The 1983 Milwaukee Brewers were a team looking to finish the job, after coming one game short of a World Series title in 1982. For five solid months they made a run at it, but a September fade portended a finishing of a different kind—the completion of the greatest era in franchise history.
Milwaukee’s offense was still led by two future Hall of Famers in the prime of their careers. Shortstop Robin Yount followed his MVP year of 1982 with another excellent all-around season, finishing with a .383 on-base percentage and .503 slugging percentage. Paul Molitor at third saw his numbers dip somewhat, but still had a .333 OBP and swiped 41 bases.
Cecil Cooper was as good as ever at first base, hitting 30 home runs and driving in 126 runs. Ted Simmons, the veteran catcher had 108 RBI. But both were 33-years-old, which was one problem the Brewers faced—outside of Molitor and Yount, this was becoming an old team. And the supporting cast dipped noticeably in 1983.
Ben Oglivie, the power-hitting rightfielder, was productive when he played–.371 OBP/.463 slugging, but a substantial amount of missed time kept him to 13 home runs. There was no production at the DH spot. Second baseman Jim Gantner had an off-year. Charlie Moore had a decent .354 OBP in rightfield, although his power dipped.
The biggest change came in centerfield though. Since this franchise started its rise to prominence back in 1978, Gorman Thomas was in center. Gorman was one of the best home run hitters in the game and had further renown for crashing into fences defensively. His range was—to be kind—rather limited—and he wasn’t above striking out a lot. But he was colorful and a hero to the blue-collar fan base. But the first two months of the year went poorly for him and on June 6 he was traded.
Thomas was the key piece moved in a deal with Cleveland to get Rick Manning, who was the precise opposite. Manning didn’t hit, but excelled defensively. And his defensive excellence was such that he rarely needed to crash into a fence. He simply ran balls down. He was a good ballplayer, but he was never going to captivate a community like Gorman did. In pure baseball terms, this was not a huge trade—Gorman only had one more good year left in the majors. But it marked a recognition by Milwaukee that they needed to get younger in a hurry.
A rematch of the 1982 ALCS with the California Angels opened the season and the Brewers lost two of three. They were able to answer by sweeping a two-game set with the Chicago White Sox, who would supplant the Angels at the top of the AL West.
That makes now a good time to explain a couple major differences in the MLB landscape. As you may have gathered, the Brewers were an American League team. It was not until 1998 that they joined the NL. And both leagues were split into just two divisions, East & West, and only the first-place teams advanced to the playoffs. Milwaukee was in an AL East that was rightfully renowned as the best in baseball.
But the AL East collectively didn’t start out well and the Brewers were a part of that. Milwaukee was .500 on Memorial Day, but amidst a group of six teams packed within three games of first place.
The early part of the summer was more of the same. After the Thomas trade, Milwaukee went into a swoon where they lost 11 of 15 against the Orioles, Yankees and Tigers. But the Brewers took advantage of seven games with division also-ran Cleveland, went 6-1 and were still 38-37 at the All-Star break.
None of the other traditional AL East powers had gotten traction. Baltimore, who had gone to the final day with Milwaukee in 1982, was also muddling along. New York and Boston were in the mix, but were a far cry from their great teams of the late 1970s. Detroit was on the rise, but not yet a cut above anyone else. It was Toronto, who had never been a factor since their existence began in 1977 that was setting the pace. The Brewers, 4 ½ games out, were one of five teams in pursuit of the surprising Blue Jays.
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The Milwaukee veterans heated up in July and August. They won 15 of 22 against AL West teams. On August 10, behind a shutout from Haas in Kansas City, they pulled even. Over the next fifteen days, the Brewers were anywhere from a game up in the AL East to a game behind. Simmons won two consecutive games against the fading Red Sox with walkoff RBIs.
A nine-game road trip to the West Coast didn’t go well, with six losses and surging Baltimore began to get some separation, as Toronto faded and Boston collapsed. But with Labor Day signaling the arrival of the stretch drive, the Brewers were still within five games. They were squarely in the middle of a pennant race with the Orioles, Yankees and Tigers. And they had fifteen games coming up against those three teams.
It was an ideal team for a veteran team to assert themselves and Milwaukee started by taking the first two of a four-game home set with New York. It was the last high point of this franchise’s six-year run. The Brewers won only one more game in the rest of this stretch. Showing that fate can be cruel, they were swept four straight in Baltimore to finish it off—the same four-game sweep the Orioles had needed to end 1982, but couldn’t get.
Milwaukee still ended the season at 87-75. In the rugged AL East, that was only good for fifth place, but it was the ninth-best record overall. By the standards of today, this was a playoff-caliber team. By the standards of the 1983 AL East, they were eleven games off the pace.
Manager Harvey Kuenn stepped down in what looked like a mutual agreement between club and skipper that the time had come. There were no illusions in Milwaukee and it was understood that an era had ended, although it’s safe to say that no on expected the complete collapse in 1984 when the Brewers were one of the worst teams in baseball.
Winning baseball returned to Milwaukee in reasonably short order—by 1987, when they began another six-year run of having decent teams. But those teams were no match for what 1978-83 had given the people of Wisconsin. Those teams were not only good, they were colorful and fun and have a special place in the heart of a home region that normally reserves such affection for the Green Bay Packers. That era ended in 1983.