In Milwaukee, the Brewers are coming off their first non-losing season since the first Bush administration. Fans are looking away from Gorman’s grill and on to the field for their enjoyment for the first time in a decade. Expectations are high for an extremely young team, so high that you don’t have to listen for long before a Wisconsinite brings up the legend of Harvey’s Wallbangers–the 1982 American League champion, the one unequivocal highlight in franchise history.
For casual fans, memories of the Wallbangers focus, of course, on the stars and the personalities. Their namesake, West Allis native Harvey Kuenn, took over the team in early June, steering the club to a 72-43 finish to take the National League pennant. It was the first of Robin Yount’s two MVPs–his only Gold Glove, as well. The rest of the lineup reads like a who’s who of famous Brewer names: Ben Oglivie, Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor, Jim Gantner,Gorman Thomas, Don Money, Ted Simmons. Together with a very respectable supporting cast including 26-year-old backup catcher Ned Yost, the Brewers offense did just about everything–wallbanging and more–to crush the rest of the league.
In remembering a great team, the characters become so much larger than life that it’s easy to forget just how good they were on the field. Gorman Thomas, gold-glove centerfielder and Rob Deer All-Star when Rob Deer was still hitting .207 in the AA Texas League, led the club with 39 HRs, often batting sixth. He was one of a seven Brewers with 16 or more HRs, four with more than 28. Not surprisingly, Harvey’s Wallbangers were the 1982 American League team pitchers most hated to face. The Crew put up five-and-a-half runs per game and smashed 30 more homers than the second place team. What’s more, they did all this is a park that was favorable to pitchers.
To get an idea of the magnitude of their attack, let’s look at a game I picked at random: the Brewers in Detroit, Saturday June 19th. One-through-seven, it was the typical Milwaukee lineup of Molitor, Yount, Cooper, Simmons, Oglivie, Thomas, and Howell. Jim Ganter andCharlie Moore each got the day off, giving way to a couple of weaker links on Milwaukee’s bench, Ed Romero and Marshall Edwards. Against Brewer starter Moose Haas, the Tigers would throw Jack Morris, a solid if unspectacular starter for a solid if unspectacular Detroit Tiger team.
Morris may be famous for his win-at-all-costs grittiness and durability, but on June 19th, 1982, he didn’t make it out of the first inning. Handing over the story to retrosheet.org:
BREWERS 1ST: Molitor walked; Yount homered [Molitor scored]; Cooper singled to center; Simmons singled to right [Cooper to third]; Oglivie grounded out (second to first)[Cooper scored, Simmons to second]; Thomas singled to center [Simmons scored]; LOPEZ REPLACED MORRIS (PITCHING)
Only one extra-base hit–a home run coming from the two spot–but the relentless attack more or less put the game away before the Tigers ever got to bat. Aurelio Lopez didn’t fare much better, giving up four runs of his own before coming out after the third inning. The Brewers managed 10 runs on 9 hits, 4 walks, and one Tiger error while Moose Haas gave up three runs, going the distance for Milwaukee.
The June 19th game is just one example of the most powerful offense of the early 1980s. But Haas’s performance reminds us that, obviously, there was much more to this team. A Cy Young Award winner and two Hall of Famers, just for starters.
Pete Vuckovich put together the kind of season awards voters love: 18 wins against only 6 losses, an ERA of 3.34–well within spitting distance of the league leader–and of course, he played for a winning team. There’s no question Vuckovich had a great year. Amazingly, though, you can make an argument he wasn’t even the best pitcher on his team, let alone in the American League. Hass, our starter on June 19th, was no more than a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy, but both starter Mike Caldwell and relief ace Rollie Fingers mustered All-Star quality seasons.
Baseball Prospectus’s Pitching Runs Above Average (PRAR) scores Vuckovich at 55–a good, though hardly historical, season. (To give you a reference point, Mark Mulder’s 2005 score was 60, while Chris Carpenter’s was 89.) Mike Caldwell, with his higher ERA but 35 more innings, earned a 58, with Rollie Fingers and his 29 saves coming in at 51. Three solid pitchers to anchor the staff, with guys like Haas, Bob McClure, and swingman Jim Slatongiving the offense a good chance every day.
And then there was Don Sutton. On August 30th, the Milwaukee Brewers woke up with a five-game lead over the Boston Red Sox with 33 games to play. To ensure the division championship and build a stellar rotation for October, General Manager Harry Dalton traded youngsters Kevin Bass, Frank DiPino, and Mike Madden to the lowly Houston Astros in exchange for Sutton, one of the three aces of the Astros staff. (The other two? Nolan Ryan, and Joe Niekro in the middle of a career year.)
The timing of the trade ensured–barely–that Sutton was eligible to pitch for Milwaukee in the postseason. In the meantime, Sutton went 4-1 in seven starts, combining with Vuckovich and Caldwell to lead the Brewers to a 17-11 September. They needed every last one of those wins–the Baltimore Orioles, a game behind the Red Sox back on August 29th, had an even better final month, ending the season in second place by a single game.
95 wins, an MVP shortstop, a Cy Young Award-winning ace, a handful of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers–these are the things longtime Brewers fans get to dream about while watching their young team coalesce on the field this year. It’s still a little early to imagine the Crew in the World Series again, but as a Brewers minor league GM points out, Milwaukee gets a trip to the World Series every 25 years. 1957 with the Braves, 1982 with the Brewers. 1957: winners. That, my friends, might be a pattern you see emerging.