Commentary

The Miller's tale (continued)

Updated: August 24, 2010, 10:09 PM ET
By Dan Peterson | ESPN.com

FielderAP Photo/Morry GashFrom Eddie Mathews to Hammerin' Hank to Harvey's Wallbangers to Ryan Braun, Milwaukee baseball's legacy is linked to the home run -- including this 2009 Prince Fielder walk-off blast.
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Birth

Sorting out the Brewers' lineage is a bit of a puzzle. The first "major league" Milwaukee Brewers played out the end of the 1891 American Association schedule as a replacement for the Cincinnati Kelly's Killers, who folded in August. The league disbanded after that season, with some teams -- but not the Brewers -- merging into the National League.

Meanwhile, a minor league Brewers team, alternatively referred to as the Creams, played in the Western League. Both of these old-time Milwaukee squads played their games at Athletic Park, which opened in 1888 and served as the predominant home of Milwaukee professional baseball until County Stadium opened in 1953.

Brew Crew tour

Click here for a gallery of images of Miller Park and Milwaukee baseball.

The minor league Brewers/Creams moved to the Lloyd Street Grounds in 1895 and played there through the turn of the century. The Western League -- which itself had undergone various collapses and reorganizations -- reformed as the American League in 1900 and ascended to major league status in 1901, with the Brewers as charter members.

But while the upstart junior circuit endured as the second major league, the Brewers' reign in the bigs ended after that inaugural season, when the franchise moved to St. Louis to become the Browns … before moving again in 1954 to become the Baltimore Orioles.

Despite all that initial instability and subsequent movement, Milwaukee baseball continued unabated in 1902, when another Brewers franchise sprung up in the minor leagues, this time in the newly reformed American Association.

Confused yet? It gets much easier from here. For the next 50 years the Brewers competed in the AA and played at Athletic Park, which was renamed Borchert Field in 1930. The Brewers often weren't very good, winning just three pennants before Bill Veeck bought the franchise in 1941.

Partnered with manager and former Cubs star Charlie Grimm, Veeck transformed the Brewers into winners on the field, with three straight American Association championships in 1943-45. Perhaps more importantly, the legendary showman's genuine desire to make the game experience unique and enjoyable for spectators helped spark the spirit of fun and enjoyment passed from one generation of Brewers fans to the next.

From scheduling morning games so that wartime night-shift workers could attend to giving away live animals to staging weddings at home plate, Veeck was a master at drawing and delighting the crowd. He sold his interest in 1945 and then became owner of the Cleveland Indians in 1946, but the Brewers went on to win the pennant again in 1951 and 1952 -- their final years of existence.

In 1953 the Boston Braves relocated to Milwaukee and the city's just-built County Stadium. With the National League Braves in town, the Brewers relocated to Toledo, where they were renamed the Mud Hens and continued to play in the American Association.

And thus the Brewers ceased to exist.

But the Braves left a powerful impression on a city that had grown to love baseball. The Braves won Milwaukee's lone World Series title in 1957, led by Hall of Famers Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron. Bob Stigler, a southeastern Wisconsin farmer born in 1950, has fond memories of those great teams.

"All the years after [1957], that was the big thing -- they were the world champions and the whole bit," Stigler said. "As little kids we idolized those players. Aaron, Joe Adcock, [Bob] Buhl, Spahn, [Eddie] Mathews, Johnny Logan, Wes Covington."

Stigler got his introduction to Milwaukee baseball from his grandfather.

"I used go along with him all the time to the game," Stigler said. "It was fun. He'd take us, and it was kind of special, your grandfather taking you to a Braves game."

The Braves made Milwaukee proud, but that feeling eventually gave way to heartache. The city was left without a team when the Braves left for Atlanta in 1966.

"It felt like they betrayed us," Stigler said. "It was more money for them. We didn't feel like loyalty came back. It was the beginning of the era of baseball being a business. Back in those days the players were playing just for the love of the game, and it seemed like that was all kind of going away."

Brewer's logo
MLBThe Beer Barrel Man, circa 1940s: Then known as Owgust, he was the original face of the Brew Crew and forefather to Bernie Brewer.

Rebirth

Perhaps a better way to navigate Milwaukee baseball history is to start with the Beer Barrel Man, the original Brewers mascot who appeared in the 1940s during Veeck's colorful tenure. Known at the time as "Owgust," the Beer Barrel Man was reincarnated as the team logo by Bud Selig in the late 1960s, when he formed Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Inc. in the hopes of bringing the big leagues back to Milwaukee after the departure of the Braves.

His mission was accomplished in 1970, when he acquired the Seattle Pilots, moved them to Milwaukee and renamed them the Brewers. Those first Brewers teams didn't do a lot of winning, but Bernie Brewer was introduced in 1973. And Aaron came back for his final seasons in 1975 and 1976, helping foster Milwaukee's love of the long ball.

Led by manager Harvey Kuenn and power hitters like Cecil Cooper, Ted Simmons, Ben Ogilvie and Gorman Thomas -- plus future Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount -- the Brewers bashed their way to the World Series in 1982, ultimately losing in seven games to the Cardinals. That squad, dubbed Harvey's Wallbangers, remains the only league champion in Brewers history. In fact, it took another 28 years and the birth of Miller Park before the Brew Crew returned to the playoffs.

Even when the Brewers are going nowhere fast, their followers stick around through the thick and thin -- no small feat given the tons of fun summer options in the Milwaukee area.

"There's so much to do here outside of the baseball game," Hart said. "I have a lot of friends and family that come here just because it's almost like a little vacation. You go see a game, but there's so much extra stuff to get involved in."

Hart mentions the Milwaukee County Zoo as a favorite spot to take the kids, but the list of activities is as long as Lake Michigan's shoreline. Even if you skip the trek up north to Green Bay to see Lambeau Field, local options abound. Consider: boating on any of the many area lakes; touring the breweries; and partying at the Henry Maier Festival Grounds, which hosts Summerfest and various cultural and ethnic festivals throughout the summer.

Still, Brewers backers are ever ready to revel in the next wave of success. The fans came out in record numbers in 2008, when Milwaukee won the NL wild card in dramatic fashion on the last day of the regular season. Ryan Braun homered in the eighth for the winning runs, but the Brew Crew still had to wait to see whether the Mets would win and possibly force a one-game playoff.

"We're sitting there for an hour after probably a three-hour game, and not one person in the whole stadium left," Hart said. "Everybody's sitting there watching -- players on the field watching the game -- [scoreboard operators] put it on the big screen.

"The fans stayed and waited it out with us, and obviously once we found out we were gonna go, it's a big party.

"It was nice the fans were that involved and stayed the whole time."

Indeed, count on the Brewers faithful to stay for the duration -- before, during and after the game.

Dan Peterson is an editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Daniel.R.Peterson@espn.com.

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