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Michael Shapiro

When the Braves bailed

By Michael Shapiro
June 14, 2009
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THE BRAVES return to Boston next weekend, and if the event does not stir as many hearts, that is a shame, given that there are few events as crucial in the history of the game as Lou Perini's fateful decision to skip town.

The Boston Braves last played at home on Sept. 21, 1952, an 8-2 loss. The crowd of 8,882 pushed the season attendance to a paltry 281,278, last in the National League. The team, which had won a pennant in 1948 - and drew a league best of 1.5 million patrons - would finish the season in seventh place. Yet despite the grim tidings, Perini, a local builder, announced that he had no plans to leave. At least not yet.

He made no secret of his displeasure with his losses for the season - estimated at between $300,000 and $700,000. Nor did he dismiss the temptations that awaited him elsewhere - in California, and especially in the town where he held the minor league territorial rights, Milwaukee, which had built a 38,000-seat stadium in the hopes of luring a club.

Much as he wanted to stay, Perini said, "I'm not going to be stubborn about it." But baseball was. No ball club had relocated since the American and National leagues merged in 1903, nor had either league added a team. Baseball seemed immune from the seismic changes taking place in a postwar America racing to embrace all that was new and modern. Baseball attendance, meanwhile, had been slipping for years as fans who had relocated to the suburbs were growing weary of driving back into town to search for parking near ballparks built for the age of the streetcar.

The owners, exempted by the Supreme Court from anti-trust laws, continued to exhibit the worst qualities of a monopoly - not merely reluctance to change, but hostility to anyone who suggested it.

So it was that Perini might well have stayed in Boston were it not for the temerity of that rare owner with an eye toward the future, Bill Veeck. Veeck, the game's Barnum - no stunt seemed too much - wanted to move his woebegone St. Louis Browns to Milwaukee. Milwaukee was thrilled. Veeck needed only his league's permission to make the move - and for Lou Perini to relinquish his claim to the city. But Veeck's fellow owners were not eager to help, given how little they cared for his bold talk and outlandish ways. And in March of 1953, as his players worked off their winter guts in Florida, Perini proposed banning the relocation of any club into a minor league town until October.

Milwaukee was furious. The Wisconsin State Senate passed a resolution calling upon Perini to stand aside, so that Veeck could move his club.

Then, just as the season was about to open in precisely the same configuration as it had for the preceding 50 years, Perini emerged from a meeting with his fellow owners to announce that a big-league club would indeed be coming to Milwaukee, and that it would not be the Browns. A new set of caps arrived at the Braves training camp in Tampa, emblazoned with an M.

"Maybe Milwaukee isn't a Major League city," Perini said. "I'm sure I don't know how, but I feel it will become one."

The Braves drew 1.8 million fans that first season in Milwaukee, and finished second to the Dodgers, whose owner, Walter O'Malley, took quick and worried notice of the mother lode Perini had struck. Convinced that he could not compete with so wealthy a rival, O'Malley began working feverishly to move his team out of aging Ebbets Field into a new ballpark in downtown Brooklyn.

Stymied, he began looking elsewhere. Los Angeles beckoned. And in 1957, with his cross-town neighbor, Horace Stoneham, in tow, he abandoned New York, bolstered - and inspired by - the precedent of Perini's move.

That move begat still more changes - expansion in the early 1960s - as baseball at long last stretched its borders beyond the confines of the East Coast, and a western outpost in St. Louis.

The Braves, of course, would abandon Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1965. Perini had by then sold his interests in the team, having revolutionized the game, tentatively and profoundly.

Michael Shapiro is author of "Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself."

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