After a strong six-year run of contention ended in 1983, the city of Milwaukee saw losing baseball for the next three years. The 1987 Milwaukee Brewers returned to contention under first-year manager Tim Trebelhorn and gave the fan base a roller-coaster ride of excitement, fraught with several notable streaks on both a team-wide and individual basis.
The second-most prolific offense in the American League was the key to Brewer success in 1987. Robin Yount had made the shift from being an MVP shortstop in 1982 to playing centerfield due to shoulder problems. The future Hall of Famer and greatest player in franchise history put up another good year, with a stat line of .384 on-base percentage/.479 slugging percentage. Milwaukee’s other future Hall of Famer, Paul Molitor, posted a dazzling .453/.566 stat line, stole 45 bases and finished fifth in the MVP voting.
Yount and Molitor were joined by some up-and-comers who had not been around during the previous era of success. B.J. Surhoff, the 22-year-old catcher and highly touted prospect, finished with an OBP of .350. Shortstop Dale Sveum hit 25 home runs and drove in 95 runs. Rob Deer hit 28 homers and finished with 80 RBI. Greg Brock played first base and had a stat line of .371/.438.
So even though other holdovers from the earlier era—like Cecil Cooper and Jim Gantner—were fading and other up-and-comers, like Glenn Braggs weren’t quite there yet, the Brewers had no problem scoring runs.
Pitching was more problematic. Teddy Higuera was the staff ace, went to the post 35 times, won 18 games and finished with a 3.85 ERA. It was a good year, but not the same as 1986 when he finished second in the Cy Young voting. Bill Wegman and Juan Nieves were promising young arms. They combined to win 26 games and finished with ERAs in the 4s. But they weren’t ready to be #2 and #3 starters in a competitive division and the rotation was a mess at the back end.
The bullpen suffered from a similar lack of depth. There was no problem at closer, where Dan Plesac saved 23 games and posted a 2.61 ERA. Chuck Crim was adequate, saving 12 games of his own and finishing with an ERA of 3.76. But with young Chris Bosio getting hit to the tune of a 5.24 ERA in a year he toggled between the rotation and bullpen, there was no one else. And the Milwaukee staff’s collective ERA was ninth in the American League.
It wasn’t until 1998 that this franchise made the move to the National League. The other unique aspect of this era was that each league was split into just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team qualified for the postseason. The AL East, where the Brewers resided, had been the stronger of the two divisions during the late 1970s and much of the 1980s. And this year would be no different.
Milwaukee wasted no time in coming out of the gate. The swept the Boston Red Sox, fresh off their 1986 pennant run but headed for a hangover year in 1987. The Brewers went to Baltimore and Nieves threw a no-hitter on a rainy night. Milwaukee couldn’t lose and the fan base—I was a high school junior in southeastern Wisconsin at the time—was on fire.
The most legendary game in what would end up a 13-0 start to the season came on Easter Sunday. The Brewers trailed 4-1 in the ninth inning at home against the Texas Rangers. With one out, Deer hit a three-run blast to tie the game. With two outs and a man aboard, Sveum won it with another home run.
Milwaukee’s record soared as high as 20-4 and their lead in the AL East got out to 4 ½ games. Then another streak came…they gave it all back with twelve losses in a row.
It was a bizarre turn of events and the Brewers continued to muddle through June. They went 10-15 in a stretch of games against the key AL East teams along with eventual AL West and World Series champ Minnesota. By the time the All-Star break arrived, Milwaukee was 42-43 and in fourth place. They were 11 games off the pace in a division race led by the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers.
The first game out of the break was against California. The Brewers won 6-4 thanks to a four-run second inning. Most notable though, was that Molitor doubled in that rally. It was time for another streak.
Molitor got at least one hit in 39 straight games. It was the longest hitting streak baseball had seen since Pete Rose got to 44 games in 1978, and fans were talking about Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game streak back in 1941. It’s no exaggeration or overly romanticizing the past to say that each evening, anyone remotely interested in baseball in the state of Wisconsin wondered whether Molitor had gotten his hit.
The streak didn’t stop until August 26 when a hitless Molitor was on deck when the winning run scored—and he didn’t hesitate to celebrate the team win, even as the individual achievement came to an end. And, not coincidentally, the streak paralleled some improved play on the field. The Brewers might still be in fourth place on Labor Day, but the record was 74-62.
If they had had been in the AL West, where Minnesota would win the division with 87 wins, Milwaukee would have still had a shot. As it was, Detroit and Toronto would have the two best records in baseball and fight an epic race to the wire. But the Brewers kept playing well. They went 5-2 in a homestand with the Tigers and Blue Jays. Milwaukee won two series with New York and moved past the Yankees into third. And in the final week, the Brewers went to Toronto and won three straight, a pivotal point in the pennant race.
The final 91-71 record marked the start of a respectable five-year run for Trebelhorn. He never won the AL East, but he posted three winning seasons and another right at .500. He is still remembered well in Milwaukee and so is that streaky season that was 1987.