Baseball’s Greener Grass:
Franchise Relocations Since 1953
Franchise Relocations Since 1953
For 50 years, Major League Baseball’s landscape had remained unchanged. So when Lou Perini moved his Boston Braves a thousand miles west to Milwaukee in time for the 1953 season, he shattered the sport’s status quo, and paved the way for numerous other franchise shifts over the course of the next half-century.
The move made Perini look like a genius. The Braves’ attendance had plummeted ever since peaking at nearly a million and a half in the year of the 1948 World Series. The 281,278 diehards who bothered to show up at ancient Braves Field in 1952 had little to cheer about, as Boston’s National League entry lost 89 games. The club was weary of playing the part of the ugly stepchild to the Red Sox.
But with the change of scenery in Milwaukee, things began looking up. The Braves improved to 92 wins, good for second place, a distant 13 games behind Brooklyn. Cream City fans came out to County Stadium in bunches to watch their Braves, to the tune of 1,826,397, the best in the senior circuit. With emerging stars like Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, Billy Bruton, and Del Crandall, and an established ace in Warren Spahn, the Braves would soon be a team to be reckoned with.
Perini had proven to his fellow owners that it could be done. No longer should their franchises feel shackled to the same tired old markets, doomed to playing in crumbling stadiums in seamy neighborhoods with few parking options. Jet travel was making America a much more conquerable continent.
All baseball needed was someone to show it the way. And the Braves had done that.
More franchise shifts followed.
In St. Louis, the American League’s Browns had finished last in attendance in 26 of the last 28 seasons. Their only World Series appearance in 1944 was regarded as something of a freakish outlier, given baseball’s war-decimated rosters. So following the 1953 season, they were Baltimore bound, abandoning Sportsman’s Park for new Memorial Stadium. And while the Baltimore Browns would have had a certain ring to it, they instead changed their name to the Orioles. Ironically, the franchise finished with the same record that it had in 1953 (54–100). But attendance shot up to just over a million—at the time, a benchmark of success.
An estimated crowd of 350,000 turned out for an Opening Day parade in 1954—the first season after the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and were renamed the Orioles.
Source: Blakesless Lane, Inc (BLI) Collection, Langsdale Library, University of Baltimore on Flickr
One of the Orioles’ only bright spots was young Bob Turley, who won 14 games and made the All-Star team. But second-year righty Don Larsen had a nightmarish 3–21 season, and would afterward be traded to the Yankees. His name would garner headlines a few years later when he threw the only World Series perfect game.
By 1954, the glory years of the Philadelphia Athletics were a dusty memory. The A’s were awful and dangerously close to insolvency. Connie Mack, their venerable manager since their inception in 1901, was prone to nodding off on the bench during games. Creaky Shibe Park had also seen better days. It came as no surprise when Mack’s sons sold the team. The new ownership immediately moved the team to Kansas City, Missouri. Playing in Municipal Stadium in 1955, the A’s drew over a million more fans than they did in their final season in Philly. They lost 91 games, but 27-year-old Vic Power emerged as one of the best fielding first basemen in the game.
The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants jolted the baseball world when both headed west to California following the 1957 season. Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley, seeing a pot of gold in sunny Los Angeles, broke more than a few hearts when he abandoned the beloved bandbox that was Ebbetts Field. It was a big adjustment for the Dodgers in their new temporary home, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which had been built for football. Aging stars like Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Carl Furillo underperformed, and the team finished 71–83, barely edging out the Phillies for last place. By the next year, however, they were back in the World Series.
As for the Giants, they finished the 1958 season at 80–74 while playing in Seals Stadium, a former Pacific Coast League park in San Francisco’s Mission District. Willie Mays proved to be a star on either coast, with a 10.2 WAR. Another big bat was 20-year-old rookie Orlando Cepeda, who hit .312 with a league-leading 38 doubles.
Fans in Washington, D.C., could be excused if they felt a bit befuddled once the 1961 season rolled around. They had a new team, but it was really just the same old team, only not exactly. The Washington Senators—perennial doormat and charter member of the American League—were now playing in Minneapolis, with their new name, the Minnesota Twins. Washington, meanwhile, still had the Senators, but they were an expansion team, essentially an olive branch extended to the district by the American League to make up for the loss of the “old” Senators. The “new” Senators still played at venerable Griffith Stadium, but players like Harmon Killebrew, Jim Lemon, and Bob Allison had been replaced by Willie Tasby, Bud Zipfel, and Coot Veal. The “new” Senators lost 100 games, the Twins 90.
On Opening Day 1966, Mayor Ivan Allen threw out the ceremonial first pitch before more than 50,000 fans who came to see the Braves take on the Pittsburgh Pirates in their inaugural game in Atlanta.
Milwaukee’s love affair with the Braves had grown more tepid over time. Only 555,584 fans came out to County Stadium in 1965, although the team was still competitive. The Braves took the midnight train to Georgia the following year, to play in brand new Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Attendance spiked by nearly a million in the new digs. The offensive-friendly park was nicknamed “The Launching Pad,” but Hank Aaron actually hit 21 home runs at home that first season, and 23 on the road. The bottom line is that no yard could contain his blows. And here’s a cool trivia question: Who is the only Major Leaguer to play for the same team in three different cities? That would be Eddie Mathews, who suited up for the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.
For the Athletics, life in K.C. proved to be no more successful than it had been in Philadelphia. The team never sniffed .500 in 13 seasons, and attendance also lagged. Unhappy owner Charlie Finley finally packed the team’s bags for Oakland in time for the 1968 campaign. And while fans and civic leaders in Kansas City were finally rid of the conniving, duplicitous Finley, they missed out on seeing one of the great teams of all time. Young up-and-comers like Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Catfish Hunter, Rick Monday, Dick Green, Joe Rudi, and Blue Moon Odom all got their start in Kansas City. They were the first fruits of “The Swingin’ A’s,” who won three straight World Series from 1972 to 1974.
The American League’s Seattle Pilots were a one-year flop in 1969. Losers of 98 games, they played before sparse crowds in rickety, minor league Sick’s Stadium, which tops the list of the worst ballpark names ever. The Pilots are remembered today mainly because of Jim Bouton’s classic memoir Ball Four. The team’s tenure in Seattle was doomed from the start. Six days before Opening Day 1970, a judge declared the Pilots bankrupt, paving the way for buyer Bud Selig to take over. Selig planned all along to move the team to Milwaukee, his hometown. The Pilots took off from Seattle and swooped in to Cream City, setting up shop in County Stadium and becoming the Brewers. Different city, different name, different ballpark, but it was still the same lousy team. The Brewers lost 97 games in 1970.
And whatever became of those expansion Washington Senators who replaced the “old” Senators back in 1961? Bad ownership and bad baseball were the bane of the “modern” Senators. They finally pulled up stakes and headed for Arlington, Texas, where they were rechristened the Texas Rangers for the 1972 season. Managed by Ted Williams, they still lost 100 games. Thirty-five-year-old Frank Howard, who had been such a prolific slugger in D.C., was a shell of his former self. Fans in Arlington could only hold out hope for youngsters like Toby Harrah, Lenny Randle, and Elliott Maddox.
Baseball waited 33 more years for its next franchise shift, when the Expos abandoned Montreal for Washington, D.C., to become the Nationals. In the old days, the name had been used more or less interchangeably with Senators. This time, Nationals made even more sense, considering Washington would now be in the National League. Until a new stadium could be built, the team played in old RFK Stadium. In the long-awaited home opener, Washington starter Livan Hernandez struck out the first batter he faced, Arizona’s Craig Counsell. They had been teammates eight years earlier on the world champion Florida Marlins.
Are there any franchise moves on the horizon? It will be fascinating to see what new and different teams the next 50 years will bring.
Source: The Trading Card Database, www.tradingcarddb.com.
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