The birth of the Brewers

Chris Zantow writes authoritative book on the return of Major League baseball to Milwaukee
Zantow And Book Cover
Madison writer Chris Zantow and his book "Building the Brewers." (Photos courtesy of Chris Zantow)

One of the best stories my nonagenarian friend Ralph Andreano tells — and he knows some good ones — concerns the afternoon he spent drinking beer with Bill Veeck and watching Veeck snuff out cigarettes in the ashtray he’d carved into his wooden leg.

The year was 1966. The place was the bar of the River Inn in Oshkosh.

Andreano was then a University of Wisconsin–Madison economist and author of a new book on baseball economics, “No Joy in Mudville.”

Veeck was a colorful promoter and antiestablishment sports entrepreneur who aptly titled his autobiography “Veeck as in Wreck.”

The two were meeting to compare notes in advance of each testifying for the state of Wisconsin in its lawsuit to prevent the Milwaukee Braves from moving to Atlanta.

The world knows how that turned out — half a century on, the Atlanta Braves endure — but less well known is the story of how Milwaukee landed another Major League team just four years later, when much of the baseball power structure was still fuming over the city suing the Braves.

As Madison author Chris Zantow relates in his new book, “Building the Brewers: Bud Selig and the Return of Major League Baseball to Milwaukee,” no less a baseball eminence than Jackie Robinson predicted doom regarding the city ever landing another team.

Robinson was in Milwaukee in late March 1966 to speak at the Milwaukee Boys Club recognition dinner. Five hundred were in attendance. The next day’s Milwaukee Journal headline read “Majors May Boycott After the Trial: Robinson.”

“A lot of establishment folks didn’t want to entertain the idea that Milwaukee would ever get another team,” Zantow told me last week, when we chatted by phone about his book. “They’d plunk a team anywhere else, but not Milwaukee.”

Yet just 15 months later, a Milwaukeean and self-described “incurable optimist” named Bud Selig managed to promote an exhibition game at County Stadium between the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins.

The game was a smashing success, drawing more than 51,000 fans.

“The largest crowd ever to attend a game in County Stadium,” Zantow writes, noting that “well over 5,000 fans were turned away because of the already over-sized crowd.”

Fans held up large signs: “We Deserve a Major League Team.”

The story of how it happened — the Brewers debuted in 1970 — is deserving of a book, and now we have one thanks to Chris Zantow, a Mount Horeb area native who lives in Madison and works as a writer for American Girl.

Like so many American kids, Zantow got his first taste of baseball playing catch with his dad. Don Zantow took his son to the boy’s first Brewers game in 1978, and they were in County Stadium again In October 1982, when the Brewers beat the California Angels on Chris’s 14th birthday, earning a trip to the World Series.

“You couldn’t script a better baseball day,” Zantow said, “or a better day with your dad.”

Chris dedicated the book to his dad’s memory.

Zantow provides an intriguing history of the ill-fated Seattle Pilots, the team Selig and his group bought out of bankruptcy court and brought to Milwaukee as the Brewers. It happened so quickly and so close to opening day 1970 that the Brewers didn’t even have time to make their own uniforms.

“[They] tore off the Pilots name from the jerseys and put ‘Brewers’ on in its place,” Zantow writes. “However, anyone looking closely could still see the outline of ‘Pilots.’”

Zantow scored interviews with several Brewers players from those early years, but missed on the biggest fish, Selig himself.

“I tried multiple times,” Zantow said, noting that Selig having his own book coming out last year might have had something to do with it.

Still, Zantow tracked down seemingly every interview Selig ever gave, and “Building the Brewers” is impressively footnoted. It feels authoritative.

The book is available through the publisher and locally through Mystery to Me bookstore, which is now encouraging customers to call, email or order online.

Zantow said he enjoyed the research, which took him down some strange rabbit holes. He discovered one early Brewers promotion — from April 1970 — that involved 1,500 fans gathering at home plate with a sorceress named Witch Louise who chanted, “The Brewers are the cosmos, the Brewers are the wind, the Brewers are all powerful. The Brewers will win the pennant.”

They didn’t, but 50 years on, the Brewers are going strong. Maybe when this season finally opens they can bring Witch Louise back for an encore.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.