The 1981 Milwaukee Brewers Breakthrough Win
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Milwaukee on October 3, 1981 and the city was rife with anticipation. The 1981 Milwaukee Brewers were on the verge of making the postseason for the first time in franchise history, and for the season’s penultimate game a big pitching matchup awaited.
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Brewer ace Pete Vuckovich would go toe-to-toe with Detroit Tigers’ rising star Jack Morris. A Brewer victory would put them in the playoffs. A loss meant tomorrow’s finale would be winner-take-all for the chance to play the New York Yankees.
1981 had been a weird year for major league baseball. A players’ strike in June had ripped the summer out of the season and play didn’t resume until August. Faced with the challenge of reinvigorating interest in the game, commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried a novel idea.
In an era where each league was split into just an East & West division with only the first-place teams advancing, Kuhn declared the teams in first place at the strike to be “first-half champions.” The remainder of the schedule would determine the second-half champion and the two winners would then play a best-of-five to advance to the League Championship Series.
The system had its flaws, to be sure. The Cincinnati Reds would finish with the best record in baseball, but come in second in both halves. But even the best record came with an asterisk—the four first-half winners—the Yankees, Oakland A’s, Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers had no incentive in the second half.
Due to the need to guarantee television a full slate of opening-round series, if any of the first-half winners won the second half they would get an additional home game—but still have to play whomever finished second in the second-half.
But flawed or not, it was probably the best Kuhn could do, given the need to get people talking about baseball and the realities of television and the folks in Milwaukee—this writer was a junior-high student living in the city’s west suburbs—were hungry for a winner of any kind.
The Brewers had the franchise’s first winning season in 1978, when they won 93 games and then followed it up with 95 victories in ’79. But neither was good enough for the playoffs in the rigorous world that existed prior to the realignment and playoff expansion in 1995. Then the team slipped to 86 wins and third place in 1980.
Pitching was the problem, especially the bullpen, and general manager Harry Dalton struck with a blockbuster trade. He dealt four players to St. Louis—a mix of highly regarded prospects and regulars—to St. Louis in exchange for starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich, veteran catcher Ted Simmons and the big prize—closer Rollie Fingers.
Milwaukee had been right in the thick of the race when the strike hit. Even with the acquisition of Vuckovich and Fingers, offense was still the team’s calling card. They finished second in the American League in runs scored, thanks to a power attack that underwent a nickname metamorphous over a five-year period.
When new manager George Bamberger oversaw the team’s resurgence, the hitters were “Bambi’s Bombers.” When the skipper resigned in 1980 and handed the reins to Buck Rodgers they were “Buck’s Bombers,” the name the 1981 Milwaukee Brewers played under. Eventually, Harvey Kuenn would be in charge and the offense would live in history as “Harvey’s Wallbangers.”
First baseman Cecil Cooper was the key to the offense in 1981, hitting .320 and slashing 35 doubles. Milwaukee’s ability to drive the ball in the gaps was often overlooked, but it supported the home runs, which were led by Gorman Thomas, who hit 21 in the 109-game schedule.
The table was set by Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, both of whom were beginning Hall of Fame careers and Yount was a year away from the first of his two MVP awards. Ben Ogilvie had tied for the home run title in 1980 and though Simmons struggled much of ’81, he’d been a good hitter throughout his career and would be again for next season.
Vuckovich gave the rotation an anchor, winning 14 games and crafty lefthander Mike Caldwell won 11 more, as did Moose Haas, although the latter’s 4.46 ERA meant the team’s run support had as much to do with his wins.
But no one mattered more than Fingers. The last two innings of games had previously been reasons for Milwaukee fans to drown themselves in Miller beer to avoid the agony. Now it was lights-out time. Fingers racked up 28 saves, posted a 1.04 ERA and would be rewarded with both the Cy Young and MVP awards in his first year in Milwaukee.
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At the start of September, Milwaukee swept four games on the road in Minnesota, a sign they were ready to make a move down the stretch. They won two of three at home against Baltimore and they went on the road for a nine-game homestand against the Orioles, Red Sox & Tigers—the three teams they were in direct competition with for first place, as the Yankees had played like a team with no incentive to win.
Milwaukee went 5-4 on the homestand to survive and came home. Vuckovich then beat Boston 1-0 and the Brewers eliminated the Red Sox. The Orioles fell by the wayside. It was down to Milwaukee and Detroit and their weekend series to close the year would be a de facto 2-of-3 playoff.
Haas pitched the game of his life on Friday night, going the distance, and the Brewer offense peppered Detroit starter Dan Petry. Milwaukee got the scoring started in the second in typical fashion—Ogilvie hit a two-run homer. They broke it open two innings later in atypical fashion—a walk and three singles, including a two-RBI base hit from Yount and the final score would be 8-2.
Thus we came to Saturday. Detroit’s Morris would build a reputation as one of the premier big-game pitchers. Both he and Vuckovich had the reputation of being better than their ERAs—they could get key outs and pitch to the scoreboard, something that would have infuriated the sabermetrics movement that was still several years away from notoriety. Regardless, they put on a great battle on a sunny Saturday afternoon in old County Stadium.
Cooper had an excellent series—over Friday and Saturday he delivered four hits, but his normally stellar defense failed him in the sixth. A Cooper error opened the door to the game’s first run and it was still 1-0 Detroit when Milwaukee came to bat in the eighth.
In light of the reputation the team’s offense already had and which would grow even stronger a year later, the rally the Brewers put together is ironic. Molitor drew a walk. Yount put down a bunt that Detroit flubbed. Cooper came up and bunted. The Tigers again flubbed it. Now it was bases-loaded and no one out. Simmons hit a ground ball to weak to be a double play ball and the speedy Molitor scored the tying run, with only the out at first recorded. After an intentional walk, Thomas lofted a sac fly for the winning run. The Brewers had taken a 2-1 lead without ever getting a clean hit.
There was no irony whatsoever in how the game ended. Fingers had pitched the eighth and was in line for the win. He retired the side in order, striking out Lou Whitaker to close the win and send Milwaukee into celebration.
Milwaukee would lose the Division Series to New York, dropping the first two games at home, rallying to win two in the Bronx and taking an early lead in Game 5, before the Yankee veterans finally responded one last time and put the series away.
After a slow start in 1982, Rodgers was fired and replaced by Kuenn. The players responded to the change, and the offensive fury unleashed carried the team to the World Series the following year. They lost a seven-game heartbreaker to the St. Louis Cardinals, although any Brewer fan from that era would be quick to remind people that Fingers had been lost for the season in September, the elbow injury that essentially ended his career.
It was the 1981 Milwaukee Brewers that essentially served as the opening act to the thrills that would follow a year later. It gave the core players the experience of closing out a pennant race, even if it was an abbreviated one and it gave their home city a taste of winning.