Boston’s baseball fans eagerly awaited the start of the 1946 baseball season. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey had assembled a formidable post-World War II ball club that many viewed as having a legitimate shot at the American League crown for the first time since 1918. Further down the road from Yawkey’s Kenmore Square playground, the Boston’s Braves had been very active during the “hot stove” season. The ownership triumvirate, dubbed by Hub sportswriters as the “Three Little Steam Shovels,” had sought to improve Boston’s longstanding National League representative by bolstering its roster and enhancing its home diamond. Through their actions, owners Lou Perini, Guido Rugo and Joe Maney looked to transform the Braves from a perennial Senior Circuit second division dweller into a pennant contender.
The Tribe’s owners dug deep into the team’s treasury to lure manager Billy Southworth away from the Cardinals. “Billy the Kid” had skippered St. Louis to three consecutive NL pennants from 1942-44 and claimed World Championships in 1942 and 1944. It took a then unheard of multiyear contract offer to induce the former (1921-23) Braves outfielder back to Boston. St. Louis owner Sam Breadon was unable to match the Braves’ overture to his manager and reluctantly admitted, “I can’t stand in his way and I can’t afford to give him that type of contract.” What Breadon was referring to was a reported base salary of $35,000 a season with incentive bonuses for placing fourth ($5,000), third ($10,000), second ($15,000) and first ($20,000). The princely sum of Southworth’s guaranteed annual stipend is akin to $406,000 today.
The Braves’ ownership wasn’t through raiding the Redbirds. They picked up three-time 20-game winner Mort Cooper for a token player and $60,000, and flashed a blank check in front of Breadon for Marty Marion, Whitey Kurowski and Stan Musial. While the latter offer was wisely turned down, the Cardinals did ship outfielder-first baseman Johnny Hopp and first baseman Ray Sanders to the Hub. In return, the Braves sent $40,000 and $25,000 respectively to St. Louis. At Southworth’s behest, other players with Cardinals connections would populate the roster to the extent that some Boston sportswriters began to refer to the Braves as the “Cape Cod Cardinals.”
In addition to roster upgrades, Tribe ownership invested $500,000 in undertaking significant off-season renovations to Braves Field. Just as the club had been the first Boston team to offer Sunday baseball, the Braves would initiate night baseball in the Hub in 1946. Eight light towers were strategically positioned around the Wigwam’s perimeter and new night-only uniforms, using a reflective satin material, were designed. The club introduced the now classic tomahawk-style jersey to both their evening and day game togs. A new outfield fence was constructed and shrubbery gardens were planted in the rear of the right field pavilion and along the streetcar tracks inside the ballpark’s confines.
All this activity was devised to lure fans into Braves Field’s seats. The previous season witnessed a sizable increase in attendance, with the addition of more than 165,000 individuals passing through the park’s turnstiles over 1944 figures. Still, the sixth place Tribe only drew only a bit more than 374,000 fans in 1945. In contrast, the neighboring Red Sox, a seventh place finisher in the Junior Circuit, attracted over 603,000 to Fenway Park.
The Tribe’s talented Director of Public Relations, William H. “Billy” Sullivan, Jr., who later became the founding owner of today’s New England Patriots, oversaw a vigorous and innovative marketing campaign. He arranged for off season publicity and ticket-selling appearances at hot stove league gatherings throughout the region. Sullivan produced a free team newsletter, the Braves Bulletin, and edited the ball club’s 1946 sketchbook/yearbook. The latter was one of the first of these popular magazine-style souvenir team publications. Priced at 35 cents, it sold some 22,000 copies. The Braves entered into an exclusive agreement with WMEX-AM, “1510 on the dial,” to provide radio broadcasts of all Boston Braves night ballgames, supplementing the play-by-play day game descriptions of sportscasters Jim Britt and Tom Hussey for the Tribe and the Red Sox over New England’s Yankee radio network. In association with the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway, Sullivan initiated the “Braves Field Express,” a package deal that included special buses that delivered fans from outlying cities and towns to Braves Field for night and Sunday games, provided them with reserved seating and returned them home after the contests. Arrangements were even made with an airline to fly supporters in from Cape Cod.
In addition to the Braves Field ticket office located at 35 Gaffney Street, advance ticket purchases of box and reserved seating could be made at Filenes’ Men Store on Washington Street when shopping at that downtown location. Box seats were priced at $2.40, while a place in the reserved grandstand cost $1.80. For those seeking more economically priced tickets, entry into the unreserved grandstand would set you back $1.20 and pavilion and bleacher access was under a dollar (95 cents and 60 cents, respectively). In what would not pass muster in today’s non-discriminatory world, a “boys grandstand” seat (for lads under 12 years of age) was offered at 60 cents.
Upon their return north from Grapefruit League play, the Braves and Red Sox concluded the pre-season exhibition schedule with their annual “City Championship Series.” In 1946, the competition for Boston baseball supremacy was held at Fenway Park on April 12-14. Boston’s American League representatives handily took two of the three contests. The final Series game provided Boston’s baseball fandom with an early example of the potency of the Sox’s ’46 line-up. The Crimson Hose humiliated the Tribe, 19-5, before the largest crowd in the history of this event, a paid attendance of 33,279.
In anticipation of commencing the 1946 championship campaign against Leo Durocher’s Brooklyn Dodgers on Tuesday, April 16, workers performed a variety of pre-opening day housekeeping tasks at the Wigwam. Among their chores was putting a fresh coat of green paint on the field’s 31-year-old wooden grandstand seats. The Home of the Braves, built by previous owner James E. Gaffney, was to stand at the ready to welcome the Tribe’s followers to the dawning of a hope-for new era of National League baseball in Boston.
Despite all of the off-season hoopla and perhaps as the result of the Braves’ showing in the City Series, a disappointing crowd of 19,482 passed through Braves Field’s portals on Opening Day. The aroma of Handschumacher Frankfurt’s, coated in Gulden’s Mustard, filled the air as those in attendance saw Johnny Sain out-duel Brooklyn’s Hal Gregg and deliver an inaugural day 5-3 triumph. The Braves and Dodgers were tied at 3-3 through the fifth inning. The lead was captured in the bottom of the sixth when Tribe second baseman Connie Ryan scored an unearned run due to right fielder Gene Hermanski’s muff of a Tommy Holmes fly ball. An insurance run was plated the next inning on another unearned run occasioned by a Pee Wee Reese error.
The ballplayers’ on-field performance was overshadowed by an unfortunate happening in the stands that is remembered to this day. As was the custom at season starts of yore, those in attendance often dressed up for the occasion and came attired in business suits and other non-casual wear. Early spring weather in Boston is always unpredictable and, in 1946, had proven less than conducive to the prompt drying of the emerald paint that recently had been applied to ballpark’s grandstand seating. Initially, upon discovering the stains, many irate Braves Field Opening Day patrons marched to the team’s administration building to complain. Overwhelmed staff quickly ran out of cleaning fluid, forcing those affected to leave the ballpark with an unintended green paint souvenir spotting their suits, fur coats and stockings.
The Braves’ front office reacted quickly to the first game fiasco. An advertisement was placed in local newspapers the next day with the heading, “An Apology to Braves Fans.” In print, the club promised full reimbursement of cleansing costs to all of those in attendance suffering from stained clothing. Fans were reassured that those sections of the grandstand with un-dried paint would be closed off for the season’s second game. Wednesday’s contest drew a little over 11,000 to the Wigwam and while no further incidents were reported, those hearty souls witnessed the Tribe’s first loss of the campaign.
The team then boarded a train to Philadelphia for their first road trip that would keep them away from Boston until April 28. The Braves secured the loan of Fenway Park from Tom Yawkey for their brief return to the Hub for a Sunday doubleheader against the Phillies. Following the twin bill, they would then be out of town until May 11, allowing ample time to cure the sticky chairs in the Wigwam’s reserved grandstand. Fenway Park proved welcoming as the Braves took both games from Philadelphia. The Braves would never again borrow their neighbor’s ballpark for a regular season tilt. To show their gratitude, Tribe management offered the Red Sox the use of Braves Field for night games but the gesture was declined and Boston’s American League followers would have to wait until 1947 to attend evening contests at Fenway.
True to their promise, the Braves opened up a “paint account” at a local bank to house funds to reimburse those with damaged clothing. Two attorneys were retained to review claims for compensation. As a result of the incident drawing national media attention, some dubious demands began to flow into Braves headquarters as evidenced by claims emanating from such far away places as Florida, California and Nebraska. All told, about 13,000 requests (representing approximately 67% of the day’s total official attendance) were received. The letters were processed over the summer months and the ball club intentionally applied a fairly liberal standard in determining the legitimacy of the petitions. Over 5,000 claims were accepted with payouts averaging $1.50 and ranging as high as $50. Even though the blunder ended up costing the Braves around $6,000, the astute manner by which they addressed it brought about favorable free publicity and generated goodwill that would be reflected in an upsurge of attendance at the Wigwam. The Braves wisely waited until after the season’s second home stand to complete their internal painting project. All other reserved seats received a maroon coating while box seats were adorned in gold.
Despite the inauspicious start to the 1946 season, attendance at Braves Field increased to a club record of 969,673. With the AL champion Red Sox drawing over a million fans (1,416,944), Boston proved that it could support franchises in both leagues. The Steam Shovels’ roster investments bore fruit as Billy Southworth led the Tribe out of the National League’s second division to a fourth place finish, just one game behind the third place Cubs. It was the first time since 1934 that the ball club had reached such lofty heights. That ascension continued through the 1948 season when the Braves captured the NL flag and drew over 1.4 million fans to the Wigwam.
Bob Brady, a charter member of the Boston Braves Historical Association, is currently its president and newsletter editor. To read Bob’s informative newsletters for the Boston Braves Historical Association go to http://boston-braves.com/newsletter_home.html