SI Vault
John Schulian
June 01, 1998
When it was the home of the Braves, Milwaukee was a National League city, and now that the Brewers are in the senior circuit, their fans are back where they belong
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June 01, 1998

National Pasttime

When it was the home of the Braves, Milwaukee was a National League city, and now that the Brewers are in the senior circuit, their fans are back where they belong

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If you ask why the drinkers weren't at the game themselves, it was probably because they couldn't get tickets. Most of the time their best shot was to hop on a tavern's chartered bus and follow the Braves to Wrigley Field, where in those days there were always plenty of empty seats. Selig paid his most memorable visit to Chicago in 1954 when the Cubs were honoring their lumbering slugger, Hank Sauer, who concluded the festivities by dropping a fly ball to give Milwaukee the win. "The Cubs had printed up these signs that said THANKS, HANK," Selig says, "and all the Braves fans started waving them."

Nobody who took those bus trips south ever got shortchanged, but Ruthie Patzke was starting to think she might be an exception when her group dragged her to a restaurant to listen to a Milwaukee Journal sportswriter. What, Ruthie wondered, could be so interesting about some joker who'd just seen the same Braves-Cubs game they had? When the sportswriter started talking, though, Ruthie noticed that his blue suit complemented his hazel eyes. So she took the trouble to learn his name—Bob Wolf—and then she wangled an introduction, and before you knew it she and a girlfriend were at a cozy little bar having a drink with him. No night of lust followed for Bob and Ruthie; this was 1953, and they were delighted just to see each other at Wrigley the next afternoon. Thirteen months later, just before the start of the World Series, Bob and Ruthie said "I do" to a marriage that is still going strong.

The love affair between Milwaukee and the Braves looked as if it would be equally enduring. No suitor courted Elizabeth Taylor, always a league leader in marriages, as ardently as this city did its baseball heroes. It wasn't just the good-time guys such as Mathews, Bob Buhl and Lew Burdette who never had to pay for a meal and always got a free car to drive. It was all the Braves. And the bounty didn't end with T-bones and Dodges, which were no small consideration during an era in which the minimum player's salary was $7,500, and raises for journeymen were measured in pennies. The players got free gas from Wisco, free dry cleaning from Spic 'n' Span, free beer from every brewery in town. "Soap powder and produce were just about the only things that weren't delivered to our door," Burdette says. It turned out to be too good to last.

There is no single explanation why. Bad news simply begot more bad news. In the early '60s Braves management barred fans from bringing their own beer into County Stadium, hardly a valentine to a populace historically as thrifty as it is thirsty. And then the first wave of crowd pleasers started getting old and getting traded. Suddenly attendance couldn't climb above 775,000, even though the Braves continued to make every season a winning one. When the first notes of Atlanta's siren song drifted through the air, the team's owners started checking flight schedules.

"The Dark Days," Wolf calls that period from his vantage point in retirement. And the owners, in his lexicon, are "the Rover Boys." They were led by board chairman Bill Bartholomay, who remains the people's choice for the mastermind of this civic betrayal. Milwaukee fought back as best it could, taking Bartholomay & Co. to court and driving attendance back up to nearly a million in '64. But it was too late. The Braves were going, going and, by '66, gone.

County Stadium sat empty for four years, taunting everybody who drove by on 1-94, nobody more than Selig and the investors he roped into the seemingly impossible task of putting a team in the park. Two weeks before the start of the 1970 season, they found an unlikely friend: the bankruptcy court in King County, Wash., which was sick to death of the debt-weary Seattle Pilots, who were notable mainly for having given Jim Bouton a place to hang his hat while he wrote Ball Four. If Selig wanted them, they were his for $10.8 million.

Selig bit. The Pilots became the Brewers, a name gleaned from an old Milwaukee minor league team, and the city was back where it had started as a charter member of the American League in 1901. But that membership had been a dalliance that ended after one year, a smidgen of trivia that even the most rabid American Leaguer wouldn't dare use at century's end when Selig looked as if he were going to let Kansas City go National. As if to prove there is a baseball god, the Royals' unsettled ownership situation ended that silliness. Not long afterward, Selig's fax machine spit out an unsolicited letter from some of the owners on the major leagues' realignment committee. They wanted him to put aside his fears and take the plunge. "When I read that letter for the first time, I was sitting by myself, and I got very emotional," Selig says. "There were tears streaming down my face."

They should have been tears of joy, for whether he intended to or not, Selig has made out like a bandit. The historian in him can point with pride to the fact that Milwaukee, the beneficiary of this century's first franchise shift, is now the home of the first team to have changed leagues since the Cleveland Spiders in 1899. The businessman in him can luxuriate in a symphony of ringing cash registers. The Brewers sold a million tickets before this season's first pitch, and none went faster than those for the first home series against the Cubs, a rivalry that is already taking on overtones of the Montagues and the Capulets. Meanwhile, the folks at the Gilles frozen custard stand, where Selig lunches on a hot dog every chance he gets, have already handed out an unprecedented three stacks of Brewers season schedules. And, who knows, maybe somewhere in Brewerland, two dreamers are working on a sequel to When Bob Met Ruthie.

At 9 A.M. the temperature is 40°, and the steel-gray clouds over County Stadium are heavy with rain. Johnny Logan, the last true Brave in town, hardly seems to notice. Staring out at the empty diamond, he sees nothing but the past, and the past has always been like a well-worn mackinaw, swaddling him in memories that have only recently become fashionable again. As soon as the news broke about Milwaukee going back to the National League, people opened their ears to the stories they had ignored when Logan was running for sheriff and then trying to make a living talking sports on the radio in 1966. "I didn't have the right words," he says almost plaintively. Now he does. The words are Aaron and Mathews, Spahn and Burdette. And Logan, too.

He came here in '53, when the Braves moved from Boston, where they had been ignored like a plate of week-old scrod. Milwaukee ate them up. "Always a full-capacity crowd," Logan says, "but not the crowd you see today. Not the tailgating crowd or the Summerfest crowd. A sports-minded crowd. An adult crowd." These were people with whom the son of a foundry worker could identify, people who worked in foundries themselves or built farm machinery or brewed beer. Logan fit right in. He was a lunch-bucket shortstop who got tough hits, fielded everything he could get to and proved constitutionally incapable of backing away from a fight. Not a big star, just a guy without whom the Braves never would have won.

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