Sunday, March 10, 2013

The 1970 Milwaukee Brewers

Sometimes I like to pick out some random baseball team from the past on and figure out what their story was - how and why they won or lost, what the past and future must have looked like from their point of view. And it's usually some team no one ever talks about, since there's more to discover.


The 1970 Brewers were a second-year expansion team, but it was their first season in Milwaukee - the year before, they had been the ill-fated Seattle Pilots. Milwaukee had had the Braves from 1953 to 1965, before their move to Atlanta, but the fans there had to go only four years without major league baseball, as it turned out.

The Pilots were about as good as you'd expect an expansion team to be - they went 64-98. The new Brewers would improve on that one measly game. Not all bad teams are created alike; some shipwrecked teams start out mildly promising and are laid low by bad breaks or bad management, while others just don't have the talent to begin with. The Brewers were in the second group. Almost no one on the 1970 roster had much of a past or a future in the major leagues. The team was surprisingly old for a bad team - most bad teams play lots of youngsters, trying to sort out who might help them in the future. The Brewers' average age was 29.2, and almost no one was under 26. About everyone was a short-term solution, at best. (The Brewers went on to have poor records every year until they exploded on the league all at once in 1978; 1978 to 1983 was the best run of success the Brewers have ever had.)

The manager was Dave Bristol, who had had moderate success as the manager of the Reds before being let go in favor of Sparky Anderson. Bristol was an old-school disciplinarian type; not sure how that affected the team here, but he clashed with his players a lot during his later tenure with the Giants. Bristol managed the Brewers in 1970 and 1971, getting fired early in the 1972 season when the team started slowly once again.

The team was about equally bad in all respects. They scored 63 runs fewer than the league average and gave up 75 more than the average. From the looks of it, they weren't a good fielding team either.


Because the move to Milwaukee wasn't final until right before the season, the Brewers had to play the Pilots' schedule. This meant unusually long strings of home games and road games. This seems to have hurt the team - or at least their road record was a disastrous 27-55, while their home record was an almost-average 38-42. They started the year 3-3...and then lost 17 of 19, most of them on the road. They didn't have a winning month until September...unbelievably, they finished tied for fourth in their six-team division; the second-year Kansas City Royals had the same 65-97 record, and the White Sox really stunk out the joint, going 56-106. (The White Sox don't look near as bad as the Brewers at first glance; wonder what happened there, but that's another article.)


The 1970 Brewers regulars:

Catcher: Gene Roof (age 29). Had mostly started for three seasons for other teams. Very weak hitter, though he hit somewhat better in 1970 than in other years. Was a backup for the rest of his career.

First base: Mike Hegan (age 27). From the Yankees system, but never established himself there. The Pilots picked him up, and he was fantastic in 1969 in part-time play. 1970 was his only year as a true regular, and it wasn't one of his better years (.244, 11 homers). He bounced around the league for many years after that as a platoon player, and hit decently in that role.

Second base: Ted Kubiak (age 28). Played 158 games for the Brewers in 1970, but was never more than a part-time player otherwise, though he did spend ten years in the majors as a light-hitting utility infielder.

Shortstop: Roberto Pena (age 33). Barely played in the majors at all until he was 31; started for two different teams before he got to Milwaukee. Seems to have been a marginal player, a typical weak-hitting shortstop without the glove to make up for it. Played part-time with the Brewers in 1971 and was finished.

Third base: Tommy Harper (age 29). The 1970 Brewers' best player by far. A really strange career. He was mostly an outfielder; 1970 was the only year in which Harper was primarily a third baseman. (The year before with the Pilots, he'd even played second base for part of the year, though not very well.) Harper was very fast, and he had led the league with 73 stolen bases in 1969 - striking, in that he usually stole about 25 a year before then. His steals fell back to 38 for the Brewers...but he hit 31 homers, after hitting single-digit numbers of homers each of the preceding four years. His .296 average was also well above his norm - he made the All-Star team and even finished sixth in the MVP voting. The season was a huge outlier; Harper was just ordinary in 1971, and then he went to the Red Sox and had a couple of okay seasons before his career wound down.

Left field: Danny Walton (age 22). The most interesting story here. Walton had been a high draft pick by the Astros, and in 1969 he was the Minor League Player of the Year while playing in Oklahoma City. The Pilots traded former batting champ Tommy Davis to Houston to get Walton...he didn't hit well in limited action in 1969, but during the first two months of 1970, he set the league on fire, hitting near .300 and among the leaders in home runs and RBI. Walton fell into a terrible slump in June and July, but was starting to turn it around when he severely injured his knee in a late August game. He came back in 1971 but was traded to the Yankees after struggling early, and he wasn't any better there; Walton never hit as high as .200 again. You see his 1970 season and think, okay, here's a good prospect - he strikes out kind of a lot, but he's already hitting for solid power and getting on base, and he's only 22...he might become one of those young stars you build winning teams around. You'd never guess that he'd have more at-bats in that season alone than in the entire remainder of his career.

Center field: Dave May (age 26). The Brewers rescued him from the Orioles, where he wasn't going to get any playing time. He never hit in Baltimore, and he didn't hit for the Brewers in 1970 either, but it does look like he was a good athlete, some speed and power there, and good athletes naturally get more chances to find themselves. He hit well in 1971, regressed in 1972, hit REALLY well in 1973 (.303, 25 homers), stunk in 1974; an on-year, off-year pattern. Was gone from Milwaukee after that and never started again.

Right field: Bob Burda (age 31). Not really a regular, just 78 games, 222 at-bats - it was more of a committee arrangement. Burda was an extremely marginal player. His entire career was just 634 at-bats long, and he hit .224 with 13 homers, which would explain why his career was 634 at-bats long.

Starting pitchers: Marty Pattin (age 27) was the only successful regular starter, going 14-12 with a 3.39 ERA. He would go on to have a few more okay years as a starter, followed by a decent stretch as a spot starter/long man for the late 70s Royals...Lew Krausse (age 27) had been a spot starter for the A's; 1970 was his only full year in the rotation. He wasn't good in '70, was a little better in '71 with less work, and he was done after that. Skip Lockwood (age 23) was the only guy you'd call a prospect here. He was a rookie in '70 and not completely awful, and gave the Brewers three more decent years. Lockwood later had success as a middle reliever with the late 70s Mets. Bobby Bolin (age 31) had been successful for the Giants in the 60s, but was through as a starter by the time the Brewers got him (though he would rise from the dead to give the Red Sox a couple of good relief years later). The wonderfully named Gene Brabender...well, he went 6-15 with a 6.02 ERA, so that was that.

Closer: Ken Sanders (age 28). A happier story here. Sanders couldn't find his control before the Brewers got him, but in 1970 he did, and he would give the Brewers three excellent years. Didn't do much after that.

The rest of the bullpen were veterans of no particular distinction. Except for Bob Locker - he had a good relief career, though he pitched only 31 innings for the Brewers.

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