Covering the Milwaukee Brewers in the Bambi’s Bombers and the Harvey’s Wallbangers Days

The Milwaukee Brewers were born in 1970. That was due to the fact that the expansion Seattle Pilots had gone into bankruptcy after only one year (1969) in Seattle. Bud Selig took advantage of that situation, as he bought the team and moved it to Milwaukee.

My grandfather took me and two of my cousins to the airport to greet the Brewers when they first arrived in Milwaukee.

In the early years in Milwaukee, the Brewers were pretty bad. From 1970 through 1977, the team never won more than 76 games in a season, plus had six seasons when the team had less than 70 victories.

That all changed in 1978 when the Brewers made George Bamberger their new manager. The Brewers also had a rookie on that team by the name of Paul Molitor. Add to that, veteran Mike Caldwell had a career-year, as he won 22 games and had a whopping 23 complete games.

Bamberger put together a lineup which could really hit. Especially the long ball. The Brew Crew led the majors in home runs with 173. Larry Hisle had 34 dingers. Gorman Thomas also hit 32 round-trippers. Five players had 13 or more home runs. They were Ben Oglivie  (18), Sal Bando (17), Sixto Lezcano (15), Don Money (14) and Cecil Cooper (13). As a team, the Brew Crew hit a very robust .276.

Because of their hitting prowess, the Brewers were nicknamed Bambi’s Bombers.

Bamberger also turned around the team in terms of pitching. Besides Caldwell having a great season, Larry Sorensen also won 18 games. Because their bullpen was somewhat porous, the Brewers as a staff had 62 complete games.

That would be unheard of in today’s game. The pitching staff had a team ERA of 3.65, which was a great improvement from the team ERA of 4.32 in 1977.

Bottom line, the Brewers won 93 games in 1978, which was good for third place in the tough American League East.

Then in 1979, even with a shoulder injury which sidelined Hisle almost the entire year, the Brewers still hit 185 homers, led by Thomas’ 45. The team batting average went up as well, as the Brewers hit .280.

The Brewers also had four pitchers who won at least 14 games. They were Caldwell (16), Sorensen (15), Jim Slaton (15) and Bill Travers (14). As a staff, the team ERA went up to 4.02, however.

When it was all said and done, the Brewers won 95 games and finished second in the AL East.

During the 1980 season, I was given the ability to watch the Brewers from a much different perspective. While I was at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I was given an internship to work for the WTMJ sports department. I was honored to work with the likes of Hank Stoddard, Jim Irwin, Mike Hegan and Carl Cherkin.

Although I had a number of responsibilities at WTMJ, my main duties were to cover Brewer games. I would say I went to close to 50 games that year covering the Brewers in Milwaukee.

The 1980 season was a setback for the Brewers, as the team only won 86 games. The bad karma started when Bamberger suffered a heart attack and was replaced by Buck Rodgers as manager about midway through the season.

The Brewers were still hitting home runs like crazy as the team had 203 taters. The Brewers had four guys who hit over 20 homers that year. They were Oglivie (41), Thomas (38), Cooper (25) and Robin Yount (23). The team also hit .275 as a team, led by Cooper who hit .352. Moose Haas led the team with 16 wins, but the bullpen was still a weakness.

That led to a huge trade during the 1980 offseason. General manger Harry Dalton was able to acquire relief pitcher Rollie Fingers, starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich and catcher Ted Simmons.

In 1981, I stayed on at WTMJ and continued to cover the Brewers. It led to a very surreal and magical season. The 1981 season was a strike year in baseball. It led to the season basically being played in two halves in each division in baseball.

Fingers was awesome all season long as he was 6-3 with 28 saves, plus had a phenomenal 1.04 ERA, which led the Brewers to the second-half AL East title. That performance garnered Fingers the AL MVP award, as well as the Cy Young honor in the AL.

The second-half crown in the AL East meant that the Brewers would play the Yankees in the postseason, as New York had won the AL East in the first-half of the season.

The Brewers lost the first two games at home to the Yanks, but proceeded to win the next two at the old Yankee Stadium. The Brewers ended up losing Game 5 to the Yanks, but at least the team got an opportunity to taste the postseason.

In 1982, I worked for Viacom cable and continued to cover the Brew Crew. The year started out slowly, as the team struggled somewhat and were just 23-24. There were some rumblings about the players not being real happy playing under Rodgers, so Dalton made a change.

He fired Rodgers and made Harvey Kuenn the new manager of the Brew Crew. It turned out be a fantastic move by Dalton. The Brewers played lights out under Kuenn and were 72-43 under Harvey.

As usual, hitting led the way and the Brewers were again given a nickname. This time it was Harvey’s Wallbangers. It was very apropos. The Brewers were led by Yount, who hit .331, with 29 homers and 114 RBIs. That production allowed No. 19 to become the AL MVP.

As a team, the Brewers blasted 216 homers and hit .279. Vuckovich won the Cy Young award, as he was 18-6 with a 3.34 ERA. Fingers was magnificent again, as he had five wins and 29 saves. But an arm injury ended his season in early September.

Milwaukee went into Baltimore with a three-game lead with four games to play in the final weekend of the season. Just to make things more dramatic, the Brewers lost the first three games of the series. That meant the winner on Sunday would win the AL East. That game pitted Jim Palmer versus Don Sutton, who the Brewers had traded for late in the 1982 season.

Once again it was Yount who led the way. Robin was three for four, scored four runs and had two homers, as the Brew Crew won 10-2.

That meant the Brewers would be facing the California Angels in the AL Championship Series. Just to be even more dramatic, the Brewers lost the first two games of a best-of-five series in Anaheim. But the Brewers stormed back to win the next three in Milwaukee to earn a trip to their first World Series versus the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Brewers dominated Game 1 in St. Louis, as they blew away the Cards 10-0. Molitor had five hits, while Yount had four. Caldwell pitched a complete game, three-hit shutout.

The loss of Fingers hurt the Brewers in the rest of the series. If the Brewers had the services of No. 34, the Brewers probably win the series. Milwaukee lost late leads in both Game 2 and Game 7. Bottom line, the Cardinals won it all, with ex-Brewer Darrell Porter winning the series MVP.

In 1983, I continued to cover the Brewers for Viacom. Milwaukee looked like they had a chance to repeat as AL champs most of the season, as they were in first place as late as August 25. But a 10-game losing streak sunk the Brewers, as they finished 87-75 and 11 games out of first place.

Still, it was a great ride for me to cover the team from 1980 through 1983. During that time, I was able to interview just about everyone associated with the team. This included Dalton, Bamberger, Rodgers, Kuenn, Yount, Molitor, Fingers, Sutton, Simmons, Thomas, Cooper and many others. This would include Mr. Baseball…Bob Uecker.

I was also able to speak with Selig for over an hour in his office at County Stadium one time, as I looked to broaden my horizons in covering baseball.  Bud set me up with another interview with Bill Haig who was the VP of Broadcast Operations for the Brewers.

The Brewers were a great team to be around. They were a diverse group of players, who had lots of fun on and off the field. I was roughly the same age as many of the players and I fit in pretty well. I probably interviewed Bamberger and Kuenn more than anybody. Talk about great guys. No wonder the Brewers had so much success under them.

I also got to speak with four future Hall of Famers in Yount, Molitor, Fingers and Sutton.

Plus there was more. I also covered the All-Star game at old Comiskey Park in 1983, which had four Brewers (Yount, Simmons, Cooper and Oglivie) named to the AL squad. In addition to that, I was able to interview players like Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Cal Ripken, George Brett, Wade Boggs, Fred Lynn, Gary Carter, Mike Schmidt, Dale Murphy, Jack Morris and Ron Guidry.

I also was able to speak to some of the stars from the past at the Old-Timers game the day before the actual All-Star game. This would include former greats like Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Joe Torre.

Yes, I was like a kid in a candy store in those days. A very fortunate and happy kid, who was able to brush shoulders with many of the great icons in all of baseball.

5 thoughts on “Covering the Milwaukee Brewers in the Bambi’s Bombers and the Harvey’s Wallbangers Days

  1. What a great story, Bob. Thanks to grandpa for getting it going by taking you to the airport to meet the team.
    As the sports editor of Northern Michigan University’s student newspaper for three years, I was fortunate to cover the school’s only NCAA Division I team, hockey. I got to see big schools like Wisconsin and Minnesota play in small Marquette for WCHA games. The highlights were drives across northern Wis., to the Twin Cities for the WCHA playoffs.
    My experiences pale in comparison to your big-city, professional sports work, but I know how great it must have been for you.

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    • Thank you so much, Frank. Beside their hockey prowess in Division I (eight NCAA tournament appearances, three Frozen Four appearances and one national title), the Northern Michigan Division II football team was pretty good as well. My freshman year in college at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, quarterback Steve Mariucci led the Wildcats to the national title. Besides being a hell of a coach at both the collegiate and pro levels, Mooch was a three-time All-American at QB for the Wildcats. Finally, I had a fake ID to get into bars when I was 17. The ID said I was from Marquette, Michigan. The ID also had a winning tradition, as I was never turned away from any bar I tried to enter. 😉

      Like

  2. Pingback: Hey Hey! Holy Cow! Let Me Hear You! The Chicago Cubs Are World Series Champs! | Bob Fox

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