Monday, March 17, 2014

Milwaukee's All-Time Baseball Team

Milwaukee's baseball history is a bit checkered. The Brewers of the Class AAA American Association won 8 Pennants: 1913, 1914, 1936, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1951, and 1952 -- the last 2 being in their last 2 seasons of existence. Then the Braves arrived from Boston, and they won National League Pennants in 1957 (winning the World Series over the Yankees) and 1958 (losing the Series to the Yankees).

After that, Milwaukee baseball teams have won just 1 Pennant in 55 years. The Braves got close again in 1959 and 1964, but moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season. The Brewers arrived in 1970, but have been to the postseason only 4 times: 1981, when they won the American League Eastern Division in the second half of a strike-forced split-season format and lost the AL Division Series to the Yankees, who had won the first half; 1982, when they won the Pennant but lost the Series to the St. Louis Cardinals; 2008, when, 10 years after switching to the NL, won the Wild Card, but lost the NLDS to the Philadelphia Phillies; and 2011, when they won the NL Central, and beat the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS before losing to the Cardinals in the NLCS.

The Brewers have had some great talents over the years. True, Hank Aaron was at the end of the line, but they had Rollie Fingers at his best, and Robin Yount and Paul Molitor built Hall of Fame careers with them. Prince Fielder began his career with them, and might make the Hall of Fame. But they've never quite been able to put it all together.

Could this team do it?

26. Milwaukee’s All-Time Baseball Team

Players are eligible if they came from anywhere in Wisconsin, except for the westernmost part of the State that's closer to Minneapolis than it is to Milwaukee; and also from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, although I couldn't find any big-league players from there that were good enough. Sports personalities, yes: Notre Dame football legend George Gipp, former San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, and if you count professional wrestling Lou Thesz; but baseball, no.

Still, this All-Badger State team has a solid infield and a very powerful outfield. And the first 3 starting pitchers are pretty strong. After that... uh...

1B Fred Luderus of Milwaukee. A star for the Phillies in the 1910s, he helped them win their first Pennant in 1915. A career OPS+ of 114, he hit 251 doubles despite only having full seasons in the majors between the ages of 25 and 33, although he remained a productive player in the high minors until he was 39.

2B Jim Gantner of Fond du Lac. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, he was the starting 2nd baseman for the only Brewer Pennant-winner in 1982, and in that World Series he batted .333 with a .943 OPS. He never batted .300 but batted at least .280 6 times, and hit 262 doubles. He played over 1,400 games at 2B and over 300 at 3B. He pitched an inning for the Brewers in a 1979 game, allowing 2 hits but no walks and no runs.

SS Tony Kubek of Bay View H.S. in Milwaukee. Received the Ford Frick Award, equivalent to election to the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, for his work with NBC on the Saturday Game of the Week and on World Series broadcasts, most notably the 1975 Cincinnati-Boston epic.

But he was a pretty good player, too. He was the 1957 AL Rookie of the Year, and in both that season and 1958 he returned home to play the Braves in the World Series, losing in ’57 but winning in ’58. He made 3 All-Star teams, formed a superb double-play combination with Bobby Richardson, and hit 178 doubles and 30 triples despite a back injury ending his career when he was just 29.

Unfortunately, his playing career is probably best known for a ground ball that hit a pebble and hit him in the throat in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, helping the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Yankees. But he did help the Yankees win the Series in 1958, 1961 and 1962.

3B Lafayette “Lave” Cross of Milwaukee. This guy goes back a ways, all the way to 1887, the first term of President Grover Cleveland. A converted catcher, he starred for 3 Philadelphia teams: The Athletics of the American Association (a major league that ran from 1882 to 1891, not the minor league that would have the current Brewers' predecessors), the Phillies in the NL, and the Athletics in the AL (no connection to the AA Athletics except by name).

A career .292 hitter, he had 2,651 hits, 412 of them doubles in the really dead-ball era, and stole 303 bases. Twice had an OPS+ of 132, and 2 others times over 120. He helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win the NL Pennant in 1900 (technically, the last “World Championship” the franchise would win for 55 years) and the A’s win AL Pennants in 1902 and 1905.

Honorable Mention to Ken Keltner of Boy’s Technical H.S. in Milwaukee. A 7-time All-Star with the Cleveland Indians, he had an OPS+ of 112, 308 doubles, and 2 100-RBI seasons. But he’s best known as a good fielder, who made 2 stirring stops to help the Indians halt Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak on July 17, 1941. He nearly helped the Indians win the Pennant in 1940, and had his best season for their World Champions of 1948, batting .297 with 31 homers and 119 RBI. But injuries made that his last full season, and 3 years later he was retired. He spent much of the rest of his life as a scout, and was inducted into the Indians’ team Hall of Fame.

LF Al Simmons of Milwaukee. The State of Wisconsin is loaded at left field, with Davy Jones of Cambria (the 1907-09 Detroit dynasty), Morrie Arnovich of Superior (a 1940s All-Star), Andy Pafko of Boyceville (who won Pennants in the 1950s both with the Dodgers and with his home-State Braves), and even Harvey Kuenn played a lot of left field.

But I’m going with Aloys Harry Szymanski, known as Bucketfoot Al for the way he stepped toward 3rd base when he swung. He swung very well: .334 batting average, 132 OPS+, 2,927 hits – just 73 more and he would have been in the 3,000 Hit Club and would probably be much better-remembered today. Those were the most hits of any righthanded hitter in AL history until surpassed by Al Kaline. Of those 2,927, 539 were doubles and 307 were homers – that total ranked him 5th on the all-time list when he retired, behind Babe Ruth, A’s teammate Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott and Lou Gehrig. He had 1,827 RBI.

He helped the Philadelphia Athletics return to glory, winning the World Series in 1929 and ’30 and 107 games and the Pennant before losing the Series in ’31. Here’s his averages for 1925 (age 23) through 1931 (29): .387, .341, .392, .351, .365, .381 and .390 (the last 2 winning the AL batting title). He had at least 100 RBI in each of his first 11 seasons, getting 157 to lead the AL in ’29, 165 in ’30 and 151 in ’32. (Incredibly, in ’30 he lost the RBI title to Gehrig with 174, and in ’32 to Foxx with 169.)

After the 1932 season, needing cash after having lost all his money in the stock market and the A’s successes not paying for themselves, Connie Mack sold Simmons to the Chicago White Sox. As a South Sider, beginning with the next season, he started in the first 3 All-Star Games. He began to decline and then bounced around a bit, before returning to the A’s as a player-coach under Mack. He died of a heart attack shortly after turning 54, in 1956.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame. (His plaque there, and those of the other A's honored, were moved from Veterans Stadium to a storefront run by the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society in nearby Hatboro, and are now housed at Spike's Trophies in Northeast Philadelphia.) However, the A’s, out of Philly since 1954, have not retired a number for him. (He wore several, but in ’31 when the A’s started wearing numbers, he wore 7.) On August 19, 1996, to highlight an article about the 1929 A’s, suggested that they were the greatest baseball team ever, Sports Illustrated put Simmons on the cover, rather than Mack or fellow Hall-of-Famers Foxx, Mickey Cochrane or Lefty Grove. Three years later, The Sporting News named him Number 43 on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

CF Clarence “Ginger” Beaumont of Rochester. Another old-old-old-timer, this graduate of Wisconsin’s Beloit College helped the Pittsburgh Pirates win the NL Pennant in 1901, ’02 and ’03. In 1902 he won the NL batting title, and in 1903 he led the League in games played, at-bats, hits, total bases and runs. His career batting average was .311, OPS+ 123. Unfortunately, the Pirates had already traded him by the time they won the 1909 World Series, but in his last season, 1910 (he was only 33), he helped the Cubs win a Pennant.

RF Harvey Kuenn of West Allis. Actually played more shortstop than any other position, but right field was his 2nd-most frequent position, and I needed someone here. He was AL Rookie of the Year in 1953, and made the All-Star team in each of his first 8 full seasons. He led the AL in hits in 1953, ’54, ’56 and ’59, and in doubles in ’55, ’58 and ’59. He won the ’59 batting title with a .353 average, but just before the next season, the Detroit Tigers traded him to the Indians for the previous season’s home-run leader, Rocky Colavito. The trade worked out much better for the Tigers, as Cleveland fans, loving the Rock, booed Kuenn for no good reason – he didn’t hit for much power, but he did bat .308 that season. The Indians traded him to the San Francisco Giants, and he helped them win the 1962 Pennant.

His lifetime batting average was .303, with 2,092 hits, 356 of them doubles, and an OPS+ of 108. He is also the manager of this team, having taken the Brewers – nicknamed “Harvey’s Wallbangers” for their power hitting – to that 1982 Pennant, still the only Pennant won by a Milwaukee team since the Ike Age. His son Harvey Kuenn Jr. also played in the Brewers’ system.

C Damian Miller of West Salem. He had a relatively short career, but he did make the NL All-Star Team in 2002. I selected him because of his fielding – and because the next-best choice is Charlie Ganzel, who won 5 NL Pennants from 1887 to 1897 but was not substantially better, stat-wise. Miller helped the Diamondbacks reach 3 postseasons (including the 2001 World Championship) and the Chicago Cubs 1 (2003, nearly winning the Pennant).

SP Charles “Kid” Nichols of Madison. This is a tough choice, geographically speaking, because, while he's listed as having been born in Wisconsin's State Capital, he's mentioned on Wikipedia as having moved to Kansas City as a child, and lists him as having gone to Queen Elizabeth High School in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. (Which Queen Elizabeth? He would have graduated in 1887, so not Elizabeth II, nor her mother the wife/widow of King George VI.) Anyway, I can't find a source that shows where he learned to play baseball. But the Kansas City team that you'll eventually see is absolutely loaded, pitching-wise, so I'm keeping Nichols with Milwaukee.

There’s no doubting why he’s in the Hall of Fame: 361 wins against just 208 losses from 1890 to 1906, including 7 times in 8 years winning at least 30 – both before and after the pitching distance moved from 50 feet in 1892 to 60 feet, 6 inches in 1893, so it didn’t affect him. He was the youngest pitcher ever to crack the 300-win plateau, having notched his 300th before his 31st birthday. He won an additional 103 games in the high minors, for 464 – he could have ended up 2nd on the all-time wins list behind Cy Young, his only rival for the title of Pitcher of the Decade for the 1890s.

Career ERA 2.96, ERA+ 140, WHIP 1.224. Won Pennants with the Boston Beaneaters in 1891, ’92, ’93, ’97 and ’98 – probably the best pitcher that the franchise eventually known as the Braves had until Warren Spahn, to say nothing of Greg Maddux.

SP Adrian “Addie” Joss of Beaver Dam. From 1902 to 1910, he was 160-97, ERA 1.89 (2nd-lowest ever), WHIP 0.968 (lowest ever). Pitched a perfect game in 1908. Won 51 games in 2 years for the Cleveland Indians in 1907 and ’08. Absolutely sensational. After just 9 seasons, he was 31 and should have been just getting started.

But just before the 1911 season, he died of spinal meningitis. Today’s medicine could have saved him. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Hall of Fame waived its 10-season requirement for him; after all, it wasn’t his fault: If he’d been stricken just 1 week later, he would have pitched at least once in a 10th season and qualified.

SP Burleigh Grimes of Emerald. In 1920, the spitball and other doctorings of the baseball were banned, but 17 pitchers were allowed to continue using it for the rest of their careers. Grimes was the last to use the spitter legally, in 1934. Before that, however, he was fantastic, winning 270 games and losing 212. He had 5 20-win seasons, and won Pennants with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1920, the Cardinals in 1931, and the Cubs in 1932 -- making him one of the few players to win Pennants with both the Redbirds and their Chicago arch-rivals. Hall of Fame.

SP Dick Bosman of Kenosha. He was not up to the level of the first 3; in fact, he was just 82-85 for his career. But in 1969, pitching for the Washington Senators, he went 14-5 and led the AL with a 2.19 ERA. He went 16-12 in 1970, but the next season, the Senators’ last before moving to become the Texas Rangers, his run support vanished and he was only 12-16.

On September 30, 1971, he started the last game the Senators ever played, against the Yankees at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, and stood to be the winning pitcher as the Senators led 7-5 with 1 out left in the 9th, before the angry fans stormed the field and the game was forfeited to the Yankees. He also started the team’s first game as the Rangers. He had only 1 more winning season and was done at 32. He has since gone on to become one of baseball’s best pitching coaches.

SP Shane Rawley of Racine. Don’t get me started, this one hurts. He was a journeyman for the Seattle Mariners, but in 1982 the Yankees traded for him, and he went 27-28 for the Pinstripes before being traded to the Phillies for Marty Bystrom and Keith Hughes on June 30, 1984. Stupid trade! Why would you give up a proven reliever like Bystrom, a key cog in their 1980 World Championship, for a .500 pitcher like Rawley?

Guess what, it was the Yankees, not the Phillies, who were stupid. Bystrom made just 15 appearances for the Yankees, was awful and injured, and never pitched after age 26. Rawley went 13-8 in ’85, 11-7 in ’86, and 17-11 in ’87. Think the Yankees couldn’t have used his arm in those seasons? He fell apart in ’88, and was done a year later at 33, finishing 111-118 – but at a time when he could have helped the Yankees a lot, he was stuck on a poor Phils team. That trade didn’t work out for anybody, but George Steinbrenner and "my baseball people," as George called them, really screwed themselves.

RP Rinold “Ryne” Duren of Cazenovia. He was known for his “coke-bottle glasses” and his wild warm-ups. He was one of those guys who could throw hard, but you never knew where it was going to go. He was one of those players the Yankees of the 1950s always seemed to get from the Kansas City Athletics, in his case in 1958. That year, he led the AL with 20 saves and had a 2.02 ERA and a 1.097 WHIP. It was his only good year in a Yankee uniform, but it meant a World Championship.

It was injuries and alcohol that did him in, and years later he beat the booze. In 1982, I was watching the Yankees’ Old-Timers Game on WPIX-Channel 11, and Joe Pepitone stepped in to bat against Duren. Mel Allen said, “Don’t worry, Joe. He won’t hit you. Hard!” Legend has it that Ryne Sandberg was named after Ryne Duren.

Honorable Mention to Jerry Augustine of Kewaunee and the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. A lefty complement to the righthanded Duren, Augustine played his entire career for his home-State Brewers. He won 25 games for the Brewers in 1977 and ’78 as they became a respectable team, then was converted into a reliever. He didn’t help much down the stretch in 1982, and did not appear in the World Series. But he did help a terrible team become a good one.

Finally, add to this team, Honorable Mention to Bob Uecker, of Technical H.S. in Milwaukee, the first Badger Stater to play for a Wisconsin MLB team, with the Braves in 1962 and ‘63, and was the backup catcher on the 1964 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, and has been the voice of the Brewers almost since their inception. He also starred as family patriarch George Owens on the ABC sitcom Mr. Belvedere, and in a hilarious series of commercials for Miller Lite beer.

With his penchant for comedy, intentional and otherwise, he titled his autobiography Catcher In the Wry. Of course, if you ever saw him hit, you’d probably use his home-run call on him: “Get up! Get up! Get outta here!”

1 comment:

Richard Bogovich said...

I'd like to shed some light on Kid Nichols' time in Wisconsin. It's a little unclear when his family moved to Kansas City, but he was about age 12. There was a brief hint once that he learned baseball in Madison, but a very vague one. What IS established is that all four of his brothers and even his father played baseball in Madison, so it seems very likely that he was at least exposed to the sport in Madison. Most notably, one of his half-brothers got a hit off of Hall of Famer A. G. Spalding down in Rockford around the time of the Kid's birth.