Most Milwaukeeans aren't familiar with the Milwaukee Brewers ... the old Milwaukee Brewers, that is, the American Association Brewers, a feisty little baseball team which inhabited a ramshackle all-wooden ballpark at 8th and Chambers Streets from 1902 to 1952, a neighborhood baseball theater called Borchert Field. Fifty-one seasons worth of baseball, a half-century's worth of baseball lore.
Dreams were cultivated at such places around America during the first half of the 20th century, as were the stories which sprang from the dream-getting. As the inhabitants of Borchert Field moved on they became steeped in the lore of human imagination, providing a fertile mixture for growing new dreams.
So, it should come as no surprise that this storied club, dead now for some 50-odd years, should serve as the springboard for a novelist named Frank Nappi and his book, "The Legend of Mickey Tussler," out now in hardcover from St. Martin's Press.
Weaving Milwaukee baseball culture into a web of diamond story telling, Nappi writes with as much grit and stamina as the flannel-clad, salty-tongued players would have played on the diamonds of yore. Terseness and tenderness balance out
in the pages of "The Legend of Mickey Tussler," as Nappi has a knack for capturing baseball culture.
Growing up in southern Wisconsin, I missed the Brewers by a few years. As a Milwaukee resident for 15 years I got a sense of what the city once was, and in that time I became fascinated by the old Brewers, a team that defined the term "small market." In those days, a crowd of 10,000 was a sell-out at the ancient little baseball barn on Milwaukee's North Side.
Baseball aside, the story Nappi reveals is a remarkable one. A young farm boy with mental and emotional issues strikes out on his own and becomes adored by the fans at Borchert Field, adored for his abilities on the ball field.
It is not a light tale of "local boy done good" or "youngster overcomes adversity" but rather a deeply complex retelling of a long list of set-backs endured by the underdog, the overlooked, the diamond in the rough.
The sheer humanness of the experiences that Mickey Tussler endures will endear him to readers, but the impression left by Nappi's telling of this tale haunts us as we are reminded of our own failings and weaknesses.
The game of baseball is the stage. History is the venue. Milwaukee is still the smallest market in the major leagues, and for those who follow such things we are reminded that some things never change. The major league Milwaukee Brewers
haven't won a pennant in 26 years, and they seem beset by issues which prevent the club from moving forward. The classic underdog.
Nappi chose Milwaukee as the setting for his tale because, in his own deft imagination, the city seemed to fit his idea of the quintessential hard-working town during the war years, the perfect place for a baseball tale, a city which was dotted by breweries and small shops, where cultural enclaves thrived. It was a city which literally consisted of several small towns stitched together like a patchwork quilt.
This was a place where Mickey Tussler might just have a fighting chance. After all, it had hosted a litany of immigrant underdogs for decades.
In a narrative replete with dialogue and enriched by Nappi's obvious knowledge and passion for America's game, Mickey Tussler becomes a figure in Milwaukee's literary history, representing the epitome of anyone who has ever come to the big city to ply a trade and make a life for themselves. In many ways, the old American Association Brewers are brought back to life on the shoulders of a hayseed kid who battles his own inner demons to bring joy to the Milwaukee masses.
Through Nappi's master storytelling, we travel back to a time when color photography was rare, television was on the horizon, and the interstate highway system hadn't yet divided urban areas by staunch demarcations. In this telling we are able to discover that the past did not take place in black and white.
And here we may become reacquainted with baseball names that resonate with baseball fans, such as the ill-fated Shoeless Joe Jackson and the hall of fame southpaw Warren Spahn, so long associated with the Milwaukee Braves.
Such names are rare in this telling but they recall a time when baseball was played outdoors on real grass and read about in the detailed, and often colorful, language used by baseball beat writers of an earlier time. Spahn and Jackson were once minor leaguers, too.
Nappi's novel is not a diatribe on the history of baseball in the Cream City, as Milwaukee is still known. It is a fictional glimpse into the lives of ballplayers who had hopes of making it to the big leagues, just as Tussler hoped to play for the Brewers' parent organization, the Boston Braves.
Nappi's characters are reminiscent of actual old Brewers greats. Tedd "Ol' Reliable" Gullic, the quail-hunting all-star outfielder from rural Missouri who wowed crowds during the 1930s with his bat and once broke the window of his own residence with a long home run. Or Harry "Pep" Clark, the early 20th century third baseman with Native American roots who was a Brewer for almost 20 years. Gullic and Clark were household words in Milwaukee once upon a time.
Just who is Mickey Tussler? Fresh off the farm, the broad-shouldered neophyte has the arm of a marksman, but doesn't realize his gift. He earns the nickname "Baby Bazooka" by persistently dizzying batters with a blazing fastball
thoughout the course of a season in the minors.
Considered mentally deficient, Tussler doesn't have heroic ambitions, but he rises above societal expectations with a courage and will to succeed. Through his drive, he illustrates how his own hidden potential is realized despite a continuous barrage of mockery and castigation.
Sure, Nappi could have relied more extensively upon the real legends of baseball in pre-1950 Milwaukee. In reality, the old Brewers were not perennial losers. Next to the Minneapolis Millers, the Brewers were the second-winningest team in American Association history from 1902 to 1952.
As a baseball historian, I was disappointed by Nappi's creation of fictional opponents. Rather than the Toledo Mud Hens, the St. Paul Saints or the Kansas City Blues, we read about the fictional Colts, Giants, Rangers and Senators.
But the elevated wisdom of Nappi's impactful writing comes through as two of the Brewers' key players are engaged in conversation.
"Matheson chuckled and scratched his chin. ‘Well, you know what they say, Raymond. God gives us a little garden in which to walk, but an immensity in which to dream.'"
The adventures of the unassuming Tussler somehow rise above historical facts through his grace in confronting personal challenges. However short-lived are the victories Tussler brings to the Brewers, his example is an enduring one.
Nappi's detailed fictional account of how small-time professional baseball serves as a stage for human growth will be enduring as well. It sets the bar high for the novel as an art form and sets a new precedent for baseball fiction.