How the Menomonee Valley brought the big leagues to Milwaukee
his Friday afternoon, the Milwaukee Brewers’ home park will be the site of the biggest party in the state—an afternoon spiked by the unrestrained optimism that is native to a baseball fan in the springtime. But 60 years ago, the plot of Menomonee Valley land that is today Milwaukee’s cradle of big-league ball was little more than a frozen hole in the dirt. It was the footprint of what would become County Stadium—a ballpark fondly remembered today. But the story of how the stadium came to be is not so easily recalled.
Milwaukee had been home to professional baseball since the 1880s, hosting assorted teams at several North Side “base ball grounds.” The most resilient of these clubs was the minor league Milwaukee Brewers (1902-1952). They played at the corner of 7th and Burleigh at a rectangular site—capped on its south end by a wooden grandstand—originally known as Brewers Field and later Borchert Field. The Brewers fielded many memorable teams, winning eight league titles at the park. But Borchert Field became a relic of the 19th century, increasingly outmoded as the Brewers’ fan base grew.
Efforts to build a multipurpose municipal stadium in Milwaukee date back as far as the 1920s. In 1931, the County Parks Department proposed a $2 million lakefront baseball/football stadium—a mile-long structure that would have seated 150,000 people. The proposal went nowhere, but as New Deal cash started to flow into the city, the prospect of a publicly funded stadium gained traction. The city modeled its plans after the huge stadium Cleveland had built in an ill-advised effort to land the 1932 Summer Olympics. However, by the mid-’30s, the Cleveland model had proven unsound. Its Municipal Stadium (dubbed “The Mistake By the Lake”) stood empty more days than not. Milwaukee County’s stadium plan appeared dead.
After World War II and with the Brewers in dire need of a modern home, the stadium bug bit again. But it was not just baseball and civic pride that drove the issue. The Green Bay Packers, then six-time NFL champions, played their home games at tiny City Stadium, an antiquated facility more suited to a highschool team. The NFL told the Packers to build an adequate facility or face forcible relocation. Milwaukee, which had been hosting one or two Packer home games annually at Borchert Field since 1933, was the obvious spot for a forced move. All they needed was a proper home.
After lengthy debate, it was decided to locate the project in the westernmost reaches of the city, at the site of an old stone quarry in the Menomonee Valley. The location was somewhat revolutionary for its time. A decade before, putting a stadium in such an area would have left it too far removed from the bulk of its urban customer base. But as the postwar marketplace saw many city dwellers head to the comforts of suburbia, the location would be ideal to draw from all reaches of the Milwaukee metro area. The stadium appeared primed to host the Packers and Brewers perhaps as early as 1951, but steel shortages during the Korean War stifled the project and construction ground to a crawl.
As construction slowed, the battle for the right to call it home grew hot. While it was still being billed as the future home of the Brewers—and hoped to attract the Packers as its prime tenant—various Major League Baseball teams began eyeing the goings-on in the valley. Both St. Louis’ Cardinals and Browns— stuck in a city no longer big enough for two teams— considered a move north. But the Milwaukee territory was controlled by the Brewers’ big-league affiliate, the Boston Braves. Braves owner Lou Perini, who was himself bleeding cash in Boston, could veto any franchise shift to the city. Perini defended his Milwaukee territory in the name of his minor-league Brewers, but was in truth just stalling to clinch league approval to move his Braves.
As the 1953 season drew near, the Browns called out Perini for his refusal to allow their shift to Milwaukee. Hoping to pressure him into relenting, the move backfired. Perini now claimed the Browns’ slander had demonized him in Milwaukee, thusly devaluing his Brewers to the point where they would need to be relocated. And to avoid losses on the financial commitments he had already made to Milwaukee County for future rent at the new stadium, Perini said he would be forced to move his Braves west.
Just 10 days before the opening of the 1953 season, the team that had gone to Spring Training as the Boston Braves came home to Milwaukee and the Cream City’s Brewers relocated to Toledo. Construction on the stadium had not yet finished when it was christened as the new “home of the Braves,” but Milwaukee baseball’s long journey from the North Side to the Menomonee Valley—and from the bush leagues to the bigs—was finally complete.
Matthew J. Prigge is a historian, freelance author and the attendee of 21 straight Brewers home openers. He recently completed his first book, Outlaws, Rebels, and Vixens: Six Decades of the Milwaukee Motion Picture Commission.
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