In conversation with Don Sutton, I asked the Hall of Fame pitcher about the best team he played on. His answer came without hesitation. Even playing for the team for just a few months, there was enough time to convince him. It was the team that four decades ago ended a game shy of the World Series title, with a roster filled with four others who would end up in Cooperstown.
The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, then part of the American League, won the first pennant in franchise history and the first for the city since the Braves back in the 1950s. They did so mainly on the strength of its offense—leading the majors in runs scored, homers, RBIs, slugging percentage, OPS, and extra-base hits.
Milwaukee’s lineup earned itself the nickname “Harvey’s Wallbangers”—a nod to Harvey Kuenn, who managed the Brewers to their most memorable season ever. It was near impossible to find an easy out in the order.
Most Valuable Player Robin Yount became the first American League shortstop to lead in slugging, while also being first in hits, doubles, and total bases, on top of hitting 29 homers and driving in 114 with an OPS+ of 166. Paul Molitor had an on-base percentage of .366 and was the beneficiary of the potent bats behind him. He scored 136 runs—not just the most the AL that year but the most in the AL since 1949.
First baseman Cecil Cooper, left fielder Ben Ogilvie, center fielder Gorman Thomas, and catcher Ted Simmons each slugged at least 30 homers. Cooper and Thomas joined Yount and Molitor in posting bWARs at 5.0 or higher.
But winning wasn’t so easy at the start of the year, when Buck Rodgers was at the helm. The Brewers, saddled with high expectations after reaching the playoffs in ’81, began slowly. On June 1, they were 23-24, in sixth place in a seven-team AL East.
That prompted the firing of Rodgers and the promotion of hitting coach Kuenn. On June 10, Milwaukee went on a stretch of 20 wins in 28 games. By the All-Star break, they were 48-35 and in a first-place tie with Boston. The Red Sox faded and eventually it was the Baltimore Orioles chasing the Brewers as the calendar reached Labor Day.
A potentially harmful loss came when veteran reliever Rollie Fingers was sidelined for the season (and pretty much the rest of his career) with an elbow injury. Fortunately, the addition of Sutton in an August 30th trade with Houston solidified a rotation that while not impressive, combined with the bullpen to preserve what the offense provided.
The former Dodger joined a staff led by Pete Vuckovich, who finished with a 3.34 ERA and won the Cy Young Award. Sutton went 4-1 with a 3.29 ERA in seven starts, none bigger than the one on October 3rd in Baltimore.
For a while it didn’t look like that day would have much significance. With a little over a week to go, the Brewers held a four-game lead on the Orioles. Then they lost two of three to Baltimore at home, but were three up as the Brewers headed into Memorial Stadium for a four-game series to end the season.
All they needed was to win one…and all they did was lose the first three by a combined 26-7. The division came down to a pitching match-up of two Hall of Famers: Sutton and Jim Palmer. Throw in the pending retirement of O’s manager Earl Weaver, and the momentum appeared too much for Milwaukee to overcome.
But Yount proved his MVP worth. He homered in the first and third innings, then tripled and scored in the eighth to build a 5-1 lead. The Brewers broke it open with five more in the ninth, and the AL East was finally theirs.
Milwaukee continued to live on the edge in the ALCS against the California Angels—a veteran-laded roster with Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, and Fred Lynn. The Brewers flirted with elimination when they dropped the first two in the best-of-five series, only to win three-straight at County Stadium.
Game 5’s drama came to a head in the seventh down 3-2. Charlie Moore singled, Jim Gantner singled, and Robin Yount walked. That set the stage for Cooper with the bases loaded and two outs and he delivered with an opposite-field hit to left. The 3-2 deficit turned into a 4-3 Brewers lead.
That advantage was preserved by Bob McClure and Pete Ladd, who came in behind starter Vuckovich. The Angels managed singles in the eighth and ninth but nothing more. Carew grounded out to Yount and the Brewers were Series-bound.
As is the case in a World Series that goes seven, the Brewers’ defeat in the Fall Classic is a mixture of great performances and near misses. After Molitor’s record five hits led the Brewers to a 10-0 throttling at Busch Stadium in Game 1, Milwaukee let a 4-2 lead and a potential 2-0 advantage slip away.
Vuckovich’s nemesis in Game 3 was light-hitting Willie McGee, who hit two long balls as the normally speed-minded Cardinals used a bit of the Milwaukee playbook in its home park. McGee then robbed Thomas of a potential tying homer with a fabulous catch along the fence.
St. Louis was on its way to a 3-1 series lead, jumping out 5-1 in the bottom of the seventh of Game 4 before Brewer bats came alive. Jim Gantner, Yount, Cooper, and Thomas got big hits to put Milwaukee in front and eventually even matters at two apiece.
Game 5 was another in a line of standout performances for Yount. He went 4-for-4 with a home run and eight total bases and put Milwaukee on the verge.
But the Brewers never got that fourth victory. Game 6 was nothing short of a disaster. Sutton was rocked for five runs and was done by the fifth. Doc Medich allowed four more runs. Milwaukee made four errors and the Cardinals won 13-1 on a rain-interrupted evening.
The Brewers took a 3-1 lead in Game 7 on an error and a sacrifice fly in the sixth, but St. Louis immediately responded. Keith Hernandez’s bases-loaded single was the back-breaker. That tied and was soon followed by George Hendrick’s go-ahead RBI hit.
The Brewers couldn’t solve Bruce Sutter. He closed out the game, the series, and Milwaukee’s dreams of a championship.
This group wouldn’t sustain success in the years after. The ’83 edition of the Brewers contended into August before fading out of contention. The ’84 team never contended. It would be 26 years before the Brewers played in the postseason. A World Series trip, much less a title, has also remained elusive. It’s what makes “Harvey’s Wallbanger’s” so unique.