An Opening Day Story

In honor of Opening Day, I’d like to share a story I wrote for a local online newspaper some time ago, Involving one of my very favorite items from my collection:

I have to say, I nearly plotzed when I found this ticket on eBay. Full tickets for the old American Association Milwaukee Brewers are a tough find, particularly special event tickets for an opening day or playoff game (for an excellent blog on the Brewers and Borchert Field, check this out). But this ticket was the rarest type of all, one with a weird backstory and vivid historical significance. Milwaukee County Stadium (1953-2000) was a trendsetter among major league sports stadiums, publicly financed and located outside of the urban city center. The city of Milwaukee had been toying with the idea of a municipal stadium since the 1930s, following the basic idea put forth by Cleveland Municipal Stadium, a multipurpose facility funded by public bonds. Several sites were proposed, most either on the western edges of the city or on the lakefront. As early as 1935, the minor league Brewers were interested in using a city-financed ballpark to replace Borchert Field, an oddly shaped wooden park at Eighth and Chambers.

Borchert Field, home of the Brewers, 1902-1952

 

The idea lingered but got no real traction until the 1940s, when a site at Story Quarry was approved by city and county officials. By then, however, wartime shortages in building material put construction plans on hold. It was also around this time that the possibility of a Major League Baseball franchise moving to Milwaukee was raised. Milwaukee had been a charter member of the American League back in 1901 but had lost its poorly supported team to St. Louis. Now, the AL was trying to shift that same fledgling team, known as the St. Louis Browns, to a more promising location. Having been a hardy supporter of the minor league Brewers for decades, and showing real interest in building a new Major League-ready facility, Milwaukee was considered a prime destination.

Ground was finally broken on the new stadium in October 1950, and for the next two years, rumors flew over which big league team would get to call it home. Through 1950 and ’51, it seemed that the Browns would land in Milwaukee. Miller Brewing president Fred Miller was set to buy the team and move them north, reports said, with a complicated swap of the Browns’ home park in St. Louis to the NL Cardinals, who would then fold their minor league club in Columbus, allowing the Brewers to move to Ohio.

Other reports claimed that, as the parent club of the Brewers, only the long-suffering Boston Braves could move to Milwaukee. Fred Miller was supposedly in on this deal as well but also was eying other teams. It was reported that the Philadelphia A’s, St. Louis Cardinals (!), and Chicago Cubs (!!) were all candidates for relocation.

The backside of a 1952 Brewers season schedule, promoting their new home

Meanwhile, the opening of the stadium was pushed back due to construction delays. On Jan. 31, 1952, with Milwaukee backers still courting various teams, an opening date of July 24 was announced for the opening of the new park, with the Brewers taking on an American Association opponent. By the opening of the 1952 season, that opening date had been pushed back yet again, but the Brewers still planned on being the new stadium’s primary residents. A grammatically-muddled tagline of Watch for Brewer Opening in Milwaukee County’s New Stadium! appeared on that year’s pocket schedules. A program from late in the season featured an artist’s rendition of County Stadium, The Future Home of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Borchert Field and County Stadium

 

In January 1953, a firm opening date of April 15 was set for the new stadium’s debut, with the Brewers set to take on the St. Paul Saints. Fighting off rumors that it was only a matter of time before a Big League tenant would be found for the park, forcing the Brewers to relocate, General Manager Red Smith told the press, “The Brewers will definitely operate in Milwaukee in 1953.” The team moved its offices into the new stadium, with correspondence going out on letterhead with a watermark of County Stadium. That spring, the team began to sell game tickets, including about 12,000 to the highly-anticipated opener.

That is to say, the opening of the Stadium was anticipated. The actual playing of the Milwaukee-St. Paul game scheduled for April 15 was a terrifying proposal to local baseball boosters. As teams prepared to head south for spring training, there was still doubt as to whether or not Milwaukee’s big league ballpark would have big league tenants. The Browns, now owned by former Brewers owner Bill Veeck, were ready to make the switch, but Boston Braves owner Lou Perini would not give up his Milwaukee territory, not unless the Brewers could shift to a market comparable to Milwaukee. Frustrated by the prospect of the Brewers opening in the new stadium, Clifford Randall of the Greater Milwaukee Committee told the press, “You can bet we didn’t spend five million dollars for a new stadium for minor league baseball.”

A ticket to what would have been the first game ever played at Milwaukee County Stadium. This seat would have been seven rows behind the visiting team’s dugout

Of course, it was Perini’s own Braves that finally made the shift to Milwaukee . On March 19, the move was approved by the National League and Milwaukee rejoiced. The phone lines at the Brewers’ County Stadium office were instantly alight with people wishing to buy Braves tickets. The skeleton staff at the Stadium wasn’t sure what to do, or even, at that moment, who they worked for. Down in Florida , the new Milwaukee Braves, with Bs still on their caps, took on the Yankees. Elsewhere in the state, a team took to the field wearing Milwaukee Brewers caps and jerseys, although no one was really sure what to call them.

After assembling an office in Milwaukee, the Braves announced that tickets would go on sale on April 1, with an opening date set for April 14 against the Cardinals. Before any Braves tickets would be sold, a team official said, Brewers opening day ticketholders would have the chance to exchange them for the April 14 opener. The official also begged Milwaukeeans to stop calling the old Brewers offices looking for tickets. Meanwhile, the Brewers began the process of shifting their operation to Toledo, where they would become the Mud Hens.

There was no word of what was to happen to the Brewers tickets that were swapped in for Braves seats. Presumably, they would have been destroyed, with a few maybe kept as souvenirs. It seems highly unlikely that anyone would have kept their ticket instead of trading it in, although some people might have been miffed at having to pay the difference in price (this $1.75 ticket would have needed an extra seventy-five cents to get the Braves seat). In the event this was a ticket that someone held on to, they would have missed a great game. Warren Spahn threw ten innings and was one of five future Hall of Famers to play in the game. Billy Bruton won it for the Braves in the bottom of the tenth with a walk-off homer that glanced off the mitt of Enos Slaughter and over the barely-completed outfield fence. The Braves would play for 13 years in Milwaukee, winning two pennants and a World Series.

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The Oldest Part of My Collection

When I was doing my recent collection clean-out, it dawned on me that the oldest part of my collection (meaning the thing I’ve owned the longest, not the oldest thing overall) was something that I never even considered to be a part of my collection at all. Indeed, this item might be the single solitary ‘thing’ of any kind that I have owned longer than anything else. Are you ready? Can you even handle this excitement?

Photo Mar 20, 11 19 45 PM

No, it’s not a set of 1987 Topps. It is the box that once held that set. Back in probably about 1990, my dad took me a card show at a local bowling alley (oh, those go-go ’90s!). One of the dealers was an old friend of his, a former co-worker at the Milwaukee Sentinel distribution building in Manitowoc (my hometown and YES that Manitowoc). My dad, being under the impression this hobby of mine could be something like an investment opportunity, asked the dealer for a set of cards with a good potential to increase in value and, it being 1990, he recommended the rookie-loaded ’87 Topps set. If I recall correctly, my old man paid about $30 for the set – a friend price, mind you – that came housed in this 800-count box.

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Oddly enough, I never bothered to put the set into pages, or ever to removed from this box. But I looked at it endlessly, filing through the cards and MARVELING at the Bo Jackson and Mike Greenwell and Will Clark rookie cards. I even kept a spare George Bamberger card in the box (with the Brewers checklist on the back), so I could pull up the Brewer cards without needed to search for them. I loved this set to death, literally, rounding the corners and denting them all to hell from the constant handling. I even wrote my name on the end of the box, just in case I took it out of the house and lost it or it was stolen during a robbery or a tornado tore the roof off our house and blew the set through a tree truck three blocks away. I was prepared for anything.

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Yes, I was even prepared to sell it. “50.00” firm, my man, no friend discounts here. I even decided to charge “5.00” for a “sneek peek” of my treasured cards. That’s right, folks, just $5.00 to LOOK at my 1987 Topps cards. I am sure I planned to end the sneak peek right before the Pete Rose manager card came up, just like the old peep shows that cut off right before the woman’s clothes started coming off. Another $5, of course, will get your all the way through the All Stars, I promise, maybe even to the Turn Back the Clocks.

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Some time after I got this, an uncle of mine who also collected cards gave me his 1987 extras (1,571 of them, if my math was correct… I’m sure my math was not correct), which I put into a couple of other boxes. That made this the “A” box and the others “B” and “C.” I was now building an ’87 Topps empire. Photo Mar 20, 11 20 23 PM

And still, I was fully prepared. I would be able to identify this as the A box from any angle, even it it was partially or mostly obscured. Even if I didn’t have my glasses. Even if the room was dark as pitch. Even if it were on the face of the goddamn moon!

The thing of it is, I don’t even remember what happened to the cards this box once held. I’ve considered throwing it out multiple times – that’s actually what I was thinking about doing when I realized that I’d owned this box for 27 years – or turning it inside out to lessen the embarrassment of all the stupid stuff I wrote on it. One old girlfriend, probably the first I’d ever had the courage to let see this box, used to mock me for it all the time. I’d get some cards in the mail  and she’d go, “Oh! Did you buy them or just get the sneak peek?” But I’m glad to still have it. It’s a beacon for my collecting goals. A reminder to keep what I like and forget about the rest.