Thursday, November 29, 2012

Brewer Sportraits - Bill Norman

This is the latest in our series of "Brewer Sportraits", informative biography/cartoons by Lou Grant (the Sentinel's cartoonist, not the television character later named after him).

The single panel depicts Brewer outfielder Bill Norman. The veteran "flyhawk" (why shouldn't the outfield position have a catchy nickname?) came to Milwaukee in 1942 from the International League. He had spent parts of 1931 and 1932 at Comiskey Park with the White Sox, but other than that sojourn into the Bigs he was a minor league lifer. A hard-traveling one at that; when he signed his Brewer contract, Norman had already taken the field for fifteen different minor-league clubs in thirteen seasons.

The journeyman found an instant home in Milwaukee. He hit 24 home runs that season, more than anyone else in the American Association, and was part of a lineup that led the league in virtually every offensive category: runs, hits, doubles, RBI, batting average, total bases and slugging percentage (they missed the team home run title by six and triples by only three).

That was good, but the second-place finish wasn't good enough for team President Bill Veeck. Sport Shirt Bill spent the 1942 offseason wheeling and dealing; he sold some of the best players to major league clubs, and sent the others wherever he could. Of that 1942 squad, he kept only four men. His new hard-hitting outfielder was one of them.

Veeck surrounded Norbert's spot in the lineup with other strong bats, bringing in Ted Norbert and Merv Connors, who had just won the home run crowns in the Pacific Coast League and Texas League, respectively.

Norman was also known something of a good luck charm for his roomates. Three of them were sold to major league clubs; Eddie Stankey, to the New York Giants, Tony York, soon to be a Chicago Cub, and Hal Peck, known also as Bill Veeck's good luck charm, who was soon calling Brooklyn's Ebbets Field home.

After the Brewers signed Nick Cullop as manager in late 1944, Norman was promoted to player/coach. He already had, as the cartoon indicates, designs on being a manager himself someday, preferably within the Brewers' farm system.

It was not to be. On July 4, just a few weeks after this Sportrait was published, Norman was sold to the Toronto Maple Leafs (the original baseball team, not the famous hockey club named after it).

Norman was reportedly devastated by the sale, and devastated to have to leave Milwaukee. He told the Milwaukee Journal:
"I just won't be the same away from the Brewers. I had a good following out there in the center field bleachers. It too a few years to win them over. I followed the most popular Brewer of my time—Ted Gullic—and his cronies in the bleachers made it hot for me but I finally got them on my side."
After a brief contract holdout, Norman reported to Toronto.

At the end of the season, the Maple Leafs offered him the same player/coach role as he had in Milwaukee, and Norman came to see an opportunity within that organization as enticing as he had with the Brews. The Maple Leafs' owners had a notoriously short leash when it came to managers and in December, following only half a season with the club, Norman told friends at a minor-league convention "I'll be managing Toronto before next July 4."

He was off by four weeks. On June 5, Leafs player/manager Harry Davis was fired, and Ole Will Norman had his first shot as a skipper. Toronto, a notorious graveyard for managers, let him go at the end of the season after the team crawled to an overall 71-82 record.

Once Norman had traded the field for the dugout, however, he never looked back. He went to the Wilkes-Barre Barons, the Cleveland Indians' club in the Eastern League, where he managed for five years and won consecutive pennants in 1950-51. That was good enough to earn him a job as a coach with the St. Louis Browns, where he spent the next two years. In 1954, the Browns moved to Baltimore, and Norman moved to the Detroit Tigers organization. He coached in their system, including a stint managing their top club in Charleston.

Bill Norman's managerial star continued to rise in Charleston, and his next job was in the major leagues. The Tigers stumbled to a 21-28 start in 1958, and when the Detroit brass wanted a change, they looked no further than their AAA farm club.

Norman came to Detroit and led them to an eventual .500 finish, 77-77. That was good enough to bring him back in '59, but it was short lived; a 2-17 start led to his own early ouster.

Bill Norman then turned to his old Chicago White Sox, joining the club as a scout. He filled in as a pilot for their PCL club in San Diego during the last part of 1961 before returning to scouting.

On April 21, 1962, he was visiting Milwaukee in that capacity, in town to scout the Braves. He started having difficulty breathing and checked himself in to St. Luke's Hospital. Shortly after being diagnosed with "a heart difficulty", Norman suffered a cardiac arrest and died. He passed away at the age of 51, in the city that so loved to watch him play the outfield twenty years before.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"Our Meat Eating Brewers"

Although taken in the springtime, this photo seems appropriate for Thanksgiving Day; on the eve of the 1942 baseball season, the Milwaukee Journal's camera caught a pair of brand-new Brewers enjoying the team's annual season-opening celebration at the Elks Club.

'Bring 'Em On!' Demand Our Meat Eating Brewers

Odell Hale (left), Brewer second baseman, and Red Howell, outfielder, gnaw steak bones ferociously at the Elks club baseball dinner Wednesday night to show what they expect Milwaukee to do to St. Paul in the opening game Thursday.
The "baseball dinner" was a traditional event held the night before the home opener; it was at one of these dinners that team president and ballpark namesake Otto Borchert suffered his fatal heart attack in 1927. The 1942 affair was fortunately devoid of such tragedy, and the Brewers appeared ready to start the season. After a nice steak, of course.

Second-sacker Odell Hale was a new Brewer who came to Milwaukee from the New York Giants. He had been in the big leagues (with two quick dips into the minors) since 1931. He struggled with injuries in 1942, seeing action in only 60 games. That was enough for the veteran, and after his one season Hale informed the Brews that he was retiring from baseball, preferring to stay on his Arkansas farm.

Murray "Red" Howell had an even shorter tenure with the Brewers. His contract was purchased from the International League's Baltimore Orioles just three weeks before the baseball dinner. Big things were expected from the outfielder, described by the Milwaukee Sentinel this way:
Few players have had a more distinguished minor league career than Howell, who has hit .300 or better in 13 of his 14 professional campaigns and has averaged 93 runs batted in each year during that time. In 1929 and '30, early in his career, he led the Sally league with percentages of .372 and .341, and won the International league crown in 1940 with a mark of .359. Red also pounded in 122 tallies for Baltimore.
With a resume like that, it's no wonder that team president Bill Veeck was eager to add him to the Brewer lineup.

It must have been doubly disappointing when Howell started accumulating injuries in Spring Training; first a pulled muscle, then a cracked rib. Howell's career at Borchert Field never got started and he returned to the International League, sold to the Jersey City Giants in mid-season having played only one game in a Milwaukee uniform. In that one game, he went 0-for-2 with a walk and a run.

Neither of these men would make their mark on Milwaukee baseball, but at that baseball dinner at the Elks in the spring of 1942, all things must have seemed possible.

Friday, November 16, 2012

1950 Pocket Schedule

This pocket schedule comes from the 1950 season. The natty flat-topped gentleman doffing his cap on the cover was also featured in a Miller High Life ad in that season's score cards.

I'm not a huge fan of this "Brewers" wordmark, a skewed version of the script the Brews had worn on their flannels since 1942. I've only ever seen this version on printed materials; they certainly never put it on a jersey.

The schedule is on the interior. Home dates in red, and all holidays and Sundays are double-headers!

Brought to you, as always, by Miller High Life, "the Champagne of Bottle Beer."

On the back, Mickey Heath invites you to listen to his play-by-play. Heath, the voice of the Brewers for a decade, was in his last season with the club. In 1951, he would be followed by Earl Gillespie.

$1.65 for box seats sounds pretty good to me.

Monday, November 12, 2012

21 skidoo!

Here's another good look at Milwaukee's original "Team Streak", the 1926 club which won 21 games in a row.

The Milwaukee baseball team which is leading the American Association has set a record with 21 consecutive wins. They are left to right, standing: Coggin, Clyde Beck, Al Reitz, Sylvester Simon, Frank Luce, Roy Saunders, Harry Strohm, and Fred Schulte. Left to right, seated, Lloyd Flippin, Joe Eddelman, Jack Lelivelt, manager, Otto Borchert, president, Bunny Brief, Denny Gearin, and Ivy Griffin. In the foreground, left to right, Russ Young, Ossie Orwoll, Lance Richbourg, Ed Stauffer and Bob McMenem.
Marvelous Borchert Field wall ad for Boston Store. And it's always good to see a picture of Otto Borchert, who would pass away less than a year later, on the eve of the 1927 season.

The Brewers got their 21st win at Borchert Field on June 14th against the Toledo Mud Hens, under future Milwaukee skipper Casey Stengel. The Brews came out strong, scoring six runs in the bottom of the first inning on their way to a 9-0 rout.

The Milwaukee Journal offered this photo of the big inning:

Schulte's March

The start of the avalanche of runs which gave those galloping Brewers promise of making it 21 straight out at Athletic Park Tuesday afternoon is depicted in the picture above, caught by The Journal's long-range cameraman during the first inning. It shows Schulte crossing the plate after lifting a home run over the left field fence, scoring Richbourg ahead of him. Griffin is seen looking on, bat in hand, with Heving, Toledo catcher, and Umpire Connolly among the other nearby spectators.
The rest of the season wasn't as successful for the Brews, as nearly a quarter of their wins came during the remarkable streak. They finished 1926 at 93-71, a respectable record well short of the American Association pace, putting them in third behind the Louisville Colonels (105-62) and Indianapolis Indians (94-71).

Friday, November 9, 2012

Bill Brenzel, "Handling that Funny Stuff"

Following the 1935 season, the Brewers released combative catcher George Susce, whose talent for getting into fights had finally eclipsed his talent for handling notoriously-wild Brewer knucleballer Forrest "Tot" Pressnell. To fill Susce's role, they purchased Bill Brenzel from the Cleveland Indians.

Asked about his prospects for catching Pressnell, Brenzel had this to say:
"Pressnell is the knuckle ball pitcher? I don't mind handling that funny stuff because I was initiated into that society long ago. Walter Kinney had a knuckler that was the most baffling I've ever seen. In fact, the knuckle ball he threw did so many tricks I used to wear a mask when I warmed him up."
Brenzel worked out with Pressnell in the off-season, and when the 1936 season opened he was behind the plate.

It was a good pickup for the Brews; with Brenzel backing him up, Pressnell went 19-9 in 1936, leading the Brewers to the American Association pennant.

The Brews then steamrolled through the playoffs, leaning heavily on the knuckler and his backstop. They swept the Kansas City Blues in the first round of the playoffs, then toppled the Indianapolis Indians, four games to one, winning the right to represent the American Association in the Little World Series. There, they dispatched the Buffalo Bisons in five to claim the minor league crown for Milwaukee and put a cap on a magical season.

After the Series, Brewer manager Al Sothoron complimented Brenzel for his work down the stretch:
That fellow really crowded a whole season's work into the last two weeks of play. Bill went to town in the two play-off series and against Buffalo in the little world series.

In the games he caught Brenzel worked against the International leaguers; he convinced me he is a capable handler of pitchers. Why, in that last game in Buffalo, Bill was perfect — he did not call one bad ball from Pressnell. Tot, you'll recall, gave only two hits until he lost his stuff in the sixth.
As much as the Brews valued Brenzel's handling of the knuckleballer, he had more to offer his new club. Sothoron would often rely upon the catcher, who came up through the Pacific Coast League, for scouting information on West Coast players. In early May of 1936, the Brewers were considering acquiring center fielder "Frenchy" Uhalt from the Yankees organization. Sothoron sought out Brenzel's opinion of the California native, whom he had played against in the Pacific Coast League. Brenzel gave Frenchy a strong recommendation, and the Brews completed the deal. Uhalt came through that season, hitting .322 and establishing Brenzel as an excellent evaluator in the eyes of Milwaukee brass.

After the 1937 season, Pressnell was sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers. His savvy with the knuckleball no longer needed at Borchert Field, Brenzel was sent back to the PCL, this time the Hollywood Stars.

When Brenzel finally hung up his mask in 1944, the Milwaukee Journal delivered this eulogy for his career:
Brenzel was one of the best mechanical catchers in the minors. Always a weak hitter, he managed to stay in double A leagues for the last decade because of his ability to handle pitchers.
Brenzel took his other great ability and moved into scouting, first with the Cardinals from 1947-50 and then with the Dodgers from 1951 through his death in 1979.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

1943 Opening Day Ticket - printer's proof

This printer's proof from the collection gives us a good look at the Opening Day tickets for 1943.

Tickets to Borchert Field were often fairly simple, but special events like season openers were

The running Owgust icon was a staple of the Brews in the early 1940s, appearing everywhere from programs to letterhead to players' jackets to the side of the ballpark itself.

This proof was never printed with seat information. That we can see on our 1945 opener ticket stub, showing that the Brews kept the same basic ticket layout for at least a couple years.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

"Brewer News" 1944, Vol. 2, No. 4

Today's installment in our ongoing look at Brewer News, the club newsletter published throughout the year to keep fans appraised of the latest news and upcoming events, was published in September 1944.

We start, under the traditional masthead of Owgusts pitching and catching, with a gorgeous photo of a play at the plate.

That's Jim Pruett catching for the Brews. He was purchased by team president Bill Veeck from the South Atlantic League's Savannah Indians in February of 1943. Like many of Veeck's acquisitions, he played well enough for the Brews to draw major league interest.

Also of note on the cover are a schedule of upcoming games, a note about the impending playoffs and a notice for Ladies' Night and morning games. The morning games were a particular invention of Veeck's, an opportunity for third shift war workers to catch a game at the Orchard.

The next page gives us a good photo of Arky Biggs, purchased from the Kansas City Blues just weeks earlier. Biggs had been awakened by an early-morning phone call to inform him as Kansas City's general manager Roy Hamey asked him "How would you like to join a pennant-winning club?"

The purchase was facilitated by the sale of other Brewers to big-league clubs. Such sales were the lifeblood of the independent Brewers, providing Veeck the ability to stock his club with up-and-coming talent without the patronage of a major league club's pocketbook.

Certain former Brewers are listed as having been sold to the bigs: Bill Nagel, Hal Peck, "Bingo" Binks, Dick Cutler, Tommy Nelson, Frank Secory, Charlie Gassaway and Herschel Martin. Jim Pruett would be added to this list within weeks, sold to the Philadelphia Athletics, the ninth Brewer to be shipped up since mid-August.

If morning games weren't your speed, the Brewers had many double-headers on offer for their fans.

Of interest on this page is a reference to "Miller High Life Sports Announcer" and Brewer VP Mickey Heath in a list of past American Association highlights. I was also surprised to read that season box seats would be good for the playoffs as well - what a fantastic incentive to buy a box seat for 1945, now on sale!

The final page of our four-page newsletter features two colorful characters in Brewer history, longtime coach Red Smith and manager Casey Stengel.

Smith had recently left the Brewers to join the New York Football Giants as a coach. He would of course return to Borchert Field the following spring.

Of course, no profile of Casey Stengel would be complete without a humorous anecdote, not even a brief profile such as this, so we're treated to a story of the Perfessor when he played for McGraw's Giants in the early 1920s.

These "Popular Brewer Leaders" were a couple of characters worthy of any good ball club's history. Amazing to have them both in uniform at the same time.

The 1944 Brewers closed out the season in fine form (102-51, seven games ahead of second place Toledo) , bringing home the Association pennant but falling to the Louisville Colonels in the first round of the playoffs.