Atlanta Braves: Bill Bartholomay, RIP – “At 91, I think he just got tired”

Bill Bartholomay, the man who moved the Braves to Atlanta, opened the southeast to the Show, but tried to commercialize Henry Aaron meeting Babe Ruth, dies in New York.

The man who gave birth to the Atlanta Braves is dead. So is the man who tried to commercialize Hall of Famer Henry Aaron‘s catch and release of Babe Ruth from part of the record book. They were the same man, Bill Bartholomay, who died at 91 in New York on Wednesday.

Bartholomay and the Chicago insurance group he headed got a shot at the Braves in the first place because of a mistake the Milwaukee City Council made in 1960, when the rip-roaring 1950s shifted to a new decade, with a team suddenly not as potent looking as when they went to back-to-back World Series, won one of them, and lost the 1959 pennant in a playoff with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With the suddenly faltering Braves struggling in the 1960 pennant race as it was, the city council banned the longtime fan habit of bringing six-packs of beer to city-owned County Stadium. Banning a habit like that in the city to which beer was mother’s milk was like banning the subways in New York, the beaches in California, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

The council lifted the six-pack ban a year later but it left a flat taste in fans’ mouths. Braves owner Lou Perini tried increasing the team’s television presence to stanch the financial bleed, but while it saved the day temporarily for 1961, in 1962 the Braves lost money for the first time in Milwaukee.

Anxious to avoid a free-fall similar to the one that prompted him to take the team out of Boston in the first place, and with shareholders in his prosperous construction company less than thrilled about the Braves now becoming money-losers, Perini put the Braves up for sale and Bartholomay’s LaSalle Corporation bought.

Seeing the city’s enchantment with the Braves compromised, and thinking it would be permanent, Bartholomay let it be known he was willing to move the Braves to any city that would have them. At the 1963 All-Star Game, Bartholomay received whispers that Atlanta certainly would, ready to build a major league ballpark to get a team.

Which enchanted Bartholomay no end, considering Atlanta was an untapped market with potential to burn including television potential. And, considering Atlanta made it clear enough to him that, if they had their choice, they’d prefer the National League moving in.

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“They made it very clear that the stadium was going to be completed, with or without a tenant,” Bartholomay told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2015 interview. “Atlanta was going to take the lead in a lot of things — the new economy and the new South and whatnot — and part of that was professional sports . . . To make a commitment to build a stadium on spec with no team involved was pretty gutsy, to say the least.”

Bartholomay’s board voted in October 1964 to move the Braves to Atlanta. Not so fast, said Milwaukee’s city fathers. For one thing, the Braves had another year left on their County Stadium lease and the city wasn’t going to let them break it without a legal fight.

You can call it audacity, still, that they’d sue to keep the Braves after their earlier six-pack ban alienated enough of the team’s fan base. A fan base which couldn’t afford to be alienated, while the team itself certainly looked on the threshold of a rebuild, considering the grips on the region held by both the Cubs and the White Sox in Chicago to the south and by the Minnesota Twins from the immediate northwest.

Sue they did, forcing the Braves to play a lame-duck 1965 in Milwaukee before finally moving south. Surviving a few nasty death threats to do it while he was at it. Yet half a decade later Bartholomay proved instrumental in sending the Show back to Milwaukee, when an auto dealership head named Bud Selig bought the expansion Seattle Pilots out of bankruptcy and moved them into the Braves’ former home.

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It took a little time and a little rebuilding but when divisional play opened for business in 1969 there the Braves were, winning the first National League West before getting destroyed in three straight by the New York Mets in the first National League Championship Series.

Five years later, there was Aaron on the threshold of opening the season one shy of tying Ruth on the all-time home run list. With the Braves scheduled to open in Cincinnati against the Reds, there was Bartholomay ordering manager Eddie Mathews (the Hall of Fame third baseman) to hold Aaron out of the lineup, the better to let him tie and pass the Babe before the home folks.

Don’t even think about it, ordered commissioner Bowie Kuhn—after three New York newspaper columnists, Dick Young (the New York Daily News), Dave Anderson (The New York Times), and Larry Merchant (the New York Post) began a little crusade to compel Kuhn to thwart Bartholomay. And, after Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Furman Bisher denounced the threesome as “meddling Manhattan ice-agers” who should demand the cleanup of Times Square before demanding the Braves put baseball ahead of commerce.

Those mourning the coronavirus’s suspension of baseball and thus the absence of Opening Day this week should know that, then, in 1974, Kuhn ordered Mathews to put Aaron in the Opening Day lineup and to play Aaron in two out of the three games in Cincinnati before returning to Atlanta for the home opener.

With one out and two on in the top of the first, Aaron hit Reds starter Jack Billingham‘s fastball over the left center field fence. Babe tied.

“With one stroke,” wrote another Times columnist, Red Smith, “[Aaron] canceled schemes to cheapen his pursuit of the record by making it a carnival attraction staged for the box office alone, and he rendered moot two months of wrangling between the money-changers and the Protectors of the Faith.”

Smith laid the responsibility for the attempted cheapening at Bartholomay’s door.

Kuhn realized that in the view of most fans, leaving [the Braves’] cleanup hitter out of the batting order would be tantamount to dumping the games in Cincinnati. He explained to Bill Bartholomay what self-interest should have told the Braves’ owner, that it is imperative that every team present its strongest lineup every day in an honest effort to win, and that the customers must believe the strongest lineup is being used for that purpose.

When Bartholomay persisted in his determination to dragoon the living Aaron and the dead Ruth as shills to sell tickets in Atlanta, the commissioner laid down the law. With a man like Henry swinging for him, that’s all he had to do.

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The bad news: the Braves lost that Opening Day, 7-6. Mathews succeeded in keeping Aaron on the bench for the second game of the set but the Braves lost again, 7-5. Aaron started the third game, went 0-for-3 honestly, and came out in the seventh inning. He’d played two of the three games as ordered, played fairly, was beaten fairly in the second of the two, and the Braves went home to host the Dodgers.

Aaron drew a leadoff walk from Dodgers starter Al Downing in the bottom of the second. In the bottom of the fourth, with the Braves down 3-1 and Darrell Evans aboard on a leadoff infield error, Aaron checked in at the plate again. There’s no better description of what happened than Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully’s:

He means the tying run at the plate now, so we’ll see what Downing does . . . Al at the belt now, and he delivers, low, ball one. And that just adds to the pressure, the crowd booing. Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game . . .  One ball, no strikes, Aaron waiting, the outfield deep and straight away. Fastball — and a high drive into deep left center field, Buckner goes back, to the fence, it is gone!!! . . . (long pause during crowd noise and fireworks) . . . 

What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves, but by his father and mother . . .

Whatever Aaron did or didn’t think during the bid to turn his pursuit and passage of Ruth, he never thought less of Bartholomay for it. “[Bartholomay] was the greatest owner I ever had the pleasure to play for,” he tweeted. “He understood the game of baseball more than so many others. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s helped me in more ways than you can imagine. I will surely miss my friend.”

Bartholomay remained the Braves’ chairman after he sold the team to Ted Turner in 1976, a role he played for over three decades to follow. He reveled in Aaron’s record-breaker and the Braves’ staggering 1990s-early 2000s success. He got to witness several Braves go to Cooperstown, including Aaron, Mathews, Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, and manager Bobby Cox.

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He’d fought pneumonia this past winter and suffered a respiratory illness unrelated to COVID-19 when he died. “[At] 91 years old,” his daughter, Jamie Bartholomay Niemie told the Journal-Constitution, “I think he just got tired.”

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