Darkness Before The Dawn: The 1977 Milwaukee Brewers

Following a respectable 1974 season, there were some hopes that major league baseball was finally coming into its own in Milwaukee after just five years. But terrible seasons in 1975 and 1976 ruined any optimism. The 1977 Milwaukee Brewers weren’t any better in the won-loss column. But they did start to put some pieces in place, and those efforts would pay off in the immediate future.

Milwaukee went on the free agent market and signed third baseman Sal Bando, one of the key players for the Oakland A’s teams that won three straight World Series championships earlier in the decade. The Brewers made a bold move when they dealt power-hitting first baseman George Scott, their best position player, to Boston, and got Cecil Cooper in return. Cooper’s career seemed to be floundering. But this would prove to be a steal for the Brewers in the coming years.

They drafted Paul Molitor in June out of the University of Minnesota, and while Molitor didn’t see big league action this year, the future Hall of Famer would emerge the following season. A trade for lefty starter Mike Caldwell didn’t pay immediate dividends, but Caldwell eventually found a career revival in Milwaukee.

A big trade with Kansas City really didn’t pan out—the Brewers dealt catcher Darrell Porter and starting pitcher Jim Colborn in exchange for Jamie Quirk, Jim Wohlford and Bob McClure. The deal wasn’t terrible—Quirk and Wohlford were respectable position players, McClure was a decent arm who could both start and relieve and nobody given up was a star. But Porter was the best player in the deal and the balancing scales favored K.C. on this one.

But when you make a lot of moves, not every one will work out. Milwaukee was at least shaking things up and, all things considered, were starting to make themselves better.

Cooper immediately acclimated to his new surroundings and hit .300 in 1977, along with 20 home runs. Bando popped 17 homers and drove in 82 runs. Sixto Lezcano was coming into his own in rightfield, finishing with a stat line of .358 on-base percentage/.503 slugging percentage.

Don Money, after a couple down years, roared back with a .348/.470 stat line that included 25 home runs from his second base position. And a young shortstop by the name of Robin Yount, just 21-years-old and already in his fourth big league season, hit .288 .

There was no depth and no one beyond these players made any significant contributions. The Brewers still finished 10th in the 14-team American League for runs scored. But a lineup was starting to come together.

Pitching had been a serious problem in recent years and even if this franchise’s best years, remained a gnawing issue. Jim Slaton was the top starter, with a 3.58 ERA in 21 starts. Young starters in Jerry Augustine, Lary Sorensen and Moose Haas rounded out the rotation. None finished with a winning record. None had an ERA under 4.

Caldwell made 12 starts after his acquisition in early summer and struggled to a 4.58 ERA. The biggest disappointment was Bill Travers, who had started to emerge in 1976, slipping back and finishing with 4-12 record and 5.25 ERA over his 19 starts. McClure was the only reliable arm in the bullpen, with a 2.52 ERA. And the Brewer staff collectively finished 11th in the American League for composite ERA.

Milwaukee was not only an American League franchise prior to 1998, but the structure of the league and postseason itself was quite different. Each league had only two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place teams qualified for the playoffs, going directly to the League Championship Series. The Brewers were situated in the AL East, where the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox were the clear frontrunners and battled each other to the final weekend of the season.

And it was the Yankees and Orioles that were on the schedule to open the season. New York had won the pennant in ’76 and would win it all this season. Milwaukee went into Yankee Stadium to open the season. Travers got the ball and pitched well, scattering 11 hits and working into the eighth inning. But a lack of run support led to a 3-0 loss.

After a day off, the Brewers bounced back behind Augustine, who worked eight good innings. He was aided by a three-run fifth inning, when an RBI single from Yount was one of the shortstop’s two hits. The Brewers won it 3-2. Sunday’s game was a tight one, tied 1-1 in the ninth with Haas working into the eighth inning. In the top of the ninth, Lezcano went the other way for a home run to rightfield and won it 2-1. Milwaukee had a series win to get this season started.

They came home to face Baltimore, then get the return visit from New York. Travers took the mound in the home opener against the Orioles and lost a hard-luck 1-0 decision to Baltimore great Jim Palmer. Slaton took the ball for the second game and dealt a complete-game three-hitter. He got some support—Yount, Cooper and Bando combined for seven hits out of the 2-3-4 spots in the lineup and keyed a 5-0 win.

After a day off, the Yankees came in for a weekend series. A five-run fifth was the highlight of Friday night, including a two-RBI triple from Cooper. Lezcano drove in three runs and the Brewers won 7-4. On Saturday, Milwaukee trailed 4-1 in the ninth. They were facing Yankee closer Sparky Lyle, who would win the Cy Young Award for his work out of the bullpen this season.

Wohlford led off with a single. Cooper promptly homered and it was tied 3-3. Bando tripled with one out. When Lyle struck out Money, it looked like extra innings were at hand. Until reserve outfielder Steve Frye singled and the Brewers walked it off, 4-3.

Travers took the ball on Sunday. Again, he didn’t get much run support. But this time it didn’t matter. He tossed a complete-game shutout. Yount homered. Milwaukee completed a sweep, 2-zip. They were off an running to a 6-2 start on this season.

By the first week of May, the Brewers were still 14-9 and in first place. Milwaukee fans had seen this movie before though. They had enjoyed early leads in both 1975 and 1976 as well. So, when a stretch of games against Detroit and Cleveland went poorly, it was like watching a rerun. By Memorial Day, the Brewers were at .500, 24-24 ,but still within four games of the division lead.

Kansas City was the class of the old AL West and the Brewers won a series over the Royals in early June. Milwaukee was still hanging in on the Fourth of July, 38-39 and within five games. The schedule to end the first half would be heavy on Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles. But it went poorly. The Brewers lost seven of ten against the three AL East powers, lost three others on top of it and arrived at the break with a record of 41-49.

The second half opened the same way the first half ended—10 games against New York, Boston and Baltimore and a 3-7 record. August was even worse. A schedule that included six doubleheaders in the season’s hottest month was not going to be kind to a team that lacked depth, and the Brewers went 11-23. By Labor Day, they were 58-84 and no one in Wisconsin was going to neglect the Green Bay Packers in September for these Brewers. The final record ended up 67-95.

It was the third straight year of 95-plus losses. Only the arrival of the expansion Toronto Blue Jays kept Milwaukee out of last place in the 7-team AL East. It was an ugly record. But some help had arrived. More was on the way. And the greatest six-year stretch in franchise history was immediately around the corner.