Monday, December 7, 2009


Thursday April 16, 1942 was opening day for the hometown fans at Borchert Field. The preparations for a memorable day were in place and not even a little rain could stop him now. Look out American Association... here comes Bill Veeck!

by Paul Tenpenny
Copyright 2009 Tencentzports
Printed with permission of the Author

In 1936, the Milwaukee Brewers were at the top of their game. The American Association Champions finished the season with 90 wins and 64 losses, breezing through the playoffs. They defeated Buffalo 4 games to 1 for the Little World Series crown.

In 1937, led by local favorite Kenny Keltner (batting .310) and slugger Ted Gullic (.321), the crew finished the season with a respectable 83-70 record, good enough for a 4th place finish in the hotly-contested American Association's 1st division.

1938 found the Brewers finishing in similar fashion, this time in 3rd place with an 81-70 record. Whitlow Wyatt pitched in with a scorching 23-7 season and a 2.37 ERA.

The continuing attrition of its better players anchored the Milwaukee Brewers to the depths of the American Association for both 1939 and 1940. 1941 looked to be a repeat of the bad performances of the previous two years, and both Milwaukee and its owner Henry Bendinger were looking for change.

A bit further south, a young Bill Veeck Jr., whose father was baseball executive William L. Veeck, a past and very successful president of the Chicago Cubs, was looking beyond Chicago. Bill Jr. was anxious to try out his own ideas on how to run a ball club, instead of being confined within the vine-covered walls of Wrigley field that he had planted.

When Bendinger approached Chicago Cubs owner Phil Wrigley about buying the team, Wrigley declined, so Bill saw his chance to strike out on his own, according to his friend, Charlie Grimm. With Grimm in tow and with the blessing of Phil Wrigley, the 27 year old Veeck put together some "creative" financing and arrived in Milwaukee on June 23, 1941 as the new owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Charlie Grimm listens intently to Bill Veeck Sr.
(Original Press Photo-Author's Collection)

Contrary to some opinions, Milwaukee always had a strong base of fan support. Veeck knew this and his main concern upon arrival was to spruce up the old park and improve the on-field product to bring those loyal fans back in force.

Bill wasn't above getting his hands dirty, or his pants wet!
(Photo courtesy Baseball Hall of Fame)

Taking out a loan, he set out to make Borchert Field a cleaner, more welcoming ballpark. Both he and Charlie burnt the midnight oil with the hired help scrubbing down the place. A new coat of paint spruced things up a bit and a new Ladies room was constructed for his female guests. People were beginning to see a change.

Shirtsleeve Bill greets his "guests"
(Photo courtesy Baseball Hall of Fame)

Bill continued a habit he had started in Chicago. He made it a regular practice to meet and speak with Milwaukee fans to find out what they liked or disliked, complaints or compliments. He sat with them during the games, he shook hands before and after games. He knew what they wanted and gave it to them and then some. He acknowledged that a lot of his best ideas came from the fans. He was still a "fan" himself.

His biggest job was improving the team. 1941 was a transition year for sure as Bill put in many hours trying to pry the team out of last place. Unfortunately, that is where they ended up by season's end.

He made many changes and was confidently looking forward to opening day in 1942.

So were the players. In his 10th year in the league, Ted Gullic was enthusiastic when speaking of the 1942 Milwaukee Brewers. "This club is so good." said Gullic, "I'll have a tough time holding a job, I mean that. We have loads of power. That boy Stanky is really a shortstop, the kind Brewer fans will rave about."

A lot of new faces were on the 1942 team. Manager Charlie Grimm's Milwaukee Brewers were more than ready for the season opener on April 16, 1942. Grimm was predicting a pennant if his pitching held up.

1942 Milwaukee Brewers Season Roster
(Courtesy Rex Hamann, American Association Almanac)

The 1942 Milwaukee Brewers Team Picture/Poster
(Author's Collection)

The 1942 Milwaukee Brewers Closeup #1
(Naktenis, Blaeholder, Lanfronconi & Vandenberg)
(Becker, Gullic Norman & Secory)

The 1942 Milwaukee Brewers Closeup #2
(Grimm, Page, George, Stanky & Clarke)
(Rogers, Lowry, Lawson & Peck)

Opening day arrived with tickets selling briskly and Borchert Field workers scrambling to finish the improvements on the ball park. It appeared that sales were within reach of the record crowd of 1927's opener of 15,282. Since then, the highest the Brewers could muster on opening day was the 13,113 attendance of 1931.

Amid the opening day hoopla, a record crowd was ready for a great season opener as this Milwaukee Journal photo taken at 2:45 pm Thursday April 16th attests. But in a matter of minutes, dark clouds opened up with a furious downpour which had the fans and players alike, scrambling for cover.

It ended as quickly as it started, with the sun shining a short time later, but the damage was done. The downpour flooded the playing field and the Milwaukee Brewers had to call the game.

Bill Veeck walked on to the field after the downpour marveling at the sunshine and empty stands that surrounded him. Rain happens and so do opportunities...

Every year, the American Association gives a trophy to the team who's opening day attendance is the largest. With 15,599, a new record for Borchert Field, Milwaukee seemed to have a shot at that trophy. But the rain had started another storm ... that of protest. Bill appealed to League President George Trautmann who seemed to agree that the cash customers were present and the game got underway, so it was an official opening day crowd. Others cried foul, that it was a rainout, so it shouldn't count. Trautman overuled that protest as a poll of 6 clubs showed a majority backed Milwaukee's game as counting. Unfortunately, the opening day trophy is awarded to the city having the greatest per capita attendance on the first day of the season. So, Indianapolis who had 12,242 or 2.9% of its population vs. Milwaukee's 15,599 or 2.6%, was awarded the trophy.

There was no doubt in Bill Veeck's mind nor in the hearts of the local fans, that Milwaukee deserved the trophy ... and darn it, if they were not going to give them one, Bill would take care of it himself.

The presentation of the trophy was no secret. American Association President George Trautman was invited to Borchert Field to be on hand when the ceremony would take place on Tuesday June 2, 1942 before that night's game.

How he was going to do it was a surprise to all in attendance. Bill Veeck was about to spring on Milwaukee what would become his trademark - the Stunt. As the ceremony began. an armored car drove up and uniformed guards brought out the near 4 foot tall trophy. For contrast, Veeck pulled out a smaller trophy from a nearby garbage can, that trophy being the league trophy given to Milwaukee by the American Association when they did win the attendance award with 13,113 in 1931. Puny by comparison to his trophy, he cajoled Trautman to donate that one to the Government for its tin drive. The league president was a captive audience sitting in his box seat, with nowhere to hide. Bill went on after him, having the time of his life, presenting Trautment with a red banded white cane and a seeing eye dog, while the song "Three Blind Mice" played over the public address system, suggesting the dog and cane should be standard equipment for all league umpires. He also gave George a bouquet of vegetables.

It was all in good fun and even though the crowd couldn't hear what Bill was saying into the mike, everyone seemed to understand and enjoyed it thoroughly.

The 1931 Attendance Trophy (Author's Collection)

Veeck in his Borchert Field Office -
1931 "13,113" Attendance Trophy on far left
Bill's "15,599" Trophy 2nd from right.
(Photo Author's Collection-courtesy Baseball Hall of Fame)

While the 1931 trophy obviously survived the "tin drive", as it shows up in this 1945 photo of Bill back in his Borchert Office, it is unclear what happened to the 15,599 trophy. Bill Veeck tells the tale of reusing a large trophy several times and just changing the brass plate for each occasion, which may very well have been Milwaukee's 15,599 trophy, so it may be lost to history.

The Brewers went on to much success in 1942, finishing in 2nd place and Bill Veeck was named minor league executive of the year. This was only the beginning of a brilliant baseball career and baseball would never, ever be the same.

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