The 1976 Milwaukee Brewers came into the season looking to pick up the pieces, after a drastic collapse over the final two months of 1975 ruined what had been an upward trajectory for a still-young franchise. The Brewers made a managerial change, handing the reins to Alex Grammas. But the problems proved to be on the field rather than in the dugout, and another season of loss totals in the high 90s is what ensued.
There were two Hall of Fame players in the lineup of the ’76 Brewers. But one of them—the all-time great Henry Aaron was too old, age 42. And another one—the up-and-coming shortstop Robin Yount was too young, at age 20. Neither posted numbers of any note in 1976.
The three players that could have been realistically counted on to produce all had spotty seasons. First baseman George Scott hit 18 homers and drove in 77 runs, but both were significantly down from ’75. Don Money at second base finished with a stat line of .333 on-base percentage/.408 slugging percentage but Money had shown himself capable of more. The young catcher, Darrell Porter, had a terrible year with the bat.
Sixto Lezcano would become a good right fielder, but he wasn’t there yet—at least not with the bat. Charlie Moore and Gorman Thomas were part-time players who would eventually be important parts of this franchise’s finest hour in 1982. They batted under .200 in 1976.
All in all, the Brewers had no one who produced consistently and they finished ninth in the 12-team American League for runs scored.
Pitching wasn’t as bad as it had been a year earlier, when the worst staff in the American League ruined a potential pennant drive after the All-Star break. But improvement off that performance is a low bar and Milwaukee’s arms still came in ninth for composite ERA. Bill Travers had a good year, with 34 starts and a 2.81 ERA. Jim Slaton and Jim Colborn each went to the post 30-plus times and each had ERAs in the 3s.
Jerry Augustine was a young and versatile lefty, finishing with a 3.30 ERA in both the rotation and the bullpen. But the collapse of Pete Broberg, the rotation’s best starter a year earlier helped to kill the depth.
The Brewers made a nice trade in June, picking up closer Danny Frisella from St. Louis at little cost. Frisella posted a 2.74 ERA the rest of the way. But that was canceled out by a trade that same week with Boston that didn’t work out. Milwaukee parted with reliever Tom Murphy, just two years removed from a spectacular 1.90 ERA. They got back a notable name from the Boston Red Sox, in Bernie Carbo. But Carbo didn’t pan out as a Brewer and Murphy stabilized the rest of the year with the Red Sox.
We should point out that not only were the Brewers an American League team prior to 1998, the leagues themselves were very different, split into just an East and West division and only the first-place teams going to the postseason. Milwaukee was in the AL East. Boston had won this division in 1975. Baltimore had been its consistent gold standard through the first half of the decade. New York, with a relatively new owner named George Steinbrenner making noise, was itching to get back on top.
It was the Yankees who came to old Milwaukee County Stadium on Opening Day. Slaton was facing the great Catfish Hunter. The Brewer lineup jumped on Catfish early. Money ripped a one-out double in the first. After a couple walks, Aaron singled in two runs, and a subsequent error tacked on a third run. Then, with two outs and a man aboard in the bottom of the second, Porter and Aaron hit successive RBI doubles. It was 5-0 and it was all Slaton needed to cruise home with a complete-game shutout.
That Opening Day win triggered a 9-3 start and Milwaukee was tied for first at the end of April. The first part of May was when things started to go awry. A schedule heavy on the Red Sox and Orioles resulted in nine losses in eleven games. By Memorial Day, the Brewers were 16-19, in fifth place and 6 ½ games back of first-place New York.
No one in major league baseball was better in the first part of the 1970s than the Oakland A’s. They were on a run of five straight AL West titles, with three consecutive World Series championships sandwiched in between, from 1972 to 1974. Even though the A’s were starting to break up, and this season would end their streak of division crowns, they were still a contender and still had proud veterans. And they came to Milwaukee for a weekend series on June 11.
Colborn faced off with Oakland lefty Vida Blue on Friday and beat him with a five-hitter, 4-2. Travers threw a five-hitter of his own on Saturday, although he didn’t get the same run support and lost 2-1. That set up the Sunday rubber match.
Von Joshua, the centerfielder and leadoff batter opened the home half of the first by dropping a bunt and beating it out. That eventually set up four successive RBI hits from Carbo, Scott, Lezcano and Yount. The Brewer bats quieted the rest of the day, but they held on for a 5-4 win.
That was followed up with a series win over the California Angels. But on the return trip west, the Brewers lost four of six to the Angels and A’s. Milwaukee went 1-8 the rest of June. And by the All-Star break, they were 34-44, now in last place in the AL East and a 14 ½ games back of a New York team that was running away with the division.
Baltimore was notorious for getting on late summer runs under Earl Weaver and the Brewers visited the Orioles for a four-game set that began on July 23. Slaton squared off with Baltimore Hall of Famer Jim Palmer. The game went extra innings. Slaton pitched twelve innings. Palmer pitched eleven. The score was tied 2-2. Finally, Milwaukee’s Bill Sharp broke the tie with an RBI double. He then scored an insurance run that proved necessary when Baltimore got one back in the bottom of the 13th. But the Brewers prevailed 4-3.
Saturday brought a doubleheader. Yount, batting leadoff, set the tone with two hits in the opener and Milwaukee won 4-1 behind the work of Eduardo Rodriguez and Bill Castro. In the nightcap, Scott ripped three hits to lead the offense. Augustine did some serious dealing and threw a complete-game four-hitter. The Brewers swept the doubleheader with a 5-0 win. And on Sunday, they improbably swept the entire four-game set. Travers tossed a complete-game three-hitter and won 3-1.
Milwaukee came out of that series at 41-50. They were well off the pace being set by New York, but there was still a chance for a respectable record and perhaps even the franchise’s first winning season. But they only held serve through August and early September and were still nine games under .500, 63-72 on September 7.
The Yanks, Orioles and Red Sox were on the schedule, with series both at County Stadium and out east. It was a complete disaster for the Brewers. They lost 15 of 18 games, scoring just 41 runs over that stretch. The offensive woes had come home to roost.
Milwaukee’s final record ended up a woeful 66-95. They were last in the AL East. Within the American League overall, they were better only than the Chicago White Sox. They were 21st among what was then 24 major league teams. The collapse at the end of 1975 was no fluke. The Brewers had problems and while this franchise was only two years away from a big turnaround, that was hard to see at the end of 1976.