Interesting question time: What was the most significant event in sports in the last 100 years? My first answer would be integration, starting when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. We are feeling the effects of that event to this very day. Baseball became better, sports themselves became better, and America became better.
Do you want to know why the NBA became integrated? It was because their teams kept getting clobbered by the Harlem Globetrotters.
My second answer doesn’t concern events on any field. It was something that happened off the field. Like Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn, it has reverberated to the present day.
That event was the move of the Boston Braves to Milwaukee in 1953. Not only was this the first baseball franchise shift in more than 50 years, it marked the entrance of government and tax dollar involvement in professional sports.
Prior to this time, baseball franchises (and some in other sports, too) were property owners. They owned the stadiums and arenas they played in. If they wanted to move, they had to deal with all the problems property owners have to deal with if they want to move to a new location. The most notable of these was disposal of their property. With something the size of an area, this wasn’t easy.
Milwaukee was the home of the Triple-A Milwaukee Brewers. In 1951 and 1952, Milwaukee County built 35,000-seat County Stadium, ostensibly as a new home for the Brewers. However, it was clear their real goal was to lure a big league baseball franchise to Milwaukee. They had long been envious of their big brother to the south, Chicago, with its two baseball teams. They were hungry for one of their own.
The first owner interested in moving to Milwaukee was Bill Veeck, the owner of the St. Louis Browns. He had concluded the Browns had no future in St. Louis. He had also owned the Brewers during the World War II years, so he knew something of how to run a baseball team in Milwaukee.
The Brewers were affiliated with the Braves, so Veeck had to get Braves’ owner Lou Perini’s permission to move the Browns to Milwaukee. Perini checked out County Stadium and decided he liked it and wanted it for himself. Thus, in March 1953, the National League approved the Braves moving from Boston to Milwaukee.
In their first month in Milwaukee, the Braves topped their total 1952 attendance in Boston. They went from being a “have-not” team to one of the “haves,” with pennant-winning teams in the late 1950s that included Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Joe Adcock, Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette.
The message to sports owners was clear: they didn’t have to settle for what they had. They could go elsewhere, and local governments were willing to use tax dollars to help them do it.
For local governments who didn’t have big league sports, they realized they could get them if they used tax dollars. For local governments that had big league sports, they realized they would have to use tax dollars to keep them.
This point was driven home in 1957, when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. It’s not true that Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley demanded New York build him a new ballpark and they said, “no.” What happened was they wouldn’t say “yes” or “no.” O’Malley was left hanging and uncertain.
That’s the reason O’Malley started talking to Los Angeles officials, beginning with County Supervisor Ken Hahn at the 1956 World Series. It’s thought he was trying to prod New York into action. However, the more he talked to the Californians, the more he liked what they were offering. I suspect they would’ve allowed him to put toll booths on the Hollywood Freeway if he had asked for them.
New York officials finally woke up and offered O’Malley a publicly-financed stadium in the Flushing Meadows section of Queens, which is where Shea Stadium was built. It was too little, too late. When the 1957 season ended, the Dodgers headed for Los Angeles.
The entrance of government involvement and tax dollars in professional sports completely changed the economics of sports. Sports has become a multi-billion dollar big business. We have seen new sports palaces that cost in excess of $1 billion. Chase Field was a bargain compared to these places.
As for Milwaukee, the county and the city found themselves having to replace County Stadium with a new ballpark with a retractable roof that they could ill-afford. It was either that, or they would lose their big league franchise, the Brewers. They had already had a bitter lesson in how easy it was to lose a franchise when the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966.
What goes around comes around.