Obituary: Bill Bartholomay (1928-2020)

RIP to Bill Bartholomay, the former owner of the Braves who moved the team to Atlanta. He died on March 25 after a brief illness at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Doctors, according to the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, reported that he suffered from a respiratory infection that was not the coronavirus COVID-19. He was 91 years old.

The Atlanta Braves released the following statement:

“There is baseball in Atlanta today because of Bill Bartholomay. Affectionately known as “Mr. B.”, Bartholomay was instrumental in bringing people together and fostering diversity while helping shape Atlanta as a major city in the south when he relocated the Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. His warmth and grace were felt equally by Presidents, MLB Commissioners, business titans, Braves players and fans.

“He was a true gentlemen, who served on a variety of MLB committees over the course of decades and widely regarded as one of the great influencers of the game during the modern era. Mr. B was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2002 for his role in making the Braves a stories franchise with his constant presence since moving the team to Atlanta.

“He was part of our organization for the last 57 years and never missed an Opening Day or significant event. He was a dear, thoughtful friend whose presence will be missed, but his legacy will surely stand the test of time for the Atlanta Braves and all of baseball. We send our deepest sympathies and condolences to his children Virginia, Bill, Jamie, Betsy and Sally, his grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

Source: MLB

Bill Bartholomay was born on August 11, 1928, in Winnetka, Ill. His father was an insurance broker, and his grandfather was a well-known lawyer. While he would follow them into the family business of insurance, baseball also took hold of him early on. He was an honorary batboy for the Chicago Cubs when he was nine years old, according to the AJC.

The Braves were not the first team that Bartholomay had owned, at least in part. In 1961, he was a group of 11 businessmen who bought Chuck Comiskey’s 46 percent stake in the Chicago White Sox. He served as a White Sox director for a year while also a partner at the Bartholomay & Clarkson law firm and insurance director for Albert Schwill & Co. — among his many business ventures.

On November 16, 1962, Milwaukee Braves owner Lou Perini announced the sale of the Milwaukee Braves to a Wisconsin syndicate. Perini was the man who moved the Braves from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953. “Many times I have made the statement that the Braves were not for sale, and I meant it every time. However, I now feel that a good deal more can be accomplished by the new ownership,” he said. Perini, who was 59 years old, added that baseball needs young people, and youth was a prevalent characteristic of the new owners. Bartholomay and Thomas Reynolds, another former White Sox director, were both 34 years old, Danle Searle was 36, John Louis Jr. was 41 and John McHale, the Braves president and general manager, was 41. They spent $6.2 million in the deal.

“Some of our daddies think we’re a little nuts now,” Bartholomay said. “If you’ll be a little bit patient with us, you’ll be a little bit pleased with us all in time.”

The Milwaukee Brewers had made back-to-back World Series appearances in 1957 and ’58, winning the first and losing the second. After those wins and two consecutive second-place finishes in 1959 and 1960, the team fell into the second division of the National League. The Braves did no better under the new management than they had under Perini. They finished over .500 each season but were anywhere from 5 to 15 games out of first place. Attendance, which topped 2 million people when the Braves won the Series in 1957, had fallen under 1 million.

Bill Bartholomay, right, stands with Chuck Comiskey as he announces the sale of his stock in the Chicago White Sox. Source: Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1961.

As early as 1963, the owners were denying rumors that the team would move to Atlanta or the West Coast. But by the fall of 1964, Bartholomay was visiting Atlanta and talking about the “inevitability” of baseball coming to Atlanta. “Since baseball is truly a national sport, we can no longer ignore the vast areas of this country which do not currently enjoy our great game,” he said.

It wouldn’t be that easy. The city of Milwaukee got a restraining order that forbid the team from moving or even talk about moving out of the city. The court case dragged on through 1965, so the team wasn’t able to move to Atlanta until 1966. Even then, there was a cloud over the first part of the season, as a Milwaukee judge ordered Major League Baseball to either present plans to place an expansion team in Milwaukee, or the Braves would have to move back by May 18.

As the chairman and public face of the Braves ownership, Bartholomay was blasted by the Wisconsin media and those who thought moving a major-league ballclub to Atlanta was a foolish notion. He had to deal with some team turmoil, as manager Bobby Bragan was fired midway through the season and replaced with Billy Hitchcock. Through it all, he remained above the fray and, when the team drew more than 1.5 million fans, praised Atlanta for its support of the team.

“Some of our critics in the North may have to revise their opinions now,” he said at the close of the first season.

Bill Bartholomay, center, confers with Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., left, and Atlanta Stadium Authority Chairman about the construction of the city,s new ballpark. Source: Racine Journal-Times, October 15, 1964.

Bartholomay’s group sold the Atlanta Braves to Ted Turner in 1976 for a reported $11 million, when some of the partners in the ownership group tired of the investment. During Bartholomay’s 10-year ownership of the team, the Braves made the postseason in 1969, losing in the first NL Division Series to the Miracle Mets. He also witnessed Hank Aaron‘s record-breaking 715th home run… and he helped Aaron’s mother onto the field so she could celebrate the moment with her son.

Bartholomay remained the Braves chairman after selling the team, and he retained that position until becoming chairman emeritus in 2003. He was a fixture at Braves games and events through spring training of 2020. Bartholomay attended the dedication of Hank Aaron Way at the Braves spring training complex this February, even though he battled a case of pneumonia over the winter.

Bartholomay was active in numerous business ventures and charitable operations, both in Atlanta and in his home of Chicago. He also remained active in Major League Baseball and was a well-respected voice and a trusted advisor to the game’s leading figures. He was inducted into the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame in 2002.

Bartholomay may have been the last person who has met all the commissioners in MLB history, from Kenesaw Landis up to Rob Manfred. his father, Henry, was a friend of Philip K. Wrigley, and the Cubs owner frequently invited the Bartholomays to his estate in Lake Geneva, Wis. Landis was a guest there as well.

“I have a photograph of myself and Judge Landis,” Bartholomay told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “I was in white knickers. I think there was a grass stain from a diving catch.”

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