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02/07/11 11:15 AM EST

Braves' move to Atlanta had great significance

MLB expanded its reach, made impact on civil rights movement

As it turns out, the mid-1960s wound up being the perfect time for Major League Baseball to debut in the Southeast, even though the political landscape suggested the exact opposite.

In 1966 -- about a century after Reconstruction and nearly 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the Majors -- the Braves made a monumental move from Milwaukee to Atlanta. It came with its fair share of controversy, numerous legal battles -- and great significance.

With the civil rights movement serving as the backdrop, the Braves would become the first MLB team in the racially tense Southeast, and one of the league's biggest African-American stars -- Hank Aaron -- would be the segregated South's new baseball face.

"It was just a huge impact," Aaron said. "It was a way of showing people all over the country that, given the same playing field, blacks and whites could perform on the same field and can do the same thing -- just given that opportunity to do that."

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When Bill Bartholomay led a consortium that bought a significant stake in the Milwaukee Braves in 1962, his intent was on moving the franchise in order to yield more profits for his new financial venture.

Atlanta, as it turned out, wound up being the perfect fit. It boasted a brand-new, unused MLB-ready stadium, and provided the opportunity to seize market control over a region with no Major League teams which was racially advanced for that time and that area.

"Atlanta was ready for it," Bartholomay said. "That climate was good."

Aaron loved Milwaukee -- still does -- but, for several reasons, Atlanta was an ideal situation for the eventual Hall of Fame outfielder.

Aaron would capitalize on Fulton County Stadium's designation as "The Launching Pad," belting 335 of his record-setting 755 homers as a member of the Atlanta Braves from 1966-74. He was born and raised in Mobile, Ala., and now his parents could occasionally watch him play. And, most important, he was in a place where he could thrive comfortably (or as comfortable as an African-American star could be at that time).

"I think the fans came out, they greeted us well; I think we were well received," said Aaron, who now serves as the Braves' senior vice president.

"I realized there probably was going to be some misgiving, but we had the same problem in other places; not only in Atlanta, but in other places. And I think that Atlanta offers no different than, say, some of the other cities did."

In November 1962, Bartholomay bought a 90-percent stake in the Milwaukee Braves from Lou Perini. Because the organization's lease was expiring and because the nearby Twins, Tigers, Cubs and White Sox, along with the proliferation of television, diminished interest in the team -- attendance was no better than second to last in the National League in three of its last four years in Wisconsin -- he almost immediately began searching for a new location.

Atlanta provided an enticing financial situation. And, perhaps as mere happenstance, it was the Southern city most ready to embrace an African-American star ballplayer.

"Atlanta was very progressive-looking," Bartholomay said. "And even though Atlanta was the capital and still is the capital of the state of Georgia, it had a large degree of home rule; it had a very, very strong leadership. The mayor at the time [Ivan Allen Jr.] was a very forward-thinking person."

During that time, Atlanta was a major organizing center for the civil rights movement. It housed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and several other civil rights leaders. It sprouted three key Historical Black Colleges and Universities -- Morehouse, Spelman and Morris Brown. And it was where Allen became one of the first Southern white mayors to support desegregation of public schools.

"It was only natural that a baseball team play there and be there," said MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon, who will stage the fifth and sixth Civil Rights Games in Atlanta, with this year's taking place May 15 between the Phillies and Braves. "I think all things happen for a reason, and I think that was for a very good reason."

Solomon, with the urging of Aaron, felt it would make perfect sense for the Civil Rights Game -- an MLB jewel event that commemorates African-American impact in baseball -- to rotate over to Atlanta, because of the city's impact on the civil rights movement and because of baseball's undeniable link to African-American history.

On the field, the Braves found success rather quickly in Atlanta. They finished eight games above .500 in their first season, and in year four, they were National League West champions.

But on-field success was secondary in a move that allowed MLB to expand its reach and -- perhaps in some small way -- helped lead to equal treatment of African-Americans.

"If I played a role in it, I'm proud of it," said Bartholomay, who sold the Braves to Ted Turner in 1976. "The Braves have a good record in that area and a pretty good record on the field, too. So I'm really proud of the Braves. I'm proud of Atlanta."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and 'The Show', and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.