When the future arrived in Milwaukee this baseball season, the past was waiting. It seemed only fitting for a city that looks as if it has a hard time letting go of the old things. The buildings downtown are a giveaway, standing firm against new construction as tenaciously as the time-encrusted grime clings to their bricks. The streets, too, speak of yesterday—quiet, almost sleepy, even at an hour made for traffic jams. And so, in keeping with this theme: memories. One in particular, inspired by Milwaukee's return to the National League, where it dwelled in another lifetime with a team other than the Brewers. A team called the Braves, which forsook the city for Atlanta after the last out of the 1965 season. The Milwaukee Braves live on, though, in the minds of two brothers who loved nothing so much as taking off their shirts and charging after the balls that landed in County Stadium's bleachers during batting practice. Funny thing is, their most enduring memory involves a shirt that was kept on.
What they were wearing was the furthest thing from the boys' minds as they stood at the railing near the Braves' dugout one spring day in 1963, beseeching their heroes for autographs. Mike Duckett was 10 then, his brother, Steve, had just turned seven, and they had a singleness of purpose that only the innocent know. When Mike spotted Eddie Mathews, whose lightning complemented Hank Aaron's thunder, he shouted, "You're my favorite player!" And for a moment, he thought he had a live one.
But no sooner had Mathews started toward the brothers than he stopped and gave Steve a wry smile. "So I guess I'm not your favorite player," he said.
It was Steve's shirt that had given him away. The shirt a friend of the family had made. The shirt that looked like a San Francisco Giants jersey in an age before such things were the stuff of merchandising empires. The shirt that meant Steve's only choice was to confess. "No," he said, "Willie Mays is my favorite player."
"Don't go anywhere," Mathews said. Then he trotted across the diamond to the visitors' dugout. Minutes later, he returned with Mays himself.
Awe scarcely describes what Steve and Mike felt. Here were two legends in the making—Mathews on his way to 512 home runs, Mays chasing down 660—and they couldn't get over that miniature Giants jersey. The next thing anybody knew, the players had lifted Steve over the railing and onto the field so they could give him a ball and a chipped bat. A photographer from the suburban Waukesha Freeman saw what was happening. Talk about fate: Waukesha was where Steve and Mike lived. Their dad had coached high school basketball there, but Steve was the celebrity now. While his big brother watched in amazement, the photographer posed Steve between Mays and Mathews and snapped the shutter. Just one picture, but the next day it was the centerpiece of the Freeman's sports page: Steve and two future Hall of Famers.
A copy of that black-and-white photo (framed, of course) hangs on what the Duckett brothers' parents call their Wall of Fame. It's there to look at every time the boys stop by. They're grown up now, with families of their own and good jobs. Steve is a health administrator, and Mike—here comes fate again—is the director of design and construction for Miller Park, which stands a little taller behind County Stadium's centerfield fence every day. The Brewers will open the 2000 season there, and surely pictures will be taken, some with Mike Duckett in them at long last. He will have his stake in the future just as he has one in the past, and when you get right down to it, the connection between the two is what this story is all about.
The Kansas City Royals were the major league owners' first choice to make the jump to the National League and ease the imbalance caused by expansion. American League to its core—first as a New York Yankees farm, then as a showcase for Charley Finley and George Brett—K.C. would have looked as wrong in the National League as barbecue sauce on Wiener schnitzel. Bud Selig was willing to go along with the mismatch, though, because he didn't want critics pointing out his conflicting interests as the Brewers' CEO and baseball's acting commissioner. The time couldn't have been worse for him to start listening to his conscience. What really hurt was, Selig knew it: The right choice, the only choice, was Milwaukee.
The truth was founded in more than a natural National League Central Division rivalry between the Brewers and the Chicago Cubs, 90 miles to the south. There was history at work, Selig's as well as Milwaukee's. And nobody is quicker to preach his love of history than Selig, who looks the way Bill Gates probably will at 63. It isn't just that Selig, a native son of Milwaukee, majored in the subject at Wisconsin; it's that he lived it during the Braves' 13-year run in the city. When he says, "The '50s were electric around here," he's actually going easy on the hyperbole. For the Braves were loved beyond all reason and all mathematical probability.
Playing in the second smallest city in the majors (pop. 725,000), they became the first National League team to draw two million fans in a season. They did it annually from '54 to '57 and came up just 29,000 short in '58. And while the Braves relied on the rest of Wisconsin, as well as Iowa, Minnesota and northern Illinois, to accomplish that, there should be no doubt as to where the wellspring of love for them lay. Back then you could walk into the best restaurants in Milwaukee—Karl Ratzsch's, Alioto's, Ray Jackson's—and always find the Braves game on the radio. In the city's multitudinous taverns there were never cries of dismay when Earl Gillespie, the voice of the Braves, reported that a fan had leaped onto County Stadium's diamond; the drinkers simply started betting on how many bases he would touch before the grounds crew hauled him down.