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Inside the main entrance to County Stadium in Milwaukee there is a bronze plaque that is dedicated "To the finest fans in all baseball." The plaque is dated September 20, 1953, and it is signed by Lou Perini, the owner of the Milwaukee Braves.
Perini had good reason for emblazoning his gratitude in bronze. That spring he had transferred his team from Boston to Milwaukee, baseball's first franchise switch in 50 years. In Boston in 1952 the Braves had drawn only 281,278 people. In Milwaukee the next year the Braves multiplied that figure by seven, drawing 1,826,397 for a National League record. In the next four years attendance went over two million each season, capped by 2,215,404 in 1957, the year the team won a pennant and a World Series. It was, in fact, this enormous success by the Braves in Milwaukee that erased the inhibitions of other owners about moving their clubs into untapped areas. Now everybody rushed to join the Braves at Sutter's Mill. The Browns moved to Baltimore, the Athletics to Kansas City, the Dodgers and Giants to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the Senators to Minnesota.
But ever since the high-water year of 1957, "the finest fans in all baseball" have been disappearing. In 1958, when the Braves won a second straight pennant, attendance dipped slightly under two million—not surprising since fans seem to lose some of their interest when their team becomes an overdog. But next season the figure shrank to 1,700,000, dropped again to 1,400,000 in 1960 and last year fell all the way to 1,100,000. This year the crowds are off again and it appears unlikely that the Braves will draw more than 800,000. The men in the front office call the decrease "a return to normalcy," and point out that there are other clubs in worse shape. What they really mean is that they are worried sick.
To appreciate the quixotic change in Milwaukee as a baseball town one must recall the circus atmosphere that existed in the early years. Perini's decision to move the Braves to Milwaukee was announced on a Friday in March 1953. By Sunday, cars began parking outside County Stadium, thousands of them, filled with people from in town, out of town, and out of state who simply wanted to sit in the stands, eat their picnic lunches and stare at the field. Everybody was there except the Braves.
When the team arrived from spring training a crowd of 15,000 was at the train depot, where a red carpet was spread for the players to walk on. After their majesties had been paraded through the streets in open cars, they were taken to their hotel and inundated by gifts.
For God and the Braves
Now the rush was on for tickets. The town of Cedarburg, Wis., with a population of 2,500, ordered 3,000 tickets to one game and filled every seat. A preacher in Portage told his congregation: "I want you to support the Braves, but don't forget us." A firm advertising for young engineers included this key phrase: "Only 90 minutes from County Stadium." Local hamburgers became "Bravesburgers," and soap wrappers in the Hotel Schroeder in downtown Milwaukee carried the message: "Take Me Out to the Braves Game."
The players couldn't spend a dime. Merchants gave them food, wristwatches, cars, beer, anything they wanted. A group of Italian fans gave a special "day" for Sibbi Sisti, German fans gave one for Warren Spahn, Jewish fans for Sid Gordon, Negro fans for Billy Bruton and Lutheran fans for that noted Lutheran, Andy Pafko. A Polish group gave Pitcher Max Surkont a year's supply of kielbasa, a Polish sausage. (Surkont, who was 9-1 at the time, promptly ate himself out of shape and won only two more games all season.)
Now, nine years later, the long, wild party is over. It has been six years since Milwaukee fans gave a "day" for a player. Billboards no longer show Eddie Mathews drinking a certain milk, and there are no Brave stickers or team pictures in the local taverns. It is almost as if the town, stuffed full with the Braves and baseball, decided to give them up completely.
"We used to be packed tight on weekends," said a clerk at the Hotel Schroeder, where the soap wrappers are now labeled "soap." "Not a room available. We never fill anymore. And tickets! I saw $1.80 tickets go for $10. Now you can't give them away."