George Bamberger has heard the talk and, frankly, he does not much care for the idea. Just because the Milwaukee Brewers have ended nine years of ineptitude to become a winner on the field and a draw at the box office, a lot of busy-bodies are saying Bamberger should be the American League Manager of the Year. If he had known this was going to happen, he might very well have stayed in Baltimore as the pitching coach. Talk about rotten luck.
"I respect the award," Bamberger says, "but I wouldn't want it. I'm going to be busy enough in the off-season without having to go to a bunch of banquets. I like compliments as much as anybody, but I don't need to hear them in front of 1,000 people. There are a lot of egomaniacs in this business but I'm not one of them. No, I'd rather stay home with my family."
Bamberger has nobody to blame for this predicament but himself—and players like Larry Hisle and Mike Caldwell. Since coming to the Brewers from Minnesota in this year's reentry draft, Hisle has had the most productive offensive season in the American League this side of Jim Rice: 33 home runs, 114 RBIs, 92 runs and a .287 average. Since an injury to Moose Haas in April opened up a spot for him in the starting rotation, Caldwell has had the best pitching season this side of Ron Guidry: a 20-9 record and a 2.27 ERA.
As a result, the Brewers have become the most successful team in Milwaukee since Laverne & Shirley. Entering the last week of the season, they were third in the Eastern Division with an 89-67 record, only 4½ games behind the Yankees, and had attracted 1.6 million fans to County Stadium. The last Milwaukee team to win as many games and draw as many people was the Braves of 1958-59. Pass the Schlitz.
The people who know the Brewers best and have suffered with them longest can scarcely believe the team's good fortune. Take owner Bud Selig, who had brought the year-old franchise from Seattle in 1970 and held on to it like a bad debt. "After trying everything and seeing it all go sour, this year has fulfilled my wildest expectations," he says. "It's like I'm in a different business." Sportswriter Mike Gonring of the Milwaukee Journal says, "It's tough coming up with nice things to say, after ripping them for years." Finally, there is the piece of wisdom that veteran Don Money gave the other day to Paul Molitor, the Brewers' fine rookie second baseman. In nine previous complete seasons, four with Philadelphia and five with Milwaukee, Money had never been a winner. "Kid," he told Molitor, "you don't know how lucky you are."
The people least surprised by all of this are Bamberger and the man who hired him, General Manager Harry Dalton. The two have been leaning on each other with mutual success for years. When Bamberger's playing career ended in 1963, Dalton, then the Oriole farm director, hired him to be Baltimore's first minor league pitching instructor. Bamberger was well suited to the job, having won 213 games in 18 minor league seasons and having worn a major league uniform only long enough to make 10 appearances (no decisions). In fact, minor league life so pleased Bamberger that in 1959 he asked the Orioles to send him down just when it appeared he had finally made the club. "I figured I'd pitch more and last longer in Vancouver," he explains.
After Bamberger spent four years as the minor league instructor, Dalton promoted him to Baltimore, where as pitching coach he produced 18 20-game winners in 10 years and helped the Orioles win five divisional titles. Quite simply, he was the best in the business. When Dalton, who had left Baltimore in 1971 to become executive vice-president of the Angels, moved to Milwaukee last winter, he called on Bamberger a third time.
Surprisingly, Dalton's offer to manage was the first that Bamberger had ever received. "People have always assumed that George was too happy in Baltimore to leave," Dalton says. "After all, he was the highest-paid coach in baseball. But I wanted to try because I know how well he can handle people. He is direct and honest, not devious or egotistical. He has the perfect personality to exercise leadership, and I thought that was what the team needed more than anything else."
To get his man, Dalton had to come up with about $180,000 over two years, a whopping deal for someone who lacked a day's managerial experience at any level. Because Bamberger was not applying for the job or even hoping to get it, he knew he could play hard to get. "I was happy in Baltimore," Bamberger says. "Earl Weaver and I were the best one-two combination in the American League. I had already told the Orioles that 1979 would be my last year. If anyone other than Harry had called, I wouldn't have listened. But I didn't want to be hired cheap and not be respected. I wanted to be hired for my ability."
A major reason for Bamberger's success in Milwaukee has been knowing what was wrong with the Brewers and not being afraid to offer his opinion. Before he even agreed to take the job, Bamberger told Selig, "You guys are a bunch of losers." In spring training he told his players, "You have no respect in the American League."
It did not take the Brewers long to change their image. As fate would have it, they opened the season against Bamberger's old team and won 11-3, 16-3 and 13-5. That established the offensive pattern for the year, and Milwaukee went on to set team records for average, runs and home runs. Hisle has been the hottest hitter, but he has had ample help from Gorman Thomas, who has 31 homers and 83 RBIs, and Cecil Cooper, who is batting .317. All told, nine of the top 10 Brewers are exceeding their career averages.
The pitching success has been limited mostly to Caldwell and to 22-year-old Lary Sorensen, who is 17-11 and 3.28 in his first complete season. For Caldwell, this has been his second winning season in eight tries with the Giants, Reds, Padres and Brewers, and his first since he underwent elbow surgery in 1974. Last week, after shutting out New York for the third time this year, he said, "I hope all the people who gave up on me will at least give me credit for having the guts to come back." The Yankees, however, only gave him credit for throwing what they called a very effective spitball.
As for Bamberger, he does not want much credit of any kind. "What does a manager really do?" he asks. "Nobody even knows what makes a good one. The only thing I'll say about me is that I can get along with people and have a lot of patience."
Bamberger is getting along far better than anyone could have expected, and for that he will just have to suffer the consequences.