Johnny Antonelli was destined for greatness, but unfortunately Milwaukee only received a glimpse of the left-handed control specialist. After two years of military service, the 23-year old hurler worked 175.3 innings in Milwaukee, boasting a 3.18 ERA that outshines his 12-12 record. Moreover, his strike out rate was stronger than the other Braves’ regulars, as Antonelli struck out 17% of the batters he faced (in a league that struck out 11% of the time).
Nevertheless, the Braves traded Antonelli (and a gang of others) prior to the 1954 season, landing veteran Bobby Thomson and back-up Sam Calderone. Thomson and Calderone were busts for the Braves, but Antonelli went on a tear. In seven full seasons after leaving Milwaukee, he went 108-84 with 19 saves and a 3.13 ERA (124 ERA+) over 1600.7 innings. While the bulk of Antonelli’s saves occurred during his 1960 campaign, he was used as a type of swingman, reflecting the era’s views on relief pitching. He even saved two games during his exceptional 1954 season. (In one 17-day stretch in June, Antonelli made six appearances, including five starts (three CG), ultimately allowing six runs over 40+ innings).
Antonelli is just one example of a player that performed well –for a short stay — in Milwaukee. While preparing for our Hall of Greatness votes, I was shocked at just how many players that I liked or remembered playing in Milwaukee did so for two years or less. From Danny Kolb and Scott Podsednik to Tommy Harper, there are a whole gang of notable names that only stayed in Milwaukee for a couple of years.
Vote for George Crowe in 2014?
My current favorite short-stay in Milwaukee is George Crowe. Crowe was a Negro National League player picked up by the Braves’ organization in 1949. He was in his mid-to-late 1920s by the time he began his Institutional Baseball career, and he first reached Milwaukee in 1950, as a member of the minor league Brewers. Over two years and more than 760 PA in the American Association, Crowe destroyed pitching for the Brewers — he slugged 30 homers, 49 doubles, and 8 triples, which accounted for approximately 40% of his total hits. With 105 walks, he was on base well over 40% of the time in Milwaukee, and the Braves couldn’t ignore his performance. Crowe debuted in Boston in 1952, but he made his MLB name in Milwaukee during 399 PA over the 1953 and 1955 seasons. Crowe batted .281/.370/.493 for the Braves, as a valuable bench player and in 77 starts at 1B. Overall, Milwaukee fans saw the following aggregate performance from Crowe (in a Brewers or Braves uniform):
Crowe: 1164 PA, 319 H, 492 TB, 476 TOB, .319/.409/.484
Do you vote for the batting performance in Milwaukee? Obviously, you have to screw around with the “three years in Milwaukee” clause a bit, as Crowe played with Milwaukee during two seasons as a minor leaguer, and parts of two seasons with the big league Braves. Given the institutional circumstances in baseball at that time, as well as the simple fact that Crowe happened upon an organization at the very moment that it planned to move its big league club to its top minor league city, I think we can favor Crowe’s status as a three-year Milwaukeean. Now, compare his batting line to Wes Covington, one of the Braves’ most important part-time players:
Covington: 1556 PA, 403 H, 675 TB, 527 TOB, .285/.337/.477 (123 OPS+)
We might adjust Crowe’s line given that he performed in the minors for a portion of those seasons, but that doesn’t change the fact that he could smack the ball around the ballpark. Covington also hit the ball with authority, providing a similar, valuable part-time role for the Braves. My favorite note is that Crowe reached base almost as many times as Covington, even though Covington played nearly 400 more PA in Milwaukee. I have to admit, I didn’t vote for Covington the first time around because I wasn’t yet sure what to do with “moderate” plate appearance players in Milwaukee: Joe Torre, Lee Maye, Covington, and Crowe were my biggest questions during the voting process. I ultimately favored the long-time Milwaukee careers and defensive strength of Johnny Logan and Del Crandall.
For voting, one interesting contrast to this “short stay, notable season” trend is the “long stay, decent or worse performance.” While voting for the Hall of Greatness, my preferences are (a) to vote for players that personify Milwaukee uniforms, but (b) also performed well on the field. Jim Slaton might be the toughest case in this regard. No one faced more batters wearing a Brewers uniform than Slaton, and he was one of the franchise’s first legitimately home-grown players. No Brewers pitcher boasts more wins, losses, starts, or shutouts than Slaton (you can basically pick counting categories and Slaton leads the Brewers’ pitchers).
Even after being traded to Detroit for Ben Oglivie, Slaton returned to Milwaukee via free agency, and worked throughout the glory years of the 1980s. His two stays in Milwaukee:
1971-1977: 72-92, 1448.7 IP, 3.86 ERA (95 ERA+)
1979-1983: 45-29, 11 SV, 576.7 IP, 3.87 ERA (100 ERA+)
If we isolate his most notable seasons?
1979: 15-9, 213 IP, 3.63 ERA (115 ERA+)
1977: 10-14, 221 IP, 3.58 ERA (114 ERA+)
1976: 14-15, 292.7 IP, 3.44 ERA (101 ERA+)
1973: 13-15, 276.3 IP, 3.71 ERA (101 ERA+)
Clearly, Slaton served Milwaukee for a long time, and he hung around on some poor teams; for that reason, it’s great to see that he was able to experience the glory years of the late-1970s and early-1980s, too. But, his overall performance is average-at-best in Milwaukee, and some of his best seasons are topped by other Brewers (such as Jim Colborn in 1973, Mike Caldwell in 1979, and arguably Bill Travers in 1976).
This might seem like a strange thing to worry about, but we’re dead serious about our Milwaukee baseball history, and I’m dead serious about my hometown. I don’t want to be writing on a Brewers fan site and misrepresent history. So, that’s why I’m contrasting the extended, average-or-so careers against short, excellent stays in Milwaukee. Ultimately, I’m inclined to vote for Slaton while considering the era he started his career in Milwaukee, his status as an original Pilots pick, and his ultimate workload in Milwaukee. In a lot of ways, Slaton personifies a city that loved baseball and was regaining its sea legs after losing the Braves; Slaton was a workhorse through some of the franchise’s toughest years. As an analyst and writer, Slaton also presents a clear challenge of defining or qualifying greatness in Milwaukee; I think we can do the same sort of thing with some of Geoff Jenkins‘s years in the 2000s (although I think Jenkins at his best was a more valuable player overall, he still had to serve some average seasons on poor ballclubs). I gather that these are the types of questions one has to ask when they’re trying to represent the history of baseball in Milwaukee, rather than New York; we might not have the same glorious past, but that doesn’t mean our leaders or workhorses don’t deserve to be honored.
Comparing Slaton to players on the Braves’ ballot, perhaps the respective careers of Lew Burdette and Logan are the best pieces of evidence for favoring Slaton’s election. Burdette, for instance, was the better peak pitcher than Slaton, ultimately producing four notably above average seasons in Milwaukee (1953, 1954, 1956, and 1958). Otherwise, Burdette sort of did what Slaton did — hover at or below average while pitching a lot of innings from the bullpen and starting rotation alike. Here’s Burdette’s four full seasons in Milwaukee that occurred after the 1958 Pennant team:
1959-1962: 68-48, 7 SV, 981.3 IP, 3.97 ERA (90 ERA+)
Compared to his 1953-1958 years?
1953-1958: 99-56, 9 SV, 1431.3 IP, 3.21 ERA (113 ERA+)
If Burdette’s peak years are better than Slaton’s, Slaton’s second stint in Milwaukee is arguably more valuable than Burdette’s decline years. The difference, of course, is that Burdette largely got to play for better teams, even during some of his decline years. Take a look at Burdette’s 1959 campaign, during which he was the innings eater for a strong Braves club (they won 86 games):
1959: 21-15, (41 G, 39 GS) 289.7 IP, 4.07 ERA (86 ERA+)
Slaton has a similar 40 G starter/relief season in Milwaukee:
1974: 13-16, (40 G, 35 GS) 250 IP, 3.92 ERA (92 ERA+)
During that year, Slaton was the innings eater for a 76-win Brewers team. Both Slaton and Burdette guided their club to winning percentages (in their appearances) that were similar to each club’s respective overall winning percentage. Which leads one to ask, what would we think of Burdette and Slaton if they switched teams?
I don’t mean this as a knock to Burdette, because in his era he did what his teams asked him to do, and he won a lot of games. Aside from being a master of mind manipulation with his fake spitball, Burdette served valuable roles for Braves clubs that needed someone to fill spots behind Warren Spahn. Slaton suffered a similar fate of working a lot of innings for his club, sometimes as second fiddle to a better performance, but he still served that valuable role of filling innings for the Brewers. While we can argue that Burdette is the better overall pitcher, I think the roles of Slaton and Burdette are similar enough that we can vote for Slaton for the same reason we voted for Burdette.
On the other side, Logan serves a similar role of producing some pedestrian (or worse) seasons with the bat. For that reason, I initially thought about not voting for Logan. However, once I thought about his playing time in Milwaukee, and dug into his defensive performances, I changed my mind on Logan. It turns out that Logan was one of the better defensive players of his era, according to defensive WAR, and his defensive value arguably corrects any offensive shortcomings. If we follow Bill James’ positional rankings for shortstop, and follow players that had careers that spanned from the 1950s to the 1960s, Logan turns out to be one of the Top 10 shortstops of his era (James ranks him 40th overall, as a shortstop).
Clearly, with this Milwaukee baseball project, a Hall of Greatness must consider factors outside of basic statistical brilliance. I gather that our Hall will reflect some players that were not necessarily the best at what they did, but represented Milwaukee baseball and played significant roles for their teams.
My First Ballot:
1. Eddie Mathews
2. Hank Aaron
3. Joe Adcock
4. Warren Spahn
5. Lew Burdette
6. Bob Buhl
7. Johnny Logan
8. Del Crandall
9. Don McMahon
10. Bill Bruton
I think the results of the first vote turned out well. I am happy that Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews are associated with Milwaukee and greatness, and I am thrilled that Spahn, Joe Adcock, Burdette, and Crandall are associated with our first Hall of Greatness induction.
A few notes:
-Bob Buhl might have an easier time being elected if we call him, “The Guy Who Was Secretly Better than Lew Burdette.” Buhl didn’t pitch as many innings or win as many games in Milwaukee as Burdette, but his winning percentage was strong, and his ERA was arguably more valuable.
-What do you do with Joe Torre? Torre is a GREAT player, but his career was just starting in Milwaukee. He produced some great seasons in Milwaukee, but he matched his three most valuable years in Milwaukee with other organizations. He kind of reminds me of the case of Rollie Fingers, too; he’s in a tough category of “Guys Who Were Great But Played A Bunch of Places.” Does being a great player that played in Milwaukee for some years get a player into the Milwaukee Hall of Greatness? Maybe spend one of those years on an iconic team? I don’t know.
-Don McMahon was a fun vote, I think. Maybe I could have used that vote better, as certainly, McMahon played everywhere. What stuck out for me, with McMahon, were his saves and games finished; McMahon was kind of a closer before there were specialized closers. Sure, he played with a bunch of other teams, but he’d never save or finish as many games with another organization as he did in Milwaukee; his 15 saves in 1959 tied for the NL lead, and he remained in the Top 10 for saves and games finished despite his poor overall performance in 1960. I simply thought that was a unique historical oddity, and that McMahon deserved a vote.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: Free Press, 2001.
James, Bill and Rob Neyer. The Neyer / James Guide to Pitchers. New York: Fireside, 2004.