Monday, July 27, 2009

Bearing Down

This past Saturday, the Brewers held their fourth annual Negro League Tribute Night. As part of the festivities, the Crew wore throwback uniforms honoring the 1923 Milwaukee Bears, the Cream City's short-lived entry in the Negro National League.

The Bears were one of a pair of teams hastily created to fill the vacancies left in the NLL after the Cleveland Tate Stars and Pittsburgh Keystones folded after the 1922 season. Led by Hall of Fame player/manager Joseph Preston "Pete" Hill, who was personally chosen by NNL president Rube Foster. Hill found himself in charge of a team culled from the defunct NNL Pittsburgh Keystones, the independent (low-level) New Orleans Crescent Stars, and players who attended an open April tryout held in Chicago.

The Bears made their home at Athletic Park (as Borchert Field was known at the time), but never really found their footing in Milwaukee. Ignored by the mainstream press, and struggling in the face of stronger competition around the Negro National League, they failed to bring fans to the park. After only nine games at home, the Bears converted to a traveling club, playing the rest of their schedule on the road. Even that proved too daunting for the club, and after limping to a 12-41 record the Bears folded in September, with four weeks remaining in the NLL season.

Incidentally, the other team created to round off the NLL schedule, the Toledo Tigers, was even less successful than the Bears. The Tigers followed an almost-identical path, only quicker: they floundered at home, merged with an independent team from Cleveland, became a traveling club at the end of May and disbanded in mid-July. The Tigers players were the distributed to two other franchises in an effort to bolster them, one of the lucky recipients being... the Milwaukee Bears.

This one all-too-brief season was to be the extent of the Negro Leagues' tenure in Milwaukee. The Bears' owners were represented at the winter meetings later that year (and reportedly even participated in the league's revenue sharing), but they never fielded another club in the Cream City, and no other owners ever stepped forward to try their hand.

What's particularly interesting to me is that there is so little actual information available about the Bears. Contemporary records are spotty, not surprising considering the poor treatment they received from the press. There's a new traveling exhibit devoted to the Negro Leagues making its way through the Milwaukee Public Library system. Reportedly, the MPL is lending some of its own collection on the Bears - anybody in Milwaukee able to attend, maybe take some pictures?

Though the Milwaukee Bears failed to gain traction during that short 1923 season, they continue to fire the imagination of the game's students, and have always been well-represented in Turn Back the Clock events. The uniforms worn during those games, however, is an interesting story. For a team which played only part of one season, the Bears have an amazing variety of throwbacks out there.

The first Bears throwback of which I am aware was worn by the Brewers in the 2001 Annual Negro League Tribute Game in Detroit. The Tigers wore Detroit Stars uniforms, and the Brewers wore these:

Starting in 2006, the Brewers made Negro League tribute games (and with them, Bears throwbacks) an annual event. New throwback uniforms were unveiled, completely different from those of five years earlier, in a sharp black-and-white color scheme. The caps were pinstriped white with a solid black M. They jerseys featured matching black pinstripes and "MILWAUKEE" across the chest.

Replica jerseys were sold at Miller Park, and a cap was given away to fans.

The Brewers also wore a road gray version of that uniform on a trip to Kansas City on June 24th of that year.

Those were the "official" Milwaukee Bears throwbacks through the 2008 season.

For 2009, the throwbacks have been redesigned, bearing (if you'll forgive me) a stronger resemblance to the one that's been commercially available for the last few years, with vivid blue sleeves and accents on the pants.

I absolutely love the cap logo. Simple yet distinctive.

Hope they make these available for sale.

So now we have a third throwback Milwaukee Bears uniform. At least two distinctive looks, if the pinstriped grays are the road version of the home uniform they wore on Saturday. For a team which failed to complete even a single season, that's pretty impressive. Moreover, it's pretty unlikely.

So which was it? Black and white or blue and orange? What was the justification for moving away from blue and orange to black pinstripes, and now what's the justification for jumping back?

I would love to hear from some Negro National League scholars about the historical accuracy of any of these uniforms. Is any one of them an accurate reflection of what the Bears wore in 1923, or are they all simply guesses (educated, wild or otherwise)?

I'm glad that the Bears are getting so much attention from the current Brewers. I do wish that the club would give their namesake a little of this recognition, however. It's been over a decade since the Brewers wore throwbacks honoring the city's American Association heritage. Since then, it's been all Milwaukee Braves and Milwaukee Bears throwbacks, with the "Milwaukee Cerveceros" thrown in for good measure. Yet the Brews, a baseball institution for half a century, the foundation of Milwaukee's major league success, continues to go unsung.

We Brews fans need to be stronger advocates for the old club.

It's not as though the Brews didn't have many beautiful uniforms from which the Brew Crew might choose. I'd favor either of the home uniforms from Bill Veeck's time with the club, the block letter M:

or the elegant script "Brewers":

There are even a few options should they wish to merge it with the customary Milwaukee Braves throwback game against Atlanta:

I'd go to that game.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Brews Break the Color Barrier

On July 15th, 1950, exactly three years and three months after Jackie Robinson made history at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Milwaukee Brewers announced that they had signed their first black player, a first baseman named Leonard Pearson:

Like so many other black "rookies" of the time, Pearson joined Organized Baseball relatively late in life, after a long career in the Negro Leagues. He was a full decade older than the other rookies on the squad. He was, unfortunately, past his prime, and struggled in Milwaukee.

Shortly afterwards, the Brews picked up James Buster (Buzz) Clarkson to play at third. Like Pearson, he had already had a long career in the Negro Leagues. But even at the age of 35, Clarkson was an essential part of the powerhouse Milwaukee club. A third black player - George Crowe, a high school basketball star in his native Indiana - soon joined the club, and the 1951 Brewers would take the field with three black players.

Scan from 1951 Brewer yearbook. Courtesy Paul Tenpenny.

The Brewers weren't the only American Association club to sign black players. There were seven in the Association by the Spring of 1951; the three Brewers, three in Minneapolis (including a rookie named Willie Mays) and one in St Paul, so many that it warranted mention in the St. Petersburg Times. Not on the sports page, of course, but in a section called "News of the Negro Community":

Those 1951 Brewers took the American Association by storm, winning their first pennant since 1945, and then their first Junior World Series since 1936. Leonard Peason, on the other hand, continued to struggle. He went 1-for-9 in five games in 1951 before he was sent down to the Hartford Chiefs. Two years later, he was out of organized ball.

Buzz Clarkson was more successful, hitting .343 as . He was rewarded with a callup, joining the Braves in April of 1952. Unfortunately, Boston proved impatient with black rookies, and Clarkson was scarcely given a chance to prove himself. After only six games, in which he went 5-for-25, the Braves sent him back to Milwaukee. Reunited with the Brews, Clarkson hit .318 with 12 home runs in 74 games as the team rolled to an astounding 101 wins and a second consecutive American Association pennant. The next season, he fell to AA Dallas. After leaving the Braves organization, he plaed for the Los Angeles Angels, then the Chicago Cubs' Pacific Coast League affiliate, but never again saw The Show.

George Crowe had the best career of all three, starting with a .339 batting average and 24 home runs for Milwaukee during that 1951 season, and earning the league's Rookie of the Year honors:

He was hitting .351 for the Brewers in 1952 before being sent to Boston. His play was good enough to keep him in the Bigs, and when he moved back to Milwaukee it was with the rest of the Braves.

Crowe did have one more stint in the minors, spending most of the 1954 season at Milwaukee's new AAA club in Toledo (ironically enough, the displaced Brewers, which had become the Toledo Sox in the spring of 1953) before returning to the big leagues for good in 1955.

The Braves traded Crowe to Cincinnati in 1956, and as a Red he made the All-Star team in 1958. This honor was bestowed on him by baseball's players, managers and coaches, fans having lost the vote the year before in a ballot box-stuffing scandal (ironically enough involving the Reds). The Reds traded him to the Cardinals in 1959, and Crowe finished out his career with three years in St. Louis.

One has to wonder if Pearson and Clarkson would have been able to carve out similar major league careers had they been allowed to join the Brewers in their 20s instead of their 30s.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here

And there used to be a ballpark where the field was
     warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy
     I'd never seen
And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs
     and the beer
Yes, there used a ballpark right here
Part of my recent pilgrimage to Milwaukee included my first-ever visit to the site of Borchert Field.
The Orchard used to take up a single city block, bordered by 7th Street on the east, 8th Street on the West, Chambers Street to the south and Burleigh Street to the north.

That block, as well as dozens directly to the north and south, were demolished in the early 1950s to make way for what would eventually become Interstate 43. It's not entirely clear when the park itself was pulled down, but Borchert Field had been completely dismantled by March 5, 1953, according to a New York Times article from that date.

This is the site as it appears today:

The picture was taken looking north from the Locust Street overpass, one block south of where Borchert Field used to stand. The next overpass you can see is Burleigh, which would have abut the old center field wall.

I have tried to mark out the rough location of the ballpark, floating above the sunken roadway, in red here:

Near the left edge of the picture you can make out the street sign at 8th & Chambers, which was the southwest corner of the park:

The southeast corner of the ballpark at Chambers and 7th Streets isn't particularly visible in this photo, obscured in the trees lining the Interstate. You can see it in this picture, looking at the green sound barrier from the other side.

Seventy years ago, this is where fans would enter Borchert Field to watch their Brews take on the St. Paul Saints, Kansas City Blues, and the other American Association clubs.
And the people watched in wonder
How they'd laugh and how they'd cheer
And there used to be a ballpark, right here.
Borchert Field may be gone, but it hasn't been forgotten. On August 11, 2008, an historical marker commemorating Borchert Field was unveiled, commemorating the ballpark's history.

The ceremony was attended by Mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive Scott Walker, directors of the Milwaukee County Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture and the Milwaukee County Historical Society and Milwaukee Brewers Executive Vice President - Business Operations Rick Schlesinger. The local dignitaries were joined by representatives of three former teams who made their home there; the Milwaukee Bears were represented by Yesterday's Negro League Foundation, the Milwaukee Chicks by the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and the Brewers by Johnny Logan. As the original location was no longer suitable, the marker was erected next to a local baseball field in Clinton Rose Park, two blocks east of the Orchard's former location.


View Larger Map

Clinton Rose park is a lovely green oasis, with a community center, a children's playground and a baseball diamond. The marker stands just beyond the left-field fence, facing Interstate 43.

This is heartening. Growing up as a baseball fan in Milwaukee, I didn't hear a single word about the Orchard (or much about the Brews, for that matter). It has taken a long time to raise public awareness of the old park, but Borchert Field will never be forgotten.
And the sky has got so cloudy
When it used to be so clear
And the summer went so quickly this year
Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here

Monday, July 13, 2009

More From Ebbets Field

Well, ask and ye shall receive.

Got a tip this morning - Ebbets Field has added a Borchert Field jacket to their line of Grounds Crew Jackets.

This is great news. The Brewers have traditionally been among the second-tier clubs in Ebbets Field Flannels, with several items in stock at all times.

But now it's our turn. If we can demonstrate an interest in Brews merchandise, we might be able to push the Milwaukee club up into San Francisco Seals or Seattle Rainiers territory.

Order yours today.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Knothole Gang

From the archives of the Milwaukee Sentinel comes a delightful 1988 article about Borchert Field's knothole gang, including this picture of the boys watching a game through the Orchard's outfield wall:

Norman Rockwell, eat your heart out.

By 1988 some of the facts had become murky - Athletic Park was re-named for Otto Borchert after his death, not when he bought the team - but the personal reminisces of these young fans are so valuable they outweigh such little slips.

I'm intrigued by the notion that the Brews paid teenagers to lurk outside the ballpark and collect home run balls, and that any fans who caught a ball could redeem it for a game ticket. With those short portches forced by the confines of the city block, they must have seen a lot of dingers to the corners.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

It's No Diego Rivera, But It'll Do

I have some rather mixed feelings towards Miller Park, but one of the things I absolutely love about the place is its respect for many areas of Milwaukee baseball history. In addition to the current Brewers and the Milwaukee Braves, there are shrines to lesser lights such as the Milwaukee Bears and Chicks, Milwaukee's brief experiements with the Negro National League and All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, respectively.

The Brews aren't so honored (yet, if I have anything to say about it), but they are immortalized alongside the Braves and the current ballclub in a series of murals around Miller Park.

There, between beermaking images, is a scene from Borchert Field.

Okay. That's the good. The bad is that, even allowing for artistic license, the Brews never wore anything like that in the Awkward Confines of the Orchard. That's the gray road uniform.

The cap shown there is from 1947-1952, the period in which the Boston Braves owned the team (and which would be subsequently adopted by the National League franchise when they moved west to the Cream City). The jersey, not so much.

We've talked a little about the Braves-era Brewers uniforms before. At home, the Brewers wore a script "Brewers". In 1947, the Brews were still wearing their classic wordmark, with its distinctive "B".

By 1952, the Brewers' last year of existence, their uniforms had evolved to almost a perfect match of those of the Braves:

The piping is now definitely red/navy/red. Note the style of "B" and the Greek "e" on the script, which originated in the Boston Braves wordmark (even the "w" is just two Braves' "v"s run together).

As an aside, and in the same anacronistic theme, I noticed an interesting detail on the mural honoring the 1970 Brewers, entitled "BACK IN THE BIG LEAGUES".

There on the scoreboard, right below Milt Mason (the original Bernie Brewer) in his perch, is a recolored Beer Barrel Man:

Not exactly true to the period, but very cool. Further justification for putting him on the team's sleeve. As if we needed any more.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Pleasant Surprise

Following up on my previous post about Beer Barrel Man merchandise, he made another appearance at Miller Park this year, one which had previously flown under the radar.

On May 30th, 2009, the Brewers held a stadium promotion featuring a certain swinging batter:

This went unnoticed, because the page on the Brewers' site said only:

Cooler Bag

Receive a cooler bag.
First 15,000 Fans
(21 and older)
Presented by Miller High Life

Who knows what other retro goodies lie undeclared on the remaining 2009 schedule?