As sports fans, we have a tendency to remember primarily runs of dominance that extend across multiple years. We remember the Yankees of the 1990s and their four World Series titles, the San Francisco 49ers and their four Super Bowls in the 1980s, or the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball teams of the 1960s and 1970s. Without question, those teams earned their reputations of greatness, and will live on in the minds of even casual fans without personal ties to those teams.
In and among such dominant championship runs sit lesser-known title teams, typically remembered only by historians and the team’s fans. These teams often produced their program’s or franchise’s historical high-water marks of success. But, because those championships were won by teams in smaller markets and in isolated moments, general fans tend to forget that they climbed the mountain at all.
Beginning today, we will profile a few of these overlooked champions, and argue for their significance (or lack thereof) in their respective sports. What’s important is to remember that the sports landscape is made up just as much by the overlooked champs as the memorable champs. For every Cowboys team of the 1990s, there’s two or three 1969 Kansas City Chiefs. All those champions mattered at some level, but it is up to us to think about how they mattered, and to what extent.
The 1957 Milwaukee Braves
by Keith Aksel
One often-overlooked title squad was the 1957 Milwaukee Braves. Major League Baseball seasons in the 1950s largely produced predictable outcomes. Every World Series title in the 1950s belonged to the large-market New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, or New York Yankees. Boasting a mix of steady veteran talent like Yogi Berra and young potential like Mickey Mantle, the Yankees of the 1950s especially dominated MLB, winning every title between 1949 and 1953. It would seem that New York owned the sport of baseball at the time.
Then in 1957, amidst this run of dominance from the New York clubs (the Giants won in 1954 and the Dodgers won in 1955), came a sneaky-dangerous team from Milwaukee that boasted almost as much young talent as anyone in the National League. The Braves challenged the Yankees in epic back-to-back World Series in 1957 and 1958 that, for a fleeting moment, put Milwaukee at the center of the baseball map.
The Braves landed in Milwaukee in 1953 after a mediocre eight decades in Boston. The club found a welcome environment in Wisconsin, and under new owner Lou Perini, the team groomed burgeoning young talent into starring roles. Most important of these was Henry “Hank” Aaron, an Alabaman with a rare natural hitting instinct. In his first Major League season in 1954, Aaron hit .280, an average that remarkably rose to over .300 every year for the rest of the 1950s. Not only that, in 1957, Aaron won his first and only NL MVP award while hitting almost .400 in that year’s World Series. While he would be recognized as perhaps the greatest home-run hitter of all time by the end of his career in the 1970s, Aaron never played on a better team than in 1957.
The 1957 Braves included a host of other stars who would eventually find themselves in the Hall of Fame. Left-handed pitcher Warren Spahn continued a trend of consecutive 20-win seasons he started in 1956, winning 21 in 1957 and earning the Cy Young Award in the process. Red Schoendienst proved an important June acquisition from the New York Giants, hitting over .300 after his move to the Braves. Even better, “Hurricane” Bob Hazle batted an astonishing .403 for the Braves in really his first full season in the Major Leagues.
Right-hander Lew Burdette became a true weapon for Milwaukee down the season’s home stretch. During a September eight-game win streak that put Milwaukee in full command of the NL, Burdette pitched nine innings or more in two of those wins. Combined with near-flawless performances from Spahn, Milwaukee’s pitching staff peaked at just the right time to give the Braves an eight-game cushion by season’s end between them and the NL’s second place team, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Yankees similarly sashayed their way through the American League in 1957, winning the AL by eight games over the White Sox. Because this came before the playoff era that we know today, the champions of both leagues automatically faced one another in the World Series. Indeed, the 1957 edition of the series brought forth two evenly matched teams, pitting blue-blood heritage from New York against the Milwaukee newcomers.
The series proved tense and exciting. After the Yankees’ Whitey Ford led the Bronx Bombers to a 3-1 win in Game One, Lew Burdette embarked on a legendary postseason performance. In Game Two, Burdette brought the Braves a 4-2 win in Yankee Stadium. After the Braves and Yanks split Games Three and Four, Burdette won his second postseason start with a 1-0 shutout in Milwaukee to give the Braves a 3-2 series lead. Back in New York, the Yankees evened the series again, holding the Braves to four hits in a 3-2 win.
The lead-up to Game Seven at Yankee Stadium produced typical debates over the experience of New York versus the big-stage inexperience of Milwaukee. The Yankees had been in a World Series Game Seven the year before, winning against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn behind Yankee Johnny Kucks’ three-hitter. This time, experience proved no match for devastating pitching from Lew Burdette, who had never started a postseason game before 1957. Supported by a four-run third inning from the Braves, Burdette kept the Yankees off the scoreboard with a 5-0 shutout. With that performance, Burdette won the World Series MVP award, became the only pitcher to start and win three World Series games, and delivered as of now the only World Series championship to Milwaukee.
Although the Braves lost the 1958 World Series to the Yankees in seven games, 1957 stands as an interesting case for the place of ignored champions in sports history. For fans outside the state of Wisconsin, the 1957 Braves are easy to lose track of. Certainly, the Braves owned the “underdog” role during that fateful series, drawing in casual fans with the easy David and Goliath narrative. The 1957 series brought an estimated 60 million television viewers across the country. But, the memory of Yankee panache, and the power of New York baseball in general during the decade, easily subsumes the success of the dangerous 1957 Milwaukee squad. Further, the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, leaving the 1957 title in fandom’s no-mans-land between the franchise and the city of Milwaukee.
Yet, to dismiss the importance of the 1957 season would be an injustice. Not only did the Braves possess legendary talent at several positions, they became the first non-coastal team to win the title since the 1948 Indians, and the last until 1960. Moreover, the 1957 Braves gave Milwaukee, for a brief time, an identity as more than just a bastion of football talent and proximity to Green Bay’s Packers. With their World Series run, the Braves proved that professional sports in Wisconsin beyond football could succeed on the field.
Even more fundamentally, the 1957 Braves matter because winning matters. In that sense, all championship teams deserve proper historical notice even when they occur close to another team’s run of dominance. The significance of a championship often lies simply in the memory of those who experienced it as players and fans. If non-Milwaukee fans think of the 1950s as New York’s time to shine, it should be noted that the Big Apple’s reign of power experienced an epic challenge from the boys in Milwaukee.
 Park City News, October 17, 1957