The Last Lame Duck Season

With Major League Baseball's promised two-team contraction in limbo while an arbitrator considers the Players' Association's grievance, there's a real chance that the purportedly unwanted teams will be forced to play another season. The results won't be pretty.

Commissioner Selig should remember the last time a team was forced to play in a market it had abandoned: the lame-duck 1965 Milwaukee Braves. After leading the NL in attendance in each of their first six years in Milwaukee, the Braves saw attendance nose-dive in the early 1960s. Between 1957 and 1962 the Braves lost two-thirds of their patrons. The club, which in 1953 had become the first club in 50 years to move, sought to become the first club to move twice.

Although the Braves' lease at Milwaukee's County Stadium ran through 1965, the club didn't want to wait that long. In mid-July 1964, The Sporting News broke the story that the club was headed for Atlanta. Soon thereafter the Braves asked the NL for permission to move. The NL granted permission -- but for 1966, requiring the Braves to honor the final year of their stadium lease. (Those were the days.)

Undaunted, the Braves began transferring operations to Atlanta during the offseason. They made no effort to market in Milwaukee: after selling 4,477 season tickets for the 1964 season, the Braves had sold exactly 36 for 1965 as the year began. The Braves begged Milwaukee officials to let them out of their lease, offering $500,000 (roughly 2-1/2 years' rent), but the city refused to consider the offer unless the NL promised Milwaukee a new team in the next expansion. Fat chance.

Meanwhile, a group of Milwaukee businessmen formed "Teams, Inc." to lobby for a new team. The organization was chaired by Milwaukee businessman Edmund Fitzgerald, son of the man for whom the doomed freighter in the Gordon Lightfoot song was named...but before long a local car dealer named Allan H. ("Bud") Selig became its most prominent member.

By mid-February Braves ticket sales were so dismal that the club asked Teams, Inc. for help. The Braves offered the organization five cents/ticket on the first 766,927 tickets sold (a figure chosen to match the Braves' previous low attendance in Milwaukee), then 25 cents/ticket between this number and 1,000,000, and $1/ticket for each ticket over the million mark. If fans wouldn't pay to watch the lame-duck Braves, perhaps they'd pay to support the group lobbying for a new team.

They wouldn't. With Selig in charge of the Teams, Inc. ticket drive, the group bought out County Stadium for Opening Day and re-sold the tickets. Opening Day attracted over 33,000 fans...but the next three games combined drew fewer than 10,000 fans. Interest was so low that the Braves, who were already broadcasting and telecasting selected games to Atlanta, offered all their games for free to any Wisconsin radio station willing to air them. In mid-June local officials rejected another offer of $500,000 to let the Braves move to Atlanta over the All-Star break. The 1965 Braves drew only 555,584 fans to County Stadium, a decline of over 350,000.

In 2001 the Minnesota Twins outdrew the Chicago White Sox, a larger market team which had won its division the previous year, and the Philadelphia Phillies, who led the NL East for much of the season and contended into early October. If the 2002 Twins lose fans at a comparable rate, that would translate to a $7 million decline in local revenues directly attributable to the threat of contraction.

The Braves moved all of their offices to Atlanta after the 1965 season. A month later, Bud Selig made his first of several trips to the major league meetings, where he would beg repeatedly for an expansion franchise. His first of many unflattering photographs appeared in the December 18, 1965 Sporting News, accompanying an article that explained how the NL had blown him off. Despite Selig's pleas, Milwaukee wasn't even one of the four sites selected for expansion in 1969. Milwaukee finally received a team less than a week before Opening Day 1970, when a Seattle bankruptcy court awarded the Pilots to a group led by Fitzgerald and Selig.

All that remained in Milwaukee was the lawsuit. The Braves' threatened move prompted the State of Wisconsin to file an antitrust suit against the team and the National League, demanding that the Braves stay put unless and until Milwaukee received an expansion team. On January 28, 1966, a Wisconsin judge preliminarily enjoined the Braves from moving. To avoid the implications of the Supreme Court's Federal Baseball decision holding baseball exempt from federal antitrust laws, the state sued under Wisconsin's parallel statute.

On January 28, 1966, the judge preliminarily enjoined the Braves from moving. On January 29, the NL voted unanimously to ignore his ruling. In mid-April, after a 38-day trial which revealed that the Braves had used accounting tricks to turn six-figure profits into paper losses in both 1963 and 1964, the court held that the NL had illegally restrained trade. But this decision was reversed by a 4-3 vote of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which held that the state antitrust laws could not constitutionally be applied to the NL's actions.

The majority opinion dismissing the complaint ended with an unusual plea: "There ought, we think, to be included in any law which Congress may pass upon this subject some provision which would protect communities, either those who have or hope to have home teams, from arbitrary and unfair dealing."

Bud Selig surely agreed with that sentiment in 1966. I bet he doesn't now...

Copyright © 2001 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.

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