He neither slugged like Aaron nor pitched like Spahn, but Lou Perini made his own indelible mark on baseball history. In fact, one can argue that few men ever made a greater impact on the game without playing professionally than the construction giant who moved the Braves from Boston to Milwaukee.
For a half-century from 1903 through 1952, the major leagues consisted of the same 16 teams playing in the same 11 cities. There was no franchise west of St. Louis until Perini gambled that Wisconsinites who enthusiastically supported minor-league clubs would do the same for a major-league outfit. The end result was greater than anybody could have imagined, as the Braves shattered attendance records in their new home and won the 1957 World Series less than five years after relocating.
The move of the Braves was so successful, in fact, that it paved the way for numerous other franchise shifts in the years to come – including the dramatic defection of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers to the greener pastures of California after the 1957 season. This in turn led to coast-to-coast jet travel and the formation of numerous expansion clubs. By 1969, less than 20 years after Perini’s leap of faith, there were 24 major-league teams, including five in California and one in Canada. Lou started it all.
When Perini first became involved with his hometown team, however, moving was the furthest thing from his mind. His large family, and his family business, were firmly entrenched in the Boston area. Perini’s father, Bonfiglio (“good son” in Italian) Perini, was a stonemason in Gottolengo, Italy, who immigrated to New York in 1885 and then moved to Massachusetts two years later. He was soon working as a contractor for small dams and roadways throughout and beyond New England, and developed a reputation for taking on jobs – like a 20-mile-long bluestone wall in New York’s Catskills – that other men considered too risky or difficult.
Shrewd investments in enterprises like the burgeoning motion-picture industry helped the elder Perini’s business grow and withstand equipment shortages during World War I. He and his wife, Clementina, had 13 children, nine of whom survived infancy, and Bonfiglio had sons hauling water around construction sites by age 6. B. Perini and Sons, Inc. incorporated at war’s end, in 1918, and as the car became king in the years that followed, the firm took on many large road and highway jobs. Louis Perini recalled for a Boston newspaper how much his father was liked and expressed his admiration for his dad’s accomplishments in his adopted homeland.
Work was hard but the family was happy and comfortable. Then, in 1924, came tragedy: Bonfiglio died after a long illness. While they mourned, the children soldiered on with the company – Joseph Perini now serving as treasurer, daughter Ida as secretary, and 22-year-old Louis (or Lou) as president. The new head man proved quite adept at his job, and nobody was more dedicated; Possessing just an eighth-grade education, Lou took night classes to better understand the business world. Perini and Sons signed its first million-dollar contract around 1930 to build a stretch of the Boston-Worcester Turnpike, and utilized a state-of-the-art high-speed spreader to set new paving records on the job.
By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, Perini and Sons had developed a great reputation and substantial wealth. A huge wartime defense contract to widen the Cape Cod Canal kept things humming, and a new type of venture also caught the eye of Lou and his familial colleagues – which now included youngest brother Charlie. The Boston Braves baseball club was floundering with a losing record and a tired ballpark, handicapped by a struggling ownership group that could not afford to improve either. Lou Perini, whose own experience with the national pastime had peaked as a teenage catcher for the Ashland Dreadnaughts, saw in the situation a new landscape to conquer.
Perini approached Joe Maney and Guido Rugo, who like him headed local contracting businesses started by their fathers. He encouraged them to join in the venture, and in 1943 this trio picked up majority ownership of the Braves. They also acquired a catchy nickname from sportswriters that perfectly suited their background and take-charge approach: The Three Little Steam Shovels.
“We had been successful as businessmen,” recounted Perini, who assumed the role of president (Maney was treasurer). “We knew little about baseball, but we figured that by using sound business methods, we could succeed in baseball as we had succeeded in building bridges, roads, and ammunition dumps.”1 Perini cited their lack of baseball knowledge as an advantage, and said that as contractors they were good planners who could meet any challenge.
A big test was before them. The once-proud Braves franchise, which had played in the first game in National League history, in 1876, and won eight league championships before the turn of the century, was entrenched in a 29-year pennant drought (that would eventually reach 34 years) since their “Miracle” 1914 world championship and had finished no higher than fourth place in 25 years. The team was so bad on the field and at the gate that cash-strapped club executives even ran a contest in local newspapers encouraging fans to come up with a new team nickname that would hopefully change its luck. Boston Bees won out, but the Bees fared no better in the standings from the 1936 through the 1941 seasons. When the Three Little Steam Shovels took control, they were the Braves once more.
A big problem facing the team no matter its name was its crosstown American League rivals, the Boston Red Sox. Once as downtrodden as their neighbors, the Red Sox had risen in the late 1930s and early ’40s after being purchased by ore and mining tycoon Tom Yawkey. One of the country’s richest men, Yawkey bought the Red Sox shortly after his 30th birthday in 1933 and immediately began spending unheard-of sums to trade for star players like Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove. More cash was sent to California in exchange for minor-league standouts Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio. Johnny Pesky was snatched up from Oregon.
Yawkey also rebuilt his new team’s home of Fenway Park, which always felt cozy and inviting to fans in comparison to cavernous Braves Field. Fenway was right around the corner from bustling Kenmore Square and its numerous hotels, restaurants, and colleges, making it a popular destination point. Braves Field, in contrast, was situated a mile up the road amid nondescript apartment buildings and automobile dealers. It was also hard beside the Charles River and a working railyard, so when the east wind blew cold air in from the river, it mixed with smoke from passing trains and often left fans at Braves Field in a chilly, dusty haze.
There wasn’t much the Steam Shovels could do to change their club’s hazy fortunes during World War II, but after the war ended in 1945 they went to work in earnest. Not possessing the vast wealth of Yawkey, and with a wife and seven children to support, Lou Perini knew he had to spend money to compete. Starting at the top, he lured former St. Louis Cardinals manager Billy Southworth – a future Hall of Famer then revered as baseball’s best skipper – with a record $35,000 annual salary for three years plus bonuses of up to $20,000 for finishing third, second, or first. More cash and savvy trades brought in stars like outfielder Jeff Heath, third baseman Bob Elliott, and college shortstop Alvin Dark, who blended with holdovers including fan favorite and hard-hitting outfielder Tommy Holmes and 20-game-winners Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn to form a contending team.
This group jelled under Southworth to win the 1948 National League pennant, and set a franchise attendance record of 1,455,439 in the process that for once nearly matched what the Red Sox were drawing down the street with a great club of their own. AL champs two years before, the Red Sox in 1948 tied for first with the Cleveland Indians before losing in a one-game playoff at Fenway – an outcome that denied the Braves a chance to beat out their crosstown rivals in an all-Boston World Series. Southworth’s troops might still have claimed their spot as top dogs in town with a Series triumph, but Cleveland prevailed in six games.
Hopes for extended success by the Braves were short-lived. Injuries and dissension wracked the 1949 team, which finished in fourth as attendance dropped nearly 35 percent. The Red Sox had another near-miss season, battling with the New York Yankees to the wire before losing the pennant on the season’s final day. The gap between Boston’s two teams was widening once more.
Perini did everything he could to stop the tide. He fixed up Braves Field with fir trees, fried clams and televisions at the concession stands, neon foul poles, and a $75,000 electronic scoreboard. He poured money into player development, and promoted the team’s great young talent with the Rookie Rocket – an airplane that flew sportswriters around nationwide to observe high-school and college players signing Braves contracts. Perhaps most importantly, Lou integrated his team nearly a decade before the Red Sox, acquiring speedy outfielder Sam Jethroe in a deal with the Brooklyn Dodgers before the 1950 season in a move that may have actually done more harm than good for attendance in the then racially divided city.
Nothing Perini tried won back the crowds. The Braves finished fourth in 1950 and 1951, and in the latter year drew fewer than a half-million fans while operating at a $380,000 loss. This was merely a prelude to an even more dismal 1952, when the club fell to seventh with a 64-89 record and was the lowest-drawing team in baseball. Just 281,278 saw games at Braves Field that year, an average of 3,653 a contest in a 40,000-seat ballpark. Attendance topped 10,000 just twice all season, and financial losses for Perini, Rugo, and Maney were listed at $580,000 for the year (and rumored to be closer to $1 million). A glance at the numbers, and it was clearer than ever that Boston was a Red Sox town; despite a lackluster sixth-place club, and Ted Williams’s departure for the Marines after April, the Red Sox still drew a respectable 1,115,750 to Fenway Park that summer.
One possible solution for this disparity was never tried. According to his longtime assistant Chuck Patterson, Perini approached Red Sox owner Yawkey in the early ’50s and asked about the possibility of the two teams sharing Fenway Park; since they played in different leagues, the Braves and Red Sox could switch off using the ballpark and taking road trips. “Lou tried to sell Mr. Yawkey the same story he tried to tell the press; that it would be good for both ballclubs, that there should be a baseball game in Boston every day, and that he might not be able to stay in town otherwise,” said Patterson. “That [last thing] is probably just what Tom Yawkey wanted to hear.”2
In one area Perini and Yawkey did see eye-to-eye, however: the Jimmy Fund. In 1948, aided by Braves public relations director Billy Sullivan – future founder and owner of the NFL’s Boston/New England Patriots – and a giving organization of theater owners known as the Variety Club of New England, Perini helped launch this charitable arm of the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation, later known as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The Jimmy Fund supports cancer treatment for patients of all ages at Dana-Farber, along with research into possible cures. It was officially unveiled to the public when the starting lineup of the 1948 Braves visited the hospital bedside of a 12-year-old cancer patient – called Jimmy to protect his identity – while a nationwide radio audience listened. “My father died of cancer; so did two of my uncles,” Lou Perini explained of his involvement. “I watched my father drop from a robust 260 pounds to about 100 within six months. I made up my mind then that if there was anything I could ever do to help raise cancer research money, I’d do it.”3
The Jimmy Fund was often trumpeted in its early years by Braves players at cookouts, clinics, and other events, and as of 2013 the Perini family had maintained its commitment to the cause for 65 years. Yawkey pledged when the Braves departed for Milwaukee to continue the Jimmy Fund connection, and it became an official Red Sox charity. For a number of years after the franchise moved to Milwaukee the Braves returned to play the Red Sox in Jimmy Fund Games at Fenway, with all proceeds dedicated to research and patient care at Dana-Farber.
Whether battling cancer or the St. Louis Cardinals, Lou Perini never retreated from the limelight. He was a fan-first owner who drove in with his big brood of kids from their suburban Wellesley home for Sunday doubleheaders, and while at the ballpark he was always accessible to the crowd.
“The owner’s box was just to the left of the Braves dugout, which was on the third-base side,” recalled Lou’s son David Perini, who was a teenager during these years and later succeeded his father as president of the family business. “He would tell us all to spread out so the stands looked fuller, and we could hear the hecklers getting on Dad. It was really difficult for me as a kid to take. But Dad’s whole thing was, ‘Always stand proud.’ After games he would talk and debate with fans while we walked back to the car.”4
By this point sports columnists were also turning against the Braves, and David Perini recalled that he and his siblings wanted to write a letter to the editor in response to one particularly harsh story. “Our father said, ‘I don’t think that’s the best way to handle it.’ His philosophy was it was always better to let sleeping dogs lie. ‘If you, as Perini kids, write a letter,’ he said, ‘the columnist will play that up and blow it all out of proportion.’ We never did do it, but it really hurt.”
What David and his siblings didn’t know then was that their father was considering a decision that would have huge ramifications for the family, Boston, and all of baseball. When the elder Perini bought out partners Maney and Rugo in November 1952, some in the press speculated that Lou was bailing out his buddies while others thought it might be the prelude to a sale or even a move by the Braves. Perini, after all, also owned the team’s top minor-league club, in Milwaukee, where fans packed home games and longed for a major-league team. Perini promised he would help them get one, and work had begun on a 36,000-seat city-funded stadium to help sweeten the pot. There was no guarantee there would ever be an MLB club to play there, but that’s how hungry Milwaukee’s civic leaders were to go big league.
Initially, David Perini attested, his father wanted to give Boston fans at least one more year to show their support for the Braves. Promising young position players like third baseman Eddie Mathews, shortstop Johnny Logan, and catcher Del Crandall boded well for the future, and that summer the club had signed up a young Negro Leaguer named Henry Aaron who also looked solid. Spahn still anchored the pitching staff, and newcomers to the rotation including Chet Nichols and Lew Burdette seemed poised to join him as big winners. “As long as I own the Braves,” Lou Perini once said, “they will belong to Boston.”5
Then circumstances forced his hand. Bill Veeck, the sharp-tongued, iconoclastic owner of the American League’s St. Louis Browns, faced a problem similar to Perini’s in that his woeful club was having a hard time competing at the gate with its intercity rival, the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League. Veeck wanted to move his club, and saw Milwaukee as an excellent option. He planned to seek permission from his fellow American League owners that winter for a transfer, and even though he was not well-loved among his peers, Veeck was a strong self-promoter who had proved he could pack ballparks.
Since Perini owned the territorial rights to Milwaukee in Organized Baseball, Veeck could not move the Browns there without Lou’s permission. The cat-and-mouse game between the two owners played out in the press, and Wisconsin fans and politicians began pressuring Perini to let Veeck have Milwaukee or move there himself. In addition to excitement about the prospects of having a major-league club, these folks knew such a shift would be a huge boon for local and statewide businesses.
Perini realized he might never have a better opportunity to revive his franchise. Boston fans were not responding to his moves to improve the lineup and Braves Field, and less than 500 season tickets had been sold for the coming 1953 season. Milwaukee was a growing city with a strong factory-based economy boosted by World War II contracts and several prosperous breweries, and eventually Lou decided to take the plunge. He called his baseball staff to his Framingham, Massachusetts, construction offices, and, according to Patterson, his assistant, said, “I’m going to tell you fellows something, and I don’t even want you to tell your wives. We’re going to have to move the team to Milwaukee.”
The men, including Perini, kept their word. David Perini said that even his own mother didn’t know his dad had made up his mind, and when the Braves headed for spring training in Florida the next February they did so with “B’s” on their caps. Then, on Friday the 13th of March, 1953, a reporter from the Milwaukee Sentinel, acting on a tip, asked Perini if he was about to go through with shifting his club. “I can’t say yes and I can’t say no,” the owner replied, and that was good enough for headlines like “BRAVES QUIT HUB” to begin appearing in the Boston Globe.
Five days later, with a big assist from league president Warren Giles, Perini got the required unanimous vote from his seven fellow NL owners – unlike Bill Veeck, Lou Perini was very well-liked within this fraternity – and the transfer was official. “WE’RE THE HOME OF THE BRAVES!” read the front-page headline of the Milwaukee Sentinel, and the Braves’ schedule was quickly switched with that of the Pittsburgh Pirates to resolve conflicts with East Coast starting times and night games. The 1953 All-Star Game, ironically scheduled to be played at Braves Field for the first time since 1936, was switched to Cincinnati.
“It basically came down to this – the last thing my father wanted to do was move the team from Boston, but it was an absolute economic necessity to do so,” David Perini recalled 40 years later. “The Braves were losing a tremendous amount of money, and I think he felt he needed to go to a territory where there wasn’t already a major-league team and the Braves would be accepted and draw well. I think he saw the Braves as sort of a sleeping giant in a way with tremendous potential that wasn’t being realized.”
As was often the case in matters of business, Lou Perini was correct. The Braves were welcomed to their new home like conquering heroes, greeted by a crowd of 10,000 at the train station and feted by 60,000 in a parade before they even played an inning at brand-new County Stadium – the first major-league ballpark financed entirely by public funds. Lou’s daughter Mary, then in college, remembered “being treated like Madonna” by a fan base that saw even the owner’s children as celebrities.
Mary’s dad hoped his club could draw one million fans that first year in Milwaukee, and it did – in just over half a season. Players like Mathews, Logan, Crandall, and Burdette matured into stars seemingly overnight, making the Braves an instant contender that nearly reversed its record of the previous summer with a 92-62, second-place finish. The final County Stadium tally of 1,826,397 fans set a new National League attendance mark, and the Braves enjoyed a profit of nearly $1.5 million. City officials estimated that the team’s arrival generated nearly $5 million in new business for Milwaukee, a city of just 725,000 residents.
Lou’s gamble had paid off, and the good times continued for nearly a decade. Aaron came up in 1954, and he, Mathews, and the ageless Spahn formed the nucleus of a team that contended annually and nearly won four straight pennants from 1956-1959. Part of the club’s drawing appeal early on stemmed from a decision by Perini not to allow for the televising of any Braves games – home or away – into the homes of Milwaukee residents. If you wanted to see his great club perform, you had to come to the ballpark. And fans kept coming, 2,131,388 strong in 1954 for another record.
The rest of baseball took notice; buoyed by the success of the Braves, American League owners allowed the Browns to move to Baltimore in 1954 (where they became the Orioles) and the struggling Philadelphia Athletics to shift to Kansas City a year later. Like the Braves, both the Browns and the A’s had grown tired of being the second most popular club in two-team towns. In both cases there were brand-new or remodeled ballparks waiting for them in their new homes. Perini, ever the great construction man, had started a new building trend without lifting any of his own shovels.
When the Braves hosted the 1955 All-Star Game, it was like a coming-out party for Perini to show the sporting world what he had accomplished. Among those attending were Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham, whose legendary franchises had begun struggling at the gate because of aging stadiums in changing urban neighborhoods. “Certainly O’Malley and Stoneham were awakened by the opportunities that lay ahead because of the experience that the Braves had under Perini,” said Andrew Zimbalist, the author of several acclaimed books on the business of baseball. “The sleeping sport had a dousing of cold water thrown on its head and any owner with an IQ over 80 noticed and said, ‘Wow, here are some opportunities.’ ”6
By 1956 the Braves were poised to come out on top not only at the gate – where they drew 2 million yet again – but also on the field. They wound up just short, finishing a single game behind the defending champion Dodgers, but in 1957 the Braves overcame first Brooklyn and St. Louis for the pennant and then the heavily-favored New York Yankees in a seven-game World Series thriller. Milwaukee repeated as pennant winner in 1958, losing a rematch to the Yankees in another seven-game Series, and then lost a best-of-three playoff in two games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1959 after the two clubs tied at the end of the regular season.
O’Malley and Stoneham had by then followed the trend set by Perini, and road games against the Dodgers and Giants now necessitated chartered airline flights to California. As in Milwaukee, the eventual new ballparks in Los Angeles and San Francisco were surrounded by huge parking lots, emblematic of the changing American landscape that Perini had foreseen. “Clearly just as the country was changing to suburbanization, auto mobilization of the late 1940s and early 1950s and the introduction of television on a mass basis throughout the society … was a westward movement at a very rapid growth indigenously of the population of California,” said Zimbalist.7
Like the Braves, the Dodgers set a team attendance record of 1,845,556 during their first season (1958) after moving, but in their case they did it with a seventh-place team and in a home venue (Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) not appropriate for professional baseball. In Los Angeles the good times have never really stopped rolling; thanks to beautiful weather and a majestic ballpark, Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962, annual crowd numbers have dipped below 2 million just five times in more than half a century (and never since 1972). Through winning seasons and nonwinning seasons, the crowds have kept coming.
In Milwaukee, however, the tremendous surge of the early years began to wane when the Braves’ string of championship-caliber seasons ended. During 1960, when the club finished seven games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and was never closer than five games from the top after early August, average attendance at County Stadium dipped below 20,000 (and season attendance under 1.5 million) for the first time. In addition to not having an exciting pennant race to watch down the stretch, fans were miffed at a decision by the Milwaukee County Board to prohibit them from carrying six-packs of beer into the ballpark. This was, after all, Brew City.
The board lifted the ban in 1961, but the bad taste left in fans’ mouths remained. Many who had stopped coming the year before stayed away, and it didn’t help that the Braves dropped to fourth place. Even though Aaron, Mathews, Spahn, and other lesser luminaries were still on the roster, crowd numbers fell dramatically again to less than 15,000 per game. For the first time in Milwaukee, the Braves attendance was below the league average.
Perini was not about to go through another free-fall like the one he had in Boston. He began televising Braves games heavily in the early ’60s, realizing that TV had become popular and lucrative enough that he could make back hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship and advertising fees to lessen the economic blow of declining crowds. Still, with attendance dipping to just 766,921 in 1962 (eighth in the ten-team National League), Perini lost money for the first time in Milwaukee after making $7.5 million in profits from 1953-1961.
Perini’s construction company, now known as the Perini Corporation, had continued to grow. The firm went public in 1961, and the new shareholders were unhappy with declining numbers in the baseball sector. Sharing their concern, Lou Perini sold the Milwaukee Braves to the Chicago-based Lasalle Corporation, led by 34-year-old insurance broker William Bartholomay, on November 16, 1962. The purchase price was $6.2 million.
It was the perfect time for Perini to get out. The love affair between the Braves and Milwaukee was coming to an end, and the new owners made clear their intent to move the team if a suitable suitor city stepped forward. Atlanta showed interest, and Bartholomay began negotiating with Georgia officials to make the change a reality. Milwaukee County officials fought to keep the team in town, but it was too little too late. The move to Atlanta was announced in November 1964, with the team to relocate in 1966 after a final lame-duck season in Wisconsin.
Lou Perini, meanwhile, was back to concentrating full-time about what he knew best, construction. Now nearing a half-century as head of his business, he presided over a firm in the 1960s that built some of the largest dams, tunnels, marine installations, and buildings around the world. “Dad ate and slept the construction business,” said son David Perini. “We discussed it at dinner and toured job sites on Sundays after church. It was a constant in our life.”8
So, for 20 years, had been the Braves. It was tough to get the team out of his blood, so even after he sold it, Lou Perini maintained a 10 percent interest in the franchise and sat on its board of directors. The major-league landscape continued shifting and expanding, to the point where today there are 30 teams playing in six divisions. Many owe their existence to the forward thinking of Lou Perini.
When he died of cancer on April 16, 1972, at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida, at the age of 68, Perini was mourned as a great family man and a giant in the fields of both baseball and building. His acts of charity, including his integral part in the founding of the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, were duly noted. And while he may never join Aaron, Mathews, and Spahn in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Lou Perini is still making an impact – each time a major-league game is played in California or a cancer patient receives support from the David B. Perini, Jr. Quality of Life Clinic at Dana-Farber, named in memory of his grandson.
“Of all the things we ever did with the Braves in Boston,” Lou Perini once said, “the Jimmy Fund gave me the most personal satisfaction.”9 Along with baseball’s modern geographical makeup, it remains his legacy.
This biography is included in the book "Thar's Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves" (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To download the free e-book or purchase the paperback edition, click here.
Author interviews with Louis Perini, Jr., Mary Perini, and Chuck Patterson, 1990s
Author interviews with David Perini, 1992-2010
Boston Globe, 1943-1963
Boston Herald, 1943-1963
Other printed materials
Herring, Ben, Constructor (company newsletter covering construction industry), December 1990.
Hirshberg, Al, “The Man Who Made Milwaukee Happy,” Saga magazine, July 1954.
“History” section of Perini Building Company website, tutorperini.com.
Kaese, Harold. The Boston Braves (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1954).
Kaese, Harold. “They’re Digging a Pennant in Boston,” Saturday Evening Post, June 28, 1947.
Povletich, William, Milwaukee Braves, Heroes and Heartache (Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009).
Povletich, William. A Braves New World (documentary film), Wisconsin Public Television, 2009.
1 Harold Kaese,“They’re Digging a Pennant in Boston,” Saturday Evening Post, June 28, 1947.
2 All quotations from Chuck Patterson are from the author’s interviews unless otherwise noted.
3 Al Hirshberg, “The Man Who Made Milwaukee Happy,” Saga, magazine, July 1954.
4 All quotations from David Perini are from the author's interviews unless otherwise noted.
5 Harold Kaese, “They’re Digging a Pennant in Boston,” Saturday Evening Post, June 28, 1947.
6 William Povletich, A Braves New World (documentary film), Wisconsin Public Television, 2009.
8 Ben Herring, Constructor, newsletter covering construction industry, December 1990.
9 Al Hirshberg, “The Man Who Made Milwaukee Happy,” Saga magazine, July 1954.