The boys from Kewaunee, Wis.—Murphy, Goose, Bobby and the Fonz—were noisily debating the finer points of that night's Brewer game over a few beers at Ray Jackson's bar and restaurant when the very man they wanted to see strolled through the front door. "Hey, George!" the Kewaunee crowd called out, "c'mon over here." Though he had never before set eyes on Murph, Goose, Bobby or the Fonz, George Bamberger, manager of the Brewers, cheerfully obliged them. "Hiya, fellows," he greeted them, his rubicund face aglow with a merry smile. "Hey, Ray, give us some beer." And for the better part of an hour he sat talking baseball with the increasingly bibulous boys from Kewaunee and with whomever else happened by his barstool. "This guy," said proprietor Jackson, appraising the scene, "has got to be the most popular man in town."
The Brewers had lost that night, 12-10, when the Red Sox scored two runs in the ninth inning as the result of some managerial strategy that backfired. In such circumstances, the ordinary major league manager might have been expected to seek the solace of his loved ones, brood in the company of trusted associates or curse fate in solitary misery alongside a bottle in his hotel room. To whoop it up with the fans would be unthinkable. But Bamberger, his good humor unimpaired, did exactly what he usually does after a game, which is down a few with the crowd at Jackson's.
Sometimes Bamberger doesn't even get that far. He has been known to stop off at postgame tailgate parties in the County Stadium parking lot and visit for hours with perfect strangers. Bamberger is a man who doesn't merely say he likes people; he actually does like people. Even though managing is a business that tends to turn Samaritans into churls, he remains unflaggingly affable. He is not merely popular in Milwaukee but he is also, in the view of Brewers owner Bud Selig, "a legend around here. If you were stage-casting, George Bamberger and Milwaukee would be made for each other."
Bamberger is also an anomaly in the pressure cooker of pro sports. He had been in baseball 33 years before anyone thought of him as managerial material, yet when the Milwaukee job was offered to him, he accepted it only reluctantly, and he gleefully anticipates the day when he can chuck it and retire to Florida. Though he never managed anywhere before, his team won 93 games in 1978 as he transformed a sixth-place finisher into a contender, an accomplishment that made him Manager of the Year. In the process, he almost certainly became the highest-paid manager in the game.
In attaining these distinctions, Bamberger has proved to be an inveterate lineup-tinkerer and position-changer, traits not likely to endear a manager to his players. Nonetheless, he is as admired by them as he is by the fans, because his moves are not made to advertise his own tactical genius but to make certain everyone has a chance to play.
There are times, in fact, when Bamberger permits his players to decide for themselves when and where they will play. Before a recent game with the Orioles, he was relaxing in the dugout when Sal Bando, one of his stars, approached to pose a familiar question: "Am I playing?"
"Sure," replied Bamberger, "DH."
"Look, I'd just as soon play third tonight and DH tomorrow," said Bando. "Coop [First Baseman-DH Cecil Cooper] says he'd just as soon DH tonight and play first tomorrow."
"Great idea," said Bamberger, unfazed by this seeming impertinence, "I'll play Money [First-Second-Third Baseman Don Money] at first tonight. I'll make that change right now."
And, as visiting Baltimore newsmen shook their heads in disbelief, he hurried into the clubhouse to do just that. "Can you imagine a player saying that to Billy Martin?" one of the reporters muttered. "Or Earl Weaver?"