The move that made Milwaukee cry
Perhaps sensing that the franchise would never again make money in Wisconsin; perhaps needing an infusion of cash to funnel into his struggling construction company, Perini decided to get out of the baseball business. Enter William Bartholomay, a 34-year old insurance broker that, with his Chicago-based investors, had purchased and then subsequently sold a minority stake in the White Sox in 1951.
Even though the Braves had lost money the previous year, Bartholomay knew what he was getting himself into. "The Braves were in a tough situation in Milwaukee because we couldn't really expand our broadcasting base much, or our fan base," Bartholomay says today. "Western Wisconsin had taken to the Twins, the Chicago teams, mostly the Cubs, were all over the place. I thought we could turn it around and draw about a million-and-a-half people, and that would be enough to sustain."
After a lightning-quick 10-day negotiating period, Lou Perini and the Bartholomay group agreed on a $6.2 million purchase price for the Braves. Part of the sale agreement centered on a $2 million balloon payment due in 1968. Looking to generate revenue quickly, Bartholomay offered equity shares of stock to Wisconsin residents prior to the start of the 1963 season.
The sale was a resounding dud. Of the 115,000 shares that were offered to the public, only 13,000 were purchased. Coupling the anemic stock sale with the fact that Bartholomay could not secure a $500,000 broadcasting deal; the new owners began to look for a new home.
In the early 1960's, Atlanta was beginning to take shape as the financial center of the Deep South. It was also a city that had no major league sports, and they wanted in on the game.
"Atlanta offered the team $2.5 million in broadcasting fees for a seven-state empire of baseball-deprived households between the Atlantic Ocean and Mississippi River," Povletich says. "From a purely financial standpoint, Bartholomay's interest in Atlanta could not be ignored."
Noted baseball economist and author Andrew Zimbalist agrees. "Atlanta was just a better market. It was also completely untapped. It was the south," he says. "There weren't teams in Texas, there weren't teams in Florida. There were no teams in San Diego; there were no teams in Phoenix. Based on opportunity, based on market, they were being entrepreneurial."
Bartholomay says if it wasn't the Braves that were going to be Atlanta's team; it was going to be someone else's. "In the 1960's, there were different pressures, sociological pressures, civil rights bills. All sorts of things were taking place. The 'new south' was opening up to some extent," Bartholomay says. "They were going to build a stadium and do everything they could to get a team. It wasn't just our ownership, but the entire National League that thought it was time to find a team that would fill out the map of the United States by having a team in the southeast. That never got very much attention, but that was a very important factor."
Milwaukeeans didn't see what those inside the game saw, however. Most Braves fans looked at the Atlanta threat as nothing more than a scare tactic to goad fans into buying more tickets.
"It never occurred to fans that the Braves might leave," Buege remembers. "When I read at the time of the 1963 All-Star game that the Braves might go to Atlanta, I simply did not take it seriously. No one did. The Braves had been so successful since arriving in 1953 that leaving was out of the question."
It wasn't to be. After an ugly battle full of rancor and legal maneuvers between the team and Milwaukee County, the Braves were allowed to leave for Atlanta beginning with the 1966 season.
In the years following the Braves departure to Atlanta, a new investors group led by Bud Selig led the fight to bring Major League Baseball back to Milwaukee. In April of 1970, Selig and his investors acquired and moved the bankrupt Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee and renamed them the Brewers. But that still leads to the question of "what if" to Braves loyalists that yearned for the days of Aaron, Spahn, Mathews, and Adcock.
"Of course, there were a lot of things that could have been done, probably much better," Bartholomay remembers. "The original ownership group that I put together, which was the same group that had the White Sox, initially could've actually included more Milwaukee people, and that probably would've been a good thing, and I could've reached out in that area."
Others say it might have even been simpler than that. "They could have been more involved in the community," Zimbalist says. "They could have squelched any rumors they were intending to leave, and also behaved in a way that would have been consistent in squelching those rumors."
But in the end, it was as the times dictated. Faced with economic and social realities of the 1960's, the time had come for a major league sports franchise to be headquartered in bustling and growing Atlanta. For a generation of Milwaukeeans, though, it marked the sad end to one of baseball's most romantic eras.
However, even the loyalist of the team's fans could not deny that the only course of action that was feasible was the path taken by the now-Atlanta Braves in 1965.
"They were deceitful and underhanded and disingenuous," Bob Buege says of the Bartholomay ownership group. "And if I had been in their situation, I'm sure I would have been just as despicable."
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