A half-century ago, the Bud Selig’s bid to buy the Seattle Pilots was approved by a judge and the team arrived in Milwaukee six days before Opening Day 1970.
Since then, despite a couple rocky early years of low attendance and poor performance on the field, a love affair blossomed between the baby-blue-and-gold Brewers and the city of Milwaukee.
In 1982, when the Brewers won the AL Championship and went to the World Series against the Cardinals, the fervor ran high. But it’s run just as high in more recent years when the Crew has made it back to the postseason.
In this current (lack of) season – which may end up shortened or completely nonexistent – we’re all missing baseball and if you’re like me, you’re trying to make up for it by reading about the game.
Along with Jim Bouton’s landmark "Ball Four," about the Pilots and Rick Allen’s "Inside Pitch," which discusses the franchises sole year in Seattle and its early years in Brew City, I’ve also been digging into "Turning 50: The Brewers Celebrate a Half-Century in Milwaukee," by longtime Brewers beat reporter Tom Haudricourt, who was a senior colleague of mine at the Sentinel many years ago.
In the heavily illustrated hardcover, published by Stevens Point-based KCI Sports Publishing, Haudricourt traces the team’s highs and lows decade by decade and in one of the most interesting facets of the book, interviews a player from each decade: Ken Sanders for the ‘70s, Jim Gantner for the ‘80s, Jeff Cirillo for the ‘90s, J.J. Hardy for the oughts and Ryan Braun for the 2010s.
There are some great photos, including a young Selig reading a telegram from the AL about the Pilots move, Robin Yount riding a motorbike like it’s a bucking bronco on the field in ‘82, Pat Listach and his macho mustache turning a double play and teammates carrying Trevor Hoffman off the field after his 600th career save ... to name but a few.
To give you a flavor for the book, and to conjure the glory days of the World Series Brewers, here’s an excerpt from Turning 50: The Brewers Celebrate a Half-Century in Milwaukee in which Haudricourt talks about 1982...
* * *
First Foray into the Playoffs
The Brewers squared off in the what was called the AL Division Series, a best-of-five affair that would begin with two games in Milwaukee followed by three in New York, if necessary. When the Yankees won the two games at County Stadium, 5-3 and 3-0, it appeared the series would be a short one.
But the Brewers would not roll over. They scored five late runs off Tommy John to win Game 3, 5-3, then eked out a 2-1 nail-biter in Game 4 to set up a winner-take-all showdown at Yankee Stadium. The Brewers jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, but Reggie Jackson and Oscar Gamble hit homers off Moose Haas in the fourth inning and the Yankees pulled away to a 7-3 victory to advance.
The Brewers’ first playoff experience did not end as they had hoped but they finally had broken through as a playoff team. And it would set the stage for an even bigger breakthrough during a memorable 1982 season.
Expectations understandably were sky-high as the Brewers began the ’82 season but the veteran-laden team seemed stuck in neutral for some reason. Frustrations began to mount, both in the stands and the clubhouse. There was too much talent on the roster to be struggling like this, and Dalton made the difficult decision to change managers.
The new skipper would be Harvey Kuenn, the venerable hitting coach popular with veterans on the club. The team seemed to be chafing under the heavier hand of Rodgers but Kuenn made it clear that he would get out of the way during what became a very short first team meeting.
"There’s just two things I want you to know," Kuenn told his players. "No. 1, I don’t like meetings. No. 2, this meeting is over. You guys go out and play."
The players followed those simple orders to a tee. There was still plenty of power on the roster, so "Bambi’s Bombers" became known as "Harvey’s Wallbangers," an even catchier nickname popular with the tavern crowd. Balls started disappearing over fences with amazing regularity as the Brewers compiled 35 home runs over an eye-opening 15-game stretch.
The Brewers went 20-7 in June, jumping right into the thick of the AL East race. This is what fans had expected all along, and the soft-spoken Kuenn was quick to give credit to the players, taking none for himself. He knew great players made a great manager, not vice versa.
The player who seemed to prosper most from the switch to Kuenn was shortstop Robin Yount, already a budding star with eight years in the majors under his belt at the tender age of 26.
Yount always considered Kuenn a second father and that bond grew even tighter as the team jelled under the former AL batting champ.
"I respected him so much," Yount said of Kuenn. "Whatever he said, I took it to heart."
Yount admired Kuenn for handling personal misery without complaint. Kuenn had suffered through a myriad of health issues since retiring as a player, including heart bypass surgery and blood clots in his right leg that forced doctors to amputate it two years earlier.
Kuenn used a prosthetic leg to get around, and when he went to the mound to chat with his pitcher or make a change, it could, shall we say, take a bit of time. Umpires would put hands on hips and tap their feet in frustration while players on the Milwaukee bench giggled with delight. Always with a huge chaw of tobacco jammed into one cheek, Kuenn was a fan favorite because, by birth, he was one of their own.
Kuenn was born in the nearby suburb of West Allis, not far from County Stadium. He and second wife Audrey would host players and fans alike at their family tavern, Cesar’s, a popular hangout that thrived during the team’s glory days in the early ‘80s and is still in business today.
Another Savvy Move by Dalton
Beyond his huge trade that brought Vuckovich, Fingers and Simmons to the team, Dalton had one more savvy move in him for the stretch run. In need of another veteran arm for the starting rotation, he swung a trade on Aug. 30 with Houston for future Hall of Fame right-hander Don Sutton.
That trade would pay off in a big way on the final day of the season when Sutton pitched the Brewers to a 10-2 victory in Baltimore that avoided an epic collapse to the Orioles and secured the AL East crown. Milwaukee hit town with a three-game lead but was drubbed in the first three games, including a Friday doubleheader, to create a tie atop the division. But Sutton controlled Baltimore’s bats in the finale and Yount slammed two homers off stud righty Jim Palmer to give the Brewers their first AL East crown.
Before they knew it, the Brewers were winging their way West to California to take on the Angels in the best-of-five ALCS for the pennant. After dropping the first two games there, it appeared the Brewers would be making an early exit from the series. But they were not about to surrender so easily.
With a crowd of 50,135 at County Stadium providing an adrenaline boost, the Brewers took the first step back in Game 3 with a 5-3 victory behind another stout outing from Sutton. There would be no sweep by California, and the Brewers totally shifted the momentum by also winning Game 4, 9-5, thumping veteran lefty Tommy John.
With the series tied, the Angels felt most of the pressure as the teams took the field for Game 5. No team had come back from an 0-2 hole in the best-of-five playoff format but somebody had to be first, and an overflow crowd of 54,968 squeezed into the old gray lady, sensing something special was about to happen.
The fans grew restless, however, as California took a 3-2 lead into the seventh-inning stretch. With one down, Charlie Moore reached base on an infield hit – a fluky, shallow pop fly that second baseman Boby Grich just missed fielding for an out. Jim Gantner followed with a single up the middle, and after Paul Molitor popped out, Yount drew a walk to load the bases.
Up to the plate stepped Cooper, who to that point was having a tough series (2-for-19).
Nevertheless, as he stepped in the box and assumed his trademark batting crouch, he heard the customary chants of "Coooop! Coooop!" from the home fans. Lefty Andy Hassler was ready in the California bullpen but manager Gene Mauch eschewed the lefty vs. lefty match-up, sticking with right-hander Luis Sanchez, who quickly got two strikes on Cooper.
Sanchez tried to sneak a fastball past Cooper on the outside corner but he flicked his bat and punched it the other way, into left field. With the ball hanging in the air and Brian Downing charging in, Cooper furiously thrust both hands downward, imploring the ball to get down for a hit. It did, scoring both Moore and Gantner as the crowd went crazy, emitting a deafening roar.
"That’s what you dream about," Cooper said of the huge hit. "I was more grateful than anything because I had a chance to put us ahead a couple of innings before and didn’t do it. It was amazing feeling."
The game was far from over, however. There would be some drama in the ninth inning as pinch-hitter Ron Jackson led off with a single off lefty Bob McClure, prompting Kuenn to summon big righty Pete Ladd, who came up from the minors to replace injured closer Rollie Fingers down the stretch.
After Bob Boone sacrificed pinch-runner Rob Wilfong to second, Downing grounded out to third, leaving the Brewers one out to win the pennant. That out wouldn’t come easy as one of the game’s great hitters, Rod Carew, stepped to the plate, looking to tie the game. As he often did, Carew made solid contact but his one-hop smash went right to Yount, who threw over to Cooper to end the game and touch off a wild celebration.
The Brewers were going to the World Series.
Off to the "Suds Series"
As the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals prepared to open Game 1 at Busch Stadium, their showdown was dubbed the "Suds Series," a nod to the beer brewing history of both cities. Milwaukee couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, drubbing the NL champs, 10-0, in the opener behind veteran Mike Caldwell’s three-hitter and a World Series-record five hits from Molitor.
Given that wake-up call, the Cardinals bounced back to take a 5-4 thriller in Game 2. Ladd took over for McClure in the eighth inning with the score tied, 4-4, and issued a walk to Lonnie Smith that loaded the bases, a close 3-2 offering that could have been called strike three. An upset Ladd then walked pinch-hitter Steve Braun to force in what proved to be the winning run. This was the kind of game that Fingers regularly closed before injuring his arm, and he was sorely missed.
The World Series came to Milwaukee for the first time since the Braves and Yankees played there in both 1957 and ’58, and the crowd was abuzz as the game began. Milwaukee’s fans were quickly silenced, however, as St. Louis cruised to a 6-2 victory behind two home runs from an unlikely source, rail-thin Willie McGee, who hit only four during the regular season but victimized Vuckovich twice in this game.
McGee also hurt the Brewers in the field. With one on and no outs in the ninth, Gorman Thomas sent a drive to deep left-center for what could have been a home run to make things interesting, only to watch center fielder McGee race back to the wall, leap and make a sensational catch to end any hopes of a comeback.
The Brewers appeared in big trouble again in Game 4 when they trailed, 5-1, entering the seventh inning but a six-run rally turned the tide. When they showed even more fight in a tense 6-4 triumph in Game 5, the Brewers were sitting in the driver’s seat, taking a three games-to-two lead back to St. Louis, needing just one win to hoist the trophy.
All of that momentum melted away when the Cardinals pummeled the Brewers, 13-1, in Game 6 to even the Series at three games apiece. Sutton, who turned in so many huge outings to get his team this far, finally ran out of steam and was knocked out early. Making the experience even more miserable, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to call the game when it poured rain in the sixth inning with St. Louis on top, 8-0, forcing a two-hour delay before resuming play.
"I ran out of gas," Sutton admitted later. "I had pitched a lot of innings in September and October, and I flat ran out of gas. I regret that to this day."
It was winner-take-all in Game 7 and despite the lopsided loss the previous day, the Brewers felt good about their chances. After beating the Orioles on the final day of the regular season to avoid a four-game sweep and erasing a 2-0 hole to the Angels in the ALCS, they believed they had one more do-or-die performance in them. And it certainly looked good when they were ahead, 3-1, in the sixth inning.
St. Louis rallied for three runs, however, taking a lead it would not relinquish. Bruce Sutter, the reliable closer the Brewers didn’t have with Fingers sidelined, covered the final two innings, retiring all six hitters he faced in the 6-3 victory. Of the Cardinals’ four triumphs, Sutter saved two and recorded a win in another.
"I’ve always felt we would have won that World Series if we had Rollie Fingers," owner Bud Selig said. "They had Sutter and we were missing Rollie. That made a huge difference."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.