Sunday, June 30, 2013
Review: Bushville Wins! (2012)
The story of the Milwaukee Braves is a fascinating one. The franchise was located in Boston until 1953, when it moved to Milwaukee right on the eve of the season. The town took the team to heart, and the ballclub - boosted by soaring attendance figures and some rising stars - quickly moved up the standings. By 1956, the Braves were good enough to come close to a pennant. In 1957, they were World Series champions.
It's quite a tale, and author John Klima - who spent plenty of days and nights watching the Braves from the bleachers of County Stadium in Milwaukee - can't wait to tell it. He does so in "Bushville Wins!"
Klima splits the story into three separate sections. The first has as a hero Lou Perini, the owner of the Braves. He gets deserved credit here as something of a visionary. Perini realized that he was never going to be able to compete with the Red Sox in Boston, and looked elsewhere.
There's a great story in the book about that. Warren Spahn was coming off a losing season, and Perini wanted to cut his pay. However, the owner gave the lefty an option - $25,000 or 10 cents per admission. Since the Braves had drawn close to 200,000 the previous year in Boston, Spahn went for the sure thing. Then the team was off to Milwaukee, where they drew around to two million fans - costing Spahn $175,000 or so.
Baseball hadn't seen a team move in about 50 years, but Perini was smart enough to realize that the population and demographics were shifting to make such changes inevitable. The Dodgers and Giants moved a few years later, and expansion arrived in 1961-62. Perini also saw the great popularity of the team in Milwaukee and looked into the idea of closed circuit television, something of a forerunner of today's regional TV networks.
The Braves had Spahn, and they had such players as Eddie Mathews and Henry Aaron come along in that era. Thus they were well positioned to make a run. Milwaukee almost won four straight pennants, but had to settle for two with one World Series title.
Part two centers on the regular season of 1957, and part three moves on to the World Series. Klima's research is very well done. He did some very nice interviews with members of the team; Aaron in particular is very insightful about the squad. The personalities of the squad come through nicely. It sounds like Matthews and his pals had some fun along the way that season.
That all sounds good from the standpoint of the book. But there is a catch, at least for some. It concerns Klima's writing style, which may wear on some people.
This is a story drawn from 50 years ago, and Klima writes as if he feels like he needs to enliven the details almost like a novelist might. The umpire doesn't call strike three; his call "sounded like a Supreme Court judge banging his gavel." Billy Muffett could throw so hard "that he might rip the zipper off the front of his flannels." Casey Stengel didn't just argue a call in Game Seven: "All his frustration came seething out, all the old rivalries of years past, the hostile feelings between the leagues, Milwaukee's rejection and treatment of him, his ballplayers acting like stupid players making stupid plays and making him look stupid ..." Klima does like to pile up lists into one sentence in this book, and it's easy to wonder if he's exaggerating or doing some serious assuming at certain points along the way.
There's also a certain "chip on the shoulder" feeling that comes out in the text, especially in the World Series, with Milwaukee as the middle-of-nowhere upstart and New York as filled with city slickers looking way down their noses. I'd bet some people in Milwaukee felt that way, but Yankee fans might not have given so much thought to it.
This bothered me a bit during my reading, but not quite enough to drop my rating by a star. Looking around, some people didn't even mention this issue while others found it quite distracting. Therefore, to use a cliche, your mileage may vary.
Sadly for Wisconsin, the story didn't end with Lew Burdette winning Game Seven in 1957. After the Braves run ended, they settled into mediocrity in the 1960s and were in Atlanta by the end of the decade. It would have been interesting to read more in the epilogue about what went wrong once Milwaukee lost its baseball innocence, and why it happened.
Still, it's an exciting time, one worth remembering. It's good that Klima brings it back in "Bushville Wins!' Baseball fans of Milwaukee, this is your kind of book.
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