At noon last Friday in Milwaukee Bobby Bragan, the colorful manager of the Braves, drove his Cadillac down Green Bay Avenue and puffed on a good cigar. "Yesterday," he said, "the Braves drew nearly 34,000 people here on a cold, raw Opening Day with threats of rain. It was a great tribute to this city and to the players. Last weekend, when we played those three exhibition games against the Detroit Tigers in Atlanta, we drew 106,000 people to a ball park which isn't completed yet and which has virtually no parking space. That was a great tribute to the people of Atlanta and to the players. This is a unique situation, with the Braves playing in Milwaukee this year and then moving on to Atlanta next year and everyone knowing about it. It has never happened in baseball before. All spring long, people have been asking me what it is going to be like to play a so-called lame-duck season." Bragan thought for a few seconds and then a wry smile came over his face. "I remember a story about a crooked creek down in Alabama," he said. "The creek is so crooked that no matter how hard or often people tried to jump over it they always came down on the wrong side. Eventually the people learned to walk around it."
Ever since the Milwaukee Braves began spring training in Florida back in March they have been told to walk around their conversational creeks lest they come down on the wrong side of baseball's strangest situation. They know that if they say too many nice things about Atlanta then the people in Milwaukee, already incensed over the decision by the Braves' management to move the team, will not come out to see them play at all this season. They know, too, that if they even dare hint that Milwaukee, after having averaged 1,584,000 in attendance over the past 12 years, should not be deserted by baseball then people are not exactly going to go running down Peachtree Street barefoot to buy season tickets for the 1966 season in Atlanta.
During a 10-day period ending last Saturday evening in Milwaukee's County Stadium, the 27 men who play for the Braves went through an almost unbelievable odyssey. They went through it with a flair, dignity and spirit of which baseball the game can be proud even though baseball the business should hang its head in shame for forcing them to go through it at all.
It began on the night of April 8 in Jacksonville with a game between the Braves and the New York Yankees. This was the first of 19 Milwaukee games that will be telecast into Atlanta this season (55 will be on radio). On the other hand, no games will be televised into Milwaukee, and only a last-minute, $110,000 radio contract will enable the fans in Milwaukee to hear their team's games.
One of the announcers for the very first telecast into Atlanta was Mel Allen, who had been fired last summer by the New York Yankees after 25 years of broadcasting their games. "Evenin', eva-body," said Allen in his native southern accent, "and welcome to this historic telecast back to Atlanta of your 1966 Braves." The 1965 Braves lost that first televised game 6-1, and of 10 downtown Atlanta bars tested, seven were tuned in to Perry Mason. Still, Allen handled things well, even though he did call Felipe Alou "Faloop Aloo" once. He sipped Coca-Cola, Atlanta's national drink, and kept reminding everyone that the Braves would arrive at the Atlanta airport the next day at 11:10 a.m., and he suggested "that all you fine people give them a real southern welcome."
Atlanta did go out to the airport the next morning. The theme was "Welcome South, Braves," and as the players came off their charter plane each was presented with a young dogwood tree. Miss See Georgia First stood by in an impressively brief costume and, well, the Braves saw Georgia second. Mayor Ivan Allen, who had forced through construction of the new $18 million doughnut-shaped Atlanta Stadium in 51 weeks, proclaimed the Braves' arrival as "the happiest occasion since we got General Sherman to head south back in 1864."
More than 40,000 people lined the parade route, waving pennants that said "Atlanta Braves." Bands played Georgia on My Mind, and the players were driven in open convertibles through the streets to the Atlanta Americana Motor Hotel. John McHale, the president and general manager of the Braves, was given a gold key to the city.
McHale would not get any keys to the city of Milwaukee. At about the time he was reaching the hotel in Atlanta, a cellophane bag of heavily sarcastic novelties was being prepared for sale in Milwaukee. Called Atlanta Braves Boo-ster Bag, it contained, among other things, a Confederate flag and some caustic new lyrics for old tunes. One went:
M is for the many things he told us,
C is for the clever way he won,
H is for the helpless way he left us,
A is for the arguments that are done,
L is for the letdown we are feeling,
E is for the ease with which they moved.
Put them all together
They spell McHale—
Nicest guy in all the world to us!
Meanwhile, workmen were trying to finish the Atlanta ball park so it would be in shape for opening night. Printed signs saying "Braves" and "Squaws" were taped up on the rest rooms. Long lines gathered in front of the ticket windows, and Braves yearbooks seemed to be in the hands of everyone. The infield was raked smooth, but the turf had not settled in the outfield and the little rectangles of grass looked like green bricks.
The first game in Atlanta was hardly an exciting one. The Braves won 6-3, but it was a dull contest. Bobby Bragan started five Negro players without saying a word. No one booed. Mayor Allen squatted in the press box and ruined a suit by sitting on the uncleaned step of an aisle. The Braves won again the next night and again on Sunday, and they drew their 106,000 people even though the Masters tournament was being played in nearby Augusta the same weekend and even though the Atlanta 500-mile Stock Car Race drew more than 50,000 people that Sunday.
The Braves were impressed by Atlanta, but when they flew out of the city at 5:30 that Sunday afternoon, their minds were on the opening game of the regular season that they were to play the next day in Cincinnati. "This is the one to win," said Joe Torre, the catcher. In Cincinnati, sportswriters asked them the questions they had heard so often: "Don't ballplayers need cheering hometown crowds to give them that extra incentive? How can you play your best under these circumstances?" The players answered politely, but they really said very little. Then they went out and beat the Reds 4-2. Torre hit two home runs and Eddie Mathews another, and Tony Cloninger pitched a two-hitter. When Cloninger walked onto the team bus after the game the Braves broke into spontaneous applause. All the weeks of polite silence, all the words they never could say about how they felt about their team and its chances in this lame-duck year exploded in one marvelous gesture. Cloninger smiled. "I feel embarrassed," he said.
The Braves lost the second game of the season in Cincinnati and then, finally, they flew home to Milwaukee. It was one o'clock in the morning and a cold 39° when they arrived. As the stairs came up against the side of the plane they kidded about who was going to go out first. "Send Aaron out," someone hollered. "Have him put that new suitcase he got in Cincy in front of his chest so the bullets won't get him." Aaron had nothing to worry about. In the old days the Braves used to draw 5,000 people when they came back from lunch. Now there was no one to meet them. They picked up their bags and went their different ways. "I really don't know what we'll find here," said Bragan.
Through the winter the people of Milwaukee had not really known what to do about their lame-duck Braves. The word around the city was "boycott," but it was used qualitatively. "It isn't the players we'll boycott," people would say. "It's the whole dirty deal. If we support the team we'll be putting money into the pockets of the people who own the team and who are deserting us."
The players, of course, were in the middle. "When I heard that we were moving," Henry Aaron said last week, "I was just another fan—I grew kind of sad. But I think if we win this year the people will come out to see us. When you play in a town you get to know the people and these people are very big-hearted. Sure, it used to be that every year almost we were one, two, three in the league, and the people always expected us to win and when we didn't win they were saddened. It was only natural that attendance started to fall off. We went from two pennants in a row to losing a playoff for the pennant to second place to fourth and then fifth."
Attendance fell from the high of 2,215,404 in 1957 to 766,921 in 1962. It picked up last year, to 910,911, but it was too late. The Braves were committed to Atlanta. Protests, threats and lawsuits kept them from moving this season, but in 1966 they will be gone. Late last year a number of Milwaukeans conceded this imminent departure and formed a group called Teams, Inc. to do something practical about keeping alive the image of Milwaukee as a big-league city. They bought out the entire ball park for Opening Day and set about selling tickets to show Milwaukee's baseball viability.
Opening Day was an event that no one who saw it will ever forget. There was a crowd of 33,874, and Teams, Inc. had brought back most of the Braves who had played in County Stadium on the first Opening Day in 1953. Johnny Logan trotted out to shortstop, and then the only Brave from 1953 still with the club, Eddie Mathews, sprinted to third. A sign went up on the third-base side of the field saying, "Atlanta you can have the rest, leave us Eddie Mattress our hero." Mathews looked up and saw the sign and recalled that "mattress" is close to the way some of the old German residents of Milwaukee pronounce his name. Eddie tipped his cap and looked down at his shoes. Sid Gordon came out, and Andy Pafko, Max Surkont, Jack Dittmer and the others.
The public-address announcer got as far as the first "r" in Warren Spahn when the people jumped to their feet, applauding. Spahn, dressed in a Met uniform with No. 21 on his back, came out of the visiting dugout and began walking toward the pitching mound. Three of the more difficult things in life are 1) going back to a bar you have been asked to leave, 2) meeting again a love you once lost and 3) returning to a town you have left forever. Spahn's steps to the mound were taken at normal speed, his new Met cap kept firmly on his head. There he was, with his familiar hawk nose, his shoulder shrug, his left arm pressed tight to his left leg. When he reached the mound he nervously began to dig it up the way pitchers do, but the applause continued. Spahn had thought about this return for a long, long time, but he was overwhelmed by it. As the applause kept on, he lifted his cap up over his head and turned so that he could see down the right-field line. He looked upstairs and down. His eyes moved around the entire ball park as though he was thanking everyone. When the crowd finally sat back he ran his left hand over his eyes.
The crowd was a fine turnout, but there were some people in Milwaukee who did not go. Eddie Rentner, a retired policeman who once was a season-ticket holder, sat in a bar and listened to the game on the radio. "I saw every opener here until today," he said. "I remember that first one. Bruton won it with a homer in the 10th and I watched it wearing earmuffs. I should be there today. Believe me, my heart is, but I'm not going this year. Not here. There is no incentive here now that the Braves are going. I'll go down to Chicago to see baseball."
Naturally, the Braves won, and they won because Bob Sadowski pitched a four-hitter. When the game was over, the reporters stormed after Sadowski, trying to make something out of the fact that he was married to a girl from Atlanta. Sadowski walked away from the questions. One reporter asked Bragan if he had started Sadowski because Sadowski came from Atlanta. Bragan's brown eyes seemed to burn.
In all, though, Opening Day was a success, but the second game, played two days later, was a mess. A light snow had fallen during the night, and the city awoke to 40° weather. The ball game should have been postponed. It was not, because of a commitment the club had with the American Broadcasting Company, which had scheduled the game for 4:15 p.m. so that it could be telecast, for some reason, to the West Coast. Only 3,362 people showed up, and it began to look like a long, cold summer.
There is an old show-business saying that may fit the Milwaukee situation this year: "We opened and closed in one." Maybe the city will go out to see the team play if the Braves stay in the pennant race (and with the type of hitting Milwaukee has it could be in the pennant race all year long). But the resentment against the management is thicker than a southern malted, and everyone in the state of Wisconsin carries this resentment with him wherever he goes. In the fifth inning of that cold second game, Bragan came out of the dugout to remove a pitcher, and the fans booed him tumultuously. It was the first outward show of dislike the Braves had experienced. Bragan took it philosophically. "You have to expect it under the circumstances," he said.