19to21: June 12, 2007
No, that most certainly is not the number of pennants won in Milwaukee, it’s...Baseball, then and now.
It almost seems like a crime to rain on Milwaukee’s bratwurst at this point in the 2007 season… but, the truth needs to be told. The Cream City (so-called because of the color of the bricks made there) does NOT have a sterling record in major league baseball, starting with the Milwaukee Grays of the National League’s 1878 season. In all candor, Milwaukee’s major league history could best be described as… checkered.
Going back almost 130 years, Milwaukee is on its sixth major league team. Six (6), count ‘em, six. And, except for the glory years of the 1950s, the record is not a pretty one. The Grays couldn’t even figure out whether the bricks were cream-colored or gray-colored. Thus confused, they went 15-45, although they did have a couple of pretty good players in catcher Charlie Bennett and outfielder Abner Dalrymple They didn’t help, though, and the Grays quickly exited to return to an independent lifestyle. Next came the first major league team of Milwaukee Brewers (although they were also called “Grays”) who played all of 12 games in the unstable Union Association in 1884. One of several “minor league” teams that Henry Lucas rushed into the UA lineup to fill gaps when other teams dropped out, Milwaukee came out of the Northwestern League to take the place of the Wilmington Quicksteps (who had taken the place of the Philadelphia Keystones) and thus played major league baseball from September 27 to October 12, 1884, winning a meaningless eight of their 12 games. These Brewers’ most noted players were pitcher Ed Cushman (who threw a no-hitter) and rookie pitcher “Lady” Baldwin, who would go on to win 42 games for the second place 1886 National League Detroit Wolverines… before subsequently throwing his arm out during their pennant-winning season of 1887. The UA folded after 1884, and the Brewers went into the Western Association.
Undaunted, another team of Brewers returned in the American Association in 1891 – the AA’s last year -- and Milwaukee’s last year in the majors for another decade. This bunch was just Volume Two of the UA team – they were rushed into the gap from the minor Western League (where they admittedly were in first place) by the AA’s management when the Cincinnati Porkers folded in mid-August. In truth, this sort of thing happened fairly often in the “major leagues” first 15 years or so, partly because these weren’t really minor league teams, but teams playing in a league that wasn’t the National League or the American Association.
These next Brewers didn’t really have anyone much of note, except for good old Abner Dalrymple who, having broken in as a rookie with the Grays in 1878, finished up his major league career with the Brewers in 1891. Picking up the schedule on August 18, the Brewers won 21 of their 36 games – again, a meaningless event since they were playing a fraction of a season. Although the Brewers looked forward to playing the entire 1892 season in the AA – even signing future star Bad Bill Dahlen to a contract – the Association folded around them and the Brewers went back to the Western League in 1892.
The descendant of THAT Western League, known as the American League, began playing major league ball in 1901, with the Milwaukee Brewers still around. In fact, the Brewers had finished second in the AL during its non-major league 1900 season, also finishing second in profits and third in attendance. Sadly for the good burghers of Milwaukee, the franchise’s biggest asset had left for Philadelphia between the 1900 and 1901 seasons. That would be manager Connie Mack, who league president Ban Johnson moved to the City of Brotherly Love to start the AL franchise there. Although another future Hall of Famer, Hugh Duffy, took over for Mack, it just wasn’t the same. Although Duffy hit .302/.341/.439 (120 OPS+), the Brewers were last in the AL runs scored and seventh in runs allowed, and finished dead last at 48-89. The team then moved to St. Louis for the 1902 season, there to become an even worse franchise – the Browns. At least the American League didn’t also fold under them. Thus Milwaukee exited from the major league scene for the next 51 seasons.
In all fairness, during those 51 seasons, the minor league Brewers did have some pretty good teams, notably those run by Bill Veeck in the early 40s. However, as far back as the 1920s Ernie Lanigan, writing in “Baseball Cyclopedia,” noted that Milwaukee had supported minor league baseball much better than major league baseball.
Milwaukee’s fifth major league entry proved to be the fleeing Boston Braves, who absconded from Beantown when owner Lou Perini read the handwriting on the wall that said that the Red Sox were THE team in Boston, and thus started the major league migration era that continues to this day. When the baseball fans of Milwaukee saw the team they were getting, it’s a wonder they didn’t send them back to Boston. The 64-89 1952 Braves finished seventh only because the 1952 Pirates were historically bad.
C – Walker Cooper .235/.282/.361 79
1B – Earl Torgeson .230/.366/.314 93
2B – Jack Dittmer .193/.255/.291 53
3B – Eddie Mathews .242/.320/.447 113
SS – Johnny Logan .283/.334/.368 97
OF – Bob Thorpe .260/.275/.332 70
OF – Sam Jethroe .232/.318/.357 89
OF – Sid Gordon .289/.384/.483 142
OF – Jack Daniels .187/.288/.247 51
UT – Sibby Sisti .212/.255/.310 58
1B – George Crowe .258/.329/.382 99
C – Paul Burris .220/.256/.280 50
C – Ebba St. Claire .213/.267/.287 56
2B – Roy Hartsfield .262/.295/.355 82
W-L ERA ERA+
Warren Spahn 14-19 2.98 121
Max Surkont 12-13 3.77 96
Jim Wilson 12-14 4.23 86
Vern Bickford 7-12 3.75 97
W-L SV ERA ERA+
Lew Burdette 6-11 7 3.61 100
Bob Chipman 1-1 0 2.79 129
Sheldon Jones 1-4 1 4.76 76
Dave Cole 1-1 0 4.03 90
Ernie Johnson 6-3 1 4.11 88
Not a pretty sight. The offense, boasting just 34 year old Sid Gordon and the promise of 20 year old Eddie Matthews, along with a substitute outfielder who hit like he’d been imbibing his name, was seventh in the NL in batting, on base and slugging, as well as runs scored. As for the pitchers (6th in runs allowed), ace Warren Spahn didn’t lose 20 only because manager Charlie Grimm sat him down late in the year, supposedly saying that a pitcher as good as Spahn wasn’t going to lose 20 pitching for him.
And, yet… take the boys out of Boston and bring them to the upper Midwest, and, what do you know, they finished second at 92-62 and led the league in attendance, drawing 1.8 million. So what happened?
C – Del Crandall ..272/.330/.429 101
1B – Joe Adcock .285/.334/.453 108
2B – Jack Dittmer .266/.293/.367 75
3B – Eddie Mathews .302/.406/.627 171
SS – Johnny Logan .273/.326/.398 92
OF – Andy Pafko .297/.347/.455 113
OF – Bill Bruton .250/.306/.330 70
OF – Sid Gordon .274/.372/.461 121
OF – Jim Pendleton .299/.323/.462 107
C – Walker Cooper .219/.287/.328 64
W-L ERA ERA+
Warren Spahn 23-7 2.10 188
Lew Burdette 15-5 3.24 122
Bob Buhl 13-8 2.98 132
Johnny Antonelli 12-12 3.19 124
Max Surkont 11-5 4.18 94
Jim Wilson 4-9 4.34 91
Don Liddle 7-6 3.08 128
W-L SV ERA ERA+
Lew Burdette 15-5 8 3.24 122
Dave Jolly 0-1 0 3.55 112
Don Liddle 7-6 2 3.08 128
Vern Bickford 2-5 1 5.28 75
Ernie Johnson 4-3 0 2.67 148
What you don’t see here is that Crandall and Antonelli – a pretty good battery – were both in the military in 1952. Restored to baseball uniforms, they helped the Braves jump from seventh to fourth in runs scored and sixth to first in runs allowed. It also didn’t hurt that Joe Adcock and Andy Pafko came over from the Reds and Dodgers, and Eddie Matthews had a season for the ages – setting a home run record for third basemen that would last until Mike Schmidt came along. Pitching made the real difference, though. Spahn went back to being Spahn (his next off-year would be in 1964), Grimm got much more use (13 starts and 33 relief appearances) out of Burdette, and Bob Buhl arrived to start his nine-year run as the number three man behind Spahn and Burdette.
All these factors, plus the arrival in 1954 of a gentleman named Aaron, led to Milwaukee’s one and only Golden Age of Major League Baseball. The Braves led the National League in attendance each year from 1953 to 1958, finishing second in 1959. On the field, they went second, third, second, second, first, first and tied for first (losing the 1959 pennant in a playoff with the Dodgers), and winning the 1957 World Series over the Yankees.
At the Dawn of the Sixties, it looked like the Braves were just getting started. In reality though, they were finished. Despite never having a losing season, they finished second, fourth, fifth, sixth, fifth and fifth through 1965, and their fans, presaging the front-runners they’d see in their next home, deserted what they perceived as a sinking ship. Attendance went to fourth in the NL in 1960, fifth in 1961, and then sank like a relative stone – ninth, ninth and sixth – before bottoming out at 10th in 1965, when the word was already out that they were packing their tomahawks and heading south.
Having once again deserted Milwaukee, Major League Baseball teased Wisconsin’s fans during the late 60s by having the Chicago White Sox play some games in County Stadium. However, it took the folly of trying to establish a major league team in little Sicks Stadium in Seattle in 1969 to bring about the sixth iteration of MLB in Milwaukee, and the fourth team of Brewers. With car dealer/potential owner Bud Selig riding to the rescue as Spring Training 1970 was coming to a close, the Seattle Pilots, now bereft of their only real notoriety -- Jim Bouton – made a last second switch to Milwaukee and opened the 1970 season as the new Brew Crew.
It sounds at first like a nice story, but the sorry truth is that the Seattle/Milwaukee franchise has run up a 2870-3216 record, for a .472 winning percentage and exactly two post season appearances, including the 1982 World Series loss to the Cardinals. Going into the 2007 season, the Brewers, in addition to the distinction of having become, in 1998, the first major league team to change leagues since 1891, had gone 14 straight years without breaking .500 (thanks only to an 81-81 season in 2005). As a point of reference, only the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Pirates for goodness sakes, who have gone the same 14 years without getting to .500, can equal that record of futility among current teams. Reviewing the 2006 season, let’s see if the 75-87, fourth place Brewers looked anything like the 1952 Braves…
C – Damian Miller .251/.322/.390 82
1B – Prince Fielder .271/.347/.483 111
2B – Ricky Weeks .279/.363/.404 97
3B – Corey Koskie .261/.343/.490 111
SS – Bill Hall .270/.345/.553 126
OF – Carlos Lee .286/.347/.549 125
OF – Brady Clark .263/.348/.335 77
OF – Geoff Jenkins .271/.357/.434 102
INF – Jeff Cirillo .314/.369/.414 101
OF – Corey Hart .283/.328/.468 102
2B – Tony Graffanino .280/.345/.403 92
OF – Gabe Gross .274/.382/.476 119
3B – David Bell .256/.323/.400 85
C – Mike Rivera .268/.325/.458 98
SS – J.J. Hardy .242/.295/.398 76
OF – Kevin Mench .230/.248/.317 44
W-L ERA ERA+
Chris Capuano 11-12 4.03 112
Doug Davis 11-11 4.91 91
David Bush 12-11 4.41 102
Tomo Okha 4-5 4.82 93
Ben Sheets 6-7 3.82 118
W-L SV ERA ERA+
Derrick Turnbow 4-9 24 6.87 65
Francisco Cordero 3-1 16 1.69 266
Jose Capellan 4-2 0 4.40 102
Brian Shouse 1-3 2 3.97 113
Dan Kolb 2-2 1 4.84 93
Matt Wise 5-6 0 3.86 117
Hmmm… let’s see. Playing the Eddie Matthews Up-and-Coming Slugger role is Prince Fielder. And appearing as the Veteran Power Hitter is Carlos Lee. Damian Miller did a splendid job pretending to be an old and over the hill catcher, ala Walker Cooper. And, in a cameo role (because he was hurt a good bit of the year) as Warren Spahn, we have Brittle Ben Sheets. They even had a fair approximation of Jack Daniels in Kevin “The” Mensch. Add it all up, and the 2006 Brewers offense didn’t overwhelm anyone – they were 14th in BA, 13th in on-base and 12th in slugging, leading to a 14th place in runs scored, which happened to match where their pitchers ended up in runs allowed.
Still, it wasn’t as bad a year as it seemed… and it was six-and-a-half games better than the 1952 Braves. Half of the ’06 Brewer players with more than 100 at bats had OPS+ figures better than the league average, and five (Fielder, Koskie, Hall, Lee and Gross) had pretty good years. Similarly, only closer Derrick Turnbow was really bad among the pitchers, and he lost his job to the surprising Francisco Cordero in mid-season. You’d think that their individual OPS+ and ERA+ numbers would work out on a team basis as better than 14th in runs scored and allowed. But, they didn’t, leading to a possible conclusion that the Brewers were either unlucky in 2006, or were an example of a dysfunctional team – the parts of their offense didn’t produce runs as one would expect, and their pitchers gave up too many key runs at the wrong time. Or maybe the problem was what happened when the other team hit the ball. With the exception of third base; held down by Koskie, Bell and Cirillo; every single Brewer regular in the field was below the league average in both fielding percentage and range factor.
As Scarlett O’Hara said long before the Milwaukee Braves became the Atlanta Braves (but as Braves fans have been saying since 1996), tomorrow is another day, and perhaps Brewers fans were hoping against hope that that would prove to be the case in 2007. And, what do you know, despite the 25-year post season drought, and despite the 14-year absence from the rarefied air of .500+, the Brewers are indeed leading the admittedly weak National League Central at this very moment, sporting a 34-29 record, good for a five-and-a-half game lead over the Cardinals. The questions are, how are they doing it, and will Milwaukee’s Curse of Bad Brats (or something like that) come back to haunt them once again?
C- Johnny Estrada .277/.299/.436 94
1B – Prince Fielder .298/.382/.651 170
2B – Ricky Weeks .243/.345/.432 107
3B – Craig Counsell .252/.367/.341 92
SS – J.J. Hardy .282/.328/.520 123
OF – Geoff Jenkins .271/.333/.518 124
OF –Bill Hall .252/.309/.402 89
OF – Corey Hart .294/.378/.463 124
OF – Kevin Mench .282/.284/.420 85
INF – Tony Graffanino .237/.303/.313 66
OF – Tony Gwynn, Jr. .305/.367/.354 95
W-L ERA ERA+
Jeff Suppan 7-6 3.92 107
David Bush 3-6 5.70 73
Chris Capuano 5-5 4.35 96
Ben Sheets 6-3 3.21 130
Claudio Vargas 4-1 3.94 106
W-L SV ERA ERA+
Francisco Cordero 0-1 22 2.05 204
Derrick Turnbow 1-3 1 4.28 98
Brian Shouse 1-1 0 4.97 84
Matt Wise 1-1 0 3.21 130
Carlos Villanueva 5-0 0 3.00 139
Chris Spurling 0-0 0 3.79 110
It’s still not an overwhelming team. The Brewers are seventh in runs scored (although they lead the NL in slugging percentage) and allowed and their Pythagorean W-L is just 32-31, based on their having scored 285 runs and allowed 282. So maybe they’ve been a bit lucky so far.
Looking at the roster, there’s a temptation to say that an infusion of talent from Arizona has made much of the difference in Milwaukee’s 2007 season. After all, Estrada, Counsell and Vargas all played in the desert last year. But, it’s more than that. The key addition at this point is actually Suppan, who came as a free agent from the Cardinals, and who looks like the pitcher from the 2006 post season. Fielder playing the Matthews role to the hilt hasn’t hurt, either. At this rate he’ll hit more than Matthews’ 47 home runs in 1953. And “China Doll” Sheets being healthy thus far has given the rotation as big a boost as Suppan.
Still, you can’t overlook manager Ned Yost’s key off-season move. That was taking arguably his best player from 2006, Bill Hall, and moving him from shortstop to centerfield, displacing the pretty awful Brady Clark and opening up a full-time position for J.J. Hardy. This despite the fact that he had hit more like Jim Hardy than Joe Hardy in 2006. (I’ve been waiting more than a year to use that line…) Now, when they get in the field… Hall and Hardy have been less than scintillating, giving the Brewers sub-par defense up the middle. However, along with incorrectly-named Fielder, Hall and Hardy have been the only less-than-average fielders thus far this year in Milwaukee.
Basically, just about everything the Brewers have tried thus far in 2007 has worked pretty well, with maybe the exception of giving a job to Craig Counsell, who still can’t hit worth a kielbasa. As to whether it will keep working, that probably depends on Yost’s ability to milk effective innings out of Cordero’s set-up men, and his still less-than-established-quality rotation. After all, this is the Cream City.
“19 to 21” will be taking a brief vacation/moving hiatus until the last week in June… but, like Roger Clemens, we’ll be back.