The cynic can look back at the Milwaukee Braves teams of the late 1950s and think, “What if?”. They can choose to look at those years as a disappointment. They should have won the pennant in 1956 and 1959. They should have won the series in 1958, they were up 3–1 on the Yankees after all. You can’t change the past, and personally, I prefer the romantic side of baseball fandom. After all, the Braves could have folded after they collapsed down the stretch in 1956. Instead, they battled through spring training and through the regular season. They overcame slumps and they overcame injuries. Braves fans were rewarded with arguably the two greatest walk off home runs in team history when Hank Aaron clinched the pennant with a two run shot in the 11th against the Cardinals on September 23, and then, just 11 days later, they saw Eddie Mathews belt a three run shot off the Yankees in the bottom of the 10th of Game 4 of the World Series. It all led to a dramatic game 7 that saw the Braves crush the Yankees and capture the greatest of the franchise’s championships.
In his book Bushville Wins! The Wild Saga of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and the Screwballs, Sluggers, and Beer Swiggers Who Canned the New York Yankees and Changed Baseball, author John Klima spins a wonderful tale. It’s the story of the city of Milwaukee and the blue collar people that supported their team. It’s the story of their Hollywood manager who yearned for a championship and would drive the Braves with everything he had. It’s the story of four best friends, who would drink, cuss, party and fight together. It’s the story of the greatest player to ever wear the tomahawk across his chest. I may seem overly enthusiastic, but my reactions is genuine this is the single best book about the Braves franchise written today.
In the first section of the book, Klima takes us on the Braves journey from Boston to Milwaukee, and then through the early years in Wisconsin. Owner Lou Perini was sick of playing second fiddle to the Red Sox. Even when the Braves battled into the World Series in 1948, the team still found itself lost in the shadow their American League counterpart. Klima ably relates the back room machinations Perini used to get the other seven National League owners to support his move. Perini brought three stars along with him. There was Warren Spahn, the team ace, who had carried the Boston Braves to the precipice of greatness. There was Lew Burdette, the foul mouthed, foul tempered, possible spit-baller who gained his edge by getting into the heads of opposing hitters. Then, there was Eddie Mathews, who may have been an angry drunk who picked fights just for fun, but he looked to be one of the best young hitters on the planet. The team was one superstar short.
That superstar was almost Willie Mays, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, the Braves found themselves with a young man from Mobile, Alabama who would prove to be Mays’s equal at the plate. It was the arrival of Hank Aaron that would change everything for the Braves. This young man was clearly different from the rest, and everyone knew it as soon as they heard the sound of the crack of his bat. As Aaron’s greatness grew, the team got better and better and looked ready to ascend to the top of the National League in 1956 until they dropped two straight one run games to the Cardinals to finish a single game behind their hated rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Klima is at his best here describing the agony of both the players and of the fans.
The book’s second section is devoted to the 1957 season. In spring training, manager Fred Haney decided that his hard scrabble bunch needed discipline. He worked them and he ran them into the ground. It worked. Despite the many ups and downs they experienced throughout the season, they would only spend three days after July 16 out of first place. When their lead dwindled late in the season, the team didn’t fold and captured the pennant. Klima’s stories cover everything from the Red Schoendienst trade to the improved defense and surprising speed of Eddie Mathews. It was a remarkable season that gave way to one of the great World Series.
That World Series is the subject of the third section of the book and Klima does not disappoint. He captures the fun of the games and more importantly, he details the condescending behavior of Casey Stengal, the New York Yankees and their accomplices in the New York press towards the Braves and their home city. All it accomplished was getting a rise out of the people of Milwaukee and out of their Braves who, twenty years before WTBS put every Braves game in the living room of every family in the country, became America’s team for a short period in October of 1957. The Braves even found unlikely support in New York itself. After Lew Burdette defeated the Yankees for the third time in game 7, the Braves, the city of Milwaukee and much of the country celebrated. If Milwaukee was bush league, so was everyone else.
Klima makes a convincing case that the Braves move to Milwaukee and subsequent championship changed baseball forever. They paved the way for the Dodgers and the Giants to move to the west coast. Every team in the league would eventually resemble the Braves by featuring white players playing alongside both black and Latin players. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, the Braves themselves would bolt for Atlanta less than a decade later.
In the end, the real stars of Klima’s book are the players and the portraits he draws of them. Warren Spahn may have been a clown who was losing his stuff, but he wanted that ring more than anyone. Lew Burdette was crafty and sneaky and mean and somehow fun. He was also the hero of the 1957 World Series. Eddie Mathews would fight anyone for any reason, but if you messed with any of his boys on the Braves, you gave him reason and you had better watch out. He could hit with his fists as hard as he could drive a baseball with that perfect left handed swing. Bob Buhl was mean and stubborn and the driven Johnny Logan was underrated. Red Schoendienst and Del Crandall were good guys who played well and led the team. Klima really seemed to get Hank Aaron, taking us on the Hammer’s journey from a quiet young man who just wanted to play to the confident young man who stood on the precipice of greatness.
The 1957 Milwaukee Braves are not only one of baseball’s greatest teams, they are one of the most important. John Klima makes the case over each of the wonderful 311 pages. Highly recommended.