1970s a decade of growth for Brewers
From humble beginnings, Crew developed into AL power
MILWAUKEE -- With 95 wins to just 66 losses, the 1979 Milwaukee Brewers posted what remains the franchise's best record to date. But while they finished their first decade in second place in the American League East, it was a long road to success in the 1970s.
Just days before the beginning of the 1970 season, the franchise moved unexpectedly from Seattle to Milwaukee, as the Pilots became the Brewers.
This weekend, as a part of the 40th anniversary of the move from Seattle, the Brewers are celebrating and reflecting on the club's first decade in Milwaukee. On Friday, the team will wear reproductions of its 1972-77 uniforms with "BREWERS" in royal blue block letters on the front of the jerseys and the yellow "M" logo on the cap. On Sunday, all fans in attendance will get a bobblehead doll commemorating Hank Aaron's 755th and final home run.
At 10:15 p.m. on March 31, 1970, Bud Selig received official word that he, along with a group of investors, had won the franchise for just $10.5 million in federal bankruptcy court and the Seattle Pilots were headed to Milwaukee to become the Brewers.
With Opening Day scheduled just seven days later, the move was a swift one. When the players learned of the move, doubts arose in their minds.
Will they have uniforms for us? Where will I live? What about all my stuff in Seattle?
Those questions would all soon be answered, but not without a few stressful weeks in Milwaukee.
Opening Day pitcher Lew Krausse, who had been recently married before the 1970 season, had a lot more to deal with after the move than some. With it being his first year with the club, Krausse was not yet settled in Seattle and had sent many of his belongings ahead of him to the city.
Originally thinking he was "getting ahead of the game," Krausse's decision to send his stuff to Seattle only further complicated the move to Milwaukee.
"They said, 'Well, you're going to Milwaukee,'" Krausse recalled. "It was just really hectic. We came up here, flew the whole families on charter planes and stayed in hotels for four to five days; and with kids, it was mess."
On the field, the Brewers were a nearly .500 team at County Stadium in 1970, while losing almost twice as many as they won on the road. Milwaukee finished tied for fourth in the American League West that season with a 65-97-1 record, 33 games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins.
The Brewers improved in their second season under manager Dave Bristol, winning four more games than the year before, but they managed to finish last in the standings, 32 games out of first place. Following the 1971 season, the Brewers moved from the AL West to the AL East, where they would remain until '93.
Over the next six seasons, the Brewers remained in fifth place or worse in the East, averaging just 69 wins per season. Two major highlight of those seasons, for fans and players alike, stand out: the debut of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, and the return of the home run king to Milwaukee.
In 1973, the Brewers had the third overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft, and with that pick, they selected Yount, a 17-year-old shortstop from Southern California.
Yount wasted little time making his way to the Majors, debuting on April 5, 1974. As the Opening Day shortstop for the Brewers at the age of 18, Yount was the youngest player in the AL in 1974 and '75, and the youngest ever to play for Milwaukee.
"He was probably one of the best overall, all-around great players that I played with," former Brewers center fielder Gorman Thomas recalled. "He was a phenom. He was just as smooth as glass. To this day, I've never seen anybody have the range at shortstop to his left that Robin had."
A year later, another player making his Brewers debut on Opening Day generated plenty of buzz. After the 1974 season, the club dealt for Hank Aaron, who had just surpassed Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader during the previous season.
The move brought a great deal of excitement and credibility to the Brewers, who had just completed what was then the best season in franchise history, going 76-86 and finishing 15 games out of first place.
Most games played with Brewers in 1970s
|Don Money||3B, 2B||1973-79||911|
|Charlie Moore||C, OF||1973-79||585|
|Mike Hegan||1B, OF||1970-77||491|
Aaron hit his final 22 home runs over two seasons with the Brewers, bringing his then-all-time-record total to 755. He batted just .229 in his final season, down from .234 in 1975, while collecting 95 RBIs.
The Brewers hosted the All-Star Game in 1975, the second in Milwaukee and first since '55. Aaron made his record-tying 21st and final All-Star Game appearance. His first, like his last, also came at County Stadium.
Aaron played in his final game, the 3,298th of his career, on Oct. 3, 1976, at County Stadium. The Brewers' designated hitter went 1-for-3 on the day against the Tigers, in a game that longtime Brewers second baseman Jim Gantner -- among many others -- will never forget.
"I got to pinch-run for him his last at-bat," Gantner said. "He got a base hit, they took him out of the game and I got to pinch-run for him. That was special. He was my idol growing up and now I can tell my grandchildren I played with Hank Aaron. It's incredible. That's a moment I'll never forget."
Just as Aaron retired from Major League Baseball, the Brewers were on their way to becoming relevant in the AL.
The club finished an average of 31 games out of first place from 1975-77. Finally, in the franchise's eighth year after moving to Milwaukee, though, the Brewers earned their first winning record in 1978.
In George Bamberger's first year as manager, and the first since Larry Hisle joined the team as a free agent, the Brewers put together one of the best offenses in baseball, earning the name "Bambi's Bombers."
Seven Brewers hit 10 or more home runs, while two -- Hisle and Thomas -- hit over 30 homers. Hisle batted .290 on the year with 34 home runs and 115 RBIs, which earned him a third-place finish in the AL MVP race.
Unfortunately for the Brewers, who finished third in the AL East and six games out of first with a 93-69 record, Hisle suffered a torn rotator cuff injury in April 1979. Hisle's injury limited him to no more than 27 games in each of his final four seasons with the club.
"It's a shame that he got hurt," Thomas said. "He was right in his prime, hitting 30 home runs, stealing bases."
Of course, Thomas was no slouch himself. Originally selected as a shortstop as the franchise's first Draft pick, Thomas had become a fan favorite both for his reckless, acrobatic play in center field and his prowess at the plate.
After hitting 32 home runs with 86 RBIs in 1978, Thomas had a career year in '79, leading a Brewers offense that tied or broke 73 club records. Milwaukee finished second in the AL in home runs (185), doubles (291), slugging percentage (.448) and total bases (2,480).
Thomas set a club record with 45 home runs, which would stand until 2007. He also had career highs in several categories, including RBIs (123), runs scored (97) and hits (136).
"I knew this guy would run through fences," said Bamberger, in the 1993 book "True Brew" by Chuck Carlson. "I knew he'd hit 35-40 homers in the Minors, and I was convinced he could hit 20 in the big leagues."
But Hisle and Thomas were far from the only offensive stars that season. In 1979, the Opening Day lineup featured Brewers greats throughout, including Paul Molitor, Don Money, Cecil Cooper, Hisle, Sixto Lezcano, Sal Bando, Yount and Thomas.
With so many great players on the field together, Thomas could not pick just one who was the best he had played with.
"There were so many great guys, but what made it all good, though, was that we all just blended together," Thomas said. "Everybody did their little niche. Nobody was ever overly egotistical about what they did because we were a team, and that's the way we looked at it. And that's why we were successful."
Even with all their talent, the Brewers still could not overcome the Baltimore Orioles that season. They finished in second place, eight games out, despite establishing what remains a franchise record for most wins in a season.
It took until the early 1980s before the Brewers got their first taste of the playoffs.
"We were there; we had a chance to be in it," said Thomas, referring to the Brewers clubs of the late 1970s. "We were almost like the Atlanta Braves of the early '90s who won 14 division championships and only one World Series. We only got to one."
Next month: the 1980s, when the Brewers had their greatest success.
Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.