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BRAVURA BATTLE FOR THE BRAVES
Huston Horn
November 02, 1964
Atlanta is building a stadium for the Milwaukee baseball team though no one is sure where the club will open next spring. Now the courts have been asked to finish writing this modern tale of two cities
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November 02, 1964

Bravura Battle For The Braves

Atlanta is building a stadium for the Milwaukee baseball team though no one is sure where the club will open next spring. Now the courts have been asked to finish writing this modern tale of two cities

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Once Scarlett O'Hara and David O. Selznick had passed through town, things never really got back to being the same in Atlanta. Having thus nibbled on greatness, the city has been yearning ever since for one more bite. Atlanta does not blush to brag on such civic status symbols as the annual visit by the Metropolitan Opera and the year-round residence of Ralph McGill and Bobby Dodd. And Atlanta takes quiet satisfaction in the fact that its jet airport is the busiest in the whole U.S. between 11 in the morning and—imagine—2 in the afternoon, that four million of its citizens went bowling last year, that 383 of Fortune's, 500 top businesses have branch offices in the vicinity and, quietest satisfaction of all, that its Triple-A baseball team, the Atlanta Crackers, finished this season only 32� games out of first place. But for reasons having to do with this last fact, Atlanta has long wished for that indefinable something that belongs to a city in baseball's major leagues—the prestige, the millions of tourist dollars, the condition that allows a team to finish 32� games off the pace and still, like the Mets, be famous.

Last week even this shortcoming in the Deep South's most civilized city seemed likely to be remedied. After almost 18 months of whispers, secret meetings, clandestine handshakes, unequivocal denials (and maybe a bent truth every now and then), it was solemnly announced that the Milwaukee Braves were fast on their way to becoming the Atlanta Braves. Waiting in Georgia were a new stadium, scads of people starved for big-time ball and, it was said, $1 million worth of Coca-Cola and Gulf Oil advertising on a seven-state TV network. Waiting in Wisconsin was a hitch or two—or maybe more.

In fact, everybody in Milwaukee is so exercised that the Braves may have to leave town—if at all—over some Wisconsinite's dead body. No sooner had the team's directors voted last Wednesday to shift to Atlanta in 1965 than Alabama-born Henry Aaron said he might not care to return to the land of cotton, and legal machinery began to grind out injunctions at the Milwaukee county courthouse. The squeal of the wheels was highly reminiscent of the noise in Boston 12 years ago when the Braves pulled out for Milwaukee ("A body blow to Boston," said then Governor Christian Herter).

Atlantans were hoping that the fuss up North was inspired solely by vote-seeking politicians and that as soon as the Braves paid off on their one-year-to-go contract with Milwaukee County Stadium things would quiet down. But there are other factors. Milwaukee simply does not want to give up the estimated $3.5 million major league fans pump into the economy each season. Nor does the city relish the colossal loss of face it would suffer. Milwaukee, scornfully called Bushville when the Braves arrived in 1952, would be right back where it started. So, by the time representatives of the National League had collected in Room 107 of New York's Commodore Hotel last Thursday to vote on the proposed transfer, judges back in Milwaukee had okayed enough restraining orders to ruin the meeting's agenda.

From a psychological standpoint, the most damaging blow was not the temporary injunction against the move itself. Rather it was the injunction forbidding the Braves' owners to even ask the league for permission. Left with nothing to do, the league members had to sit still while Eugene Grobschmidt, chairman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, made a 19-page, 33-minute oration in which he characterized recent baseball history as a "floating crap game" and frightened the owners with references to "breach of contract," " U.S. Supreme Court" and "antitrust litigation." Then, enjoined by the court from doing anything official, the league members winked, nodded and otherwise signaled to one another until it was understood they stood 10 to 0 in favor of the move, but not for publication. Such make-believe, however, was not what everybody had shown up for, and there was gloominess all around when the meeting broke up.

The Braves have asked that the proceedings on the first injunction be removed to federal court, but the way some people were talking, the club owners could not win in any event. Said Milwaukee County Attorney George E. Rice to an Atlanta sports editor, "The very minute they vote to approve this transfer, we'll slap an injunction on everybody. We'll chase all these fellows down...and we'll slap them all in jail, players and all." Wagging a finger in the Georgian's face, Rice wound up: "You're not going to have big-league baseball in Atlanta next year—at least not with our Milwaukee Braves." He left unsaid the fact that many Milwaukeeans not only want to keep their Braves but want them under new, and local, ownership.

What was coming to such an acrimonious head began with considerably more civility. In one way or another, Atlanta has been moving slowly tow aid the construction of a major league stadium since 1960, when, for that purpose, the Georgia legislature created a stadium authority. Nothing was done with the authority until Ivan Allen became mayor of Atlanta and, in the spring of 1963, took Charles O. Finley on a tour of the city. Finley, then as now, was looking for a new home for his Kansas City Athletics and, the way the Atlantans tell it, he promised Allen and Arthur Montgomery, chairman of the authority, that if they provided a stadium, he would provide a team. Trouble is, as Atlanta soon found out through American League friends of a friend, what Finley promises the league does not always, if ever, grant.

But that was only a temporary setback. Shortly thereafter Montgomery, who is also president of Atlanta's Coca-Cola Bottling Company, heard from a friend, Delbert Coleman, a director of the Milwaukee Braves. Coleman said the Braves, too, were looking for a new territory. Since the owners had bought the team only a few months before, Montgomery admits he was "amazed." "I had no idea they were interested in a move," he said. But, sure enough, pressed by low and falling attendance, and high and rising interest rates, they were—as Allen and Montgomery and Banker Mills Lane Jr. learned in July when they paid Brave officials a call at the 1963 All-Star Game in Cleveland. And hardly did the Atlantans gel home when things began to happen. Fanning out in one direction were people with clipboards asking south Georgia rednecks if they would drive up the interstate superhighways to attend games in Atlanta, and if they would mind sitting next to Negroes in the city's unsegregated stadium. The answers, by and large, were "Yes" and "Not much." Other note-takers traveled across the country jotting down the specifications of all the other major league stadiums—the sun's course across Candlestick Park, the color of the concession stands in Washington, D.C., the compass direction Mets' pitchers face when serving up home-run balls to Ken Boyer (N39�E). When these researchers reported back, Atlanta architects sifted out the best, came up with plans for an $18 million (plus $11 million in interest) stadium that will seat 50,000 for baseball, 57,500 for football and, provided things go well, may someday be fitted with a roof and air-conditioning. That the Braves would occupy this stadium was sealed by a handshake in Chicago in March of this year. Work began almost immediately.

No one expected the owners of the Braves to call a press conference last spring to announce that it would be the Braves' last stand in town, but no one dreamed they would register at a hotel under false names when a 25-year pact with Atlanta was agreed upon. Nor does anyone believe it was necessary for them to have carried on the pretense for almost a year and a half. After the initial meeting at the All-Star Game in 1963, the expectable news leak popped up in a St. Louis paper. The story said that unless attendance in Milwaukee improved (it skidded from 2� million in 1957 to 770,000 in 1963) the Braves would move to Atlanta. Said Brave General Manager John McHale about the story: "Absolutely nothing to it." That sounds fairly precise, but Chairman William Bartholomay spelled it out: "We didn't buy the franchise to move it to Atlanta; how do those rumors get started?"

Applying hindsight and the most charitable interpretation, one can believe that McHale must have meant the Braves were going to move regardless of whether attendance picked up (it did, as it turned out). Bartholomay must have meant that when he had bought the team six months before he did not yet know about Atlanta and her stadium. Subsequently, neither McHale nor Bartholomay nor any other Braves' official did much to clear the air. Despite the fact that Wisconsin's governor, senators and Congressman Henry Reuss were making low growling noises, and Phil Wrigley, a long-time neighbor of Bartholomay's and owner of the Chicago Cubs, told reporters that the Braves had mentioned the move in a National League meeting in September of 1963, the pose was carried on. Said McHale at one point: "The Braves will be in Milwaukee today, tomorrow, next year and as long as we are welcome." A few days after the hotel meeting took place he said: "We are positively not moving. We're playing in Milwaukee—whether you're talking about 1964, '65 or 1975." A Milwaukee third-grader informed Bartholomay by letter the other day that "You are a liar." That is strong language. Still, for a man who reportedly shares 40% of the club's stock with another Chicagoan named John Reynolds, Chairman Bartholomay does not seem always to be up on future planning. One wonders if he knows that his colleagues were ready to move to Atlanta this past season—but couldn't because the minor league park was not large enough. Or that William McKechnie, the owner of the Atlanta Crackers, has already come to terms ($200,000) for indemnity of his franchise in the International League.

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