If you haven’t thought about the Milwaukee Brewers for the past couple of decades, you’re not alone. For decades, the Brewers have merely been character actors in the major leagues; they, along with other small-market teams, simply filled the schedule for big-name teams like the Cubs and Cardinals to feast on. For nearly three decades, the Brew Crew has been a team caught in baseball purgatory, with rosters ranging from terrible to simply bad.
This has turned Milwaukee sports fans into a quirky bunch. What else can be said of a fan base that shows up to baseball games and cheers on giant-sized foam-rubber facsimiles of encased meats racing each other? (In terms of uniqueness, this ranks well ahead of the fact Milwaukee is the only city in the past century to have elected three socialist mayors. The natural next step is for the city to elect a socialist sausage mayor. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his sauerkraut.)
There’s another characteristic unique to Milwaukee fans. As you watch the Brewers’ playoff games, look around the stands. In every other major-league stadium, you’d see fans wearing hats and shirts honoring their favorite team. In Milwaukee, it’s much different. At Miller Park, you see more fans decked out in gear honoring their favorite team from nearly three decades ago.
Everyone remembers the old ball-and-glove logo adopted by the Brewers in 1978. It cleverly incorporated the “M” for “Milwaukee” and “B” for “Brewers” into a baseball glove. Designed by contest winner Tom Meindel (for which he was paid the princely sum of $2,000), the logo graced Brewer uniforms for 16 years, which also happened to be the golden years in the franchise’s history. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, 90-win seasons and playoff appearances were the norm for the franchise (when only the two division winners made the playoffs), and the “MB” logo became nationally recognizable.
The team cast aside the logo in 1994 (adding a short-lived green element to the new logo), then changed to the current logo and color scheme in 2000. As it turns out, the uniform change in 1994 virtually coincided with a 13-year streak in which the Brewers finished with losing records. (When Brewer fans hear the words “Manager Phil Garner,” they shudder like sea otters do when they hear the words “Exxon Valdez.”)
Yet even after eleven years of the current version of the uniforms, the good ol’ ball-and-glove logo reigns supreme in Milwaukee. Fans flock to sports stores to buy Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun jerseys in the royal blue and yellow that identify them as old school.
Sure, other teams will revive old logos for “turn back the clock” games, and some teams have kept their uniforms and logos identical for decades. But in no other city do the team’s fans identify more with a team’s bygone era than in Milwaukee, where the old colors and logos actually seem to outsell the current hats and jerseys. In fact, the Brewers cultivate this nostalgia by having the team wear the old uniforms once a month.
So why do Milwaukee fans cling so tightly to the past? Certainly, other cities have nostalgia for their teams of a quarter-decade ago, but no other cities refuse to let go of their 1980s identity like Brew Town. Perhaps the answer lies not in the Brewers, but in the City of Milwaukee itself.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Milwaukee was a national powerhouse. The city had sports teams that dominated the national scene: The Brewers were always in the discussion for a World Series appearance. The Bucks were on their way to the third-best record in the NBA for the 1980’s, behind only the Lakers and Celtics. Marquette was still glowing from a 1977 national men’s basketball championship.
Aside from sports, Milwaukee still had its long-earned identity as the place where the nation’s beer was brewed. Pabst, Miller, Blatz, and Schlitz, all of which were founded by 1856, were still cranking out the suds and providing good union jobs. (In 1843, one historian counted 138 taverns in Milwaukee, one for every 40 residents.)
In 1980, Milwaukee was the nation’s 16th most populous city. Its manufacturing base was strong, leading the nation not only in beer production, but in industrial-control equipment, mining gear, cranes, independent foundries, and of course, one of the leading indicators of industrial muscle — Harley-Davdison motorcycles.
During this era, Milwaukee also had its place in the nation’s popular culture. Both Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley gave viewers weekly reminders that the city was still alive and well. If you asked people around the country, at least half of them would recognize “Shotz” as a real brewery in Milwaukee. (Although for the last three years of the series, Laverne and Shirley moved to California.) Laverne and Shirley was canceled in 1983, while Happy Days held on until 1984 — yet the fact that Milwaukee just recently unveiled a statue of The Fonz is further evidence of the city’s nostalgia for that era.
Soon, both in sports and in life, things would begin to turn for Milwaukee.
Globalism and technology soon caught up with Milwaukee’s industrial base. Manufacturing jobs began leaving, and the stubborn city was slow to adapt to the new service-and-technology-based economy. By 2009, only one major brewery — Miller — was left in the city, and it had been purchased by a South African company and merged with Colorado-based Coors. Milwaukee began to hemorrhage jobs. Incomes fell to 23 percent lower than the average American city. People fled Milwaukee, causing it to drop out of the top 20 most populous cities in the U.S. (it is currently 22nd). By 2007, the city’s population had fallen 20 percent from its high in 1960. (It also didn’t help that Milwaukee earned a reputation as a city where there’s a decent chance you might be eaten alive by your neighbor.)
The world of Milwaukee sports was similarly affected by the change in times. New cable-television technology allowed major-league baseball teams to control their own television revenues. Large-market teams used lucrative new television contracts to spend more on the best available players, leading to an even greater disparity in revenues. Teams like the Brewers were saddled with middling talent, in aging stadiums, with front offices that made bad decisions. Fans watched patiently as the next big Brewer star always seemed to evaporate overnight. (Billy Jo Robidoux and Joey Meyer, your phone is ringing.)
So it makes sense that Brewer fans, more than fans in other cities, would choose to cling to the glory years — both for the team that they root for and the city in which they live. In this city, there will always be nostalgia for the time when nobody messed with Milwaukee. A time when you could get drunk and kiss a girl without hearing from her attorney. A time when you could throw an aluminum can into the trash without ending up on some neighborhood recycling-watch hit list. A time when a cigarette dangling from your heavily-mustached lip identified you as someone not to be crossed. A day when being spotted in a Trans Am didn’t mean you were going somewhere, it meant you had arrived.*
In a small way, the old logo and gear does that for us. But how does it make the current players feel? No matter how many home runs Prince Fielder hits, he always knows that he can’t match the fans watching Robin Yount pinball doubles off the County Stadium outfield wall for 20 years. The Brewers are almost like Kim Novak in Vertigo — “Here, dress like the old Brewers, and we’ll love you just as much.”
In his book The Making of Milwaukee, historian John Gurda noted the intense nostalgia of Milwaukeeans, saying, “It is impossible . . . to shed the accumulated weight of the past, to truly reinvent the character of either an individual or a community. History serves as both ballast and bedrock.”
The current Brewers are finding that out now. And with a World Series title, they can give us our old Milwaukee back. Until Prince Fielder signs with the Cubs next year.
*Stolen from Mad Men.