Perhaps it was fate. Perhaps it was dumb luck. But whatever the reason, I received an email late last week informing me that a new book regarding the Milwaukee Braves was about to hit the bookshelves.
The name of the book was called 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. You can check it out here if you’d like to purchase it on your E-Reader, and you can also check out a preview here.
It won’t hit the stores until July 3rd, but from what I was able to read from it and the conversation I shared with author John Klima – also a professional scout, by the way – it would be worth your while to put it at the top of your summer reading list.
What follows is a direct transcription of John’s thoughts and answers about my questions regarding what might have been one of the best teams to ever grace the city of Milwaukee.
Colin Bennett: What attracted to you about the 1957 Braves? Was it childhood nostalgia, or did you always think that there was something more important that needed to be told?
John Klima: I felt like it was a book that hadn’t been done because the Yankees lost, and baseball history is so skewed that if you stray from the formula, people don’t know what to think. So this book was a defiant and bold approach to narrative history, and it works because Milwaukee made it work.
I also always felt like the original story behind how Henry Aaron was signed by the Braves hadn’t been done correctly. That was partly because I had just done a book called “Willie’s Boys,” which was largely about how the Giants actually signed Mays. I knew from the research that how and why the then Boston Braves missed Mays related directly to how and why the Braves signed Aaron. And while I liked that story, my agent encouraged me to think bolder, so we arrived at the idea that nobody had ever told told the story of the team that ended the New York baseball dynasty, the team that was the first to move (the Braves from Boston to Milwaukee), the first team to have a new ballpark after World War II, the first expansionist team, the team that made the Dodgers and Giants coming West a reality, the first team to draw 2 million fans in a season and then 4 years in a row, and then the team of Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette achieving the unthinkable in 1957, which was to beat the Yankees in 7 games, at Yankee Stadium, to boot.
On a private note, my Mom also grew up in Milwaukee and I used to spend my boyhood summers sitting in the cheap seats at County Stadium, so I had some attachment to the city, but I have to admit that I didn’t know very much about this story to begin with. That’s also what drew me to it — as I got into the research I understood that it was one of the best untold stories in baseball history. I also really liked the idea of doing historical narrative about Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn. I was all over that and I wrote them like they were — beer swiggers, guys who said fuck a lot, guys who fought with teams, just hard nosed ballplayers.
CB: Baseball stories are very rarely just about baseball. What do you think readers and baseball fans can learn from a story like Bushville Wins!
JK: “Bushville Wins,” is really another way of saying, “the underdog wins.” Nobody gave Milwaukee a chance to win — they were thought to be too small-town, too-Midwestern, too-Small market, too little to matter. So you had a very dynamic team, time and place where the people came together, and you had the nation rooting for this small town team to beat the big bully in the room, the Yankees, and return baseball balance to the rest of the nation. We see the same struggles now — where small-market teams feel the deck is stacked against them by the East Coast teams, where fans feel like the TV contracts and the leagues favor the few. So Bushville Wins represents a triumph of the underdog, the beer-drinking, the tailgaiting togetherness that accompanies community pride in its local big league team.
CB: Do you think the Brewers now – like the Braves in 1957 – have a sort of “Bushville” climate attached to it? Why do you think that is or isn’t so?
JK: I think Milwaukee will always have the underdog vibe. They won 96 games last year, drew 3 million, and the national audience was sort of like, “What are they doing here?” I think Milwaukee is hungry for a baseball winner. At least I can give them a book about the time Milwaukee really did win the World Series.
CB: Milwaukee seems to have always been a city that was waiting for its shot, especially in the sports world. How important to the fans and the city was that move to bring the Boston Braves into the Brew City?
JK: It sparked one party after another. I talked to Bob Uecker, who told me (among other things in a very colorful interview),
and he told me it was like the end of World War II all over again. The team moved, they had a parade. A big one – 100,000 people. In 1957, during the World Series, there was a parade every single time the Braves came and went to the airport. Fans were sending prayer cards to the manager, Fred Haney. Baseball and the Braves became intertwined with faith and hope. It was quite something to write about for modern readers.
And when the Braves clinched the pennant against the Cardinals, Henry Aaron hit the game-winning home run to win the pennant. I did speak to Mr. Aaron (and called him Mr. Aaron, because what am I supposed to do, call him Hank?) he grew very emotional and nostalgic. He called it his most special moment in baseball. He was 23, it was his breakout year. He hit 40 for the first time. He was MVP. And people assume that the 715th home run was the most special moment. It wasn’t. He was proud of the record and he earned it, but that was an individual thing. Guys who played with Henry will tell you that Henry was very quiet, but he was a team guy. And his relationship with Eddie was very special and unique.
CB: In the early ’50s, Braves Owner Lou Perini was a visionary who led the expansion era of Major League baseball and eventually proved to the Giants and Dodgers that a move out west was possible. Now, looking at the climate of Major League Baseball, it would appear it is a coastal game once again. Money sits in the west coast and northeast, and teams like Milwaukee and Kansas City struggle for financing and notoriety. Why do you think this has happened, and what’s a small market team to do in your mind?
JK: I think TV money screwed up competitive balance — when one club’s TV rights are worth x times more than the other, then you have competitive imbalance. I think the ship has sailed. The rich will get richer. I think the shame is when the “poor” teams are disgustingly wealthy and choose not to compete. I think, were you to look hard, you would find some general managers getting bonuses from owners for keeping payroll down and profits high. That means leeching off the good fans. This sort of thing wouldn’t be unheard of inside baseball.
Perini didn’t want local TV. He actually dreamed of a subscriber-based Braves only channel, which, of course, is what happened after he sold the team. The only way for a small market team to win now is to have an ownership that values people over profits first. Then you need to scout better, draft better and build better, then build enough loyalty so you can keep your core players when the big spenders come calling. Then you keep the right guy and have to hope your core players aren’t a bunch of cheating frauds.
CB: In the opening pages of your book, you speak to the influence – and stuffiness – of the sportswriters who witnessed the event. Do you think this still exists today to the same degree? Are sportswriters generally slow to change because they grew up in these “golden ages” of sports? Is there anything that up-and-coming sportswriters can do to help break away from this?
JK: Sportswriters operate off pre-existing constructs. It’s not a very good business for long-term dreamers or thinkers. I would say this for up-and-coming sportswriters — don’t do it. Find another place to learn how to write. I made it out with my book career, but only because my voice is intact. I lost jobs to keep my voice. I would also say learn baseball by going to different games at different levels. Gain different experiences. I’m all for pushing the envelope with analytics, but don’t ignore the fact that the game takes place outdoors. Learn to study ballplayers. Combine instincts with writing and you will develop better baseball minds than sportswriters and be better suited to writing about the game.
CB: How do you compare Lou Perini, the owner of the Braves who first brought Major League Baseball to Milwaukee with his future replacement, Bud Selig – who brought the Brewers in 1970?
JK: Lou Perini should be in the Hall of Fame. He brought the game into the modern era — he envisioned everything Selig did — and Selig grew up watching him. He moved teams, built new parks, envisioned cable channels dedicated to baseball, dreamed of what became the World Baseball Classic, predicted teams would leave New York and go to places like Toronto and Minneapolis and beyond. He wanted diverse teams and new markets. He wanted competitive balance. I’ve always felt Selig owes a great deal of who he became as a baseball man to growing up in Lou Perini’s Milwaukee.
CB: Do you think baseball now is still trying to hold down small market teams, either on purpose or circumstantially?
JK: Yes, a combination of both factors. I think at the end of it, money talks. Bigger money talks louder. It’s the ultimate tale of small-market success — the 1957 team was built from within for about a decade, scouted and developed the right kinds of players, profiled them correctly at the major league level, had good baseball men from top to bottom, kept the right players and traded the right players. Even before free agency, you still had to have an entire organization working together and not a bunch of little fiefdoms doing their own thing. Cohesiveness plays and the Braves had it. Nobody gave Milwaukee a shot in the world and they shocked the world. Casey Stengel never talked much about beating Milwaukee in 1958, because to do so, he’d have to admit he lost in 1957. That just ain’t the Yankee way. [ed.’s note: emphasis his]
CB: I remember when I was a kid and the Brewers moved to the National League there was a big dust-up over tradition – as Milwaukee had been in the AL since 1970. It was interesting seeing how Perini made a point to say that Milwaukee will “represent the National League well.” Do you think that kind of attitude is still important to baseball people, and which league do you think best suits the city, people, and team Milwaukee has now?
JK: Yeah, I grew up with the Brewers as an American League team, too, and I was an Angel fan, so I was always pissed off about 1982. But I think Milwaukee really is a National League town, because it is an old school town. Roll Out the Barrel.
CB: Using your best scout’s eye – what do you think Milwaukee’s chances are this year to make a run at the division?
JK: Not this year. I did a coverage of them for my own notes in May. Not a lot of organizational depth at the major or minor league levels, which really shows when the injuries kill you at the big league level and indicates that the team needs better drafts.
[Ed’s. Note: Ouch. But then again, he’s the scout, not me.]
My sincere thanks go out to John Klima – a brilliant storyteller and an excellent baseball mind – for agreeing to this interview. Bushville Wins! will be in stores and available online on July 3rd, so make sure to make it part of your holiday plans to pick this tome up. You’ll be glad you did. The Milwaukee Braves had a history of baseball success almost unparalleled in the Major Leagues, and every Brewers fan owes this 1957 team a debt of allegiance. It is one piece of history you’ll want to relive again and again.