The city of Milwaukee got major league baseball back in 1970, after losing the Braves to Atlanta following the 1965 season. The first eight years with the Brewers were rough—no winning seasons, and seemingly little hope for the future, after losing 95 games in 1977. No one expected what was coming. The 1978 Milwaukee Brewers made an immediate turnaround and started a six-year run that continues to define franchise history.
Milwaukee went through an offseason of change. They hired Harry Dalton as general manager. Dalton had worked for the Baltimore Orioles and he brought Oriole pitching coach George Bamberger with him to manage the Brewers. Then Dalton got down to the business of remaking the roster.
The new GM traded Jim Slaton, one of the better starting pitchers the Brewers had, as part of a deal to get outfielder Ben Oglivie from the Detroit Tigers. Dalton picked up catcher Buck Martinez in a minor trade with St. Louis. He bought the contract of outfielder Gorman Thomas from the Texas Rangers. And most important, at least for 1978, is that he went on the free agent market and signed outfielder Larry Hisle.
Hisle had a huge year in ‘78, hitting 34 home runs and driving in 115 runs. He finished third in the MVP voting. Thomas hit 32 home runs and drove in 86 runs. Oglivie finished with a stat line of .370 on-base percentage and .497 slugging percentage. Martinez stabilized the catching position. Yes, it’s fair to say Dalton’s moves worked out pretty well.
Nor were the new players the only ones who could hit. Veteran third baseman Sal Bando had an on-base percentage of .371 and popped 17 home runs. Sixto Lezcano, the 24-year-old rightfielder posted a .377/.459 stat line, while first baseman Cecil Cooper’ was at .359/.474. Don Money was a reliable bat either at DH, off the bench and in a variety of roles.
Have we forgotten anyone? Well, you may have heard of the middle infield tandem. Robin Yount was only 22-years-old at shortstop, but already entering his fifth major league season. He hit .293. And the second baseman was 21-year-old rookie Paul Molitor, who swiped 30 bases and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Yount and Molitor would become the franchise’s greatest stars and go on to Cooperstown.
Milwaukee’s offense was the most productive in the league, no small thing when you consider the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees each had great teams in 1978. But it was the Brewers who set the pace in runs scored, along with the component pieces of on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs and batting average.
At the top of the starting rotation was 22-game winner Mike Caldwell, a savvy lefthander who worked over 290 innings, posted a 2.36 ERA and finished second in the Cy Young voting. Lary Sorensen won 18 games, worked 280 innings and had a respectable ERA of 3.21. Caldwell and Sorensen combined to throw forty complete games in 1978.
It was the rest of the pitching below Caldwell and Sorensen that held the Brewers back. The back end of the rotation and the bullpen were unreliable and the Brewers finished with a staff ERA that was just 8th in the American League (The franchise didn’t move to the National League until 1998).
WATCH THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S VIDEO DISCUSSION OF THE 1978-83 ERA
Milwaukee opened the season against Dalton and Bamberger’s old friends in Baltimore, who had contended to the final weekend in 1977. And the new Brewer offense absolutely unloaded, scoring 40 runs in a stunning three-game display. They followed that sweep by taking a two-game set from the defending World Series champion Yankees.
The 5-0 start got people excited, but a road trip to Boston, Baltimore and New York wasn’t as kind. Milwaukee lost eight of ten, before righting the ship with a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals, a playoff perennial in the late 1970s.
By Memorial Day, the Brewers were a respectable 22-20. By today’s standards that would have a team squarely in the playoff hunt. But the rules prior to 1993 split the leagues into two divisions, with only winners advancing directly to the League Championship Series. Milwaukee was in the AL East, where Boston and New York were setting the pace and the Brewers faced a 7 ½ game deficit.
But just playing winning baseball was a refreshing change and Milwaukee kicked it up a notch in the early part of the summer. They ripped off an 11-1 stretch in June that put them ten games over .500 and they stayed well above that threshold the rest of the way.
They finished off the first half with a three-game series against the Yankees. The Friday night opener pitted Caldwell against New York ace Ron Guidry, who was having one of the great seasons of all-time and would end up with the Cy Young Award. On this night, Caldwell was the one who threw a four-hit shutout. Hisle hit two homers and Milwaukee won 6-0. They swept the now-reeling Yanks and were in second place at the All-Star break.
Boston was insanely hot in the first half of 1978 and still led the AL East by nine games. The Red Sox started what would be a historic collapse in July. Milwaukee won nine of their first eleven out of the break and closed the margin to 4 ½ games. But now it was New York that was getting started on scorching run of baseball. Over an 11-game stretch with both the Yanks and Red Sox in August, the Brewers went 3-8.
Any hopes of winning the AL East realistically ended there, but Milwaukee didn’t give away their hard-earned progress of the first four months. They answered that slump with a 9-2 stretch and were sitting with a 78-58 record on Labor Day. And they continued to roll through September, mostly against teams from the AL West. They did have a two-game set in the Bronx and Caldwell again threw a shutout to beat Guidry, who only lost one other game outside of the times the Brewer ace beat him.
Milwaukee finished with a record of 93-69. By the standards of today, it would have been enough to make the playoffs. By the standards of 1978, it would have been enough to win the AL West, where the Royals won with a 92-70 mark. But in the East it was only enough to be six games out and join the rest of baseball in watching the epic one-game Yankees-Red Sox playoff.
But it was also enough to energize a fan base. The Brewers had arrived and over the next six years, their offensive prowess would be a major part of the baseball landscape. They ultimately made the playoffs in 1981 and won the American League pennant in 1982. They remain a beloved team in the state of Wisconsin. It all started in 1978.