Posted Under: Baseball's Best Books
Over the years a handful of pennant winning teams have earned a special place in the hearts of baseball fans. These teams are often known better by a popular nickname than an official team name. The Hitless Wonders, the Gashouse Gang, the Whiz Kids, and the Miracle Mets among others all conjure up images of unforgettable teams winning unexpected championships. With the publication of 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 (whew…that’s some subtitle!), John Klima adds another to that list: the Bushville Braves. Skillfully narrating the adventures of a gritty collection of players who were brought to a blue collar town by a former construction worker the author tells the fascinating story that led to the Milwaukee Braves only world championship.
The mastermind behind Klima’s journey is Braves owner Lou Perini. The author, like most Perini biographers, provides a sympathetic portrait of the Braves owner. Perini’s rags-to-riches tale is a true Horatio Alger saga. The story of his team is not. It is instead the product of careful planning and calculations over more than a decade. Klima, as have others, proposes that Perini was a baseball visionary who led the transition from the owner fraternity that ruled baseball during the first half of the 20th century to the corporate management style that has directed the game during the past fifty years. At the same time, according to Klima, Perini like his predecessors maintained an almost paternal relationship with his players. Of course it was Perini’s Braves who began baseball’s westward expansion when they moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953. Perini was among the early advocates of night baseball, had his teams travel by air and anticipated baseball’s television age. He was also a shrewd businessman who recognized the potential of his team’s move; and, he understood how to build a world championship team.
Klima’s narrative is a story about a collection of predominantly working class players who, despite their differences, bonded and became a team. The player at the core of the Braves was veteran pitcher Warren Spahn. The future hall of famer is portrayed as a brilliant mounds man and fun loving prankster. His sidekicks included Lew Burdette who had pitched his way out of Appalachian coal mines. Like Spahn, Burdette early in his career had been rejected by Yankees manager Casey Stengel and as a result both pitchers utterly disdained Stengel. Another member of what became known as “the Asshole Buddies” was Bob Buhl, a hardnosed pitcher with a reputation for throwing at hitters. Young Eddie Mathews was the final “buddy” in the brigade. Gifted with awesome power at the plate, Mathews off the field was a hard drinking bar room brawler. He was also a loyal team mate. Aside from their off the field escapades these four buddies shared a fierce competitive spirit that came to characterize the entire team. And of course there was Henry Aaron. Klima’s description of Aaron is consistent with Howard Bryant’s fine recent biography The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. Aaron is portrayed as a quiet, soft spoken, determined player whose talents awed even the best players. The author contends that in many ways the success of the Braves in 1957 rested on the shoulders of Henry Aaron. It was the season that Aaron, the National League’s Most Valuable Player, emerged from the shadow of Willie Mays as one of the game’s greatest young players. Aside from the Buddies and Aaron Klima pays special attention to the role played by veteran Red Scheondienst, a mid-season acquisition who stabilized the young team during the last half of the season. Another essential ingredient was tough task master manager Fred Haney who replaced Charlie “Jolly Cholly” Grimm and brought much needed discipline to the team. Among other notables in the author’s supporting cast are Del Crandell, Johnny Logan, and Joe Adcock who add perspective to the author’s vivid descriptions.
Bushville Wins is also a story about a city confronting its image as a gritty, unsophisticated, beer guzzling town. Milwaukee in the 1950s had a bustling economy that made it one of the Midwest’s important centers. It was a city proud of its image as a blue collar town in which the local brewer was one of the prime employers. Milwaukee also had a rich baseball tradition that stretched back to the creation of major league baseball in the late 19th century. The Braves move to Milwaukee provided an opportunity for the city to garner some overdue respect. Locals immediately embraced the team as their own. Players became instant heroes and fans came to see their new heroes in record numbers. By 1957 the Braves had become an integral part of Milwaukee’s self image. When dubbed “bush league” by the haughty New York press as well as Stengel and his crew, Milwaukeeans instantly came to share the Spahn and Burdette disdain for all things Yankees. The World Series became a path toward retribution for Milwaukee.
Klima adeptly weaves his various stories about the team, the players and the city around the course of the 1957 season. He describes the team’s move to Milwaukee while developing the personalities that comprised the team. The author then leads the reader through the Braves season. The story he tells is an entertaining one though not exactly the David and Goliath saga he promises. Certainly New York which was in the midst of its most dominant era was a Goliath. However, Milwaukee was not a David. It was a team of young talented players who had been picked by many to win the National League pennant in 1957. Some even considered the Braves the best team in baseball. Even less convincing is the claim that the encounter between the Braves and the Yankees changed baseball.
Among the author’s strengths is his breezy style and colorful imagery though at times he gets a bit carried away. For instance, at one point Klima proposes that Don Newcombe “pitched like his ass was on fire” and if a hitter got his fastball just right it “would carry like a good tip to a cigarette girl.” A paragraph later Bob Buhl’s fastball strays “like a kid past curfew.” They are colorful metaphors but, separated by only a few sentences, they bump into each other like rush hour commuters on a New York City subway. Klima also periodically tries to recreate the salty language that no doubt was part of dugout chatter but again the effort often distracts rather than embellishes. Nevertheless, the author is a fine wordsmith who is able to tell an engaging story. His account of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves is a story that all baseball fans should enjoy.