The 1975 Milwaukee Brewers came into the season with plenty of reasons for hope. Their young franchise, established in 1969 and then relocated to Milwaukee a year later, had been gradually improving and reached a respectable 76 wins in 1974. The Brewers were bringing home one of their city’s great legends, acquiring Henry Aaron who starred for the Braves when they played in Milwaukee. And for a good chunk of the season, the ’75 Brewers ran with the top dogs of the old AL East. Then a massive collapse ruined this season and sent the franchise into a brief multi-year tailspin.
Aaron was 41-years-old, well past his prime and his acquisition as the DH was more a sentimental draw than anything. But the price proved inconsequential—first baseman Davey May who had gone into his own career decline. And the ’75 Brewers had other bats that could produce.
Darrell Porter was a young 23-year-old catcher with a good batting eye. In the world of 1975, people may have had a hard time looking past his .232 batting average. With the lens of modern analytics, Porter’s .371 on-base percentage is what would stand out. George Scott played first base and “The Boomer” had a big year, with 36 home runs and 109 RBIs. But other parts of the lineup weren’t able to step up as hoped.
Robin Yount had a Hall of Fame career ahead of him, but the shortstop was still only 19-years-old. Don Money was one of this team’s better players during their 1970s and his numbers weren’t bad–.331 on-base percentage/.432 slugging percentage—but they weren’t quite up to snuff .Sixto Lezcano would eventually become a top rightfielder, but he went through rookie growing pains in 1975. Bobby Mitchell slugged .454, but his OBP was a more mediocre .320.
Manager Del Crandall used his bench, with names like Kurt Bevacqua and Mike Hegan getting time in the infield. Players like Charlie Moore and Gorman Thomas, who would eventually become big parts of this franchise’s best teams in the early 1980s, also got playing time. But none produced numbers of any real note in 1975.
It added up to an offense that ranked just ninth in a 12-team American League for runs scored. That was a problem. But the bigger problem was a pitching staff that ended up as a disaster.
Pete Broberg started 32 games, went 14-16 and finished with a 4.13 ERA. Not awful. But he was the staff ace. No one in the rotation finished with a winning record in an era when starters routinely went deep into games and finished them. Jim Slaton struggled to an 11-18 mark and a 4.52 ERA. Jim Colborn and Bill Travers had ERAs on the high side of 4. Tom Murphy saved 20 games out of the bullpen, but at the cost of a 4.60 ERA.
The only help Crandall got pitching-wise came from reliever Eduardo Rodriguez, who finished with a 3.49 ERA in 87 innings that were mostly relief. Bill Castro mixed in a few starts with relief work and posted a 2.52 ERA. That’s not much to go on and the Brewers finished last in the American League for staff ERA.
The problems certainly didn’t show up right away. Milwaukee bolted out of the gate fast and validated any preseason optimism the fan base might have been feeling.
Here might be a good place to step back and remind younger readers that not only were the Brewers an American League franchise prior to 1998, the leagues used to be split into just two divisions, an East and a West, with only the first-place team making the playoffs. Milwaukee shared the AL East with current occupants, Boston, New York and Baltimore, along with Detroit and Cleveland. Toronto was still a year away from existing and baseball in Tampa Bay was a generation off.
The Orioles were clearly this division’s gold standard, having won five of the previous six division titles. The Red Sox had played winning baseball for several years running. And the Yankees, while having been quiet since the mid-1960s, were coming into 1975 with high expectations. New York visited Milwaukee’s old County Stadium for a weekend series in early May.
The Brewers spotted the Yanks a 2-0 lead in Friday night’s opener. Money started a tying rally in the bottom of the third, with one of his three hits. Scott hit an RBI double. Hegan broke the 2-2 tie in the fourth with a solo homer. Money hit a solo blast of his own an inning later. Bill Champion went the distance on the mound for the 4-2 win.
Money came right back on Saturday afternoon with two more hits. Yount got two hits and three walks in his five plate appearances. In the bottom of the eighth, with the score tied 3-3, second baseman Pedro Garcia doubled and was bunted over to third. With one out, Money’s slow roller on the infield was enough to get the run home. The 4-3 lead stood up for the win.
After two tense games, the home fans got to watch a rout on Sunday. Lezcano ripped four hits, while Scott added three more, leading the way to an 11-4 win. The sweep of New York was the highlight of a 19-11 start that had the Brewers four games up in the AL East.
Six losses in seven games going into Memorial Day gave away the lead and Boston moved into first place. But Milwaukee was still just a half-game out as we moved into the early part of summer.
The Brewers stabilized in June. They won three of five games from the Oakland A’s, the three-time defending World Series champion who were heading back to the playoffs in 1975. By June 29, Milwaukee’s record was 39-34. They were in third place, chasing Boston and New York. But the deficit was only 2 ½ games and both rivals were coming to town.
The Yankees came in first for a two-game set on Monday and Tuesday. The Brewers let a 3-2 lead get away in the top of the ninth and fell behind 4-3. Disappointment was looming when Lezcano singled in the bottom of the ninth. Then backup outfielder Bobby Darwin hit a walkoff two-run shot and Milwaukee won 5-4. The following night, Money had two hits, Scott had three, while Hegan added two hits of his own and drove in two runs. The Brewers won 6-3.
The Red Sox rolled in for a twilight doubleheader on Wednesday. An old-school concept, this was where the first game started at 5:30 or 6 PM and there was just a twenty-minute break between games. Castro pitched the early game and struggled, losing 6-3. The Brewers trailed the nightcap 3-1 going into the bottom of the fifth. Garcia tied it with a two-run homer. Three consecutive singles in the sixth inning gave Milwaukee the lead. Broberg closed out the 4-3 win.
One more thriller went down in Thursday’s finale. Trailing 2-1 in the ninth, Thomas tied the game with an RBI double. In the bottom of the 10th, Yount worked a walk. Bevacqua singled. When Boston centerfielder Fred Lynn made an error, Yount kept running and scored the winning run.
In jam-packed run of five games in four days against the division’s best, the Brewers had gone 4-1 and pulled into a tie for first. Even though they slumped going into the All-Star break, losing seven of ten and settling back into third place, there was still reason for hope. Milwaukee was 46-42, 4 ½ games out and the promise of pennant race excitement was alive.
That excitement collapsed with extraordinary speed. Most of the Brewer struggles in the first half had been against the AL West and that continued in late July, when they lost of six of nine. Baltimore was also starting to get themselves going and would make a run at another division title before falling short of Boston. The Orioles beat the Brewers four times in a five-game series.
Milwaukee was suddenly in an 11-game hole. Boston was pulling away. The Brewers then lost 23 of 30 games in August. September wasn’t any better. By season’s end, they had actually regressed, finishing a woeful 68-94.
Crandall was replaced with Alex Grammas, but the second half collapse of 1975 wasn’t just a one-off thing. The Brewers stayed in the low 60s for wins in both 1976 and 1977 under Grammas. Not until 1978, with an infusion of more talent from the farm system and free agency, and a new manager in George Bamberger, did Milwaukee give its great fan base a winning team.