Former Braves owner Bill Bartholomay, who moved team to Atlanta, dies

Bill Bartholomay threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Braves game against the Milwaukee Brewers in Atlanta on April 13, 2012.

Bill Bartholomay threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Braves game against the Milwaukee Brewers in Atlanta on April 13, 2012.

Former Braves owner Bill Bartholomay, who brought the team and major-league sports to Atlanta in 1966, died Wednesday night at age 91.

Bartholomay “died very peacefully” at New York-Presbyterian Hospital after “a brief illness,” his daughter Jamie Bartholomay Niemie said Thursday. Doctors described the illness as “a respiratory infection that was not the coronavirus COVID-19,” she said.

Bartholomay had been fighting an infection for several weeks and had gone to New York to see specialists, “but at 91 years old, I think he just got tired,” his daughter said softly. He battled and beat pneumonia before Christmas, she said.

The Braves, in a statement, described Bartholomay as “a dear, thoughtful friend whose presence will be missed” and whose legacy “will surely stand the test of time for the Atlanta Braves and all of baseball.”

Braves great Hank Aaron knew Bartholomay for almost 60 years and last saw him at the team’s new spring training facility in North Port, Fla., in February.

“He loved the Braves. He really did. He really loved the ballclub,” Aaron said Thursday. “He was just a wonderful guy. And I appreciated everything that he did for me.”

Niemie said the annual trip to spring training meant a lot to her father.

“He met with the players and had dinner with all of the Braves front office,” she said. “He toured the new facility and thought it was incredible. He was very excited for opening day.”

» Sign the guestbook: Bill Bartholomay

Bartholomay, a Chicago insurance brokerage executive, led a group that purchased the Milwaukee Braves for $6.2 million in 1962, decided in 1964 to relocate the franchise to Atlanta and fought Wisconsin court battles to complete the move in 1966.

If not the Braves, Atlanta obviously would have gotten another major-league baseball team at some point. But, recalling Bartholomay’s leadership in bringing the Braves here, Aaron said: “If it had not been for Bill, it would have a whole different ballgame.”

“He is going to surely be missed,” Aaron said. “He was dearly a friend of mine. ... He helped me out a lot. He looked after me. He gave me advice about certain things.”

Bartholomay’s ownership group sold the Braves to Ted Turner for $11 million in 1976, in part because some of the partners’ enthusiasm for their investment had waned. But Bartholomay’s enthusiasm for baseball — and especially for the Braves — remained strong four-plus decades after selling the team.

“Baseball was his truest passion, and how lucky for him he got to work in his passion,” Niemie, one of Bartholomay’s five children, said Thursday. “He loved going to the ballpark. I think he got energy just from being at the ballpark. He loved everything about it, including the hot dogs.”

Bill Bartholomay  (right) and relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm celebrate the Braves’ 1969 National League West championship. 

Credit: AJC file photo

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Credit: AJC file photo

Throughout Turner’s ownership, and then Time Warner’s and Liberty Media’s, Bartholomay was actively engaged with the Braves, often traveling to Atlanta from his Chicago home or elsewhere to attend games or meetings. He was chairman of the Braves’ board of directors until 2003, when he became chairman emeritus, and was a trusted confidante and adviser of high-ranking Braves and MLB executives through the years.

"Baseball has been a great part of my life," Bartholomay said in a 2015 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I was an honorary Cubs bat boy when I was 9 years old. I'm as enthusiastic (about the sport) now as I was then."

William C. Bartholomay, born Aug. 11, 1928, grew up in Winnetka, Ill., just outside Chicago. His father and grandfather were successful in the insurance brokerage business. Bartholomay was captain of his high school basketball team, but even then he liked baseball better.

Bartholomay’s parents were friends of the Wrigley family, longtime owners of the Chicago Cubs. As a kid, Bartholomay met the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Bartholomay would come to meet all 10 commissioners in MLB history, working closely with many of them.

Bartholomay was just 37 years old when the Braves moved to Atlanta, becoming the first big-league sports franchise in the Southeast. The Braves' arrival was followed five months later by the debut of the Falcons, an NFL expansion team, and 2-1/2 years later by the relocation of the Hawks from St. Louis.

“Frankly, we thought it was a very great opportunity for baseball, 100 years after Reconstruction, to kind of lead professional sports on a regular-season basis into the southeastern part of the United States,” Bartholomay told the AJC in 2015. “And I think (major-league sports) helped make Atlanta what it is today.”

His group bought the Braves in 1962 from Lou Perini, who had moved the franchise from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953.

Bill Bartholomay  led a group that bought the Milwaukee Braves in 1962 and engineered the team’s move to Atlanta in 1966. He eventually sold the team to Ted Turner (left)  in 1976. 

Credit: Frank Niemeir

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Credit: Frank Niemeir

It was at the 1963 MLB All-Star Game in Cleveland that Bartholomay started to think seriously about relocating the team to Atlanta. Atlanta sent a delegation to the All-Star festivities to make sure MLB understood that the city wanted a team and would build a 50,000-seat stadium for it.

“They made it very clear that the stadium was going to be completed, with or without a tenant,” Bartholomay recalled in the 2015 interview. “Atlanta was going to take the lead in a lot of things — the new economy and the new South and whatnot — and part of that was professional sports. … To make a commitment to build a stadium on spec with no team involved was pretty gutsy, to say the least.

“The two teams that had leases that were about to run out at the time were our team and the Indians. Atlanta made it perfectly clear to me that given a preference, they wanted a National League team. The Braves seemed to be the logical one.”

In Milwaukee, the Braves’ attendance had fallen precipitously from its highs of the late 1950s, and Bartholomay felt the market’s potential was geographically limited because of the two Chicago teams nearby. In Atlanta, on the other hand, he saw a growing and untapped market that could draw fans and TV/radio revenue from multiple states.

The Braves’ board of directors voted in October 1964 to move the team to Atlanta, but the team’s lease and Milwaukee’s legal challenge delayed the relocation until the 1966 season.

Niemie and one of Bartholomay’s grandsons are currently working on a video documentary project, which they hope will be released next year, telling the story of the Braves’ move to Atlanta.

Bartholomay, affectionately known throughout the Braves organization as “Mr. B,” cherished many moments from his long association with the team, but he ranked his top three this way: 1. Aaron’s 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s career record, on April 8, 1974; 2. the Braves’ regular-season debut in Atlanta on April 12, 1966; 3. the Braves beating the Cleveland Indians 1-0 on Oct. 28, 1995, to win the World Series.

Bill Bartholomay, who frequently attended Braves games through last season, shares a laugh with Hank Aaron. 

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As Aaron rounded the bases on No. 715 , Bartholomay helped the home-run king’s mother over the barrier at the front of the owner’s box so she could meet her son at home plate.

“That feat was way beyond baseball,” Bartholomay said decades later of Aaron’s historic homer.

Long after selling the Braves, and well into his 80s, Bartholomay chaired MLB’s ownership committee, which vets prospective new owners of teams — a sign of the sport’s respect for him. He also served on MLB’s powerful executive council and other key committees.

He was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2002.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) once delivered a tribute to Bartholomay on the floor of the Senate, describing him as “a man who has done so much for the cities of Chicago and Atlanta, for the sport of baseball and for our nation.”

Durbin called Bartholomay a “phenomenally successful” entrepreneur, who “built some of the most successful insurance brokerage firms in the world,” and “a principled civic leader and a true philanthropist.”

In 1967, Braves owner Bill Bartholomay (right) watches catcher Joe Torre sign a new contract, which made Torre the highest paid catcher in baseball at the time at $65,000 a year.

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Bartholomay held leadership positions with several large insurance firms over the years, including: vice chairman of global insurance broker Willis Group Holdings; president of Near North National Group; and president and vice chairman of Frank B. Hall and Associates.

In Chicago, he served for 23 years on the city’s parks commission and for 14 years on the public buildings commission. Before buying the Braves, he was a director and shareholder of the Chicago White Sox for about a year.

Few significant events in the Braves’ Atlanta era have happened without Bartholomay watching, either in the stadium or on television. Even after thousands of games, each win somehow seemed to elate him, and each loss seemed to disappoint him.

He loved opening day, which he often would describe as “New Year’s Day for me.” He was on hand for the opening of Atlanta Stadium (later renamed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium), Turner Field and SunTrust Park (now Truist Park). He reveled in the Braves’ successes of the 1990s and remained supportive through the ebbs and flows of franchise history.

And perhaps none of it would have happened in Atlanta without him.

His family plans to hold a celebration of Bartholomay’s life later this year.