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Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009

Home of the Braves

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The monument goes mostly unnoticed as baseball fans stream toward Miller Park. The three stone tablets face away from the main walkway to the stadium, and many of the names inscribed there mean nothing to folks under 50 anyway. That’s a shame, because they are part of a team, and a time, that made Milwaukee proud.

The tablets outside Helfaer Field, on the site of dearly departed County Stadium, list the players whose blue-and-red caps bore a plain white “M” and whose shirts read “Braves.” From 1953-’65, they gave the city 13 straight winning records, two National League pennants and the only World Series championship celebrated here. And they inspired love and loyalty remarkable even for an era when fans and players were less jaded.

And oh, what might have been. Fifty years ago the Braves completed a four-year run that came achingly close to making them one of the top dynasties in major-league history.

The team, transplanted from Boston in ‘53, was on the rise. The pitchers included Warren Spahn, who would set a record for left-handers with 363 victories, and crafty right-hander Lew Burdette, who would beat the mighty New York Yankees three times to secure the 1957 World Series. In the lineup were third baseman Eddie Mathews, a future Hall of Famer; slugging first baseman Joe Adcock; fleet outfielder Billy Bruton; and the steady duo of catcher Del Crandall and shortstop Johnny Logan. In 1954 Milwaukee received its crown jewel, a quiet outfielder named Hank Aaron who would glorify the game for two decades. The cast was perfect and the audience responded with what was called “the Miracle of Milwaukee.” In ‘53 the Braves set an NL attendance record of more than 1.8 million, and in each of the next four years more than 2 million packed the small market’s modest ballyard.

They were well-rewarded. A year after reaching the summit the Braves were one victory away from humbling the Yankees again, but the 1958 World Series slipped away with three straight losses. The Braves would have joined the 1921 and ‘22 New York Giants as the only teams to beat the Yankees in two straight Octobers.

And consider this: The Braves finished one game behind the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1956 pennant, and in ‘59 they tied the Dodgers (in Los Angeles by then) but lost a playoff series for the flag. So Milwaukee was three victories away from taking four straight pennants— something only the 1921-’24 Giants have done in the NL.

To most fans, baseball in the ‘50s means Mickey Mantle’s Yankees and the “Boys of Summer” Dodgers. A few more timely hits or fortunate bounces would have raised the Braves to the same height. The ‘60s brought sorrow. The Braves faded from contention and attendance slid, going under 1 million in 1962. The team was sold that November, and three years later it was gone as the ownership group chased another miracle in Atlanta. Baseball returned with the Brewers in 1970, but for some the pain never eased.

Still, if you ask an old-timer about Milwaukee’s Braves, you’re likely to see a smile and hear about a better time when fans didn’t feel separated from players by oceans of money. And if you ask a former Milwaukee Brave about the town you’ll see a smile and hear that the love was returned. So next time you go to Miller Park, drop by those simple tablets. You might find yourself wishing you’d been a part of it all.

Milwaukee Color is brought to you by WMSE 91.7

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