Flashback: Brewers' first hero
Walton was young club's first offensive star
By Mario Ziino / Special to MilwaukeeBrewers.com
Spring Training always brings a fresh start to the baseball season. With that in mind, we flash back to the Brewers' first fresh start, when the franchise moved from Seattle days before the 1970 season.
Danny Walton didn't know what to expect when the Brewers made their debut in Milwaukee back in 1970. But before the first week of the season was complete, Brewtown had its first hero since the days of Hank Aaron.
Although Walton's debut began with an 0-for-4 performance in the opener, his climb to stardom was in the making. The following afternoon, Danny collected two hits in four trips to the plate, but it wasn't until the Brewers ventured to the Windy City that things became interesting, especially for Walton.
Milwaukee came away with its first two victories in the American League and Walton emerged as a legitimate home run threat. In a three-game weekend series against the White Sox, he pocketed eight hits in 13 at-bats. More important, Danny slammed the Brewers' first three homers while scoring three runs and driving in another eight.
Upon returning to County Stadium, his welcome was overwhelming. As he took his position in left field, banners proclaimed his heroic efforts. The birth of the Brewer Bleacher Bums and the Brew Crew saluted him with a standing ovation and a definite sign of their loyalty -- the Danny Walton Fan Club, the first organized Brewer backers.
As April drew to a close, the Brewers settled into a foreseen cellar dwelling, but Walton continued to shine among the league leaders, batting at a .321 clip with seven round-trippers and 20 RBIs. In addition, he pounded out three, three-hit games and six, two-hit contests in that initial month. Even through May, his statistics were impressive as he maintained a solid .302 average with 10 long balls and 38 RBIs. Then something happened which would alter the course of his Major League career.
"I twisted my kneecap clear across the other side of my leg," Walton recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Albuquerque, N.M. "My spikes got caught in the dirt during batting practice one day and I twisted around but my foot never moved."
At first, the injured left knee was shrugged off by Walton as a typical ache all ballplayers sustain. Unfortunately, as the season progressed, the pain in his left knee took its toll on Danny's performance as he finished the campaign with only two homers and 18 RBIs. From that point on, his services in the big leagues dwindled to 145 games in the next nine seasons.
The Brewers traded him to the New York Yankees for outfielder Bobby Mitchell and first baseman Frank Tepedino in June 1971. But it wasn't until after the 1972 season that Danny found a new home in Minnesota, a trade that sent a young catcher by the name of Rick Dempsey to the Yankees. The Twins desperately needed the longball threat, but their plans were not as an outfielder, rather as a catcher.
"They needed a third string catcher," Walton said. "This wasn't anything new to me. My first year (in the Major Leagues) back in 1965, the Houston Astros tried making a catcher out of me. It worked out pretty good but after a while it hurt my legs so much that I had to stop catching. So with Minnesota I said, 'Well, if catching will keep me in the Major Leagues, I'll give it another try.'"
[Unfortunately, it didn't work out. Pain in his knees forced Walton into the Twins, and then the Dodgers, farm systems, where he excelled. In 1977, playing for the Dodgers' Triple-A club, he hit 42 homers and drove in 122 runs while batting .289.]
"I had some great years, especially in the minor leagues," Walton recalled. "I had a good year in Milwaukee, and then I hurt my knee. From then on it seemed as though I'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was as if I was a year too late or a year too early for some clubs. You look at Gorman (Thomas). He's a heck of an outfielder but he was up and down in the Majors and the minors for a long time, too. But he finally got his chance to play regularly and look at him now. That's the thing. If some team would just give me the bat and let me DH every day, I know I can hit 30 or 35 home runs and drive in 100 runs."
Walton never got that chance. He played in 10 games for the Texas Rangers in 1980, then retired. In all, he saw action in 297 Major League games, never enjoying the success he had with the Brewers during the first few months of 1970. Other Brewers left fielders have enjoyed similar rabid followings from fans who drape the bleachers with signs and banners, most recently players like Greg Vaughn and Geoff Jenkins.