Top 100 Teams
American Association (Triple-A)
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
During the personnel-lean years of World War II, one of the charter members of the American Association overcame the odds to field one of its strongest teams. This entry, located in the city of Milwaukee, was helped to this end by its owner -- one of baseball’s truly colorful characters.
Milwaukee had witnessed high quality baseball since the end of the Civil War. Here, a club called the Cream Citys, played matches against top touring nines like the Atlantics of Brooklyn and the Athletics of Philadelphia. In 1877, the city placed a club in the country’s first organized minor league – the League Alliance. The following year, the city joined the National League, suffering a last place, 15-45 club.
In 1884, a team from Milwaukee called the Brewers joined the minor league Northwestern League. After going 42-30 in one season ending August 2 and 11-4 in a second season ending September 3, the team joined the major league Union Association on September 27, finishing 8-4 in their third 1884 manifestation. During the rest of the 19th century, Milwaukee participated in a variety of leagues, both at the major and minor level. At the major league level, the city was a part of the American Association (1891) in the circuit’s last year of existence as a replacement franchise for Cincinnati in August. At the minor league level, Milwaukee showcased teams in the Northwestern (1886-87) and Western Leagues (1885, 1892, 1894-99) as well as the Western Association (1888-91).
At the dawn of the 20th century, the city returned to the majors as a charter member of the American League. This relationship did not last, as the franchise became the St. Louis Browns before the 1902 season. However, Milwaukee quickly joined another new circuit for the 1902 season. Although not operating at the major league level, Milwaukee’s new team – the Brewers – was in a bonafide top-ranked circuit – the American Association.
During their first few years in the Association, Milwaukee’s Brewers nearly always finished in the second division, although they won a pair of pennants in 1913-14. After another flag in 1936, the team bottomed out with a pair of last place finishes in 1940-41. However, during the latter year, the club was rescued by a singular saviour.
Veeck Moved The Fences
In 1941, the Brewers were purchased by the eccentric Bill Veeck. He immediately pumped money into the franchise, sprucing up their home park, ancient Borchert Field. The park was built on a rectangular city block which meant the distances from home plate to the left and right field foul poles were only 267 feet while deep center was 400 from the plate. He also sought to gain as much of a home field advantage for his club as he could. Veeck’s groundskeeper’s would flood the infield against spry opponents. He even went as far as to install a movable fence which he would use against better-hitting foes. Behind the tutelage of Veeck, the Brewers finished second in 1942, before winning the pennant in 1943. In 1944, the team would reach its peak.
The 1944 season began with Charlie Grimm returning as manager of the defending champion Brewers. Jolly Cholly had been hired by his old Cubs buddy, Veeck, midway through the 1941 season and when Veeck left for the Marines, Grimm also became the team’s vice-president. The Brewers got off to a flying start in 1944, winning 11 of their first 13 games. On May 1, with the Chicago Cubs in last place with a 1-9 record and a nine-game losing streak, their manager, Jimmie Wilson, resigned. Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley and GM Jim Gallagher knew who they wanted to replace Wilson, the popular Grimm who had led the Cubs to pennants in 1932 and 1935. Charlie had been replaced by Gabby Hartnett in July, 1938, with the team in third place. The Cubs wanted to be sure the Brewers had a capable replacement for Grimm.
Title, Then Trouble
The 1944 Milwaukee Brewers ran roughshod over their American Association foes, winning the flag with a 102-51 record, seven ahead of Toledo. However, the club was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Louisville, four games to two. Collectively, the Brewers were the best batting team the Association had seen in a decade, finishing with a .307 average.
Individually, the ’44 Brewers were led by a host of stars. Outfielder Hal Peck led the league in runs (140) and hits (200) while finishing third in the batting race (.345). Firstbaseman Heinz Becker (.346, 115 RBI) finished a notch better, while thirdbaseman Bill Nagel knocked in a team high 117 while bashing 23 home runs. Peck, a local product and Dick Culler were named to the American Association All-Star Team.
Peck had been purchased by Brooklyn after the 1942 season, but was returned to Milwaukee after he shot off two of his toes in a hunting accident. The Athletics bought him after the 1944 American Association playoffs. In all, Peck batted .279 in 355 games for the Dodgers, A’s and Indians from 1943-49.
Other Milwaukee batters who played in the majors included Becker, who batted .263 in 152 games for the Cubs and Indians from 1943-47; Culler, who was the starting shortstop for the Braves in 1945-46; Nagel, who hit 12 home runs for the ’39 Phillies; Bill Norman, who hit .204 in 37 games for the White Sox in 1931-32; Frank Secory, who batted .228 in parts of five seasons for the Tigers and Cubs before becoming a National League umpire (1952-70); and Jim Pruett, who played in nine games for the Athletics in 1944-45. Also making a cameo appearance was 18-year-old Dale Long who would go on to hit a home run in eight-straight games for the 1956 Pirates. In addition, Norman managed Detroit for most of 1958 and the first month of 1959.
The Brewer’s best pitcher was 39-year-old Earl Caldwell. Caldwell, who had pitched in the majors as far back as 1928, compiled a 19-5 record, earning the most wins and finishing with the highest winning percentage (.792). His fine season in’44 earned Caldwell another shot at the majors, where he won 22 games primarily as reliever for the White Sox and Red Sox from 1945-48. Other Brewer pitchers seeing major league action included Charlie Gassaway, who went 5-9 for three teams from 1944-46; Charlie Sproull, who finished 4-10 for the Phillies in 1945; Owen Scheetz, who threw in six games for the 1943 Senators; and Floyd Speer who tossed three innings for the 1943-44 White Sox.
A Birthday Pitcher
Pitcher Julio Acosta was a central figure in one of Veeck’s more bizarre stunts. Late in 1943, Grimm kept asking Veeck for one more capable starting pitcher. Without Grimm’s knowledge, Bill arranged for the purchase of Acosta from Richmond of the Piedmont League where he had a 17-8, 2.03 record and led the league in strikeouts with 208 in 226 innings. Acosta had the advantage of being a Cuban citizen, not subject to the U.S. military draft. Before the game of August 28, Grimm’s birthday, a large cardboard birthday cake was wheeled out to home plate and, with appropriate fanfare, out popped Acosta, Veeck’s birthday present to Grimm. Acosta, dubbed the Cuban showboat, went 3-1 for the Brewers that year and 13-10 in 1944, pitching the pennant-clinching games in 1943 and 1944, the latter a two-hit shutout over St. Paul.
The Brewers won a third straight flag in 1945. Several years later, in 1951-52, the team won another pair of flags, the latter finding a place in the top 100 list. Following the 1952 season, the Brewers were ousted to make room for the National League Braves, who were moving from Boston. After the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, the majors returned to Milwaukee when the Seattle Pilots became the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970.
Although more well-known for his antics than his sound baseball knowledge, Veeck’s contribution to the game should not be taken lightly. In Milwaukee, he turned around a moribund franchise, infusing it with veteran talent - a difficult task during the war years - and leading it to three pennants in a row. The 1944 Brewers were the best of this trio, finishing as the hardest hitting team in the last 50 years of the American Association.
|1944 American Association Standings|
|ST. PAUL||85||66||.563||16.0||KANSAS CITY||41||110||.272||60.0|
|1944 Milwaukee Brewers batting statistics|
|Arkie Biggs (K.C.)||3B,SS,2B||98||387||48||132||59||21||5||0||24||26||11||.341|
|Tom Jordan (K.C.)||C||66||219||27||78||43||15||3||4||6||10||0||.356|
|Dick Hearn (K.C.)||P||39||31||3||1||0||0||0||0||2||11||0||.032|
|Don Hendrickson (K.C.)||P||35||50||4||11||2||2||0||0||4||11||0||.220|
|Ed Schiewe (K.C.)||SS||30||70||6||17||8||3||2||0||5||9||0||.243|
|Bob Bowman (Minn.)||P||13||1||1||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1.000|
|1944 Milwaukee Brewers pitching statistics|
|Don Hendrickson (K.C.)||12||7||.632||35||11||6||2||161||160||40||77||2.57|
|Dick Hearn (K.C.)||6||7||.462||39||10||5||0||103||123||75||47||7.34|
|Bob Bowman (Minn.)||1||0||1.000||13||0||0||12||22||13||3||12.00|