After spending seventy-seven years in Boston, Massachusetts, and thirteen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Braves moved to Atlanta to begin the 1966 major league baseball season. The move made the Atlanta Braves the first major league professional sports team to call the Deep South its home.
Citizens of the city welcomed their new team with a downtown parade. On April 12, 1966, the Braves played their first regular season game in Atlanta Stadium before a sellout crowd of more than 50,000 enthusiastic fans. Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., who had worked tirelessly to bring the Braves to Atlanta, threw out the ceremonial first ball. The Braves lost the game in thirteen innings to the Pittsburgh Pirates by a score of three to two. Atlanta had officially joined the exclusive ranks of the nation’s major league cities.
The Worst Franchise in Baseball
After three mediocre seasons the Braves won the Western Division of the National League in 1969, the first year of divisional play. Hank Aaron powered the Braves’ offensive attack, while knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro had the best season of his outstanding career. In the series for the National League pennant, the Braves lost three straight games to the “miracle” New York Mets.
In the 1970s the Braves were rarely competitive, often struggling to win games. In the early part of the decade the star attraction of Braves baseball was Hank Aaron, who pursued Babe Ruth’s career home-run record, perhaps the most revered record in all of sports. On April 8, 1974, on his first swing of the year in Atlanta, Aaron hit historic home run number 715 to become the all-time leader in career homers. A sellout crowd of more than 53,000 witnessed the milestone, and millions saw it on national television.
On January 6, 1976, Ted Turner bought the Braves from the Atlanta-LaSalle Corporation for $11 million. Turner intended to use the team to promote his struggling cable television station, WTCG Channel 17. The previous October, the Braves had fired announcer Milo Hamilton, who had been with the team since 1966, and replaced him with Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren. They joined longtime sportscaster Ernie Johnson in the WTCG broadcast booth. In the early 1980s Turner’s “Superstation” WTBS Channel 17 (later TBS), as it was now called, televised hundreds of Braves games per year all across the country, and the Braves became known as “America’s Team.”
The Braves captured their second Western Division title in 1982. The team won its first thirteen games to establish a major league record for most consecutive victories to start a season. In the National League Championship Series, the Braves lost three straight games to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Outfielder Dale Murphy, the most popular player ever to wear an Atlanta Braves uniform, led the 1982 team offensively and won the first of his two consecutive Most Valuable Player awards. Phil Niekro had another fine year on the mound for the Braves. The 1982 Braves drew more than 1.8 million fans to the ballpark, by far the largest number since the team’s move to Atlanta.
Despite the two division-winning seasons, the Braves were statistically the worst team in baseball for their first twenty-five years in Atlanta. Between 1966 and 1990 the Braves lost more games than any other major league franchise. The team finished last in its division every year from 1976 to 1979. The Braves’ record for ineptitude reached its height from 1985 to 1990, when the team finished in next-to-last place twice and in last place four times.
The Decade of Excellence
After being perennial losers for so long, the Braves reversed their fortunes in the 1990s. In October 1990 the Braves hired John Schuerholz as general manager. Under the leadership of Schuerholz, field manager Bobby Cox, and pitching coach Leo Mazzone, the Braves became one of the best teams in baseball. Schuerholz signed free agents Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream to provide leadership on the field and in the clubhouse. Pendleton especially flourished in this role. These established veterans joined a Braves team that had several young players on the verge of stardom. They included outfielders Ron Gant and David Justice, and a trio of pitchers known as the “Young Guns,” Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery. These players helped make the 1991 season the most exciting, thrilling, and improbable in Atlanta history.
When the 1991 season began, the Braves were a much-improved team, and expectations were high. After faltering in the first half of the season, the Braves dramatically improved their play after the All-Star break. In the second half of the season, the team won fifty-five of eighty-three games, including twenty-one of their last twenty-nine. During this remarkable surge the Braves always seemed to come up with a clutch hit or key pitching performance to win important games. The team clinched the Western Division title on the next-to-last day of the 1991 season. The Braves finished with ninety-four regular-season victories to set an Atlanta record. The 1991 Braves were the first team in baseball history to have the worst record in baseball one season and then win its division the next. The 1991 season came to be known as “Worst to First.”
After beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in the league championship series, the Braves captured their first National League pennant since moving to Atlanta. This memorable season ended when the Braves lost an exciting seven-game World Series to the Minnesota Twins.
Braves excitement spread as enthusiasm swept over the fans and the city of Atlanta. A record of more than 2 million people attended games at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, as it was known after 1976. Fans cheered the Braves with a so-called Indian war cry, “the chant,” and by swinging their arms up and down in a ritual called the “Tomahawk Chop.” The sea of arms moving up and down became so identified with Braves baseball that the stadium itself came to be known as the “Chop Shop.” When the season ended, some 750,000 cheering people turned out to honor the Braves as the team rode through downtown Atlanta in a parade.
The Braves continued to play winning baseball in 1992 and earned a second consecutive divisional title. Their ninety-eight victories led the major leagues. More than 3 million fans attended the games to establish a new franchise record.
In the 1992 National League Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Braves trailed in the bottom of the ninth inning of game seven by a score of two to one. With two outs and the bases loaded, the seldom-used Francisco Cabrera came to bat as a pinch-hitter. Cabrera hit a hard ground single to left field, easily scoring the runner from third with the tying run. On the play the runner on second, the notoriously slow Sid Bream, rounded third and headed for home with the potential winning run. Bream slid just barely under the catcher’s tag to give Atlanta an unforgettable come-from-behind victory and the team’s second straight National League pennant.
The Braves players charged onto the field and piled on top of Bream and one another in a wild celebration at home plate. Broadcaster Skip Caray screamed, “Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!” The more than 50,000 fans in the stadium chopped, chanted, and cheered their Braves for about thirty minutes. Throughout the city fans celebrated well into the night. Sid’s slide was the most thrilling and dramatic moment in the history of the Atlanta Braves.
Since the “Worst to First” season in 1991, the Braves have experienced more than a decade of championship play. The team’s excellence was based on the pitching staff of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Steve Avery, and later Kevin Millwood, one of the best rotations in the history of major league baseball. Through the years Terry Pendleton, Ron Gant, David Justice, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones have led a potent offensive attack. In 1995 the Braves defeated the Cleveland Indians and won the World Series. The team that had once been a laughingstock became the world champion of baseball. It was the first time any Georgia sports franchise won a major world championship.
The Braves returned to the World Series in 1996 and suffered a heartbreaking defeat to the New York Yankees. The Braves led the series two games to one and had a seemingly commanding six-run lead late in game four. The Yankees then staged one of the most dramatic come-from-behind victories in their stellar World Series history, winning the game eight to six. Stunned, the Braves lost the next three games.
On April 4, 1997, the Braves moved to a new, state-of-the-art baseball-only facility, Turner Field, located on Hank Aaron Drive. The former Olympic Stadium, built for use during the 1996 Olympic Games, was renovated to become Turner Field, which was named in honor of the team’s longtime owner, Ted Turner. The architecture and atmosphere were meant to recall the ballparks built before World War II (1941-45). The nostalgic feel was combined with new technology and other amenities, such as restaurants, picnic areas, interactive games, and a beach, to make the new ballpark a vast family-entertainment venue. A signature monument in the stadium is a huge Coca-Cola bottle, made of baseball equipment, which spouts fireworks. The stadium also includes Monument Grove, a park with statues of Braves heroes Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro, and Warren Spahn.
These and other former Braves are honored in the Ivan Allen Jr. Braves Hall of Fame and Museum, which contains memorabilia and artifacts from the franchise’s history, stretching back to its earliest days in Boston. The museum opened at Turner Field in 1999. In the World Series that same year, the Yankees soundly defeated the Braves in four straight games.
Even though the Braves won only one world championship in the 1990s, the team enjoyed the most successful decade in franchise history since the 1870s, when the team played in Boston and the pitchers threw underhanded. The Braves, often called the “team of the nineties,” won more games than any other team in baseball in that decade. The team finished first in its division every year that a complete season was played. The Braves appeared in eight consecutive league championship series while winning five National League pennants.
Changes in the New Millennium
Although the Braves have not returned to the World Series since 1999, the team has continued to excel, capturing division titles every year from 2000 to 2005. With the team’s first-place finish in 2005, the Braves won their division for an unprecedented fourteen consecutive times.
Between 2000 and 2014 the Braves attracted on average nearly 31,000 fans per game to Turner Field, usually filling about 60 percent of the stadium’s capacity. Worth about $482 million, the Braves’ estimated total revenue in 2011 was $201 million. Further, the Braves were estimated in 2013 to have an economic impact of more than $100 million, paying over $8.6 million in local and state taxes. The Braves employ more than 1,600 people full time, visiting fans stay a total of 110,000 nights each year in local hotels, and the team spends around $10.5 million on local companies. On the other hand, while professional sports stadiums and teams attract thousands of fans, build a city’s national profile, and provide employment, Turner Field was often criticized for depressing development in its home neighborhood, Summerhill. More than 10,000 of Summerhill’s 12,000 residents were displaced by the stadium’s construction in the 1990s, many of them Atlanta’s poorest residents. To help support its neighborhood, the Braves contributed 8 percent of home game parking revenue to an economic development fund.
In May 2007 the Braves franchise was sold by Time Warner, which had merged with Turner Broadcasting System the previous year, to Liberty Media. Four months later, on September 30, 2007, TBS broadcast its final Braves game as national programming.
Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren continued to broadcast games together until Caray’s death in Atlanta on August 3, 2008. Prior to joining the Braves, Caray had broadcast games for the minor league baseball team Atlanta Crackers and the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. Both he and Van Wieren were inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2004. Van Wieren retired in October 2008.
In 2013 the Braves announced that they would move out of downtown Atlanta into Cobb County, just north of the city. The new stadium, SunTrust Park, opened in 2017 as the centerpiece of a larger entertainment district called The Battery Atlanta. In 2020, the stadium was renamed Truist Park, following the bank’s merger with BB&T.
News of the club’s impending departure came as a surprise to longtime supporters, particularly those in Atlanta, who noted that the club had profited handsomely over the years from numerous tax breaks and generous public subsidies. Residents in Cobb County were not altogether pleased either. Negotiations between the county and club were conducted in secret, with little public input, and advocates for good government alleged that they violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s Open Meetings Act. All told, the arrangement required Cobb’s taxpayers to commit more than $450 million in public monies to support construction and maintenance at the new stadium; the deal’s chief architect, County Commission Chairman Tim Lee, would later lose his reelection bid, largely due to taxpayer discontent. For their part, Braves executives argued that the move was necessary because Turner Field, despite its relatively young age, required $200 million in renovations and lacked sufficient parking.
Notwithstanding the controversy, the Braves performed well in their new home. After working to rebuild the team over the course of several years, 2018 brought a much more promising season, with the Braves claiming their first division title since 2013. Along with winning the division title, late arrival Ronald Acuña was named National League Rookie of the Year. The following year, the team hit a franchise record of 249 homers with the assistance of players Acuña, Josh Donaldson, and Freddie Freeman. In 2020, the Braves finished one game away from reaching the World Series and Freeman was named Most Valuable Player in the National League.