Strange Brewers

We’ve had some fun talking about interesting characters from some of our writers’ favorite teams here at The Hardball Times. This submission comes from longtime friend and THT reader, Neal. Neal is a Milwaukee fan, who plays in a fantasy baseball league (one he has won four times) called The Harvey’s Wallbangers Rotisserie League, which is of course named for the 1982 American League Pennant winning Brewers, a team known for having outfielders crashing into walls while making catches as well being a bashing bunch of hitters that peppered those same walls with line drives. He also submitted a list of pitchers, which we’ll look at soon. In the meantime, here are his nominations for Milwaukee hitters who provided some fond, and sometimes funny, memories along with my findings.

DH Billy Jo Robidoux 1985-1988 It was 1985 when, down in the west Texas town of El Paso, the Brewers had a kid raking in the Texas League. Billy Jo hit .342 that season and belted 23 home runs. He earned a September callup and hit two homers on the final day of the ’85 season with the Brew Crew. His next stop was the winter league and he kept hitting, posting a .404 batting average there. He was 22 when he started the 1986 season with the big club and started the year hitting .290/.412/.393. He hit his first major league homer during a game in which the Brewers had given away promotional baseballs. To celebrate his first tater, fans threw the freebie rawhides on the field, prompting Billy Jo to quip that he must have, “…hit that ball so hard it multiplied.”

He would only hit one more home run in his major league career.

Knee injuries required several surgeries and resulted in unwanted weight gain. His career was pretty much over in 1989, though he gave it another shot with the White Sox before the inevitable end. He was only 25 and unfortunately he never lived up to the promise he showed in El Paso.

C Dave Nilsson 1992-1999 Dave was the third Australian to ever make a major league team. He was preceded a long time before his debut by Joe Quinn, from New South Wales, who played from 1884-1901 and twice pulled double duty as player-manager. Nilsson was preceded a short time before his debut by Craig Shipley, also from New South Wales, though not also a player-manager. Nilsson was often compared to Carlton Fisk since he was a big-for-his-time six foot three and 190 pounds. In his last full season on the farm, Nilsson hit .366 to lead all minor leagues. He smacked a three run double in his first game with the Brewers. He had come up due to Andy Allanson’s injury and his play forced management to move incumbent catcher B.J. Surhoff to first base. But injuries started to pile up for Nilsson.

While these maladies would not cut his career as short as Robidoux’s, Nilsson nonetheless had his own share of difficulties. Most notably, he contracted a mosquito borne virus known as the Ross River Virus and only found in Nilsson’s native Australia. After battling the illness throughout the 1995 season, Nilsson overcame an early season stress fracture in 1996 to finally get back on track. In May of that season, he became the 12th player in American League history to hit two homers in one inning. In 1999, his last MLB season, he hit .309 with 21 bombs and made the All-Star team.

1B George Scott 1972-1976. George Scott played for the Brewers a little before Neal’s time, but was nominated because his Wikipedia page noted that Scott once told reporters that his necklace was made out of “the second baseman’s teeth.” Scott had other memorable moments, such as fighting with Mike Ferraro in the dugout and arguing with his manager over the height of his socks. The Brewers fined him $500 for giving a heckling fan the “finger.” On the field, Scott was known as a terrific defensive first baseman. He hit .283/.342/.456 as a Brewer.

Scott often spoke of himself in the third person. When he heard rumors that the Brewers had listened to trade offers for him one offseason he said, “I don’t think another guy, if they gave up George Scott, could help the Brewers win ball games the way I have.” David Wade will look at another third-person speaker shortly.

2B Lenn Sakata 1977-1979 Sakata’s uncle, Jack Ladra played professionally in Japan. Even though his dad, Melvin, fought for the United States in World War II, Sakata often dealt with racial taunts from opposing fans throughout his career. In one particularly rough night in Baltimore, Sakata responded with the same digit George Scott’s made famous In further retaliation, he hit a home run later in the game.

Sakata was a middle infielder for the Brewers in the late ’70s just before Robin Yount and Paul Molitor became stalwarts for Milwaukee, so it’s easy to see why he didn’t hang around Milwaukee a long time.

3B Gus Polidor 1989-1990 Polidor got a chance to play a little when Molitor hurt his finger. Gus served as a member of the “Bench Bunch” and even backed up Gary Sheffield, another Brewer infielder who made playing time scarce. Sadly, Polidor was killed when two men tried to steal his car and kidnap his one year old son in Caracas, Venezuela.

SS Dale Sveum 1986-1991 Sveum was a first round pick for the Brewers, and the switch-hitting SS hit 25 home runs in 1987, his first full season in the bigs. In typical Brewer fashion, Sveum hit his homers, but only posted a .252 Batting Average while racking up 133 strikeouts in 153 games. Dale played 12 seasons for Milwaukee and other teams. Now, he coaches the retooling Chicago Cubs, coming over after serving as hitting coach for the team he broke in with.

LF Rob Deer 1986-1990 Rob Deer was Three True Outcomes when Three True Outcomes wasn’t cool. After toiling in the Giants system for eight years, Deer found himself traded to Milwaukee in the winter of 1985. He made an impact with his new team right away when he drove in Billy Jo Robidoux to fuel a late-inning comeback against the Yankees in April of ’86. During that ’86 season Deer began to draw comparisons to Gorman Thomas for his ability to hit the long ball. The comparison did not include defense. Deer finished his first season in Milwaukee with 33 home runs. For his career, he hit .229/.329/.450 with 137 dingers. He also had 823 strikeouts in 667 games, and by the end of his stretch with the Brewers, fans were starting to turn on him. Just before the Brewers non-tendered Deer in 1990, the big guy talked about his boo-birds. “They weren’t just booing. They were booing hard.”

Tom Trebelhorn was Deer’s manager and he summed up the Rob Deer experience nicely: “If you come to the ballpark and are surprised when Rob Deer strikes out, you’re not very cognizant of what’s going on. If you come to the park and you’re surprised when he hits a home run, you’re not very smart either.”

CF Chuck Carr 1997 Like George Scott, Chuckie Carr often referred to himself in the third person. Unlike George Scott, Chuckie Carr was not a great hitter. But Chuckie sure thought he was a great hitter. In May of ’97, the Brewers were having a hard time deciding on a full time leadoff hitter. Carr seemed like a potential solution, but he was hitting .083 with The Sporting News describing him at the time as stubbornly “swinging for the upper deck” in every plate appearance. The paper went on to say that Carr’s manager, Phil Garner, tried to talk to him about putting the ball in play and trying to be more of a leadoff hitter. The paper also said that those talks had “little effect.” The episode would be a preview of a bigger, and funnier disagreement later that season.

Not long after the failed talk from Garner, the Brewers faced the Angels. Chuck Finley, who would average 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings that season, was on the mound. Somehow, Chuckie worked the count to a favorable two balls and no strikes. Brewers third base coach Chris Bando flashed the take sign to his hitter and Carr ignored it and promptly popped out. Garner was furious and confronted his center fielder. Carr reportedly defended his decision with the response, “Chuckie hacks on 2-0.” Garner demoted him immediately, and since Carr was out of minor league options, he was eventually released. Garner summed up the tussle saying, “The guy is always talking about himself in the third person, which often gets you one of those white jackets that ties in the back.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

We know Rickey Henderson referred to Rickey Henderson as “Rickey Henderson”, and we also know Chuckie Carr was no Rickey Henderson.

RF Gorman Thomas 1973-1983, 1986 Finally, we get to the man many hoped Rob Deer would turn into. He was one of the most popular players in the history of the ballclub. His fame grew as the Brewers morphed into “Harvey’s Wallbangers,” the 1982 team that made the only World Series appearance in team history. Thomas hit .245/.343/.506 with 39 home runs and 112 RBI in ’82.

Also of note that notable season, was a match-up between Thomas and Yankee pitcher Dave LaRoche. LaRoche had a pet pitch, an Eephus that he called the “La Lob.” In a match-up the year before, LaRoche had gotten the better of Thomas, striking him out. Thomas was so mad he took his helmet, tossed it in the air, and obliterated it with his bat. But, ’82 was a magical season in Milwaukee, and that magic carried over to Thomas’ second shot at the “La Lob,” for in the rematch Thomas, down two strikes, fouled off seven consecutive bloop pitches before finally lacing one for a single.

Thomas dealt with some hardship after his run with the Brewers. An unexpected trade to the Indians hurt him, but eventually he made his way back to the Brewers, finishing his career there in ’86. He had a few unfortunate incidents once his career was over, but continues to be a fan favorite.

Gorman’s best season probably came in 1979 when he hit 45 homers and had an OPS of .895. As good as he was, Thomas always felt he should hit for a higher average. He once said, “One of these years, I’ll hit .300 with power. Now that would be a good year.” Gorman, you were good enough. Trust us.

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Jim C.
10 years ago

Nobody in Baltimore remembers Sakata’s one-fingered salute anymore.  We remember Sakata for a different game:

Sakata still holds several all-time major league records for batting as a catcher (minimum one at-bat):  1.000 batting average, 1.000 on-base percentage, 4.000 slugging percentage.

David Wade
10 years ago

Jim C- what a great story.

John Lowenstein and John Shelby in the same post!  I always loved the “Tonight Let It Be Lowenstein” signs when I was a kid.  Also, my kid was in a baseball camp two weeks ago with Shelby’s son “T” serving as one of the instructors.  I think John is running one himself here soon, as well.  I may have to ask him if he remembers that game.

Good stuff.

David Wade
10 years ago

Bo- that was a sad story.  But, after looking him up I feel the need to clarify it was “Sundown” Thomas. 

My google search for Sunset Thomas led me down an x-rated path and I will be spending the next few minutes bleaching my eyeballs.

Bo Harshbarger
10 years ago

No mention of Dan “Sunset” Thomas? How could any list be complete without his tragic tale!

10 years ago

Too little is mentioned of Gary Sheffield, whose head-case proclivities could have been set to poetry. He reportedly wanted to get out of Milwaukee so bad he admitted to intentionally throwing balls away at third base.  He eventually wore out his welcome, as the Brewers decided his 21 HR’s in 3+ seasons wasn’t worth the trouble, and shipped him off to San Diego.

He did have a 21 year career in MLB, along with the opportunity to wear out his welcome with 8 teams in total. Later, his helplessness at any of the other positions he played proved he didn’t need intentionally bad throws to play horrible defense.

10 years ago

Great read David. Thanks for the memories!

10 years ago

Any mention of Nilsson is really incomplete without fully going into just what a MONSTER last year he had, and why he left.

As I recall, Nilsson has the highest final-season OPS+ EVER by a catcher (and possibly by any player), by some PA threshold or another, though I don’t remember what it is.

Nilsson was also a versatile player who could move around the field.  Sure, he didn’t play anything particularly well, but he could battle most positions to a draw, I’d say.  Anyway, although he’s remembered as a catcher (because of his great ‘99), from 1995-1998, he played 462 games, but only 11 of those were as a catcher.

Also, Nilsson retired because he wanted to play for his native Australia in the 2000 Olympics, but had to be an amateur, so he retired from MLB.  That’s something pretty cool, I think, turning down millions of dollars for a unique experience like the Olympics.

10 years ago

I always thought it was strange to retire at such a young age after a season like that.  The chance to play Olympic baseball doesn’t seem nearly as enticing as the chance to continue playing MLB.  I suspect his desire to be active in Australian baseball in general was a factor (Nilsson purchased the pro league in Australia).

Another interesting topic would be what other players retired still at their peak without an apparent injury.

John in Sactown
10 years ago

I remember going to an A’s game in the early 90’s and Rob Deer was playing for the Tigers.  It was probably in July. When they flashed his stats on the scoreboard his average was around .200, his hits for the season totaled 40, and his home runs were 22!