The End of an Era – The 1952 Boston Braves

The 1950s were a time of change in Major League Baseball, which hadn’t seen any relocations or additions since the Baltimore Orioles departed the American League in 1903 to make way for the New York franchise (which later came to be known as the Yankees). At the beginning of 1952, Major League Baseball still had 16 teams. 1952 is notable because it was the last year of “old baseball,” the last year in which the almost 50 year stasis in baseball was maintained and before the explosion of relocations and expansions. The Braves leaving for Milwaukee in 1953 was the first domino to fall and when it fell, the others fell in rapid succession. By 1960, Major League Baseball will have returned to Baltimore and arrived to Kansas City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco for the very first time. In 1961, baseball would expand to 18 teams when its first expansion teams, the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators (added to replace the original Senators, who had relocated to Minnesota) were added. The tradition of the two team baseball city was also dying. The 1950s would see Boston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis permanently relegated to being a one-team city. In the new era of baseball, the honor of being a two-team city was only reserved for the biggest cities. Even though it lost the Giants and Dodgers, New York would get the Mets and return to two team status in 1962. Los Angeles would have the Dodgers and Angels. Chicago, of course, had the White Sox and Cubs.

The spark for this major realignment laid in Boston, where the Braves and Red Sox were “fighting” for the hearts of New England. I am using the phrase “fighting” here very loosely here. The Red Sox were far and away the more popular team in the Hub and the emergence of Ted Williams and the team’s success in the 1940s had cemented Boston as the home of the Red Sox. In 1951, the Red Sox had drawn more than double the fans to Fenway Park than the Braves had drawn to Braves Field. The Braves had been relegated to second fiddle in the city where they had played since 1871. Despite their best efforts to attract fans, the Braves were in rough shape. There’s a good book by Charlie Bevis about the battle between the Sox and Braves for the fans of Boston, I highly recommend checking it out.

The Braves didn’t begin 1952 intending to leave Boston and owner Lou Perini told the media that he felt good about the future of the franchise on the field. The Braves, who just four years earlier were in the World Series, had fallen fast and hard, posting 4th place finishes in 1949, 1950, and 1951 and not contending during that time. Perini told the media that the 1948 team was a “bought team” and only built for short term success. He was confident that his young team would see future success on the field and pointed to the 1951 success of his AAA team in Milwaukee as proof of this. Perini had promoted at least seven players from that team to the Braves. He had also promoted future Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews from the team’s AA affiliate in Atlanta.

The team was led by Tommy Holmes, who had taken the job from Billy Southworth (the manager of the 1948 National League Championship team) midway through the 1951 season. The team’s key weapon was Warren Spahn, who was still one of the best pitchers in baseball. Spahn and fellow pitcher Johnny Sain were such an integral part of the 1948 team that fans would “pray for rain” between their starts so they would be able to rest and go out again. Sain had been shipped off to the New York Yankees in 1951. Spahn had been the National League strikeout leader in 1949, 1950, and 1951, winning over 20 games in all three seasons, so he was still a potent weapon, even if his supporting cast wasn’t up to his level of talent.

On April 15, the 1952 Braves took the field for the first time against the Brooklyn Dodgers and drew a disappointing 4,694. The few fans who showed up got to see their Braves fall 3-2. And things really didn’t get any better. The team dropped their first three games and finished April, 5-9, good enough for 7th place in the National League. Things would only get worse in May and the team was 13-22 by June 1st, 7th place in the National League and 13 games out of first. The Braves responded to this by firing Tommy Holmes and replacing him with Charlie Grimm, who had been managing the team’s AAA affiliate in Milwaukee. In announcing Holmes’s firing, The Boston Globe noted that the Braves were possibly paying three managers. Billy Southworth had signed a 5 year deal after the 1948 season, Holmes had a contract through the end of the season, and of course, they were paying their current manager Grimm. Just two weeks later, the Braves would make a franchise changing decision when they signed a young player from the Negro Leagues by the name of Hank Aaron and assigned him to their minor league system. Of course, Aaron would never take the field in Boston but it was a sign of things to come for the Braves, as bleak as things may have looked in the moment.

The Boston media praised the arrival of Grimm and noted that players loved playing under him. Of course, many were familiar and had performed well with him in Milwaukee. On June 13, Bob Holbrook wrote a gushing profile for him in the Globe. If nothing else, the PR machine had created a soft landing for Grimm into the notoriously tough Boston market. Despite the laudatory editorials however, the team failed to immediately improve under Grimm and June was a rough month for the Braves, they posted a 14-20 record that month and ended it in 7th place, 22 games out of first. The good news is that June was the team’s worst month and they would slightly improve in July and go 14-13. The team team would skid through August and September before ultimately finishing 64-89, 7th place in the National League.

1952 was an unmitigated disaster for the Boston Braves and fans largely responded by staying away from Braves Field. The Braves were largely in the middle of a rebuild and modern fans are used to seeing a team slog through a rebuild. Teams can generally expect that their fans will come back once the team is competitive again. In the 1950s however, the landscape of baseball was remarkably different and the Braves were competing with the Red Sox for the attention of the New England sports market. They couldn’t afford to tank for a few years in order to rebuild the team, the fans had another alternative. Over the course of the season, Braves were only able to attract a quarter of the fans to Braves Field that the Sox did to Fenway Park. In fact, the Braves had the worst attendance in all of baseball that season.

The Boston Braves played their last game in Boston on September 21, 1952 when 8,822 fans turned out to Braves Field to watch the league leading Dodgers beat the Braves, 8-2. Perhaps ironically, it was the largest turnout that the Braves had seen all season. No one knew before the game that it was the final game that the Braves would play in Boston. No one walked into that game knowing that it was the last time that baseball would be played at Braves Field. It was a moment made in retrospect. The only notable thing that fans left Braves Field knowing that they had seen was the Dodgers clinching at least a tie in the National League standings and almost certainly punching their ticket to the World Series.

Spring Training 1953 began with the Boston Braves still in tact and seemingly preparing to once again play at Braves Field. In fact, the focus of early 1953 was on the possibility of the St. Louis Browns moving to Milwaukee and Braves owner Lou Perini, who had rights to the Milwaukee market through his AAA team, refusing to let the Browns relocate there. There was some speculation that the Braves may want to relocate to Milwaukee “in the future.” By mid-March, speculation picked up that a move of the Braves to Milwaukee was imminent but Perini refused to commit either way. Reports would later surface that Perini had planned to move to Milwaukee but wanted to wait until 1954 to make the move, a fact that was unknown to contemporary fans. On March 14, manager Charlie Grimm was asked by the Boston Globe about the potential move and said that it was so sudden that he only heard about the possibility the day before. With less than a month until Opening Day, no one knew for sure whether the St. Louis Browns, Boston Braves, or no one would be playing Major League Baseball in Milwaukee in 1953.

On March 15 however, Lou Perini would announce that he would be relocating the Boston Braves to Milwaukee and kickstart the process that would change the face of baseball in the years. The move was effective immediately and would start in the 1953 season. The Browns would relocate after the 1953 and start play as the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.

When asked about the relocations, Red Sox manager Lou Boudreau commented to the Globe, “this is the start of a reorganization in the two major leagues.” Little did he know how far it would ultimately go.

Oh and how did that rebuild go? The results were evident almost immediately. The Milwaukee Braves were a 2nd place team in 1954 and would win the World Series in 1957, a year that would also see Warren Spahn win a Cy Young and that young kid Hank Aaron win the MVP. Boston would not see another World Series until the Red Sox brought one home in 2004.

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