiting local movers and shakers (such as the CEO of Schlitz and a local federal judge) and organized the opposition. He kept his organization intact after the Braves’ move was a done deal. On July 30, 1965, with two months left in Milwaukee Braves history, he named his group Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, Inc. Whether he was paying tribute to the minor league team of his youth or indulging in prophecy is open to debate. But Selig’s group needed to work fast because in 1967, both major leagues voted to expand.
On July 24, 1967, Selig’s group staged a Monday night exhibition game between the first-place (53-40) White Sox and the Twins. More than 51,000 fans turned out. Since County Stadium held 43,768 in those days, that was an achievement—especially for a game that didn’t count. It’s fair to say that most of the fans were local, as the White Sox and Twins fans had ample opportunities to see their own clubs play. Why would they bother to drive to Milwaukee to see an exhibition game?
The Twins were on the road between Anaheim and New York and had agreed to break up the trip with this exhibition game. The White Sox had just played a double-header against the A’s in Kansas City and probably would have liked to have an off day before returning to Chicago to take on the Indians. How Selig prevailed on the two teams to spend an off day in Milwaukee we’ll never know. But the turnout certainly justified the trip.
Selig also managed to persuade the White Sox to stage nine “home” games—not exhibition games—in Milwaukee in 1968. The White Sox were coming off a competitive year in 1967, having finished just three games behind the Red Sox in a four-team showdown that went into the final season of the weekend. The attendance, however, was 985,634, not exactly overwhelming for a pennant contender, so White Sox President Arthur Allyn agreed to the Selig plan.
Savvy baseball fans in Chicago might have remembered that the Dodgers had played “home” games in Jersey City in 1956 and 1957 right before they vacated Brooklyn. To the hard-core White Sox fan, the Milwaukee games must have been a worrisome development.
Also, during the late 1960s the Cubs were emerging from the doldrums and were getting more attention in the Chicago sports pages. In 1967, they drew 977,226, not too far behind the White Sox. In 1968 they surpassed the million mark (by just 43,409) for the first time since 1952. The trend continued in subsequent years. The Friendly Confines got more and more crowded; White Sox Park, “the Baseball Palace of the World” when it opened in 1910, now offered an overabundance of seats at popular prices.
The Milwaukee games served as a reminder to MLB that County Stadium was only 15 years old and ready and waiting for an expansion team. One can imagine Selig’s heartbreak on May 27, 1968, when the National League announced that Montreal and San Diego would join the league the following season. In the American League, Kansas City was pretty much a given since Charlie Finley’s move to Oakland had raised political hackles in Missouri. The other American League franchise was awarded to Seattle, but Selig would never have guessed then the key role the fledgling Pilots would play in his quest to land a team.
The 1968 plan was for each American League team to play the White Sox one time in Milwaukee. All games were weeknight affairs and were either the first or last game of a series. The extra travel and hotel arrangements were a headache to American League traveling secretaries, and one can imagine the players grumbling about the side trip to Milwaukee. Nowadays, given the power of the players’ association, it would surely be more difficult to set up such an arrangement.
The nine White Sox “home” games in Milwaukee in 1968 were:
Wednesday, May 15 Angels 4 - White Sox 2 23,510 Tuesday, May 29 Orioles 3 - White Sox 2 18,748 Monday, June 17 White Sox 2 - Indians 1 28,081 Monday, June 24 Twins 1 - White Sox 0 (5 inning game) 25,267 Thursday, July 11 Yankees 5 - White Sox 4 40,575 Monday, July 22 Athletics 4 - White Sox 0 30,818 Friday, Aug. 2 Senators 11 - White Sox 6 20,622 Thursday, Aug. 8 Red Sox 1 - White Sox 0 33,872 Monday, Aug. 21 Tigers 3 - White Sox 0 42,808
Obviously, the results on the field for the White Sox were dismal. Not only did they go 1-8, they were shut out four times. In these nine games, they scored a grand total of 15 runs. Granted, 1968 was the Year of the Pitcher, but I doubt the White Sox were facing aces every time out.
The attendance, however, was another story. The grand total of 264,478 works out to an average of 29,366 per game. By contrast, for their “real” home games, the White Sox drew 539,478 at White Sox Park in 58 openings. You can tell at a glance that the Sox average wasn’t much more than 9,000 per opening.
For a team that would finish the season in ninth place at 67-95, while playing most of its home games at an aging South Side ballpark, such attendance was understandable. Almost one third of the White Sox home attendance occurred in Milwaukee, so Arthur Allyn probably didn’t need Selig to twist his arm too hard to bring the Sox back to Milwaukee for an encore in 1969.
The setup was the same: each American League team (thanks to expansion, there were now 11 visitors) would play one weekday game in Milwaukee. The games were:
Wednesday, April 23 White Sox 7 - Angels 1 8,565 Thursday, May 22 White Sox 7 - Tigers 3 15,948 Wednesday, May 28 White Sox 7 - Yankees 6 16,749 Wednesday, June 11 White Sox 4 - Indians 3 15,715 Monday, June 16 White Sox 8 - Pilots 3 13,133 Wednesday, July 2 Twins 4 - White Sox 2 23,525 Monday, July 7 White Sox 2 - Athletics 0 26,659 Wednesday, Aug. 6 Senators 4 - White Sox 3 25,520 Wednesday, Aug. 13 White Sox 5 - Red Sox 3 24,708 Monday, Sept. 1 Orioles 8 - White Sox 0 18,102 Friday, Sept. 26 Royals 5 - White Sox 3 9,587
For whatever reason, the White Sox actually played (7-4) as though they had a home field advantage in Milwaukee. And why not? Given the depressing environment at White Sox Park, perhaps they began to enjoy the occasional jaunt to Milwaukee.
Overall, the Sox’ record in 1969 was about the same as the year before. The difference was that this was the first year of divisional play in the American League, so the Sox finished fifth in a field of six (the Seattle Pilots finished last) in the American League West.
Attendance was down in both Milwaukee and Chicago, but the percentage of fans attending games in Milwaukee was even greater than the year before. Of the 589,546 fans who attended White Sox games in 1969, 391,335 did so at White Sox Park (average 6,673), while 198,211 attended games at Milwaukee (18,019 average). So the average attendance at Milwaukee was almost three times the average attendance at White Sox Park.
Having been stiffed by the major leagues during expansion, acquiring the White Sox became Selig’s Plan B. I doubt Selig relished the idea of raiding the Windy City of an heirloom franchise, but what other choice did he have? At least Chicago would still have the Cubs, whose fortunes seemed to be on the rise.
So Selig arranged for his group to buy the Sox. Unfortunately, the American League owners did not want to abandon the enormous Chicago market, so the deal was killed. Arthur Allyn sold the team to his brother John, who was opposed to moving the team out of Chicago.
If Selig had packed it in after so many years of frustration, no one would have blamed him. Then came deliverance right out of left field… or from the left coast, to be more exact.
The Seattle Pilots were in deep financial trouble after just one year of play. During spring training 1970, the courts were hashing out the team’s fate. The clincher came when the team filed for bankruptcy in federal court, thus rendering moot a lot of local maneuvering. Selig’s offer to buy the team and move it to Milwaukee was obviously in the best interests of the debtors.
On March 31, 1970 at 10:15 p.m., Selig got the phone call he’d been waiting for. The bankruptcy judge had approved of his purchase of the Pilots. The team equipment truck had left Arizona and gone only as far north as Utah. Now the driver knew to go east rather than west. Selig had one week to get ready for Opening Day in Milwaukee. In 1953, the Braves, lucky stiffs, had all of four weeks to get ready!
So from that point on, the possibility of the Chicago White Sox moving to Milwaukee shrank to zero. Had the team moved, it would have been interesting to see if it would have remained the White Sox or would have been changed to Brewers, as happened to the Pilots in 1970. The name “Pilots” was a good one for Seattle, as it incorporated the area’s links to aviation and seafaring. In fact, the team logo combined a pair of wings and a ship’s helm. Pilots wouldn’t have been totally inappropriate for Milwaukee, perched on the banks of Lake Michigan, but a more appropriate option was at hand. Brewers was as apt in 1970 as it was in 1901 and as it is today.
In a sense, the city of Milwaukee had come full circle. In 1902, after one year of operations, Milwaukee lost the Brewers to St. Louis; 68 years later, after one year of operations, Seattle lost the Pilots to Milwaukee.
Given the 1969 end-of-season rosters of the White Sox and the Pilots (they were, of course, the team Jim Bouton wrote about in Ball Four), it wouldn’t have made much difference, talent-wise, which team went to Milwaukee. The White Sox were fifth in the American League West at 68-94, and the Pilots were right behind them at 64-98.
In the short term, the difference in attendance at County Stadium and White Sox Park continued. With only a week to get ready, the Brewers still managed to pull in 37,237 for a Tuesday afternoon Opening Day on April 7, 1970. On the same day, the White Sox drew 11,473 for their opener against the Twins. That’s pitiful for Opening Day, but it looked positively robust compared to the crowd of 1,036 who witnessed the Brewers’ first game at White Sox Park a few days later.
For the 1970 season, the Sox drew a mere 495,355, their lowest total since 1942. The Brewers, meanwhile, drew 933,690 for the season. The Brewers tied with Kansas City for fourth place in the American League West with a 65-97 record. The White Sox were mired in the cellar with a 56-106 record.
As it turned out, that June 16, 1969 game between the Pilots and White Sox in Milwaukee provided a preview of Milwaukee’s home team the following season. With all signs indicating the White Sox would be heading north, it must have been quite a surprise to find deliverance via the Pilots flying east.
Now, 43 years after the return of baseball to Milwaukee, the White Sox and Brewers have both come a long way. The same is true of Bud Selig. Whatever criticism you might make about his actions as commissioner—and I’ve always thought it unseemly for an owner to occupy the commissioner’s office—it’s hard to find fault with his efforts on behalf of Milwaukee. I suspect baseball fans in Wisconsin would have been just as happy with the Milwaukee White Sox as they were with the way things eventually worked out.
So if you go to a Brewers game at Miller Park and see a statute of Selig, rest assured he deserves it. Same goes for his induction into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame. And now that I think about it, Cooperstown is a strong possibility.