The 1979 Milwaukee Brewers were coming off a breakout 93-win season in 1978, the first winning season in franchise history. In ‘79, the Brewers showed they were no fluke, stepping it up to 95 wins, even if the structure and format of MLB at that time continued to keep them out of the postseason.
Milwaukee was an American League city until 1998. That difference was mostly cosmetic. The real stumbling block was that baseball’s alignment split each league into only two divisions, East & West, and took only the first-place team directly into the League Championship Series. Milwaukee was on the far western border of the East. In 1978, that meant the behemoths from Boston and New York kept the out of the playoffs. In 1979, Baltimore took their turn. In both cases, Milwaukee was better than the eventual champion of the AL West.
The Brewers were fueled by a potent offense. Centerfielder Gorman Thomas hit 45 home runs to lead the league and drove in 123 runs. Sixto Lezcano, the rising 24-year-old star in right field, batted. 321, hit 28 homers and finished with 101 RBI. Paul Molitor, in the second season of a Hall of Fame career, hit .22 and stole 33 bases. Cecil Cooper, the steady first baseman, hit .308, drove in 106 runs and popped 24 homers of his own.
Charlie Moore took over the catching job at age 26 and was another .300 hitter. Ben Oglivie provided more muscle, hitting 29 home runs. The quality of the lineup can be underscored by this—shortstop Robin Yount, a future Hall of Famer and the greatest player in the history of the franchise, had a bad year in 1979. Larry Hisle, the DH who led the offense in ‘78, tore a rotator cuff in early May and saw his career effectively ended. And the Brewers still scored more runs in 1979 (807) than they had in 1978 (804).
Offense across the league was up, so Milwaukee still slipped from leading the league in runs scored in ‘78 to fourth this time around. But that makes the pitching improvement all the more impressive, where they jumped from 8th to 4th in staff ERA.
Mike Caldwell and Lary Sorensen were the 1-2 in the rotation. Neither was as good as they had been in ‘78, but both were still very effective. Caldwell won 16 games with a 3.29 ERA, while Sorensen added 15 wins and an ERA of 3.98. The difference is that, unlike 1978, there was more depth to the staff.
Jim Slaton had been traded for Oglivie prior to 1978, but returned to Milwaukee via free agency for this season and was another 15-game winner. Bill Travers had a solid year, with 14 wins. Both had sub-4.00 ERAs, giving manager George Bamberger some steady balance in his rotation. Bill Castro, Jerry Augustine and Bob McClure were reliable, if unspectacular arms, out of the bullpen.
WATCH THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S VIDEO DISCUSSION OF THE 1978-83 ERA
The schedule-makers put the Brewers to the test early, with the first 15 games against the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles. Milwaukee played to mixed reviews, going 7-8. But they took advantage against the lower half of the AL East, with a 13-6 run against the Blue Jays, Tigers and Indians. By Memorial Day, the Brewers were 26-21 and four games off the pace being set by Baltimore.
The AL East was a four-team race coming into the early part of the summer. The Yankees started to fade, while the Orioles and Red Sox began to separate. The Brewers again took advantage of the lower half of the division, with a 7-1 stretch against Toronto, Detroit and Cleveland going into the All-Star break. The spurt kept Milwaukee in third place, within six games of the lead.
In late July, all three division powers were coming into old County Stadium. New York was up first and on a Friday night, the Brewers had coughed up a 5-3 lead and were in a 5-5 game, facing the Yankees’ Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage. With two outs in the ninth, Cooper ripped a walkoff blast that jumpstarted a sweep. The Yankee season went from frustrating on the field to tragic off of it, with catcher Thurman Munson dying when his private plane crashed just a few days later.
That left the Red Sox and Orioles and the next eight games were as forgettable a stretch as Milwaukee fans—a group that’s seen some ugly Augusts over the years—have ever dealt with. They lost three straight to Baltimore, four of five to Boston and were effectively out of contention by the time the homestand ended.
But it was only the quality of the competition that was the reason for being out of the race. The Brewers reached Labor Day with a record of 82-56, the third-best in all of baseball, behind only the eventual World Series teams from Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
That more or less held to the end of the season. The Montreal Expos slipped past Milwaukee for the third-best record, but the Brewers’ final mark of 95-66 was the fourth-best in the game. But in the ruthless world of the late 1970s AL East, it was still eight games shy of the mark. Maybe the most important number you need to know to understand these Brewers is 336.5—that’s the distance from Milwaukee to Minneapolis, which is where the boundaries of the AL West began.