How A Bankruptcy Brought Baseball Back To Milwaukee

We often reassure perspective clients who are having a hard time dealing with the thought of filing for bankruptcy that it might end up being one of the best decisions they ever make. Filing for bankruptcy forecloses some opportunities, but it can open up a whole host of other options. Those wanting proof of this concept must look no further than Miller Park. The Brewers exist because of a bankruptcy.

Milwaukee got its first major league baseball team in 1953 when the Boston Braves moved to town. The Braves were quite successful thanks to standouts like Hank Aaron, and the team set an attendance record for the league. But after a few years, ticket sales slumped, even though the team was doing well.

The team was eventually sold to a Chicago businessman who wanted to increase ticket sales and move the team to a larger media market. 1965, the Braves owners announced the team would be moving to Atlanta.

A legal battle soon broke out. “[A] criminal complaint was filed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court alleging that the Braves and the other nine teams in the National League had conspired to deprive the city of Milwaukee of Major League Baseball, and, moreover, had agreed that no replacement team would be permitted for the city. As such, the complaint alleged, the defendants were in violation of the Wisconsin Antitrust Act.”

The case went all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled that the move was not criminal. On appeal, the United States Supreme Court only narrowly decided not to take up the case, leaving the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling intact. The Braves were officially never coming back.

Then, in 1967, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced that it was adding several expansion teams. Kansas City, Montreal, San Diego, and Seattle were all getting a brand new team for their town for the 1969 season. Milwaukee was understandably upset. It, like Kansas City, had lost a team to another city, but it was not picked as the location of a new team. Many believe Milwaukee was snubbed by MLB as retribution for the lawsuit the state filed when the Braves left.

The citizens of Milwaukee were heartbroken, but perhaps none were more upset than the team’s minority owner, local businessman Bud Selig. Yes, that Bud Selig, the future Commissioner of Baseball.

As the four new teams rushed to prepare for the 1969 season, Selig and other Milwaukee business leaders were doing everything they could to convince an existing team to move to Milwaukee or get MLB to add a new team in the city.

Selig got lucky thanks to virtually everything that could possibly go wrong in Seattle happening. After just one season, the Seattle Pilots declared bankruptcy, becoming the first and only professional sports team to ever do so. Selig bought the team and moved them to Milwaukee, where they made their debut as the Brewers for the 1970 season.

The Pilots’ bankruptcy also worked out for fans in Seattle. The state of Washington sued Major League Baseball over the Pilots’ 1970 departure, and the league ended up allowing the Mariners to start up in Seattle in 1977.

As this story illustrates, bankruptcy can be a real catalyst for business development. It is impossible to predict what chain of events will be triggered by a bankruptcy, but often something good comes right along with what is at first considered something bad.