The Sad Last Spring of Boston’s Braves

Braves Field 1953March 18 marks the 60th anniversary of that infamous day in 1953 when the Boston Braves abruptly abandoned the city of their birth for the greener pastures of Milwaukee.  Although freshly transplanted, the club was still duty bound to conclude its spring exhibition season in the Hub.  The traditional pre-Opening Day City Series against the formerly neighboring Red Sox had been committed to well in advance of the franchise relocation.  The ownership and players of the newly minted “Milwaukee” Braves approached this date with great trepidation.

A Florida Finale

The Braves had faced the Crimson Hose twice in Florida as the specter of relocation hung over their heads.  Still donning the glorious white block-lettered “B” on their blue caps with its vibrant red bill, the Braves were bested by the American Leaguers both times.  At the Red Sox base in Sarasota on March 14, the Tribe lost a close 2-1 contest.  Sid Hudson was the starter and winner while Dave Cole suffered the loss.  The game was decided in the first inning when two Cole wild pitches set up the home team’s dual tallies.  The Braves countered with a run in the bottom of the second, concluding the day’s scoring.

The last game between Boston teams representing the National and American Leagues took place at the Braves‘ spring training home in Bradenton on March 16.  The Braves fell quickly behind in the first inning on Dick Gernert’s two-run clout.  The Tribe clawed its way back and was one run ahead (6-5) by the time the top of the ninth rolled around.  With Lou Burdette on the mound in relief, Red Sox batters slammed four hits and scored three times to claim the lead for good and defeat their Gaffney Street rivals one final time, 8-6.

The last occasion that “Boston” headed up the National League side of a box score occurred in Bradenton the following day.  A crowd of 3,248 entered the gates to see ChollyGrimm’s Braves take on the World Champion Bronx Bombers and unknowingly witness the historic event.  Yankees’ skipper Casey Stengel was a former Braves outfielder (1924-25) and Bees/Braves manager (1938-43).  Despite his inability to lead Boston’s National League franchise out of the second division, Stengel had landed the New York job after successfully redeeming himself in minor league purgatory at the helm of the Pacific Coast League Oakland Oaks.

Over the first six innings, Boston’s Warren Spahn and New York’s Jim “Hot Rod” McDonald engaged in a scoreless duel.  Hampered by mediocre support behind him despite an ERA of 2.98, Spahnie was seeking to rebound from a 14-19 performance in 1952.  McDonald, who broke in with the Red Sox in 1950 and was later picked up from the Browns by the Yanks, hoped to retain his roster spot.

The deadlock was broken when Eddie Mathews scored on a Billy Martin bobble after two were out in the bottom of the sixth inning.  Both pitchers were replaced in the seventh inning.  Bonus Baby Johnny Antonelli took over mound chores for the Braves while Al Cicotte, the grand-nephew of the Black Sox’s Eddie Cicotte, succeeded McDonald.  The Yankees were able to tally a couple of runs in the top of the seventh, only to have the Braves tie the game in their half of the inning.

Scoring for the contest concluded in the bottom half of the eighth when the Braves managed to add three runs via a bases-loaded double by Harry Hanebrink and a Yankees error that allowed George Crowe to cross the plate.  Virgil Jester set the side down in the top of the ninth.  The Boston Braves prevailed in their final game ever, 5-2.   Antonelli was awarded the victory while Cicotte suffered the loss.  After this two hour and thirteen minute contest, the Boston Braves were in a state of limbo, awaiting word of their destiny that was to be determined the next day by Senior Circuit owners.

The fielding star of the terminal game was Eddie Mathews who victimized Hank Bauer, Andy Carey, Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin with his spectacular stops around the hot corner.  Newly acquired Tribe outfielder Andy Pafko had a tough day.  Still recuperating from an appendectomy, he was beaned by teammate Vern Bickford during batting practice and withheld from the game.

Seventeen players hold the distinction of having performed at the curtain call of the Boston Braves.  The “last act” box score veterans consisted of: Bill Bruton (CF), Johnny Logan (SS), Bob Mainzer (SS), Eddie Mathews (3B), Sid Gordon (LF), Sam Jethroe (LF), Pete Whisenant (RF), George Crowe (1B), Walker Cooper (C), Jack Parks (C), Jack Dittmer (2B), Harry Hanebrink (2B), Del Crandall (PH), Hank Ertman (PH), Warren Spahn (P), Johnny Antonelli (P) and Virgil Jester (P).  Bruton, Mainzer, Hanebrink, Ertman and Parks never made it to Boston during the team’s Gaffney Street residency.

On Wednesday, March 18, the Braves were scheduled to play the Yankees on the road in St. Petersburg.  It was to be the last “incomplete” game of the Boston Braves.  The Lords of National League Baseball also were in St. Pete at the Vinoy Park Hotel, meeting to determine the fate of the Braves as the Tribe was taking the field.  The visitors performed under the Boston banner through the fifth inning.  Recent Army returnee Bob Buhl held the Yankees hitless and scoreless while Sid Gordon’s three -run first inning homer provided the lead.  The shot cleared the left field fence and was reported to have “dented a car or two on the neighboring roadway and was last seen bouncing toward St. Petersburg Bay.”

As New York came up to bat in the top of the sixth inning, word reached Al Lang Field that the Tribe’s transfer to Milwaukee had just been approved and the visitors now represented Wisconsin’s largest city.  Dick Donovan replaced Buhl for the newly minted Milwaukee Braves and the Yanks quickly touched up the Quincy, Massachusetts native for five singles and five runs.  A New York reporter wisecracked that Donovan gave up the runs “before [he] could wire Boston to cancel his summer apartment lease.”  In a bit of fitting irony, the first hit ever against a Milwaukee hurler was recorded by a former Boston Braves pitching great — New York’s Johnny Sain.

Jolted by the news of the move, the “Milwaukee” Braves failed to score during “their” portion of the game.  The following day’s Boston Globe categorized the 5-3 defeat this way: “Braves Win Last Game for Boston, Milwaukee Loses It.”  During the “Boston” half of the game, outfielder Andy Pafko and catcher Paul Burris appeared as representatives of the Hub National Leaguers.  Therefore, we can add the names of Buhl, Pafko and Burris to the final Boston Braves Honor Roll.  Of the three, only Burris played in a regular season game for the Boston Braves.

The announced move also required a quick alteration of a commercial being filmed for television broadcast by the Gillette company.  As told by Sibby Sisti, he and Warren Spahn were spending time in St. Pete filming a television commercial for use during the upcoming season.  Both were dressed in their Boston Braves uniforms as they endorsed the company’s shaving products.  During a break in the action, Sibby happened upon a tickertape machine in the studio.  He picked up the tape, curious to see what breaking news was spewing out of the machine.  A report was being transmitted announcing the approval of the switch of the Braves to Milwaukee.  Sibby quickly approached the commercial’s director to inform him that the caps that he and Warren donned for the filming were now incorrect.  The “B” was being replaced by an “M.”  The quick-thinking filmmaker indicated that rather than incurring additional costs to remake the commercial, he would include an announcer’s voice-over during the ballplayers’ appearance that would inform viewers that they were seeing “Warren Spahn and Sibby Sisti, formerly of the Boston Braves and now of the Milwaukee Braves.”

Another byproduct of the hasty franchise relocation toward the end of the Grapefruit League season was the immediate need to commence marketing the team to its new Wisconsin audience.  The players were called together to pose for a team photo as the Milwaukee Braves.  Caps were borrowed from the ball club’s American Association Milwaukee Brewers farm team (now forced to move to Toledo).  Unfortunately, not enough caps were available, and in the first ever Milwaukee team photo, which ended up being used in the Braves’ early season official scorecard magazines, one can observe a sprinkling of “B” ball caps in the crowd.

Operating under the assumption that the team would still be representing Boston, Braves broadcaster Les Smith of WNAC-TV had been in Florida conducting a series of filmed spring training player interviews on the prospects for the upcoming season.  The film was salvaged for use by the Braves in their new Midwest home by sound editing out any reference to “Boston” despite the fact that the players were pictured wearing Boston hats.  This somewhat awkward promotional endeavor debuted in Wisconsin as “Meet Your Milwaukee Braves.” Today this bittersweet nostalgic relic can be found converted to a digital format.

 Facing the Music in Boston

The Braves’ plans to play in the now renamed annual exhibition season-ending contests against the Red Sox, i.e., the “Cross-Country City Series,” at “home” in Milwaukee were thwarted by inclement weather.  After a rousing parade through downtown streets lined with an estimated 60,000 cheering Milwaukeeans on April 8, Perini and company had hoped to provide a sneak preview of the coming season before their rabid new fans at County Stadium.  Fate intervened and decreed that the Tribe would not perform in an inaugural game in Brewtown until their debt to their old Boston followers had been settled.  Rainy weather called a halt to the April 9th tilt in the second inning with the Red Sox leading 3-0 and the second game was also rained out. So it was off to Boston for a pair of weekend contests at Fenway Park.  Sadly, Braves Field would sit abandoned nearby.

Prior to getting on his private plane to fly to Logan Airport on Friday, Lou Perini remarked, “I might as well go to up to Boston and face the music.”  The Tribe owner was accompanied by his brothers Charley and Joe as well as new club director Fred Miller, a Milwaukee brewery baron.  Perini also informed the press that he was awaiting a real estate appraisal on the Wigwam before “considering what looks like two or three serious offers for the property.”

In a letter from Korea, Marine Corps Captain Ted Williams added his “two cents” on the franchise shift.  “They may do all right for a couple of years, but I think they would have done better in the long run by staying in Boston.”  Williams may have been drawing upon his impressions of Milwaukee from his time with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in 1938.

In preparing for the so-called cross-country version of the old City Series, it dawned on one of Yawkey’s minions that the left field scoreboard lacked a “Milwaukee” sign to post in the visitor’s slot.  An order quickly went out to have one made up in time for the first game.

Welcome Back and Goodbye

Only 2,300 advance tickets had ben sold for the 1953 traditional return of baseball to Boston.  Speculation over the weather and the scheduled telecast of the contest were thought to keep the   Saturday, April 11 gate down but pre-game estimates were for some 12,000 to 15,000 fans to ultimately show up.  In actuality, 9,090 individuals passed through Fenway’s turnstiles.

Like the Braves’ ownership, the team was apprehensive about its on-field debut in now hostile uniforms.  Manager Charlie Grimm joked, “I’m going to take a basket to the coaching lines to catch the fruit they throw at me.”  The players entered the field at 12:20 p.m. when only about 500 folks were in the stands.  For Braves’ second baseman Jack Dittmer, setting foot on Fenway Park sod was a bit of a homecoming.  A Big Ten football end for the University of Iowa, he once scored two touchdowns on that field against Boston University.  He and his fellow Tribesmen were cheered by an assemblage of Boston Braves loyalists gathered along the third base line to watch their ex-heroes take batting practice.

Tom Yawkey had offered seats to Perini and his entourage in his private roof box but the group graciously declined.  “Thanks,” responded the Milwaukee owner, “I appreciate the thoughtfulness, but I’ve always sat in the club box seats next to the dugout, down among the fans.  That’s where I’ll sit this time — no matter what happens.”  When asked whether he had brought any bodyguards with him, Perini answered in the negative and pointed to his heart.  “I brought this along with me.  One thing I inherited from my family was courage.  You know I’m from this city.  Most of this stuff has all been the imagination of some writers, anyway.”   Former part owner Guido Rugo was also invited to sit with his fellow “Steam Shovel.”  Nevertheless, Red Sox General Manager Joe Cronin deployed Boston police detective John Tobin to sit close to the Perini group and intervene should anything untoward happen.

Perini may have been right concerning the validity of the advance negative publicity that surrounded the Braves’ return.  Roger Birtwell of The Boston Globe described the crowd’s reaction to the Tribe as “cordial” with only evidence of a mild amount of booing, some of which was directed toward the home team.  Colleague Clif Keane headlined his column “The Rhubarb Failed to Bloom: Everything Lovey-Dovey at Fenway, Braves Players, Perini Applauded.”

Despite the overall politeness of the Fenway Park denizens, a few juvenile attendees leveled some verbal abuse toward the Milwaukee Braves owner when he entered the ballpark at 1:45 p.m.  The youngsters, standing some 30 feet away, engaged in mild name calling, and shouted such things as “They’ll give you nothing but beer bottles in Milwaukee” and “We want the Braves but we don’t want you.”  The only youngsters to approach Perini under Detective Tobin’s watchful eyes were a pair of Newton kids attired in Braves’ uniforms seeking autographs.  Lee Karofsky and Dan Rosenfelt not only got their signatures but also were photographed by the press in the process.  Adults that visited Perini’s box extended well wishes.

Manager Grimm was pleasantly surprised by his reception.  Instead of having to “to go around with a hose to wash the tomatoes off of the back of my neck,” Jolly Cholly reported that “all I’ve done all afternoon is tip my cap.  My arm is worn out.”  Welcoming greetings emanated from four out-of-work ex-Boston Braves employees.  Paul Whittemore, Frank McNulty, Marty Coyne and Teddy Chronopoulos, 1952 batboys and clubhouse attendants, expressed an understanding of the owner’s actions.  One of them remarked, “Mr. Perini did the right thing.   He was losing money in Boston.”

The Red Sox put together a four-run fourth inning via a walk, a couple of singles, an error, a wild pitch by Tribe starter Bob Buhl and a Tommy Umphlett double that sewed up the game early.  However, something remarkable happened in the seventh inning.  Many of those gathered stayed on their feet at the start of the inning to cheer on the “visitors.”  Diehard Braves fans came alive when Andy Pafko belted a home run into the left field screen.  According to Gerry Hern of the Boston Post and author of the “Spahn, Sain and Two Days of Rain” jingle, “most of the spectators were standing and banging their hands together as if the blow had won the World Series.”  Hern opined that the reaction to Pafko’s shot revealed that of the 9,090 in attendance, “seven-eighths of them seemed to be the hardy Braves fans who have, over the years, withstood fried clams, rodeos, phony publicity and hitless wonders.”

The transformation into a Braves crowd continued until the last out of the ninth.  The re-energized Braves loaded the bases through a walk to Eddie Mathews, a Pafko double and another walk to Joe Adcock.  With two outs, catcher Ebba St. Claire strode to the plate with the tying runs on base.  He ran the count to 2 and 2 on starter Hector “Skinny” Brown.  Unfortunately, St. Claire took an inside curve for a called third strike, sealing the 4-1 Red Sox victory.       As Lou Perini was leaving his box after the game, he was surrounded by a half-dozen small boys seeking his signature.

Hern paid tribute to the National League fans in his Post column the following day.  Under the banner, “Braves Rooters Game to Core,” he made these cogent comments:

“The story of the day was the sturdiness of the National League fans of this area, which, although all hope is gone, stood up gallantly.  They went down, but they went down fighting.  And for a lost cause, too, but it didn’t make a difference.

National League fans are game to the core, as they proved yesterday.  This was their farewell to the players they fought for in arguments with Red Sox fans, their last view of the men who dumped them, but they didn’t give up their affection.”

Hern went on to say, “Right from the start of the production yesterday, it was obvious that the last dying gasps of the Boston Braves fans would be noisy.  They proved that they were made of stern stuff when they booed the Red Sox as the starting lineup was announced.  Just because they had no team left to cheer for didn’t mean that they would abandon their stand against all American leaguers; including the Red Sox.  The fans stood firm, and right to the end they were cheering for the team that had deserted them.”

His column ended, “For an example of classy performance, the New England fans won the national championship yesterday.  They proved that the manipulations of owners are of little interest to them.  They proved that they like baseball and they indicated further that the Red Sox will have to win their affections–and not by default, either.”

Sunday’s contest drew fewer fans to Fenway Park for the Braves’ farewell to Beantown.  The 8,873 in attendance saw Red Sox castoff Jim Wilson hold his former ball club to four hits and a run while his Milwaukee mates plated four runs.  Red Sox starter Hersh Freeman took the loss and Walker Cooper and Andy Pafko hit homers.  In an unfortunate turn of events, “Megaphone Lolly” Hopkins, a longtime and legendary Royal Rooter of both of Boston’s major league teams, was struck in the mouth by a foul ball.  The painful injury was her first in all the years of attending baseball games at Fenway Park and Braves Field and required first aid treatment.

Upon the conclusion of the April 12 tilt, a small group of Boston Braves fans gathered behind the Tribe dugout and sang Auld Lang Syne while waiving Braves pennants.  They ended with a “three cheers” salute and sadly exited the ballpark.

During the course of the weekend, Braves owner Perini had suggested to Sox general manager Joe Cronin that the teams continue the pre-season series exhibition.  While Cronin’s initial reaction was best categorized as unenthusiastic, the ball clubs would go on to meet for in-season charity exhibition games during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

An earlier version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of the Boston Braves Historical Association NewsletterTo read more of Bob Brady’s informative newsletters for the Boston Braves Historical Association go to

www.boston-braves.com/newsletter_home.html

 

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One Response

  1. Miranda April 14, 2014 at 11:32 pm | | Reply

    I needed to thank you for this very good read!! I definitely enjoyed every
    little bit of it. I have you book marked to look at new things you post…

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