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Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012

Year of the Braves

When Milwaukee Took the World Series

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A number of remarkable circumstances had to come together to make the 1957 World Series the once-in-a-lifetime, cosmic drama that it was. John Klima gets to the heart of the circumstances in Bushville Wins!: The Wild Saga of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and the Screwballs, Sluggers, and Beer Swiggers Who Canned the New York Yankees and Changed Baseball (St. Martin’s Press).

Construction magnate and Braves owner Lou Perini had a vision that Milwaukee would be a good place for his faltering team in Boston. He had to convince a lot of very unconvinced people that Milwaukee was the right place at the right time to start the “Westward Ho!” movement of baseball. The dream might have ended if Perini had not formed an almost spiritual partnership with Fred Miller and the citizens of Milwaukee. Miller, president of Miller Brewing Co. at the time, had the clout to help make it happen and Milwaukee got itself a team to go completely gaga over. Aaron, Burdette, Spahn, Mathews, Buhl, Pafko, et al., became legends in their own time.

Bushville Wins! is a close study of the Milwaukee Braves and baseball in the mid-20th century. Racism was the norm at this time and players, even Braves, would casually use the “n” word. Young Henry Aaron, who never saw a pitch he couldn’t hit, stood tall against this backdrop—nothing was going to make him lose focus. Older African-American center fielder Billy Bruton took Aaron under his wing and Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella became Aaron’s role models.

For the Braves, anyway, racism came to an end when they forged their championship team and became brothers in pursuit of the Holy Grail.

The real drama in Klima’s story starts when hung-over third baseman Eddie Mathews flubs an easy ground ball and gives the ’56 National League pennant to the archrival Brooklyn Dodgers. “Jolly Cholly” Charlie Grimm was fired as manager and little dictator Fred Haney was brought on board. At spring training in 1957, Haney had the talented but self-indulgent team running until they puked and then running again. He told them it was alright if they hated him, but to “think of those World Series checks.” He made the sluggers master the fundamentals of defensive baseball and the fielders learn how to hit.

The Braves who opened the ’57 season were a different team from the year before. They had become champions in their hearts and would go on to face the New York Yankees in the World Series. The Yankees and the national press fed Milwaukee and the Braves more than a bellyful of condescension, insults and incredulity. They were “bush leaguers,” overrun with beer, brats and blue-collar nobodies. Read John Klima’s book to find out how they made baseball history and exacted a revenge that was as supreme as it was sublime.