The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers felt like they were coming into a must-win season, after reaching the expanded playoffs in the strike year of 1981, but losing to the New York Yankees. The Brewers were stacked with veterans, in the everyday lineup and in the rotation and if they were going to make the franchise’s first World Series it was now or never.
Milwaukee did it with a potent offense. They led the American League in runs scored and did by simply bashing home runs. The Brewers went deep 216 times and finished first in the AL in slugging percentage, making up for a more average #6 ranking in the league in on-base percentage
Cecil Cooper at first base, Ben Ogilvie in left field and Gorman Thomas in center all hit 30-plus homers. Ted Simmons, the veteran catcher hit 32. Even the leadoff hitter, Paul Molitor, popped 19. And Molitor was a great table-setter, with a .366 OPB and stealing 41 bases. If you got to the bottom of the order, second baseman Jim Gantner wasn’t exactly an easy out—he hit .295.
But no one was better than Robin Yount. The shortstop finished with an OBP of .379 and a slugging percentage of .578. Yount hit 29 home runs and produced 114 RBIs. His rangy defense was a big asset in the field, and he was a deserving winner of the AL MVP award.
The greatness of the lineup masked a pitching staff that was decent at best. The starting pitching had some good veterans at the top. Pete Vuckovich finished 18-6 with a 3.34 ERA and won the Cy Young Award, although that was as much the product of a relatively weak field.
Mike Caldwell won 17 games and finished with a 3.91 ERA. The rest of the rotation was a mishmash, with inconsistent veterans ranging from Moose Haas to Bob McClure to Doc Medich to Randy Lerch taking their turns on the mound. The bullpen was anchored by Rollie Fingers, who had won the MVP and Cy Young a year earlier. Fingers saved 29 games with a 2.60 ERA. Between Vuckovich, Caldwell, Fingers and the offense, the Brewers had enough to win games.
It didn’t start right away though. There was a five-game losing streak in mid-April. Then on May 10, the Brewers started a stretch where they lost 14 of 21 games to AL West opponents. On June 1, the day after Memorial Day, they were 23-24. In this must-win year, Milwaukee was in sixth place in an AL East that was then seven teams.
The only saving grace is that the division leaders—the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox—weren’t long-term contenders. But the Brewers were still seven games out and the front office fired manager Buck Rodgers. Harvey Kuenn, the batting coach, was elevated to take over. And the Brewer season turned around.
On June 10, Milwaukee started a stretch of 20-8 and the offense was nicknamed “Harvey’s Wallbangers” By the All-Star break, they were 48-35 and had pulled into a first-place tie with Boston. Detroit had faded, while the Baltimore Orioles—the more feared long-term threat—was within 3 ½ games.
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The Brewers stayed consistent through August, going 19-11 and arrived at Labor Day in first place with a three-game lead on the Orioles and were plus 3 ½ on the Red Sox. But the biggest news was developments in the pitching staff—one positive and one negative that took place as the calendar turned from August to September.
Fingers had been developing elbow problems and in early September he was sidelined. There was always reports he might make it back, but it never came and this injury effectively ended the career of the future Hall of Famer.
On a more positive note, help was on the way for the rotation. Milwaukee packaged up three prospects and sent them to the Houston Astros. In return came Don Sutton, a veteran of the excellent Los Angeles Dodgers teams in the late 1970. Sutton made seven starts for Milwaukee and went 4-1 with a 3.29 ERA.
And the Brewers needed the reinforcements because Baltimore was coming. The Red Sox faded in September and on the season’s penultimate weekend, Milwaukee was still holding a three-game lead, but there were seven games with the Orioles on deck in the ten days. It started with a three-game series in old County Stadium in Milwaukee.
Baltimore got to Sutton for four runs in the first inning of the opener, but Yount answered with a two-run blast in the bottom of the first. The Brewers tied it by the third, scored five times in the fourth and won 15-6. But on Saturday, the Orioles again grabbed four in the first and this time there was no comeback. Baltimore won the finale on Sunday and the Milwaukee lead was down to two games.
Milwaukee took two of three in Fenway Park, nudging the lead back to three games. They would close the season in Baltimore, a doubleheader on Friday and then on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. One win would clinch the AL East.
Memorial Stadium was a madhouse, with Baltimore fans waving brooms and chanting for a sweep. And the Brewers seemed ready to roll over in the face of it. On Friday, both Vuckovich and Caldwell fell behind early. Medich got rocked on Saturday. The Brewers lost the first three games by a combined 26-7.
It would come to one game, winner-take-all. This had happened only once before in baseball history, where a showdown came in the last game of the regular season—the 1949 race between the Red Sox and New York Yankees. The 1982 showdown was even better—two future Hall of Famers, Sutton and the Orioles’ Jim Palmer would be on the mound. And Baltimore’s legendary manager Earl Weaver had already announced his retirement at the end of the season. It was a lot for Milwaukee to overcome.
Enter Yount. He stepped in against Palmer in the first inning and took a solo home run the other way. Yount homered to center in the third, and in the eighth inning he tripled and scored. The Brewers clung to a 5-1 lead with Sutton pitching well.
Sutton then walked two batters and gave a hit in the bottom of the eighth, to cut the lead to 5-2. Joe Nolan came up to pinch hit with two outs and runners on the corners. Nolan laced a low line drive into the left field corner. It looked certain to score two more runs. Instead, Ogilvie went sliding feet first and made the catch, as his legs rolled up the wall that was on the right on top of the foul line.
The rally was turned back, and the Brewers scored five times in the top of the ninth. At last, the AL East title was put away.
Milwaukee’s sense of drama didn’t stop in the 1982 ALCS. They met the California Angels and the Brewers dropped the first two games of what was then a best-of-five series. They rallied and won three in a row at home. The pennant was clinched in an epic Game 5, when Cooper hit a two-run single in the seventh inning to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 win.
The Fall Classic was a “Suds Series”. The Brewers met the St. Louis Cardinals, meaning the two cities known for their brewing industries met. And the drama just rolled right on. Milwaukee won the first game, then fell behind 2-1 in games and looked dead in Game 4. They rallied in that game, then won Game 5. Now they looked in control, but lost Game 6. Alas, this time they had pushed themselves to the brink one too many times. St. Louis took Game 7 and the World Series.
1982 was the last hurrah for this edition of the Milwaukee Brewers. They stayed in contention through August in 1983 before fading in September. The team collapsed in 1984. There was a brief flirtation with contention in the late 1980s and early 1990s with some pretty good teams. But October baseball did not return to Milwaukee until 2008, when they had been switched into the National League.
The Brewers didn’t make it back to the LCS round until 2011…when St. Louis again got in their way. The search for the first World Series title in franchise history still continues.