When the future arrived in Milwaukee this baseball season, the
past was waiting. It seemed only fitting for a city that looks
as if it has a hard time letting go of the old things. The
buildings downtown are a giveaway, standing firm against new
construction as tenaciously as the time-encrusted grime clings
to their bricks. The streets, too, speak of yesterday--quiet,
almost sleepy, even at an hour made for traffic jams. And so, in
keeping with this theme: memories. One in particular, inspired
by Milwaukee's return to the National League, where it dwelled
in another lifetime with a team other than the Brewers. A team
called the Braves, which forsook the city for Atlanta after the
last out of the 1965 season. The Milwaukee Braves live on,
though, in the minds of two brothers who loved nothing so much
as taking off their shirts and charging after the balls that
landed in County Stadium's bleachers during batting practice.
Funny thing is, their most enduring memory involves a shirt that
was kept on.
What they were wearing was the furthest thing from the boys'
minds as they stood at the railing near the Braves' dugout one
spring day in 1963, beseeching their heroes for autographs. Mike
Duckett was 10 then, his brother, Steve, had just turned seven,
and they had a singleness of purpose that only the innocent
know. When Mike spotted Eddie Mathews, whose lightning
complemented Hank Aaron's thunder, he shouted, "You're my
favorite player!" And for a moment, he thought he had a live one.
But no sooner had Mathews started toward the brothers than he
stopped and gave Steve a wry smile. "So I guess I'm not your
favorite player," he said.
It was Steve's shirt that had given him away. The shirt a friend
of the family had made. The shirt that looked like a San
Francisco Giants jersey in an age before such things were the
stuff of merchandising empires. The shirt that meant Steve's
only choice was to confess. "No," he said, "Willie Mays is my
"Don't go anywhere," Mathews said. Then he trotted across the
diamond to the visitors' dugout. Minutes later, he returned with
Awe scarcely describes what Steve and Mike felt. Here were two
legends in the making--Mathews on his way to 512 home runs, Mays
chasing down 660--and they couldn't get over that miniature
Giants jersey. The next thing anybody knew, the players had
lifted Steve over the railing and onto the field so they could
give him a ball and a chipped bat. A photographer from the
suburban Waukesha Freeman saw what was happening. Talk about
fate: Waukesha was where Steve and Mike lived. Their dad had
coached high school basketball there, but Steve was the
celebrity now. While his big brother watched in amazement, the
photographer posed Steve between Mays and Mathews and snapped
the shutter. Just one picture, but the next day it was the
centerpiece of the Freeman's sports page: Steve and two future
Hall of Famers.
A copy of that black-and-white photo (framed, of course) hangs
on what the Duckett brothers' parents call their Wall of Fame.
It's there to look at every time the boys stop by. They're grown
up now, with families of their own and good jobs. Steve is a
health administrator, and Mike--here comes fate again--is the
director of design and construction for Miller Park, which
stands a little taller behind County Stadium's centerfield fence
every day. The Brewers will open the 2000 season there, and
surely pictures will be taken, some with Mike Duckett in them at
long last. He will have his stake in the future just as he has
one in the past, and when you get right down to it, the
connection between the two is what this story is all about.
The Kansas City Royals were the major league owners' first
choice to make the jump to the National League and ease the
imbalance caused by expansion. American League to its
core--first as a New York Yankees farm, then as a showcase for
Charley Finley and George Brett--K.C. would have looked as wrong
in the National League as barbecue sauce on Wiener schnitzel.
Bud Selig was willing to go along with the mismatch, though,
because he didn't want critics pointing out his conflicting
interests as the Brewers' CEO and baseball's acting
commissioner. The time couldn't have been worse for him to start
listening to his conscience. What really hurt was, Selig knew
it: The right choice, the only choice, was Milwaukee.
The truth was founded in more than a natural National League
Central Division rivalry between the Brewers and the Chicago
Cubs, 90 miles to the south. There was history at work, Selig's
as well as Milwaukee's. And nobody is quicker to preach his love
of history than Selig, who looks the way Bill Gates probably
will at 63. It isn't just that Selig, a native son of Milwaukee,
majored in the subject at Wisconsin; it's that he lived it
during the Braves' 13-year run in the city. When he says, "The
'50s were electric around here," he's actually going easy on the
hyperbole. For the Braves were loved beyond all reason and all
Playing in the second smallest city in the majors (pop.
725,000), they became the first National League team to draw two
million fans in a season. They did it annually from '54 to '57
and came up just 29,000 short in '58. And while the Braves
relied on the rest of Wisconsin, as well as Iowa, Minnesota and
northern Illinois, to accomplish that, there should be no doubt
as to where the wellspring of love for them lay. Back then you
could walk into the best restaurants in Milwaukee--Karl
Ratzsch's, Alioto's, Ray Jackson's--and always find the Braves
game on the radio. In the city's multitudinous taverns there
were never cries of dismay when Earl Gillespie, the voice of the
Braves, reported that a fan had leaped onto County Stadium's
diamond; the drinkers simply started betting on how many bases
he would touch before the grounds crew hauled him down.
If you ask why the drinkers weren't at the game themselves, it
was probably because they couldn't get tickets. Most of the time
their best shot was to hop on a tavern's chartered bus and
follow the Braves to Wrigley Field, where in those days there
were always plenty of empty seats. Selig paid his most memorable
visit to Chicago in 1954 when the Cubs were honoring their
lumbering slugger, Hank Sauer, who concluded the festivities by
dropping a fly ball to give Milwaukee the win. "The Cubs had
printed up these signs that said THANKS, HANK," Selig says, "and
all the Braves fans started waving them."
Nobody who took those bus trips south ever got shortchanged, but
Ruthie Patzke was starting to think she might be an exception
when her group dragged her to a restaurant to listen to a
Milwaukee Journal sportswriter. What, Ruthie wondered, could be
so interesting about some joker who'd just seen the same
Braves-Cubs game they had? When the sportswriter started
talking, though, Ruthie noticed that his blue suit complemented
his hazel eyes. So she took the trouble to learn his name--Bob
Wolf--and then she wangled an introduction, and before you knew
it she and a girlfriend were at a cozy little bar having a drink
with him. No night of lust followed for Bob and Ruthie; this was
1953, and they were delighted just to see each other at Wrigley
the next afternoon. Thirteen months later, just before the start
of the World Series, Bob and Ruthie said "I do" to a marriage
that is still going strong.
The love affair between Milwaukee and the Braves looked as if it
would be equally enduring. No suitor courted Elizabeth Taylor,
always a league leader in marriages, as ardently as this city
did its baseball heroes. It wasn't just the good-time guys such
as Mathews, Bob Buhl and Lew Burdette who never had to pay for a
meal and always got a free car to drive. It was all the Braves.
And the bounty didn't end with T-bones and Dodges, which were no
small consideration during an era in which the minimum player's
salary was $7,500, and raises for journeymen were measured in
pennies. The players got free gas from Wisco, free dry cleaning
from Spic 'n' Span, free beer from every brewery in town. "Soap
powder and produce were just about the only things that weren't
delivered to our door," Burdette says. It turned out to be too
good to last.
There is no single explanation why. Bad news simply begot more
bad news. In the early '60s Braves management barred fans from
bringing their own beer into County Stadium, hardly a valentine
to a populace historically as thrifty as it is thirsty. And then
the first wave of crowd pleasers started getting old and getting
traded. Suddenly attendance couldn't climb above 775,000, even
though the Braves continued to make every season a winning one.
When the first notes of Atlanta's siren song drifted through the
air, the team's owners started checking flight schedules.
"The Dark Days," Wolf calls that period from his vantage point
in retirement. And the owners, in his lexicon, are "the Rover
Boys." They were led by board chairman Bill Bartholomay, who
remains the people's choice for the mastermind of this civic
betrayal. Milwaukee fought back as best it could, taking
Bartholomay & Co. to court and driving attendance back up to
nearly a million in '64. But it was too late. The Braves were
going, going and, by '66, gone.
County Stadium sat empty for four years, taunting everybody who
drove by on I-94, nobody more than Selig and the investors he
roped into the seemingly impossible task of putting a team in
the park. Two weeks before the start of the 1970 season, they
found an unlikely friend: the bankruptcy court in King County,
Wash., which was sick to death of the debt-weary Seattle Pilots,
who were notable mainly for having given Jim Bouton a place to
hang his hat while he wrote Ball Four. If Selig wanted them,
they were his for $10.8 million.
Selig bit. The Pilots became the Brewers, a name gleaned from an
old Milwaukee minor league team, and the city was back where it
had started as a charter member of the American League in 1901.
But that membership had been a dalliance that ended after one
year, a smidgen of trivia that even the most rabid American
Leaguer wouldn't dare use at century's end when Selig looked as
if he were going to let Kansas City go National. As if to prove
there is a baseball god, the Royals' unsettled ownership
situation ended that silliness. Not long afterward, Selig's fax
machine spit out an unsolicited letter from some of the owners
on the major leagues' realignment committee. They wanted him to
put aside his fears and take the plunge. "When I read that
letter for the first time, I was sitting by myself, and I got
very emotional," Selig says. "There were tears streaming down my
They should have been tears of joy, for whether he intended to
or not, Selig has made out like a bandit. The historian in him
can point with pride to the fact that Milwaukee, the beneficiary
of this century's first franchise shift, is now the home of the
first team to have changed leagues since the Cleveland Spiders
in 1899. The businessman in him can luxuriate in a symphony of
ringing cash registers. The Brewers sold a million tickets
before this season's first pitch, and none went faster than
those for the first home series against the Cubs, a rivalry that
is already taking on overtones of the Montagues and the
Capulets. Meanwhile, the folks at the Gilles frozen custard
stand, where Selig lunches on a hot dog every chance he gets,
have already handed out an unprecedented three stacks of Brewers
season schedules. And, who knows, maybe somewhere in Brewerland,
two dreamers are working on a sequel to When Bob Met Ruthie.
At 9 a.m. the temperature is 40[degrees], and the steel-gray
clouds over County Stadium are heavy with rain. Johnny Logan,
the last true Brave in town, hardly seems to notice. Staring out
at the empty diamond, he sees nothing but the past, and the past
has always been like a well-worn mackinaw, swaddling him in
memories that have only recently become fashionable again. As
soon as the news broke about Milwaukee going back to the
National League, people opened their ears to the stories they
had ignored when Logan was running for sheriff and then trying
to make a living talking sports on the radio in 1966. "I didn't
have the right words," he says almost plaintively. Now he does.
The words are Aaron and Mathews, Spahn and Burdette. And Logan,
He came here in '53, when the Braves moved from Boston, where
they had been ignored like a plate of week-old scrod. Milwaukee
ate them up. "Always a full-capacity crowd," Logan says, "but
not the crowd you see today. Not the tailgating crowd or the
Summerfest crowd. A sports-minded crowd. An adult crowd." These
were people with whom the son of a foundry worker could
identify, people who worked in foundries themselves or built
farm machinery or brewed beer. Logan fit right in. He was a
lunch-bucket shortstop who got tough hits, fielded everything he
could get to and proved constitutionally incapable of backing
away from a fight. Not a big star, just a guy without whom the
Braves never would have won.
And they won from the beginning. First time out in their new
home, with fans packed so tight that the birthrate must have
gone up, Warren Spahn laid some vintage lefthanded brilliance on
the St. Louis Cardinals, and Billy Bruton, the Braves' artful
centerfielder, bought the last round with a 10th-inning homer.
"You gotta visualize it," Logan says, sitting there in the
grandstand behind home plate. He is 71, and his body has
thickened like a faded middleweight's, but in what he wants you
to see now, he is still the lean, hard-eyed gamer who was there
when Aaron rose up in rightfield to become a national treasure.
And when Burdette fidgeted on the mound to make hitters think
every pitch he threw was a spitter. And when big Joe Adcock
performed his most awe-inspiring feat--no, not the four homers
in Brooklyn, but getting drilled by the New York Giants'
head-hunting Ruben Gomez and chasing him off the field and into
the clubhouse. "Gomez went in there and got an ice pick," Logan
says, trotting out the rumor that has become legend. "The guys
on his own team had to stop him."
Only once does Logan put himself in the spotlight, and then it
is as a postscript to Aaron's lashing an 11th-inning homer to
clinch the 1957 National League pennant. "If I didn't get a base
hit before that," Logan says, "Aaron wouldn't have come up until
the 12th, and maybe he wouldn't have hit a home run." A shy
pause, verging on embarrassment. "I'm just saying, you know."
The Braves won the World Series that year, upending the majestic
Yankees and earning Logan the ring that still adorns his left
hand. He had a chance to win another in '58; instead, the
Yankees got their revenge. After that, he slipped a little
further from glory every year, unless you count his last stand
with the 1964 Nankai Hawks, kings of all Japan. When there were
no more games for him to play, Logan became just another working
stiff. His big league salary had topped out at $35,000, and as
he puts it, "Nothing ever came to my house except b-i-l-l-s." So
he stayed in the ranch house where he and his wife, Dorothy, had
raised three sons, and he worked any job he could find, from
selling radio advertising to assisting welders on the Alaska
pipeline. Baseball didn't have anything for him until the early
'90s, when he started handling the radar gun for the Brewers,
but people always knew who he was. A local character. A ballpark
fixture. People didn't seek him out that often, though, until
the move to the National League gave them a reason.
He was ready for his renaissance. "I tell everybody that calls,
the only place you can meet me is County Stadium," Logan says.
"That's where you have the atmosphere, that's where you have the
nostalgic." The nostalgic. At first it's jarring to hear an
adjective where a noun belongs, but the longer you to think
about it, the more you realize that, after all these years,
Johnny Logan has the right word at last.
The mere mention of yesteryear's Braves is sure to summon an
appropriate amount of yearning for the sweet used-to-be in
Milwaukee--provided the audience is over 40. If the audience
isn't, you might as well be discussing the identities of the
original Crickets or the statesmanship of John Foster Dulles.
For there is a generation of Milwaukeeans who have never known
baseball except as it has been played by the Brewers, and they
refuse to think they got the worst of the deal as long as there
is secret stadium sauce for their brats.
Though the Brewers lost their only shot at World Series
immortality in 1982, there is civic solace in the unshakable
belief that they would have whipped the Cards if Rollie Fingers
hadn't been too banged up to come marching out of the bullpen.
And, yes, the Brewers didn't capitalize after they came out of
the box in '87 with a 13-game winning streak. But they still
have given Milwaukee one Hall of Fame certainty in Robin Yount
and a worthy candidate in Paul Molitor. They also gave the city
the cry of "Coooop!" (Nobody's booing, folks, they're just
serenading sweet-swinging Cecil Cooper) and a succession of
blue-collar swashbucklers such as Pete Vuckovich, Jim Gantner
and Gorman Thomas. Frank Howard, the Brobdingnagian first base
coach, liked to call Thomas "Garman," as in, "Bartender, another
for Garman! And two more for me!" If you can't remember further
back than Laverne & Shirley, it's a lot easier to drink to that
bunch than to the ghosts of the '50s.
"Actually, Hank Aaron is the only old Brave I can remember," a
28-year-old sales rep named Gene confesses. Gene's last name has
been classified top secret because he should be at work, not
sitting in Major Goolsby's downtown sports bar in the middle of
the afternoon watching the Brewers on TV as they open the 1998
season in Atlanta. But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do,
and if Gene ever doubted it, his sales manager--call him
Brian--is by his side to confirm the rightness of his mission.
"My mother was a big Braves fan," Gene says. He is too young to
realize how ancient a statement like that can make someone else
feel. Brian, though five years older, is somehow less sensitized
to local baseball history and the natural order of things.
"American League or National League," he says, "it doesn't make
any difference to me."
Maybe he will come around once he realizes that the Brewers
aren't playing the dressed-up, drawn-out version of Home Run
Derby that is baseball in the American League. As for young
Gene, all he needs to do to expand on what Mom taught him about
the old Braves is pay closer attention the next time he watches
The Naked Gun. The movie's writers, David and Jerry Zucker, are
Milwaukee expatriates who called two of their cops Adcock and
But let us not be too harsh on Gene and Brian. They are where
they should be on Opening Day, even if they don't last past the
seventh inning. Got to get back to work sometime, right?
Besides, they have seen more of the game than those drudges who
were too timid to leave the office.
Seems as if everybody has something good to say about Warren
Spahn, old number 21, Spahnie, one of the greatest lefthanders
of all time if not--beg your pardon, Lefty Grove and Sandy
Andy Pafko, the Wisconsin boy who came home to finish his big
league days with the Braves, remembers what happened after he
made a diving catch to preserve a shutout for Spahn. "He ran all
the way out to centerfield," Pafko says, "and he threw his arms
around me." This in an era when ballplayers who had been
hardened by war and the Depression cut loose about as often as
they wore bras and panties. But that was the Spahn whom Burdette
calls "the best friend I ever had." A hell of a guy who thrived
on trading gloves with Burdette in batting practice and betting
a steak dinner on who could catch more fly balls wrong-handed.
Competition was Spahn's lifeblood. How else to explain 17
seasons with no fewer than 245 innings pitched, 13 seasons with
20 or more wins and 23 wins the season he was 42 creaking years
Just thinking about the statistics makes you want to know the
man--and Bob Allen, the erstwhile Braves publicist who has Spahn
making more money at baseball card shows than he ever earned
pitching, is sure he'll want to gab about Milwaukee's return to
the site of his glory days. "He'd talk underwater," Allen says.
So the phone rings at the Spahn residence in Broken Arrow,
Okla., and the missus picks it up. An instant later, old number
21 is on the line. The caller introduces himself and asks if he
is interrupting anything. "Well, you are," Spahn snaps. Another
time then? "No, go ahead. What is it you want?" He hardly waits
to find out before he's talking again. "I pitched the first game
ever in County Stadium," he says, "and now they're going to
build another stadium. The things that are happening in baseball
are squirrelly. And the Brewers are going in the National
League. So what? I really don't want to discuss it."
Sometimes 21 is the wrong number.
One look at the plans for Miller Park, future home of the
Brewers, and you get the feeling that the Braves of yore would
have fit right in there. Its exterior will be old-timey brick,
and--shades of Wrigley--there will be ivy on the centerfield
wall and manually operated scoreboards to keep track of
out-of-town games. The playing field will be grass, and the
seats will be as close to the action as big league laws allow.
Of course, the Wisconsin weather, having no respect for the
past, always threatens to gum things up, so that's where the
future enters the picture, bearing a retractable roof. With the
roof will come luxury suites and a bar shaped like home plate.
The only apparent downside of all this progress is its price:
$250 million and counting.
"Well," Selig says slowly, "ballpark economics have changed."
Don't think the good burghers of southeastern Wisconsin haven't
noticed. They are a breed so frugal that when the Milwaukee
Sentinel was folded into the Journal three years ago, there were
readers who refused to shed tears over the loss of a public
watchdog, an independent editorial voice, an old friend;
instead, some of them wrote letters praising the publisher for
saving money by putting out one newspaper rather than two. It
comes as no surprise, then, that the locals tuned Selig out
when, in the late '80s, he started saying that failure to build
a new ballpark could mean the end of the Brewers. And when he
warned that losing the Brewers "would leave a hole in the heart
of Milwaukee," the populace went stone deaf.
Selig is a car salesman by trade, though, and his natural
reaction was to dicker. First he said the Brewers would build
the park with their own money. ("What money?" asked skeptics who
would love to get a look at the team's books.) Then he started
reducing the Brewers' proposed involvement, 20% here, 15% there.
When, at last, it was time to fish or cut bait, the team's share
of the construction price came to $90 million--and $40 million
of that was anted up by Miller Brewing for the privilege of
pasting its name on the park.
So who's footing the bill for the other $160 million? The
taxpayers--who else? Not that they got to say whether they
wanted the privilege. The state legislature made the decision
for them when a senator changed his mind at the last minute and
cast the deciding vote in favor of a sales tax that costs
residents of the five southeastern counties a penny on every $10
purchase. That doesn't sound like much, but the tax is expected
to produce as much as $17.5 million annually. Selig counters
that Miller Park will generate $2 million more than that each
year, but his prediction is hardly balm for the antitax forces,
who so far have been shot down in the Wisconsin courts.
"They treated us like we had a social disease," says George
Watts, a cherubic Milwaukee china dealer who has taken refuge in
wit. Of only minor consolation is the fact that the offending
senator was recalled, the first such voter retribution in state
The spoils of victory belong to Selig, who twice a day muddies
up his Lexus when he drives over to watch Miller Park rising.
When it is finished, it will be the equivalent of 22 stories
high, a Goliath to County Stadium's David. But this is one fight
that David won't win, for County Stadium will come tumbling down
soon afterward, memories and all, a metaphor for what happens
when the past gets in the future's way.
It seemed odd that Atlanta didn't do something, anything, to
acknowledge Milwaukee's return to the National League when the
Brewers opened the season at Turner Field. All that bittersweet
history between the two cities, and then a wonderful bit of
scheduling, more calculated than ironic, that brought everything
full circle. But there wasn't so much as a wink or a nod from
the lordly Braves, and surely Hank Aaron noticed.
Both cities have called him their own, and both must know down
deep that they will never see a greater ballplayer than
Hammerin' Hank, with his loping grace in rightfield and the bat
he swung like a terrible swift sword. He obliterated the myth of
Babe Ruth's invincibility by hitting 755 home runs, and look how
equitable he was about it: The first 398 came in Milwaukee, the
next 335 in Atlanta, and then he went back to where he
started--actually switched leagues--for a two-season curtain
call with the Brewers that produced the final 22. Given his
curriculum vitae, it was no surprise to see Aaron show up to
offer Milwaukee the welcome that the Braves neglected.
He hugged Bob Uecker, once a teammate, now the Brewers'
play-by-play jester, and he reminisced about those days in
Milwaukee when the fans were more like neighbors. "They knew
everyone," Aaron said, "what position you played, who you were
married to, your kids." Then he slipped off to watch the game on
TV at a nearby hotel, leaving the impression that while there is
a statue of him in Atlanta, his heart is somewhere else.
Milwaukee beckoned a week later. The Brewers wanted Aaron as the
centerpiece of a ceremony before the first National League game
at County Stadium in 33 years. He was only too happy to oblige,
and 51,408 admirers were only too happy to see him. Johnny Logan
was one of them, but Aaron didn't know he was there. Logan hung
back in the stands, never venturing onto the field the way he
usually does, never introducing himself to blank-faced young
millionaires with Hey-I-was-a-big-leaguer-too bombast. He
explained at first that he didn't have time to hang around for
the game; he scouts Wisconsin for the Brewers, and there was a
college doubleheader he had to catch. Which was the truth, but
not the whole truth. Only later did that come out. "It was
Hank's day," he said. "I didn't want to intrude."
So Logan stayed in section 8, on the third base side of home,
and watched as Aaron, baseball in hand, was borne toward the
pitcher's mound on the roar of the crowd. When he reached his
destination, he waved, then wound up and threw the first pitch.
It bounced before it reached the catcher. And the beauty of the
moment was that it really didn't matter. Not to the storied
slugger out there shrugging in mock embarrassment, not to the
old shortstop who suddenly turned and hustled toward the exit
and the job that keeps him young. Not to anyone who understood
what would be remembered long after that ball in the dirt was
forgotten: Milwaukee was back where it belongs, and so, if only
for an afternoon, was Hank Aaron.