It Was 45 Years Ago Today – Milwaukee Brewers Research
David Stearns was recently hired to be the ninth General Manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. Ask any hardcore Brewers fan to name the other eight GM’s and most will say Doug Melvin, Harry Dalton, Sal Bando, and perhaps even Dean Taylor. But from 1970-77, the team went through four GM’s in pretty rapid fire: Marvin Milkes, Frank Lane, Jim Wilson, and Jim Baumer. Dalton’s arrival in 1977 ushered in a 14 year stint in the top job, and with that came stability, consistency, winning baseball, and a trip to the World Series.
A lot of my research this year has revolved around the first few seasons of Brewers baseball. I’m learning a lot about the early players and executives and this week would like to share what I’ve discovered about Marvin Milkes. It was 45 years ago today that his resignation as Brewers GM became public in the Milwaukee Journal. Most websites list his resignation as December 17 (the day it became public knowledge), but I believe he resigned at least a day or two before. I’m splitting hairs, I know. Enough about that, here’s the Milkes/Brewers story…
Milkes was born on August 10, 1923, and his first real baseball job was as a batboy and clubhouse attendant for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. He became a baseball executive in the mid-1940’s. At first he was an assistant GM with the Fresno Cardinals, part of St. Louis’ farm system. When hired at age 23 for the job, Cardinals owner Sam Breadon asked Milkes if he wanted to work 14 hours a day and take all the heat for losing. Milkes replied that he was willing to do that, to which Breadon said, “If you’re that much of an idiot, you’re hired!” Milkes went on to win the Sporting News’ Minor League Executive of the Year Award (Lower Classification) in 1956 with the Cardinals. He then moved on to a GM job with the San Antonio Missions in Baltimore’s minor leagues.
In 1961 with 15 years of experience, he nabbed the job as Assistant General Manager of the Los Angeles Angels. The new franchise was part of an expansion in the American League. Milkes was getting a lot of on the job training in how to put a ball club together from scratch. By 1965 he was also overseeing the Triple A Seattle Angels in the Pacific Coast League.
It turned out that Milkes’ work with Seattle led him to the job as General Manager of the expansion Seattle Pilots in 1968. Owner Dewey Soriano hired him to shape the new franchise as he had with the Angels. Milkes drafted from players put into the expansion draft by other teams. Many players in the draft were well past their prime or young and unproven – mostly since other teams simply weren’t required to put anyone of value into the draft. Milkes drafted mostly veterans but did wind up picking a few players that went on to have great careers – Lou Piniella, Mary Pattin, and Mike Marshall.
Much has been written about the doomed Seattle franchise. While King County voters approved the construction of a domed stadium, fans didn’t exactly flock to the games. Add to the fact that Soriano’s ownership group didn’t have enough money to actually run the team, and you wind up with a short-lived franchise. The Pilots lasted exactly one season and were bought in bankruptcy court by Bud Selig in April, 1970.
During that one season, Milkes proved to be an aggressive GM. Those close to him used many colorful descriptions of his personality and work ethic. Words like ruthless, rude, uptight, off-center, reckless, and controlling shed some light on his behavior. Milkes often agreed with the assessments and said he set a pace that he wanted others to match. When manager Joe Schultz said before the season that he thought the Pilots could finish third in their division, Milkes held him to the statement. While the team made it through the first half of the year just six games out of first place, the second half was a disaster and their last place finish was actually no surprise.
Milkes couldn’t seem to make up his mind with the team roster that season. He moved players up and down from the majors to the minors, and was relentless with orchestrating trades. Those close to him couldn’t decide if he was smart on judging talent or simply reshuffling the deck because he had a temperamental personality! Lenny Anderson was a beat writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time, and he concluded that Milkes was the weakest link in the franchise and he couldn’t have scouted Joe DiMaggio.
It has been said that Milkes remained with the Brewers after the team move from Seattle simply because Bud Selig’s ownership group didn’t have time to consider other options. After the team was purchased they had exactly one week to sell tickets and get the team moved – plus take care of about a thousand other things – so many of the executives such as Milkes and new field manager Dave Bristol were left in place. However, Milkes was given a five year contract in early May to continue as GM and Executive Vice President.
The first Brewers roster was also a carryover from Seattle, and Milkes continued making countless player transactions. He made over a dozen trades throughout the 1970 season, and by the end of the year 40 different players wore the Brewers uniform. While that’s a high number, the Seattle Pilots used 53 players the year before. Some insiders described Milkes as a major league GM operating like he was still running a minor league team. He came across as the guy in your fantasy baseball league that uses all of his transactions up well before everyone else, or sends you multiple trade requests each week.
Milkes acknowledged that he was trying to walk a line between building for the future while keeping the team respectable. He said, “I’m very candid – I like to win. I get a little impatient sometimes and I don’t smile all the time when we lose. If we can’t win with the players we have, then we’ll try to replace some of them.”
Many articles and players have mentioned a “youth movement” when discussing the 1970 Brewers. Milkes at first sought to keep players under age 30, but later went the opposite direction, acquiring veteran players via trades and bringing up others from the minors. By mid-summer it was apparent that despite the efforts to build a better roster, season attendance wasn’t going to come close to anything the Milwaukee Braves had while playing in the city. The team had already tried a number of different promotions to bring in more fans with varied results. Milkes had an idea that would leave a lasting impact on the team and city – Bernie Brewer.
Milkes had known a retired aviation engineer named Milton (Milt) Mason since 1961, during his stint as Assistant GM of the Angels. Mason joined the team as a spring training locker room guard and also did a lot of odd jobs for the team. He followed Milkes to Seattle and then Milwaukee. Milkes concocted the idea of hoisting a 24×8 trailer onto the County Stadium scoreboard with Mason as a resident, under the promotional name Bernie Brewer. Bernie was to remain atop the scoreboard until the Brewers drew 40,000 fans or the season ended. The trailer and the few items inside cost the Brewers roughly $7000, but Mason declined a salary. He said he wasn’t interested in the money and was just happy to do Milkes a favor.
Mason said, “I like Marvin. He’s a real square shooter and you don’t get too many of those. I’d have to like him to be up here.”
Mason remained in his perch for 40 days until 44,387 fans attended Bat Day on August 16. Through sweltering heat and playful threats of shutting off his water supply unless a record crowd came to the ballpark, Bernie Brewer made his mark. By 1973 Bernie was the team’s mascot – now a funny guy with a huge mustache. Mason died in June of that year, but was recognized as the original Bernie Brewer.*
Milkes was hospitalized in August due to exhaustion. Meanwhile the team pulled together and finished with a 15-13 September record, escaping last place in the AL West. Milkes remained with the team until December before stepping down. He said that due to “personal and business reasons, there was a pressing and immediate need for him to spend more time in the Los Angeles region.” He was given the position of Special Assignment Scout in California. Selig said the resignation came as a surprise, and temporarily he would share the GM duties with Bobby Mattick, Director of player procurement and development; Dave Bristol, field manager, and Tommy Ferguson, Traveling Secretary. When asked if Milkes jumped or was pushed from the GM position, Selig stated the change had been made to the mutual benefit of both parties. Milkes didn’t disagree with Selig’s comments.
Frank “Trader” Lane was hired soon after as Milkes’ successor in Milwaukee, and if you think the “Trader” nickname was a reflection of how Lane operated, you are correct! In April, 1970, Lane was asked his opinion of Milkes, and said, “Nobody works harder than Milkes. He works 30 hours in every 24 hour day.”
Milkes officially left the Brewers organization by early 1971. At the time he said there were no hard feelings. “I felt a little low when it happened. I was in Las Vegas establishing residency for a divorce, and I’d gone through a hard year. I figured once I had about five different owners to work for while the club was on its last legs in Seattle and then was moved to Milwaukee. That would take a lot out of anyone.”
Milkes went on to be known as the rare person who was a GM in three different professional sports. After his stint with the Brewers, he became the GM of the New York Raiders, a team in the World Hockey Association. He resigned less than a year into the job and later surfaced as GM of the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League. The franchise folded after the 1981 season and he resigned, again with less than a year on the job.
Milkes died of an apparent heart attack at age 58, on January 31, 1982.
*Bernie Brewer will get his full due in my Brewers historical book – stay tuned!