DAVID VERSUS GOLIATH
Lou Perini’s secret weighed on him like the water pails he once hauled on his father’s work crew. He had a plan so extraordinary he dared tell nobody, not breathing a word to his wife, his seven children, or the Jesuit priest who routinely passed him while he whispered his daily rosary. But on the morning of March 14, 1953, when Perini emerged in the lobby of the Dixie Grande Hotel after an exhaustive all-night planning session, his tousled hair and crooked collar were barely a shade better kept than the Boston sportswriters. Perini had a blueprint for the future so bold that it was going to change baseball forever.
Perini was a forty-nine-year-old bulldozer of a man, the firm son of Italian immigrants and American prayers and dreams, born and raised on Boston baseball. He had an eighth-grade education but possessed a natural ability for engineering and an obsession with efficiency and productivity. The game was his passion but being president of his family’s construction company was his profession. He inherited the business from the father who taught him humility, equality, and togetherness by requiring him to haul water pails for workers on steaming hot summer days. His father, Bonfiglio Perini, had arrived in America with nothing, scratched his name into the Ellis Island registry, and clawed his way to the top. He insisted his sons speak English and he taught them to appreciate all people and to believe that wealth should never equal tyranny. After Bonfiglio died, Louis built the local family construction business into an international corporation, with savvy befitting a tycoon and the humble gratitude of a man of God.
For all the highways and bridges, and subways and runways that Perini built, almost nothing meant as much to him as building his baseball team, the Boston Braves. He saw baseball as a bridge to a better world. There were two teams in Boston then—the Red Sox and the Braves. The wealthy Red Sox were never for sale; the impoverished Braves were. So in 1944, Perini and two of his construction pals bought into the dream. Perini’s first significant move was to fire manager Casey Stengel. Fast with a quip and slow with a win, Casey lived in sixth place. Perini wanted to die in first.
Perini and his partners were nicknamed the “Three Shovels,” and even though the Braves made it to the 1948 World Series, there wasn’t enough money in Boston to dig the Braves out of obscurity. They went from bad to worse, their ballpark was a plywood dump in the wrong part of town, and their players weren’t much better. Their fan base was going strong on the nostalgia of the 1914 World Series champ “Miracle” Braves. Memories were plentiful but ticket sales were poor. Perini used to bring his family to the ballgames just to help fill the stands. The fans were few and dying, so Perini bought out his partners and began plotting the path to save the Braves.
He was never happy unless he was building, but he wasn’t happy building from the boardroom. He abhorred silk suits in favor of heavy wool and wore the same cheap necktie until it was so worn that his wife made him throw it out. But when it was time to do business, Perini became a bulldozer. He moved ideas and men and he plowed them over if they stood in his way. But Perini never saw himself as a bully. He invested heavily in a charity he created called the Jimmy Fund. He was a former sandlot catcher who wrote large checks for football stadiums and donated large sums of money to amateur sports programs. Sports were for dreamers and offered paths to new lives. Perini understood that nobody wanted to be on the bottom forever. Baseball offered a wondrous opportunity for equality and a fertile proving ground for the underdog.
When Perini barreled into the lobby of the Dixie Grande that spring training morning in Florida, he was the underdog. The Boston sportswriters thought Perini must have made a big trade. They were right in one sense—Perini was making a trade, but not for a player. He was about to let the world in on his secret and blow up tradition.
“This was a difficult decision to make,” Perini announced. “But we’ve made up our minds to take the team into Milwaukee.”
Perini was furiously trying to keep control of a plan he devised in 1950 and hoped to execute in 1954. But time and circumstances were working against him. If Perini was going to save his dying franchise, the time had come to plow the earth. The dumbfounded Boston sportswriters peppered Perini with questions. He avoided the details because he didn’t have time, and the transaction was complicated. Baseball writers knew how to handle big news about ballplayers, but this was something else. They were exploring factors none of them had experience with. Instinctively, they resented that an outsider like Perini defied the baseball establishment. They felt entitled to the scoop and were furious and insulted that he hadn’t warned them the day before, when he had denied the rumors of the Braves leaving Boston. “When I said it I meant it,” Perini shot back. “I was sincere but things came up that make it necessary for us to move.”
The world sighed in unison: why Wisconsin? The Milwaukee Brewers had been a minor league team since 1902, one stop below the big leagues in classification, and a few dozen steps lower in national respect. They had a short stint as a National League team seventy-five years ago, but that was before the modern majors existed. In 1950, a dozen American cities were larger. Milwaukee’s population of 600,000 was less than one-tenth of New York City’s seven million. Why would Perini betray the proud Boston baseball tradition in favor of the Germanic Midwestern city they knew only by stereotype? For many across the country, Milwaukee was the train station on the way to Chicago—a fine place for a trip to the restroom, a bratwurst at a minor league game, and a cheese wheel. Old European prejudices prevailed and archaic images of gruff German and Polish working sloths who could barely say “Ticket, please” in proper English came to mind.
As an Italian in an Irish town, Perini had grown up around that sort of ethnic discrimination. It motivated and guided his conscience. He was a man for the people, especially when it made good business sense. But Perini also believed this was about more than money. For months, he had saturated himself with Milwaukee research. He collected maps and studied its civic planning. He understood its economy and grasped the huge financial component. And he invited a special guest over to the family home in Boston for dinner. “I remember coming home from school a few times and Fred Miller was at the house,” Lou’s son, David, remembered. “My dad just introduced him as Mr. Miller from the Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I wasn’t sure who he was or why he was there.”
Perini wasn’t surprised that the Boston writers were crushing him. They used to call him Lovable Lou, but not this time. Perini knew the writers hated his decision, but he wasn’t afraid to fight. The Boston Braves were losing $30,000 a week and losses exceeded one million dollars in both 1951 and 1952. The Boston Braves had been established in 1876, but couldn’t compete emotionally or economically with the Red Sox. On mantels from Connecticut to Maine were framed images of Jesus Christ and Ted Williams, though which one walked on water first was debatable. The Braves’ most popular player was Warren Spahn, a young left-handed pitcher, whose box-office draw was limited to once every four games, and then only at home, where Braves Field’s finest delicacy, fried clams, wasn’t enough to compete with storied Fenway Park. Perini felt the pinch when Braves attendance bottomed out at 281,000 in 1952, his ball club so pathetically dismal and lacking energy that the home plate umpire jumped a train home before the end of the last game of the season.
That morning at the Dixie Grande, nobody saw Perini as a visionary. Always gregarious and warm to the press with a drink and a sandwich, Perini found himself on the defensive. “Maybe Milwaukee isn’t a major league city now,” he said. “But I feel it will become one.” He broke up the news conference and hustled for the elevator. The Boston writers rushed to the pay phones to call their news desks, quickly dictating breaking news copy. The elevator couldn’t arrive fast enough for Perini, who hadn’t slept, and had no time to rest. Imploding baseball history was no small project, and at that moment he could have used his favorite hard hat and a cool drink of water. But this announcement was only the first shovel in the dirt on the way to building a much larger vision of what baseball was going to look like in the twentieth century and beyond.
Perini’s plan bridged the game between the Victorian era and the modern age, between wooden ballparks and steel stadiums, between tradition and geography and between mom-and-pop ownership and corporate entities. He had sparked a seismic shift that within a decade caused relocation to Los Angeles and San Francisco, expansion beyond the original sixteen teams, and the increased influences of television, technology, travel, and commerce. He dreamed of a baseball team with Blacks, Latinos, and hard-edged, American country good old boys working together for the common good.
Perini believed that baseball could help him achieve what his father believed in—an equal society. A corporation could make a killing and simultaneously benefit the middle class to achieve harmony between the wealthy and the workers. He refused to take away who they were and strove to enhance them. Perini loved the utopian idea of balance between race, class, economics, occupation, and education. Baseball was his concrete and Wisconsin was his land.
Over the next five days, Perini had much work to do. He sifted through telegrams from the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts begging him to keep the Braves in Boston, but he refused to cave to civic pressure. “Somebody has to tell me why this isn’t a good move,” he said. “I’m sick of pounding my head against a stone wall. This is no sudden thing. I’ve known for two years that it was inevitable. Boston is simply not a two-club city.”
But moving to Milwaukee was not a one-man job, either. Perini needed a business partner to get this done. He found one in Fred Miller who, like Perini, was an immigrant’s son who had grown his father’s local company to national levels. Miller loved the thrill of competition and yearned to bring big league baseball to Milwaukee. He played nose tackle at Notre Dame, where legendary football coach Knute Rockne inspired Miller’s leadership style. Miller emerged as a chairman who believed in people as well as profits. But he also knew he needed to make Milwaukee more economically influential if he wanted to make the cash flow like the beer. So he dreamed big, spent bigger, and held pep rallies. He initiated a corporate expansion program in 1947 with sports as the centerpiece, launching company softball and baseball teams, organizing group outings to baseball games, and plastering the Miller name inside taverns from one end of Wisconsin to the other. He was determined to bring major league baseball to Milwaukee and to forever connect the Miller brand with the strong civic pride that would assuredly arrive with a major league team. To prove Milwaukee was a major league town, he was influential in the construction of County Stadium. Miller’s blueprint between beer and baseball would be emulated around the country, but he had to entice a team to move to Milwaukee first.
Miller had two choices: the National League’s Braves or the American League’s St. Louis Browns, the worst team in each division. He was also picking which owner’s personality fit his plans best. His preference was Perini, who owned territory rights in Milwaukee because he had wisely purchased the Brewers in 1946 and stationed the Braves top Triple-A team there. Ownership of the Brewers gave Perini the right of first refusal to move into Milwaukee’s new stadium or to block anyone else from moving in.
Miller’s other option, Bill Veeck, never dreamed that the tidy profit he turned on the sale of the minor league Brewers in 1945 would come back to haunt him when the next owner sold the team to Perini a few months later. Veeck desperately wanted back into Milwaukee, where he had owned the Brewers in the 1940s, especially when Milwaukee County began building the ballpark in 1950, spending millions to fund the project. Perini helped Milwaukee work around the steel shortage caused by the Korean War to build the country’s first postwar ballpark. Miller saw the excitement that building the new ballpark caused and believed the city was ready for major league baseball.
The citizens sensed the big leagues coming. Along with the rest of the city, Bobby Uecker, then eighteen and an aspiring big league catcher, watched the new stadium rise above the downtown skyline, a modern marvel amid the smokestacks, and thought there was no way this palace could possibly be for the Brewers. “This couldn’t be a Triple-A park,” Uecker said. “People used to drive past the ballpark as it was being built, just to say, ‘Holy Jesus, look at this place!’”
When Milwaukee County Stadium was ready to open in time for the 1953 season, Miller wanted the Boston Braves immediately but Perini thought it was a year too soon. That wasn’t good enough for Miller. Anxious to never have a minor league team play in Milwaukee’s new stadium, Miller invited Veeck’s St. Louis Browns to move in for the 1953 season instead, but because Perini controlled the territory rights, he exercised his power to block the move. That infuriated Wisconsin.
Miller let the people scream for him, and the implication was clear: he would never forgive Perini for blocking the Browns. For the first time, Perini felt the ire of the Wisconsin people, who turned on him for depriving them of a major league team. Perini never forgot the note from the twelve-year-old Milwaukee girl who closed her letter by writing “I hate you!” In their anger, Perini saw their passion and pride, and he decided he would rather be with the people of Wisconsin than against them. Unwilling to jeopardize his relationship with Miller and alarmed that he had so antagonized the Wisconsin people, Perini decided on that March morning that the Braves would speed up their plans and move now.
The Wisconsin people were jubilant when they heard the news. Their anger turned to love, and Perini was happy to have the support of Miller and to be on the right side of Wisconsin’s fierce independence. The city threw a big party, “like World War II was over,” said Uecker.
But one major obstacle remained. Perini needed the approval of National League president Warren Giles and the seven other team owners. He knew he couldn’t win the vote without Miller backing him. He asked Miller to call Giles and voice his support for the new Milwaukee Braves. Miller appealed to the Milwaukee public and the next morning Giles had 116 telegrams waiting for him, including one from the statehouse in Madison, where Gov. Walter Koehler urged:
A MATTER OF TREMENDOUS IMPORTANCE TO THE STATE OF WISCONSIN AND THE CITY OF MILWAUKEE. I SINCERELY HOPE THAT THE INTEREST OF THE PUBLIC WILL NOT BE OVERLOOKED.
Perini needed all the muscle he could get, because he was seeking permission to do the unprecedented. Though comparatively new to baseball politics, Perini understood how old boys operated. If he was going to ask them to change the way the game had always been structured, he had better have a lot of money ready to come into the league. Perini could build all the highways he wanted, but he knew that nothing whetted the appetites of owners like cash.
On March 18, 1953, Perini’s pitch lasted an hour. Behind closed doors, he argued that baseball could not survive in its present state. That the Red Sox were squeezing the Braves out of Boston was only a symptom of the gross inequity Perini believed existed. He argued that too much power and money was in New York City, and that too much of it belonged to the Yankees, which was not only to the detriment of the Braves, but to the New York Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the National League as a whole. Perini geared his arguments to sway Giants owner Horace Stoneham and Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, predicting that within a decade, New York would no longer be a three-team town. Either some teams were going to have to find new cities with new stadiums, or they would be buried under the rotting wood of their ancient ballparks. Perini, with his fist on the table and his eyes on Stoneham and O’Malley, said the Braves would go first and, in the process, prove that baseball was growing bigger than the original sixteen teams that had founded the modern major leagues in 1903.
Stoneham could smell the money. He had the best young player in baseball, but even if Willie Mays returned from the army in time for the 1954 season, he was not optimistic about ticket sales. His ballpark, the Polo Grounds, was a horse-and-buggy trapped in the atomic age. He was tired of playing in the shadow of the Yankees and embraced Perini’s desire to escape the Red Sox. He dreamed along with Perini and wanted his own territory far away from the Northeast. Stoneham wiped the lenses of his thick glasses and saw the new frontiers Perini was seeing. He threw him his support, and now Perini was one vote away.
O’Malley was the most stubborn and most powerful owner in the National League. His best players were in their best years and he didn’t want to break up a good thing, but he also knew that they wouldn’t play forever, and when it was over, Ebbets Field was as good as dust. Though O’Malley hated tampering with tradition, he hated the termites in his ballpark more. When he agreed with Stoneham, Perini had New York cornered. The other five owners waved their cigars and voted yes, giving Perini the unanimous decision he needed and Giles the power to ratify. Lou Perini owed Horace Stoneham the first case of Miller High Life. The Boston Braves were now officially the Milwaukee Braves.
Perini emerged from the meeting drenched with sweat, fatigued but victorious. Fred G. Fleig, Giles’s assistant, marveled at Perini’s abilities. “I have listened to a lot of good sales talks in my time, but none better than Perini’s,” Fleig said. “He’s baseball’s greatest salesman.” David Perini described his father as a man whose energy allowed him to “stand and talk to people until they were exhausted.”
The bulldozer dislodged a team that had been in Boston for seventy-five years and made the National League’s first move in fifty years. No team had ever moved so far west. He held his head high and remembered his father. Now it was his turn to take the wagon. When a reporter asked him how he was able to win the other owners, he noted, “All I can say is that I’m glad Veeck isn’t in our league.”
Perini was jubilant but nostalgic. He still had the heart of a Boston Braves fan, but his business sense prevailed. “I feel certain that Milwaukee will make a very fine representative in the National League,” he said. “It is a major league city in every sense of the word … manufacturing, the people, the surroundings, everything about it. They had the fortitude to go out and build facilities for a major league club. Other large cities can take a page from Milwaukee’s book.”
Much of the country couldn’t see Perini’s vision yet, starting with the sportswriters, who were the first to rip Milwaukee. The baseball writers were a rigid and archaic New York–based establishment who demanded East Coast supremacy. The departure of the Boston Braves endangered every storyline they built their daily game reports upon, which, taken after decades, constructed a historical narrative they felt Perini jeopardized in favor of a hick town. They believed baseball lore needed the Dodgers against the Giants, each striving to beat the Yankees in the World Series. What would happen if one of those teams left New York? The Yankees needed the Red Sox to bully and the Red Sox needed the Boston Braves to feel better about life. Perini refused to buy into the storylines. This endeared him to Milwaukee fans and made their city a target for the East Coast, which could be every bit as hostile as a hard-throwing headhunter.
Prejudices permeated baseball on and off the field. It was easy to detect subtle traces of ethnic bias, from the “deeply tanned construction magnate” Perini, a nod to his Italian blood, to the working-class German Milwaukee population only eight years removed from World War II. The East Coast, as seen through the eyes of the press, simply could not view Milwaukee as an equal. They were somehow a lesser form of life, working stiffs in a factory town, the little people who deserved little respect. Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich was a vocal critic. “A big league park doesn’t make a big league town,” he wrote, insisting that Milwaukee was not a “lush new territory,” that “Milwaukee fans are not noted for being fast with a buck,” and that the “strongly German-American town, the last outpost of the 10-cent bottle of beer,” should never be confused with Baltimore, where Veeck planned to move the Browns instead, “who take a team to their hearts.”
In New York, where Casey Stengel’s Yankees were in the midst of winning the World Series in five consecutive seasons, the skeptical response was expected. No members of the 1950s media were more powerful than the big-city sports columnists, whose words swayed the city, and whose circulation figures gave them the impression that small-town America thought big city America did all the thinking for them. “Good or bad, Milwaukee will support the Braves until the novelty wears off,” New York Daily News columnist Dan Parker predicted. “They’d better be good or else it will be off to Buffalo or maybe Cedar Rapids.”
Writers and fans in Los Angeles and San Francisco dreamed of becoming the next cities to get a big league team. Both cities had been vital towns to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League for fifty years, the top minor league in the country, where most teams had loose affiliations with major league teams. They called themselves the Third Major League, but since World War II, Los Angeles and San Francisco had started to wonder when the actual major leagues would come to the coast. In New York and Boston, this was a far-flung notion, and if expansion to San Francisco and Los Angeles depended on the woebegone Braves succeeding in Milwaukee, the writers would take that bet every time.
“Milwaukee’s fans are like no other in the majors,” Povich concluded. “In the first place, they’re the newest. In the second place, they don’t know as much baseball. A bit more than half a century ago, Milwaukee was in the majors for a spell, but the city has been bush ever since.”
Bush league. Nothing poked a stick in the eye of Milwaukee more than the idea that they were “Bushers,” the ancient baseball term for a minor leaguer, a player who was not talented enough to compete with the best. Busher was code—it meant you weren’t good enough to be here, you don’t belong, you should stay away from the big time. In the eyes of New York, Milwaukee was strictly Bushville. The term was derogatory and condescending. It implied that even though Milwaukee had the Braves, they were not major league people.
Proud Wisconsin fans were infuriated and invigorated. In the next few years they would join together in a common cause, not unlike the war effort of a decade before. Milwaukee would lead the charge for all of the Midwest, all of those working-class families like the ones Lou Perini had once fetched water for, like the ones who drank Fred Miller’s beer. They would take on Wall Street from Main Street to prove that Milwaukee and the Midwest were every bit as American as the big cities back east. Now they had the Braves, their darlings, who would help show the rest of the country what working people were made of.
When news that the move had been approved reached the spring training baseball field in Bradenton, Florida on March 18th, the Braves were in the fifth inning and winning, 3–0.
The next few days were a whirlwind. “Our family didn’t even find out the team was moving until the stuff was on the bus,” David Perini said. Players who had come up in the minors in Milwaukee were thrilled to be returning, calling the fans there the best they had ever known. Meanwhile, Perini penned a personal letter profusely apologizing to and refunding the 420 Boston Braves season-ticket holders. He also visited Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and asked him to continue the Jimmy Fund. Players needed housing and apartments, chores that fell on the wives. Single young players made plans to sleep on the couches of veteran players once the team made it north. Pitcher Warren Spahn reluctantly abandoned the restaurant he had recently opened in Boston.
Equipment had to be re-routed to Milwaukee. Travel arrangements had to be hastily made and clubhouse boys opened a can of white paint, crossed out BOSTON on the team’s steamer trunks and painted MILWAUKEE in its place, misspelling it on the first try. Roland Hemond, a young front-office clerk who got his start with the Braves because he was willing to sweep bleachers after minor league games in Hartford, was assigned to ship the team’s scouting reports to Milwaukee before he was dispatched there to help open the ticket office.
Days before the tickets were finished printing, Hemond got a glimpse of what was in store for the new Milwaukee Braves: fans were waiting for tickets in long lines in the snow. The Boston Braves had to beg for cash; now, money was arriving in the mail for the Milwaukee Braves before the tickets were printed. From Milwaukee, Michigan, and Minnesota, the Heartland was coming in droves. Hemond and his friends felt so inspired and guilty that the tickets weren’t ready yet that they walked the lines, handing out free cups of hot coffee. The city’s two newspapers—the morning coffee, white-collar, and erudite Milwaukee Journal (the Journal) and its scrappy blue-collar competitor, the afternoon beer and lunch pail Milwaukee Sentinel (the Sentinel)—covered the story with competitive fervor their New York journalism contemporaries scarcely believed they possessed.
When the Braves posed for the 1953 team picture a few days later, half of the players were still wearing their Boston Braves caps instead of the new Milwaukee Braves hats with the bold white capital M threaded over a dark-blue canopy atop a red bill. Red, white and blue, they were Milwaukee’s All-American boys. Perini’s baseball man, General Manager John Quinn, had been wisely breaking in a core of young players as well as scouting and developing minor leaguers that the team would bring to Milwaukee. Over the next couple of weeks, the Sentinel ran “Know Your Milwaukee Braves” vignettes, and soon, young players from the Boston Braves like third baseman Eddie Mathews, shortstop Johnny Logan, catcher Del Crandall, pitcher Lew Burdette and veteran lefty Warren Spahn were Wisconsin superstars.
The rest of the country wasn’t so sure that any of this adulation would last. The Braves didn’t exactly have the reputation for winning. The fans were going to have to prove they could support a team and the players were going to have to prove they could win in an era when the World Series was the exclusive domain of New York City. On the day they heard the news, the Braves blew the game and lost 5–3 to none other than the New York Yankees, whose manager, Casey Stengel, was never one to forgive and forget a team and an owner that had once fired him.
Milwaukee, however, was waiting for its team with open arms. Mayor Frank Zeidler played cheerleader, capitalizing as the local politician who made Milwaukee major league. He was arm in arm with Fred Miller, who urged fans to come out in full force. Zeidler saw a potent public platform. “The team satisfies the ego of our population,” the mayor explained. “We have long felt we are a capable people, but because of our peculiar geography, tucked away as we are behind Lake Michigan, our voice has not been heard in the land.”
You could practically hear Zeidler bending the red brim of his fresh new Braves cap. “This is a means of letting people know we exist,” he said. “A whole reservoir of interest has been dammed up and here is the release for it. Here, a man’s world is his church, his tavern and his lodge. This is an expression of the underdog.”
The New York Times couldn’t resist the mayor’s emotional call, reporting that Zeidler’s “voice took on a faint lyrical pitch” before “he wiped his glasses with a triumphantly weary flourish.” Then he spoke the words that summarized his town, his team, and his time. Speaking for the people of Milwaukee, who dreamed that one day they would be seen as big league and get a shot at the mighty New York Yankees and the New York baseball dynasty, to be seen as equals in the eyes of baseball and America, “This,” he said, “is David versus Goliath.”
Copyright © 2012 by John Klima