Twice spring has brought a gift to our city -- a baseball team looking for a home.
The unexpected arrivals of the Braves (in 1953) and the Brewers (in 1970) is retold in the book "Baseball in Beertown: America's Pastime in Milwaukee" (Prairie Oak Press, 2005). We read that both teams arrived on short notice -- the Braves' move from Boston was announced March 13 and the Brewers arrival was not known until March 30 -- just eight days before the home opener, and barely enough time for new logos and lettering to be stitched onto the uniforms of the former Seattle Pilots.
Author Todd Mishler captures every season of both franchises, as well as separate chapters focusing on the World Series seasons of 1957, 1958 and 1982. The book recounts examples of the adulation that players received which have become legion: Braves players being showered with gifts from local churches and civic groups; Brewer fans chanting "MVP! MVP!" as Robin Yount circled the field at County Stadium astride a motorcycle at a postseason pep rally.
Mishler doubts that this level of hero worship would ever happen again in Milwaukee, even for a winning team.
"In the '50s baseball was America's pastime, I don't think it ever will be again," says Mishler in a recent phone interview. "Baseball was by far number one, whereas now it isn't."
"Baseball in Beertown" describes several unrealized scenarios that would have significantly changed local baseball history.
We learn that Braves owner Lou Perini first considered moving the team from Boston to Toronto in the early 1950s. Meanwhile Bill Veeck, the eccentric owner of the St. Louis Browns, was flirting with moving his team to Brewtown, where the Braves already had a foothold with their farm team, the Brewers. Fearing the loss of the territory altogether to Veeck, Perini switched plans and set course for Milwaukee.
Had Toronto been the Braves destination, future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn would have made Canada's entrance to the major leagues a spectacular one, while Milwaukee would have been stuck with the sad-sack Browns (who moved to Baltimore in 1954). Mishler says there no question local fans would have gotten the short end of the stick in this scenario.
"The Browns, they may have been entertaining with Veeck running the circus so to speak," says Mishler, "but I don't know that they would have put any kind of product on the field that would have been nearly as competitive."
Mishler's book poses the possibility that had Miller Brewing Company owner Fred Miller, Sr. not perished in a plane wreck, he might have bought the team from Perini. According to the book Mathews, a friend of Miller, was convinced that Miller would have purchased the team when it went up for sale in the early 1960s, thus preventing the future move to Atlanta.
The book reveals that Milwaukee fans might have enjoyed a form of revenge on the Chicago-based investors who ended up moving the Braves to Atlanta. In the late 1960s eventual Brewer owner Bud Selig was convinced that he had struck a deal to buy the Chicago White Sox, only to see it fall apart.
"I don't know how that would have worked out because they were an established team if they would have been the 'Milwaukee Sox,'" Mishler says. "They may have been more successful early on, and that would have changed a lot of things too. The Seattle Pilots were just a bunch of minor leaguers and older guys still trying to hang on."
Does Mishler consider Milwaukee to be a good baseball town? "It's not a St. Louis," says Mishler in comparing us to the gold standard of baseball fan support. "But Milwaukee and the state have shown that they will support a good team. They're maybe middle to upper half in comparison to other baseball cities."
Mishler, a Janesville-based sportswriter, says though recent years have been difficult for Brewer fans, they should consider themselves better off than the fans living through the four year period during the late 1960s when Milwaukee went without a team.
"When you're sitting there watching bad baseball I'm sure you're thinking that that's just the bottom. But I think any baseball would be better than no baseball. I would take that over a truck pull or whatever else they had at County Stadium."
But Mishler is encouraged by the Brewers current management and optimistic about their chances in 2007.
"I would be disappointed if they didn't have a winning record. And I think they should be able to contend for the postseason. If you get into the dog-days of August and you're still talking about the Brewers and the wild-card, that's where you want to be."