All sports fans learn that players and teams fail. But because sports teams were integrated, I, and perhaps other boys my age, were too optimistic about race relations. My baseball team, the Milwaukee Braves, also brought home to me another lesson not confronted by all sports fans. I encountered it when I was in college, that time when adulthood was supposed to be upon me, but aspects of boyhood still lingered.
At my college in those days, baseball was not considered cool. Few of my classmates indicated an attachment to a team. I did not broadcast that I was a Braves fan, but every day I sought out the box scores from the previous evening to see how the Braves, and more particularly, Henry Aaron, had done. This often took some effort because the eastern school got early editions of New York City newspapers, and they often did not have the box scores from games not played on the East Coast. This would keep me scrambling to find later and later editions. Until I could find out what happened the night before, I felt something like I do now when I have not had my regular quotient of morning coffee.
Then it changed. A Chicago-based group bought the Braves, and they determined that they could make more money if they moved the team to Atlanta. In what increasingly became the norm for sports, television and radio revenues were the controlling factors. While attendance in Milwaukee had dropped off since the Braves’ early days there, the crowds were still respectable. The Braves’ broadcast market, however, was limited to Wisconsin with no way to grow (Chicago had its own teams), and this was a fraction of the market available to an Atlanta team that could hope to capture fans, and ears and eyeballs, throughout the South.
I had assumed without really thinking about it that I would be a Milwaukee Braves fan all my life and that this would always bring back the joys and agonies of my boyish summers. Of course, I knew that money was involved in the game. Players got paid; admission got charged. The essence of baseball, however, was competition, the matchup of pitcher and batter, sunshine, cool evenings, radio voices, a community of fans. Now I saw it differently. A community may have seen the Braves as their team, but they were wrong. It was not a communal team. Ownership and money triumphed over community.
A court order required the Braves to stay in Milwaukee one more year, and I kept hoping that the move would not happen. I went to some games in that forlorn year and got some more baseball memories: I saw Don Drysdale hit Mike de la Hoz in the chest, producing a crack like a pistol shot. I watched Maury Wills get picked off first base twice in an afternoon. But it was all sadness, and at the end of the season the Braves decamped.
The Braves had taught me about ups and downs, human failings and successes. They taught me about the optimism of waiting until next year. They taught me that to succeed one had to risk failure and that everyone fails some of the time. But now the Braves set me on another path of understanding. I began the lifelong search for understanding the power of money and ownership.
When I viewed the Braves not as a baseball team, but as a profit-driven corporation, it made me more sensitive to other corporate decisions, especially the decision to move a factory out of a town.
On the one hand, such corporate moves are usually done for a reason different from the one given for the Braves move out of Wisconsin. The factory is relocated not to increase broadcast revenues, but because wages would be lower in the new place. And the moving of a plant does not dash the naïve fantasies of a boy, because few boys fantasize about the ups and downs of a factory. Nevertheless, the move of a factory, I came to realize, was quite similar to the move of a sports franchise. In both cases, those who have the money want to improve their bottom line; they simply want to have more money. And just as a sports team produces a community, a factory also produces a community that includes those who work there, their relatives and dependents, and others who more indirectly depend on the factory workers, such as owners of diners, taverns, gas stations, and grocery stores. The move of a factory so a few people can make more money crushes a community. A lot has been written about the moves or retention of sports franchises; not enough has been written about the moves precipitated by other corporations, and their effects on communities. (One insightful book about the effect of a factory closing on a community is Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein.)
The Braves left, but even so, the Milwaukee Braves are still very much a part of my boyhood memories. Those thoughts, however, seem isolating sometimes because they are shared by so few. If I tell a baseball fan that the best lefthanded pitcher, perhaps simply the best pitcher, of my lifetime was Warren Spahn, I am likely to be met with a blank look. I can talk about Bob “Hurricane” Hazle, and the listener has no idea who that is. But the memories, even if not widely shared, are still important to me. They are an integral part of my life. When I look at that picture of Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron on their last walk off the Milwaukee baseball field, I see the end of my childhood, but I also remember the many thrills those two men gave me; They still hold the career record for home runs hit by a pair of teammates. That white man and that black man walking off together also remind me that there is still hope of racial accord. They were a part of my life that I still remember with joy.
With the death of Henry Aaron, I have been looking at the picture even more than I used to.