755 Hank Aaron Drive
The Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc., better known as the Atlanta Braves, is the oldest professional baseball team in continuous operation. Previously at home in Boston and Milwaukee, the Braves are located in Atlanta where owner and media mogul Ted Turner has dubbed them "America's Team." After more than a hundred years of intermittent success, the Braves under Turner's ownership have become one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball, proving to be a consistent winner throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century.
The Braves were originally the Red Stockings of Boston, the direct descendants of the first openly professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, which from 1869 to 1870 toured the country taking on all comers. When the team returned to amateur status, Harry Wright, the player-manager, took some teammates as well as the club nickname to Boston to play in the newly formed National Association, the first professional sports league in the country. The Red Stockings won four pennants during the five-year history of the National Association. However, the team lost some of its best players to the newly formed National League in 1876, and then opted to join the league that remains in operation today.
Boston had another run of successful clubs in the 1890s, playing under the name "Beaneaters." A new rival major league, the American League, started play in 1901. It created a Boston franchise that not only took one of the Beaneaters' best players, Jimmy Collins, it eventually appropriated the club's old nickname, becoming the Red Sox in 1909, and quickly began to lure away its fans as well. The Beaneaters helped to accelerate the process by fielding a succession of poor clubs and changing managers on a regular basis. The team also changed names, becoming the Doves in 1906 after two brothers, George and John Dovey, bought the team. In 1910 the franchise was sold to a syndicate headed by William Hepburn Russell and became known as the "Rustlers." Following Russell's death in 1911, the team was sold to James Gaffney who had ties to the New York City political machine, Tammany Hall. Tammany, named after a Delaware Indian chief, referred to its leaders as "Chiefs." It seemed appropriate to call Gaffney's players the "Braves," a name that would follow the club to Milwaukee and Atlanta.
The "Miracle" of 1914
After 14 years without contending for a league pennant, the Braves began the 1914 season with renewed hope, but the team lost 18 of its first 22 games and was mired in last place by July 4, the traditional halfway point in the baseball season. Boston then began an historic comeback, climbing steadily through the standings, and within five weeks overtook the New York Giants for first place. The club would go on to win the pennant by 10 1/2 games, then defeat the highly favored Philadelphia A's in the World Series. It would become forever known in baseball lore as the "Miracle Braves" of 1914.
Many of the key games late in the regular season, as well as the World Series, were played in Fenway Park, the home of the cross-town rival Red Sox. The Braves' ballpark, the South End Grounds, had been originally built in 1876 but was too small to accommodate the number of fans who now wanted to watch the team. In August of 1915 the Braves opened a new facility, Braves Field, the last in a wave of concrete-and-steel ballparks that ushered in baseball's modern era. Gaffney, who enjoyed the action of an inside-the-park home run, had the field designed to suit his tastes. The distances from home plate to the outfield seem incredible by today's standards. Down the foul lines the walls were 402 feet away; to dead center the distance was 550 feet. Braves Field was also the largest ballpark in terms of seating capacity. On its opening day it held more than 40,000 fans, then the largest crowd to ever watch a baseball game. The Red Sox would borrow the park for the 1915 and 1916 World Series, making it three consecutive years that a team would eschew the home field advantage in favor of increased attendance.
Ownership Changes and Season Slumps
Unfortunately for the Braves, the miracle season of 1914 and the opening of a new ballpark in 1915 would not begin a period of renewed prosperity. The team would soon tumble to the bottom of the standings, and the Red Sox would solidify a hold on the loyalty of Boston's baseball fans. New ownership took over the Braves in 1918, but the New York group headed by George Washington Grant only added to the team's decline. Fans who worried that Grant was too close to John McGraw, the New York Giants' manager, seemed justified after a series of trades between the two teams clearly favored the Giants.
Following a season in which they lost one hundred games, the Braves again changed ownership in 1923. The new owner, Judge Emil Fuchs, brought in legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson to run the team, but the Braves continued to lose. It was little consolation that the Red Sox were suffering a similar fate. They were trading their best players, most notably Babe Ruth, to another New York team, the Yankees. Both the Braves and the Red Sox endured poor attendance during a period when, overall, baseball was enjoying a golden era of prosperity.
By 1935, in the midst of a national depression, Fuchs was in such dire financial shape that he made plans to install a dog racing track in the outfield of Braves Field, a concept that the National League rejected. Fuchs then turned to an aging star in hopes that he could stimulate ticket sales. That player was Babe Ruth, but years of hard living had finally caught up to the Babe. He was overweight and unable to shake an assortment of nagging injuries. He had a few bright moments, however, such as a three-home run game in Pittsburgh, but essentially Ruth was just a shadow of his former self, and he retired before the end of the season. The 1935 Braves would lose 115 games, the worst record of a National League team for the century, eclipsing even the woeful 1962 expansion New York Mets.
After Fuchs stepped down as president of the club, the partners of the franchise reorganized and chose Bob Quinn to run the team. The first thing he did was to conduct a fan poll for a new nickname. As the Boston Bees for the next six seasons, the team would do no better in the standings. A new group of investors from the Boston construction industry, headed by Lou Perini, bought the team and restored the Braves nickname. Perini also insisted that better days lay ahead for the franchise.
The Braves began to turn around with the hiring of manager Billy Southworth, lured away from St. Louis, where he had led the Cardinals to three pennants in six years. In 1946 Southworth's Braves won 81 games, finishing 151/2 games out of first place. The following season the team won 86 games, only eight games behind the pennant winners. In 1948 Southworth would lead the Braves to their first World Series appearance in over 30 years. Although the Braves lost to the Cleveland Indians in six games, the club still enjoyed a hugely successful year. The Braves drew 1.45 million in attendance and turned a robust profit. As had happened following the 1914 season, however, prosperity seemed to be short-lived for the franchise. Dependent on too many aging veteran ballplayers, the Braves began to drop in the standings, finishing fourth the next three years, with attendance slipping as well. When the team finished 1952 in seventh place, 32 games out of first, only 281,000 fans had attended Braves Field. Less than a mile away in Fenway Park, the Red Sox drew well over a million. Braves' management lost almost $600,000, and the newspapers were reporting rumors that Perini was looking to move the franchise to another city. The leading candidate was Milwaukee.
The 1953 Move to Milwaukee
Milwaukee was home to the Brewers, the Braves' minor league affiliate, and had just built a stadium in hopes of gaining a major league team. The St. Louis Browns, who like the Braves were the second team in a two-team town, were known to be eager to move to Milwaukee. Perini was able to block the move because of the Brewers connection to the Braves, but because he had promised the city to not stand in the way of Milwaukee getting a major league team, he put himself in an awkward position. Publicly he still held out hope to Boston that the Braves would give its fans two more years to support the team. During spring training the team appeared ready to open the season in Boston, then the Sporting News reported that the Braves would move to Milwaukee before the season opened. The next day Perini held a news conference to confirm the story. The franchise would now be known as the Milwaukee Braves. It would be the first realignment in Major League Baseball in over 50 years, and would lead to more teams changing cities in the next few seasons.
Milwaukee welcomed their new big league team with enthusiasm. The Braves led baseball in attendance for 1953, drawing more than 1.8 million fans. The next year they became only the third team to break the two million barrier, drawing almost twice as many fans as the next leading National League franchise. The Braves would draw more than two million for three more years in succession. The team also began to build a contending ballclub. After a second place finish in 1956, the Braves won the National League pennant in 1957 and squared off against the New York Yankees in the World Series. A Game 7 victory brought the franchise its second World Series title.
Although the Braves would again win the National League Pennant in 1958, home attendance dipped below the two million mark. The team again met the Yankees in the World Series, this time losing in seven. The following season featured a tight pennant race, yet attendance continued to drop. When the Braves and Dodgers finished the season in a tie that forced a three-game playoff, only 20,000 fans attended the first game of the playoff, which the Braves lost.
The love affair between Milwaukee and the Braves had clearly lost its passion. Although the Braves continued to be a winning team, over the next several seasons they never seriously contended for the National League pennant. In 1962 the Braves failed to draw more than a million fans for the first time since moving to Milwaukee, netting only 766,921 in attendance. A Chicago-based syndicate headed by William Bartholomay bought the team, and was soon denying rumors that the Braves were planning to move once again, this time to Atlanta. Milwaukee area officials were not pleased, and animosity between the team's management and the local government would escalate over the next two seasons. The Braves were accused of intentionally playing to lose ball games in 1964, supposedly to embarrass the city. Team president John McHale threatened to sue Milwaukee County Chairman Eugene Grobschmidt for slander. When it seemed apparent that the Braves were preparing to leave for Atlanta in 1965, Milwaukee County filed suit in hopes of keeping the franchise, accusing the team of antitrust violations. After the Braves countersued, the county board rejected a $500,000 cash settlement that would have allowed the Braves to immediately leave for Atlanta.
The 1965 season was played under a cloud, as the team's management and elected officials continued to fight in the newspapers as well as in court. The Braves played relatively well, finishing ten games over .500, but 11 games out of first place. Attendance collapsed, falling to 555,000. The situation in Milwaukee was obviously untenable, and ownership decided to simply relocate to Atlanta for the following season and allow the pending lawsuit of the city to run its course. A circuit judge then ruled that the Braves had violated Wisconsin's antitrust laws: the National League either had to find a new team for the city or return the Braves within a month. After the league won an appeal to the state supreme court, the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided not to hear the case. The Braves, which had started in the Northeast and moved to the Midwest, were now a southern team, owned by the Atlanta-LaSalle Corporation based in Chicago.
As had Milwaukee, Atlanta embraced the newcomers. The Braves drew more than 1.5 million in the first season. In 1969 the team won a division title, losing to the Mets in the League Championship Series. Then the Braves began to slide in the standings, and as a result attendance suffered. What had happened to the franchise in Milwaukee appeared to be replicating itself in Atlanta. After five seasons of drawing more than a million, the Braves dipped below the mark in 1972, attracting little more than 750,000 fans. By 1975 attendance would drop to 534,672, a total less than what the Braves had drawn in their final, lame-duck season in Milwaukee ten years earlier. Again there were rumors of the franchise relocating, either to Denver or Toronto. At the very least, the owners were looking to sell the franchise. The club found a local suitor who had been televising Braves' games for the past three seasons. That man was Ted Turner.
1976: Ted Turner and "America's Team"
Turner inherited a billboard company from his father, then in 1970 purchased a low-powered Atlanta UHF station that featured old movies and television reruns. The Braves' television contract with WSB, an NBC affiliate, paid the club $200,000 a year to broadcast twenty road games. In need of programming, Turner offered $600,000 for five years to broadcast sixty games each season. In need of cash, ownership accepted, even though much of Atlanta was unable to clearly receive Turner's station. Turner then created a Braves television network by making his station available to a number of Southern markets by microwave transmission. The Braves were quickly becoming a regional team, and Turner's station was escaping its local confines.
When Turner decided to deliver his station to cable systems nationwide by satellite, thus turning it into a "superstation," securing the rights to the Braves became paramount. For that reason he bought the team for $11 million on January 6, 1976. As Turner's WTBS became available to viewers around the country, the Braves would acquire a national following, prompting Turner to declare them "America's Team." Meanwhile, Turner tried every promotional angle he could think of to increase attendance. His best gimmick, perhaps, was playing the role of folk hero: the champion of the little guy who was tired of seeing the local ballclub get kicked around. Attendance began to rise even though the team continued to struggle on the field.
Turner was a controversial owner. He upset Major League Baseball when he decided to manage his team for a day. When he openly tampered with a free agent player, Gary Matthews, Turner was suspended for the 1977 season and prohibited from exercising any control in the management of the team. When he was reinstated, Turner would exert less day-to-day influence on the Braves, preoccupied with founding an all-news cable station, which would become known as CNN, as well as other media ventures. Still, Turner was committed to making the Braves a winning franchise, both for the sake of his hometown and the television ratings that would determine the ad rates WTBS could charge.
Although the Braves finished last in their division from 1976 to 1979, the club was retooling its management and improving player talent. By 1982 the Braves would win a division championship. Although the team would again sink in the standings and attendance would be spotty, there was no doubt that Turner was committed to making the Braves a perennial winner. Following three straight last place finishes, the franchise turned the corner in 1991. Featuring a solid pitching staff, the franchise would play in the World Series for the first time in over 30 years. Although it lost to the Minnesota Twins in seven games, the Atlanta Braves served notice to the rest of baseball that the club was now able to live up to the inflated aspirations of its colorful owner.
Pitching and a minor league system stocked with talent became the hallmarks of the Braves in the 1990s. Although the team would win only one World Series, 1995, it would appear in four others and win its division title every year from 1991 through 2000, with the exception of 1994 when a players' strike brought the season to an abrupt close. No other team in baseball won as consistently as the Braves during this period. In 1992 the team drew three million fans for the first time in franchise history.
When Turner sold Turner Broadcasting to Time Warner the team became part of the media giant, but remained under Turner's control. In 1996 the team was able to use the Atlanta Olympics as a way to replace aging Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Braves management and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games worked together to build the Olympic stadium so that when the games were over, the structure could be converted into a new baseball park. Less than eight months after the closing ceremonies for the Olympics, the Braves had a new home, Turner Field. A new facility for a winning ballclub added greatly to the worth of the franchise. The team that Ted Turner had bought for $11 million in 1976 was estimated by Forbes to be worth $348 million by May 2000.
Principal Competitors: New York Mets; Florida Marlins; Philadelphia Phillies; Montreal Expos.