Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 25 – The Milwaukee Brewers
The Milwaukee Brewers: The Team That Selig Built.
Question: How does a used car salesman from Milwaukee get to buy his very own pet Major League baseball team?
Answer: When apparently no one else in North America has the capital to put up front for the purchase.
Some background: When the Kansas City A’s unceremoniously vacated K.C. for Oakland (it seemed like a good idea at the time) in 1968, a U.S. Senator from Missouri (Stuart Symington) decided to hold hostage baseball’s antitrust exemption, unless Kansas City was awarded a brand new expansion team, to begin play immediately in the 1969 baseball season.
The Seattle Pilots were the sorriest team of the lot, finishing their one and only campaign as a major league franchise (in Seattle) last in their division with a 64-98 record. If you’ve read Jim Bouton’s classic book, “Ball Four,” you know what a pathetic excuse for a team the Pilot’s were.
Milwaukee, however, had already established itself as a baseball town. The Braves called Milwaukee home for thirteen seasons (1953-65) during which they never played less than .500 baseball in any single season. In fact, in the Milwaukee Braves inaugural season, they set a then-baseball attendance record of 1.8 million fans.
(On a side note, Selig, a minority Braves stockholder, had sued the Braves to try to force them to stay in Milwaukee, claiming that a baseball team owes it to their city and to their fans to stay put. The Braves finally got their wish and moved to Atlanta where they believed attendance would be better.)
Bud Selig got his team, though, and, after just five seasons without a Major League franchise, Milwaukee would once again host a team of its own, beginning in 1970.
It wasn’t pretty. The 1970 Brewers, née Pilots, finished 65-97, just one game better than their one year in Seattle.
Yet virtually every bad team has at least one bright spot. And the bright spot on the 1970 Milwaukee Brewers burned surprisingly bright, indeed.
Now, I have to confess that when I started researching this blog-post, I thought I would end up profiling someone like Ben Oglivie in 1980: 41 homers, 118 RBI’s, 333 total bases, Silver Slugger winner, .925 OPS.
Or Sixto Lezcano in 1979: 28 homers, 101 RBI’s, .321 batting average, .987 OPS, Gold Glove.
Or Larry Hisle: Excellent overall campaign in ’78. Well over 100 RBI’s. Made the All-Star team. Finished 3rd in A.L. MVP voting.
Or Cecil Cooper: At least four excellent seasons. One hell of an underrated ballplayer. If he had stayed in Boston, he might have been able to have produced Hall of Fame numbers.
But settling on Tommy Harper was a no-brainer. Here’s why.
Most of the fine Brewers hitters that many of us remember played sometime in the late ’70’s or ’80’s. I didn’t expect to be able to go so far back in team history and stumble across a player who had one season that overshadowed all the other players.
1970 was Tommy Harper’s Best Forgotten Season:
The previous year, toiling away with the Pilots at age 28, Harper had led the A.L. with 73 stolen bases. But he had produced a pathetic 21 extra base hits in 537 at bats, including nine homers and just ten doubles! His .235 batting average and 78 runs scored were also unimpressive.
He did, however, draw 95 walks, and his versatility (he could play 2nd, 3rd or OF) along with his base-stealing abilities, provided some value.
Then something strange happened in his first season in Milwaukee. Tommy Harper must have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in some working-class Milwaukee neighborhood, because overnight and without warning, he became an extremely dangerous hitter.
His final numbers for 1970:
At Bats: 604
Home Runs: 31 (!)
Runs Scored: 104
Batting Average: .296
On-Base Percentage: .377
Slugging Percentage: .522 (an increase of .211 points from ’69.)
OPS: .899 (6th best in league)
OPS+: 146 (6th best in league)
Total Bases: 315 (3rd highest)
Extra Base Hits: 70 (First Place!)
Stolen Bases: 38 (2nd place)
WAR: 7.7 (2nd best in team history)
Power-Speed #: 34.1 (First Place)
In short, in one season he had morphed from Omar Moreno to Bobby Bonds.
Tommy Harper finished sixth in the 1970 MVP voting, and he is still the only 30-30-30 man (doubles, homers, steals) in Brewers history. In fact, Tommy Harper was the first 30-30 man in American League history.
The 31 home runs Harper hit in 1970 were more than he had hit in the previous four seasons combined. In fact, they represented 21 percent of all the home runs he would hit in his 15-year career.
But Tommy Harper wasn’t finished playing ball after 1970. After playing just one more year in Milwaukee, Harper enjoyed three productive years with the Red Sox, scoring over 90 runs twice, and leading the league in stolen bases in 1973 (at age 32,) with 54, breaking the 61-year old Red Sox record of 52 stolen bases previously set by Tris Speaker in 1912. (Harper’s record has since been broken by Jacoby Ellsbury.)
Tommy Harper finally retired in 1976 at the age of 35.
Why some players suddenly produce one explosive season in an otherwise solid career has always been something of a mystery. I’m reasonably sure even Tommy Harper didn’t see it coming.
But this is one of the reasons why we love baseball; you can always expect the unexpected.
- Brewers Give Bud Selig A Statue: Why Not Paul Molitor? (bleacherreport.com)
- Selig statue unveiled in front of Miller Park (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Young and Talented: Milwaukee Brewers Bullpen Poised for Success (bleacherreport.com)
- Tommy Harper, Jimmy Piersall, John Valentin, Don Zimmer and Eddie Kasko join Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame (sports.espn.go.com)