SSTN Interviews Author Bob Buege
SSTN: Today we are here with Bob Buege, an active leader in SABR and a published author. Bob is an expert in baseball in Milwaukee and his publications include The Milwaukee Braves: A Baseball Eulogy and Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime. His most recent book is a history of Borchert Field, Milwaukee’s minor league ballpark from 1888 through 1952. Bob has been a SABR member since 1988.
Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.
To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.
My dad took me to a doubleheader at County Stadium on July 5, 1953. In the opener Warren Spahn pitched a shutout, Eddie Mathews slammed a monster home run, the Braves won, and I became a fan for life. Well, for life until the Braves absconded to Atlanta.
Let’s jump right into a discussion about the old Milwaukee Braves who faced the Yankees in the 1957 and 1958 World Series, with the Braves winning in ’57 and the Yankees getting their revenge the next year. Those series featured Mickey Mantle against Hank Aaron, but are often not discussed much today. What can you share about those two great World Series?
In 1957 the Milwaukee Braves had the best team in baseball. They had pitching, power, and defense. Of course, they had also been the best in 1956, but they didn’t know it, and they let it slip away, second place, one game behind.
The 1959 Braves were probably the most talented of all. If they had won four pennants in a row, they would have been remembered today as a dynasty. It’s simply a fact that the Braves fell two or three base hits shy of becoming a dynasty.
In the 1957 World Series, the Braves punctured the Yankee mystique and defeated Casey Stengel’s club, four games to three, winning the deciding contest in Yankee Stadium. Hank Aaron had a great Series, but so did Eddie Mathews and Wes Covington and most of all, Lew Burdette, the Series MVP (three wins, two of them shutouts.)
It is amazing how close the Braves were to being remembered as one of baseball’s greatest teams. They were, of course, led by Hank Aaron. How great of a player was Hank Aaron, especially in those days?
Everyone who saw Aaron in his minor league years, 1952-53, agreed that he was a future star. He was a line-drive machine. Batting practice pitchers facing Aaron did so at their peril. Milwaukee fans saw no indication that he would become a home run slugger, though. In his rookie year with the Braves, he hit exactly one circuit blast in County Stadium. His .280 batting average was respectable for a rookie but not spectacular for the 1950s. He was a fine prospect, but fans could see he would never threaten Babe Ruth’s record or anything like that. Actually, Hank (mostly Henry back then) arrived in Milwaukee a year ahead of schedule and one year after the Boston Braves. When he joined the Braves in 1954, Milwaukee already had a popular, photogenic home run blaster, the major league home run king, Eddie Mathews. In the next couple years, Aaron blossomed into a terrific all-around ballplayer and began to approach the level of idolatry enjoyed by Mathews.
You published a book about Eddie Mathews. He’s also a forgotten great, one of the best third baseman ever. How great was Mathews?
Eddie Mathews had to wait five years after he became eligible for the Hall of Fame before he was finally enshrined in Cooperstown. That bothered him because his career stats (notably, 512 home runs), were comparable to those of Ernie Banks. Banks entered the Hall in his first year of eligibility. They were contemporaries, both infielders, one a World Series champ, the other a veteran of the bottom-feeding Chicago Cubs. Banks had that smiley “Let’s play two” demeanor that sportswriters (HOF voters) love. Mathews was not that glad-handing, back-slapping extrovert. He paid a penalty for it—five years of waiting.
As a powerful, fearless athlete, loyal to his teammates and always ready to do battle, he was the best third baseman before Mike Schmidt. You could say Eddie redefined his position. Before him, third baseman tended to be wiry, acrobatic banjo-hitters. Eddie made it a power position.
Milwaukee played a role in the birth of the American League way back at the turn of the 1900s. What can you tell us about this?
In the days leading up to the start of the 20th century, the National League was the uncontested major-league baseball organization. In America. They had the audacity to proclaim themselves the “national” league. It was like the hubris demonstrated by the Dallas Cowboys calling themselves “America’s team.” Some people wanted to challenge the so-called nationals. The prime mover of the small faction seeking to form an outlaw league was Charlie Comiskey, formerly a sandlot first baseman for the Milwaukee Alerts. Comiskey had risen to become the owner of the St. Paul Saints of the Western League. Comiskey was a drinking buddy of a Cincinnati sportswriter named Ban Johnson. Johnson’s personal attorney, Henry Killilea, along with Killilea’s brother Matt, owned the Milwaukee Brewers of the Western League. In 1897 the Killileas had hired Connie Mack to manage the Brewers. So it was that group of five men—Comiskey, Johnson, the Killilea brothers, and Connie Mack—who combined to shake up the established order of major league baseball. They expected resistance, especially from the National League’s Chicago franchise, so to avoid snoopy reporters in the Windy City and keep it out of the papers for a while, the five men held a clandestine meeting in Milwaukee. On the night of March 5, 1900, in the Republican Hotel, Room 185, Articles of Incorporation of the new Chicago baseball club were drawn up, witnessed, and signed. The Articles were draw up in Wisconsin, so the White Sox were legally a Wisconsin corporation.
And the rest is history! Amazing.
Can you share how the Seattle Pilots became the Milwaukee Brewers?
The Seattle Pilots were an American League expansion team created in 1969. They were underfunded and from the start and their ballpark was too small and unfinished for much of the season. Attendance was sparse, so they lost money. They played one season before going into bankruptcy court. With only six days to go before the season started, it was too late to find a buyer. But by a stroke of luck, a group of investors in Milwaukee, who had been trying for five years to purchase a new team, was waiting with cash in hand and a vacant ballpark. Milwaukee’s previous team, the Braves, had absconded to Atlanta. The Milwaukee group sued to keep the team in Wisconsin. They were unsuccessful, and in making the attempt in court, they created considerable enmity. They feared that MLB would freeze them out for all time. They were desperate, so when the Seattle bankruptcy arose, the group, led by a car salesman named Bud Selig, they were ready, six days warning or not. The Brewers did not win a lot of games, but they were back in the big leagues.
Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?
Almost everyone plays baseball when they are children. It’s easy to play. Families can play it at picnics or go to watch games together. It’s a game of skill and artistry. What’s more, it’s played at a leisurely pace compared to the brutality of football or hockey or the high velocity of modern basketball. The history of baseball reflects the history of America. The waves of immigrants who came to the U.S. used baseball to help them assimilate into a strange and often frightening country. It was baseball that helped break down racial barriers that have plagued our nation. Yes, today’s baseball games are too long, but you can leave when you want. The slow pace of the games allows time for conversation and analysis of the action on the field.
Great writers are drawn to the literature of the sport. How many great books can you name related to basketball, or for that matter, football?
There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?
Baseball is just fine. I would sooner fix the commissioner than baseball. I admit to being an unrepentant traditionalist. I don’t like the DH, or pitch counts, or turf, or seven-inning games in doubleheaders, or launch angles, or starting a runner on second base in extra innings, or anything to do with analytics. Why tinker with a sport that has served us well since the Civil War?
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
As there a Yankee that hasn’t been written about? Maybe Myril Hoag, the guy with the tiny mismatched feet, sizes 4 ½ and 5 ½. .
I never knew that! Great fact!
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
I was nine years old when I attended the 1955 All-Star Game. In that game I watched four ballplayers that I believe were the best I ever saw (in person). Ted Williams was the greatest hitter. Mickey Mantle personified the combination and speed. Henry Aaron had no weakness in the field or at the plate. Willie Mays was, as Leo Durocher told us, a five-skill player, and he brought flamboyance to whatever he did. Either Aaron or Mays.
The tie-breaker goes to “Hammerin’ Hank because I met him on several occasions.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Who was your favorite player?
What is your most prized collectible?
A dinner program signed by all the ballplayers and dignitaries at the first annual Diamond Dinner in Milwaukee in January 1954
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Bob, this was so fun. It’s great to have the opportunity to learn about different teams and great players.
Please keep in touch.