April 14, 1953: Milwaukee Braves christen County Stadium with ceremonies, civic pride, and Hollywood-style extra-inning victory
The Milwaukee Braves opened the 1953 season on April 13 with a 2-0 victory in Cincinnati at a time when the first game in the Queen City was a season-opening tradition for the major leagues. The founding of the first fully professional baseball team in Cincinnati during the 1869 season paved the way for baseball’s burgeoning popularity, so Milwaukee’s position as an Opening Day rival to one of baseball’s most storied franchises brought with it national-level attention.1
The Braves home opener, on April 14, attracted considerable publicity, too. They were playing the St. Louis Cardinals, at the time the only major-league city west of the Mississippi. The Redbirds were a storied franchise in their own right, earning World Series crowns in 1926, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, and 1946. They had entered the realm of champions by first defeating a New York Yankees lineup that included Ruth and Gehrig. The Cardinals were unable to bring home a pennant in the early 1950s, but they still had posted winning records every season since their most recent championship.
Despite consecutive losing seasons while in Boston, the newly transplanted Milwaukee Braves were trying to make a name for themselves, too, with high hopes for a pennant run in 1953. Even though the team was coming off a lackluster 64-89 record in 1952, Wisconsin fans hoped that a pitching staff that included Warren Spahn and an infield that featured a promising young Eddie Mathews and a sure-handed Joe Adcock could deliver a championship caliber team.
With Lou Perini’s franchise move from Boston to Milwaukee, enthusiasm for the team ran high throughout the Badger State. The sellout crowd for the home opener offered tangible evidence of that, as did the wild cheers of more than 2,000 fans who greeted the Braves at the Milwaukee airport just hours after the team’s victory over Cincinnati.2 For several days local newspapers ran exciting stories about the team, including coverage of more than 50,000 attending a welcome parade, while featuring prominent ads from the Milwaukee & Suburban Transport Corporation advising people of mass-transit options to the ballpark.3
Elsewhere, newspapers throughout the nation offered cheery previews of the Milwaukee contest. The Chicago Tribune highlighted the “$5,000,000 stadium” in its opening paragraph, while focusing more prominently on the pitching matchups.4 A New York Times article placed the event in broader context, suggesting that a book entitled A Short History of Milwaukee, authored by William James Bruce, might have to be rewritten to include April 14, 1953, since “it was on that date that the first modern National League game was played in this city with one of the teams representing Milwaukee.”5
Dignitaries appeared to understand the significance of the game, too. Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler and Wisconsin Governor Walter Kohler offered pregame remarks, as did Commissioner Ford Frick and National League President Warren Giles. While the speeches unfolded, the home team stood on the field wearing jackets, keeping their hands “hidden in their pockets for warmth.” As the afternoon festivities concluded, Giles congratulated the citizens for their “progressiveness in building this magnificent stadium.”6 New York Times sportswriter Joseph Nichols described the fan response to the various speeches as “polite but mild,” suggesting that when the starting pitchers were finally announced, “the fans let out their first sincere cheer.”7
Spahn mixed up his pitches early, blanking the Cardinals for the first four innings. In the bottom of the second, the Braves’ Joe Adcock hit a two-out single, the first regular-season hit in the shiny new ballpark. After that landmark was established, Del Crandall hit a slow roller down the third-base line; Cardinals third baseman Ray Jablonski scooped it up and threw wildly past first baseman Steve Bilko. Reacting quickly, Adcock rounded third and hustled home to score the ballpark’s first official run.
The Cardinals struck back in the fifth inning. Spahn walked Enos Slaughter to open the inning, and then Slaughter headed to second after a low pickoff throw by Spahn got past first baseman Adcock. Jablonski’s single to right-center field scored Slaughter, tying the game. St. Louis held the Braves scoreless in the fifth. Spahn led off the sixth by again walking the leadoff batter, hard-hitting shortstop Solly Hemus. Red Schoendienst laid down a sacrifice bunt, putting Hemus in scoring position. However, Stan Musial’s grounder to Braves shortstop Johnny Logan caught Hemus in a rundown. Third baseman Eddie Mathews tagged Hemus out, then quickly fired to second to double up Musial, who was trying to sneak into scoring position.
After blanking the Braves once again in the sixth, the Cardinals threatened again in the seventh, with Slaughter reaching second after a throwing error by second baseman Jack Dittmer on a slow roller. Spahn, unrattled, struck out Jablonski before left fielder Sid Gordon caught a ball in foul territory for the inning’s final out. With the Milwaukee faithful on the edge of their seats again in the eighth, the Cardinals advanced runners to second and third with two outs and Musial due up. After battling Spahn to a full count, Musial hit the ball solidly, but to center field, where the fleet-footed Billy Bruton caught it for the final out.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Bruton smashed a low pitch to right field, over Slaughter’s head, and slid into third for a triple. Logan was hit by a pitch, Mathews walked, and with the bases loaded, the Braves broke the deadlock with Bruton heading home after Sid Gordon tapped a slow dribbler to pitcher Gerry Staley’s right side that he was unable to field cleanly.
The Cardinals tied it up in the top of the ninth. With two strikes, two outs, and pinch-runner Harvey Haddix on first, former Cubs All-Star Peanuts Lowrey slammed a pinch-hit double to left center, easily scoring Haddix to make the score 2-2. Lowry was left stranded, however, and with the Braves unable to score in the bottom of the ninth, the game went into extra innings. Spahn held St. Louis scoreless in the 10th, setting up a dramatic bottom of the 10th for the home team.
Spahn opened the bottom of the 10th with an unsuccessful bunt attempt. Then Bruton launched Staley’s next pitch deep to right field, where it bounced off of Slaughter’s glove and dropped over the chain-link fence as the local fans cheered wildly. First-base umpire Lon Warneke quickly ruled the play a ground-rule double, but the umpiring crew, which included Jocko Conlan, Augie Donatelli, and Tom Gorman, reversed the call, making it a home run, seconds after Braves manager Charlie Grimm had run onto the field to protest. Spahn earned the victory with an impressive 10-inning performance, while Staley took the loss despite going the distance. Paid attendance was 34,357, but with numerous reporters and dignitaries on hand, at least 36,000 visitors were inside the stadium.8
The storybook ending left the Braves in first place after just two games. They would finish with a solid 92-62 record, good enough for second place though they were 13 games behind the pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers (105-49). Decades later, Milwaukee journalists and fans were still excitedly describing this game. On the day Miller Park opened, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Tom Haudricourt asserted, “The Milwaukee Braves knew how to christen a new ballpark.” Johnny Logan recounted the “exciting start,” fondly remembering that “the fans went crazy that day.”9
Milwaukee baseball historian Todd Mishler wrote that the memorable 1953 home opener capped “a whirlwind honeymoon” with area baseball fans that began on the day Lou Perini announced his team’s move from Boston.10 All evidence supports the assertion that the 1953 home opener on April 14 was a major moment in Milwaukee baseball history.
This article appears in "From the Braves to the Brewers: Great Games and Exciting History at Milwaukee’s County Stadium" (SABR, 2016), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more stories from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
1 The season opener also gained strong attention outside the United States. For example, it was the lead sports story in a Montreal English-language newspaper. See: “Milwaukee Debuts with 2-0 Victory,” The Gazette (Montreal), April 14, 1953: 18.
2 Sam Levy, “Milwaukee Lifts Merry Mugs to the Braves,” The Sporting News, April 22, 1953: 13.
3 Lou Chapman, “50,000 Welcome Our Braves Home,” Milwaukee Sentinel, April 9, 1953: 1; Milwaukee and Suburban Transport Corporation, “Avoid Transit and Parking Worries! Ride Transit to Braves Games” [advertisement], Milwaukee Journal, April 6, 1953: 17.
4 “Cards Open Season Today in Milwaukee,” Chicago Tribune, April 14, 1953: B2.
5 Joseph C. Nichols, “Proud Milwaukee Hails Team Today,” New York Times, April 14, 1953: 32.
6 “Speeches Mark Milwaukee Debut in National League,” Chicago Tribune, April 15, 1953: C3.
7 Joseph C. Nichols, “Braves Send 36,000 Home Happy by Sending the Cards Home in the Tenth, 3-2,” New York Times, April 15, 1953: 42.
8 Red Thisted, “Bill Bruton’s Homer Ends Great Day,” Milwaukee Sentinel, April 15, 1953: 1; Edward Prell, “Bruton Blow in 10th Sinks Cards,” Chicago Tribune, April 15, 1953: C1.
9 Tom Haurdricourt, “Openers Have Been Magical, Dismal,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, April 6, 2001: 3C.
10 Todd Mishler, Baseball in Beertown: America’s Pastime in Milwaukee (Black Earth, Wisconsin: Prairie Oaks Press, 2005), 13.