This Week in Wisconsin History

Baseball returns to Milwaukee

By - Apr 4th, 2012 12:34 am
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On April 1, 1970, major league baseball returned to Milwaukee after Bud Selig purchased the bankrupt Seattle Pilots and renamed them the Milwaukee Brewers. With Opening Day quickly approaching, bitter Milwaukeeans had a week to convert to Brewers fans after losing the Braves to Atlanta five years earlier.

“People were kind of turned off by baseball after the Braves left,” says Rick Schabowski, President of the Ken Keltner Badger State Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research. “It was the first loss of innocence and the first time that fans saw baseball as a business rather than a sport.”

Milwaukee Braves logo (Public Domain image)

Despite the Braves never having a losing record in their 13 seasons in Milwaukee and boasting a World Series Championship, declining attendance at Milwaukee County Stadium led to the team’s downfall, says Schabowski. He points to a number of contributing factors including the Minnesota Twins moving into the region, not only drawing in western Wisconsin crowds, but also cutting into Wisconsin’s TV and radio markets. Additionally, a new city ordinance that took effect in 1961 that banned spectators from bringing their own beer to the stadium was undoubtedly unpopular among fans.

At the same time, Atlanta was luring in prospective teams by building a state-of-the-art stadium in an untapped regional market for major league baseball, mirroring the motives for the Braves leaving Boston and moving to Milwaukee in 1953, says Schabowski.  Soon after the Braves’ relocation to Atlanta for the 1965 season was announced, a court order filed by the Milwaukee County Board delayed the inevitable move, resulting in a lame duck season in Milwaukee that alienated many fans and did little to boost attendance.

“People were really upset about losing baseball because it really was a love affair with Milwaukee and its players,” says Schabowski. “When things went sour, people bore animosities toward it.”

Milwaukee County Stadium, circa 2000. (Photo: Barrel Man Sammy via flickr.com)

However, Bud Selig turned his frustration into passion and became one of the major heroes in bringing baseball back to Milwaukee, says Schabowski. He immediately formed Teams, Inc., an organization dedicated to lobbying for a new baseball team. The group succeeded in hosting a number of White Sox games at the otherwise dormant county stadium, but failed in its plan to move the team to Milwaukee. After also failing to land an expansion team in two consecutive years, it appeared as if Milwaukee would not shake the stigma of losing a major league baseball team.

Then Selig turned his sights to the Seattle Pilots, a losing venture that had gone bankrupt during its first season. After it became clear that no one in Washington was able to purchase the team, Selig purchased the Pilots out of bankruptcy and moved them to Milwaukee.

Schabowski was among the throng of brand-new Brewers fans to welcome the team at General Mitchell Field and attended the team’s first Opening Day. Though he says the celebration did not match the elaborate parades and ceremonies of the Braves’ debut, everyone was very appreciative.

“It’s tough to get a team back after you lose it,” he says. “People were excited to be a big league city again. We could see the stars play in Milwaukee.”

More events from this week in Wisconsin history

April 5, 1860: Wisconsin Congressman John F. Potter is challenged to a duel by Virginia representative Roger Pryor amid debates over slavery. Potter accepted with the request that bowie knives be used as the weapon in a closed room. Pryor declined, but the event was widely sensationalized and prompted Potter’s supporters to send him knives, including a six-foot long knife presented to Potter at the Republican Party national convention a month later. Conflict with southern congressmen wasn’t new for Potter who had been involved in a fist fight two years earlier on the House floor with pro-slavery members of Congress.

A campaign poster for Socialist candidate Eugene Debs, two years after the first Socialist Mayor was elected in the City of Milwaukee.

April 5, 1910: Milwaukee elects its first Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, along with Socialist majorities to the Common Council and the County Board., marking the first victory for a Socialist in a major US city.  Milwaukee continued the trend for the next 38 out of 50 years with the election of Mayor Daniel Hoan in 1916 who served until 1940 and Frank Zeidler who served from 1948 to 1960.

April 7, 1947: Telephone service in Wisconsin abruptly switched to an emergency only basis when 340,000 members of the National Federation of Telephone Workers Telephone members went on strike across the nation, including 8,000 union members in Wisconsin. The workers demanded a $12 increase in weekly pay along with improved pensions and vacations, but negotiations with AT&T and Bell failed to progress by the deadline of 8 a.m. The strike ended about a month later, with most negotiations taking place locally.

The Battle of Big Axe (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

April 6, 1932: After moving east across the Mississippi, complying with a government order, a group of 1200 Sauk tribe members led by Black Hawk returned to their homeland on the Rock River a year later. After the government failed to follow through with its promise of providing supplies and allowing the Sauk to return to their original lands to harvest corn, the Sauk hoped to reclaim their land. They were met with no allies and much opposition from the U.S. Army, resulting in several weeks of bloodshed until Black Hawk and his group of 150 survivors surrendered after the Battle of Big Axe on August 1, 1932.

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