A change will do you good
A DIGNIFIED CROWD: Honey Fitz (second from left) was a regular at the team’s watering hole.
The Braves’ fortunes took a turn after moving to Milwaukee: they played before a record 1.8 million ecstatic fans their first season in a brand new stadium; Eddie Mathews won the home-run title; and Spahn led the league with 23 wins. They won the World Series in ’57 and added another pennant in ’58.
In 1966, taking advantage of the burgeoning Southern market, the team headed to Atlanta, where their success was even greater: pennants in ’91, ’92, ’96, and ’99, a World Series in ’95, and 11 straight division titles. Broadcast nationwide on owner Ted Turner’s WTBS, they were marketed as “America’s Team.”
All that glory contrasts sharply with the team’s final years in Boston. “The handwriting was on the wall when only 200-something thousand came in 1952,” says Johnson. “Only two games topped 10,000, which was hard to believe. The Braves were at the cutting edge, but they were the second team in a town that, at times, didn’t even support the Red Sox that well.”
So many what-ifs. What if there had been a Red Sox-Braves World Series in 1948? And what if the Braves had won? Might we be rooting for John Smoltz instead of Curt Schilling?
“I still get a lot of calls and a lot of letters,” says Altison, “stating that the wrong team left Boston.”
Luckily, before leaving for Milwaukee, the Braves handed the reins of one of their signature achievements off to the Red Sox: the Jimmy Fund. Although it’s impossible to diminish the great work the Red Sox have done with the Jimmy Fund over the last five decades, it’s hardly ever remembered that it was the Braves who were the favorite team of the original “Jimmy,” the late Einar Gustafson. It was Braves players who crowded into his hospital room when he appeared on Truth or Consequences. It was Ashland-born owner Lou Perini who founded the charity with Braves PR man Billy Sullivan.
“The Jimmy Fund was a stroke of genius,” says Johnson. “Taking a medical institution, pairing it with a team, and using it for philanthropic ends. Completely cutting edge. The Jimmy Fund is the lasting tribute to that franchise.”
And so are the Boston fans — ever fewer of them — who still root for their team, even as the Braves play in front of 50,000 tomahawk-choppin’ fans at Atlanta’s Turner Field. BBHA’s Byron Magrane remembers talking to one old timer in his local corner store in Revere who was wearing a cap with an “A” on it.
“I said, ‘Why aren’t you a Red Sox fan?’ He said, ‘The Red Sox aren’t my team. The Braves are my team. They’ve always been my team, and they’re the team I’m going to root for until the day I die.’ ”
As the Red Sox flourish, the Braves’ legacy fades ever faster. Altison recites the names of former players who’ve passed away since the beginning of last year: Sibby Sisti. Johnny Sain. Lew Burdette. Buddy Kerr. Ray Berres, the oldest Brave, died in February at age 99.
Slowly, living memory is disappearing. “You put a lot of effort into rooting for these teams and then one day they’re gone,” says Magrane. “This team was around for years. It had generations of fans. And now no one seems to care about them. Kind of sad, in a way.”