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?"
With a playing career that included 18 minor league seasons, Bamberger, 53, was trained in the so-called "old school," in which the manager's preachments were engraved on stone tablets. "In those days we didn't have the word 'communication,' " he says. "If the manager said, 'Do it,' we did it and shut up. If somebody told me, 'Run 20 laps,' I ran 20 laps. If they asked me to jump a 20-foot fence, I'd have tried and kept trying." And yet he says he has had no difficulty adjusting to the changing times, becoming a "handler of men," not a despot. No strict disciplinarian, he nevertheless commands unusual respect from the freer spirits who play the game now. "You'll never meet a nicer guy," says the Orioles' Jim Palmer, whom Bamberger tutored for nine years when he was the game's most successful—and highest-paid—pitching coach. "And yet you wouldn't consider taking advantage of him. You just can't double-cross a guy like that. I don't know about nice guys finishing last, but George is a winner."
"He may be the game's best communicator," says Bando, employing that contemporary word. "George understands things about players other managers have forgotten. If you can't get along with him, you can't get along with anybody."
His nickname, Bambi, is all wrong, suggesting as it does fawning. Bamberger, stocky, thick-necked, large-nosed, more nearly resembles a Brahma bull, and his language, spoken with a New York accent, is rougher than a platoon sergeant's. As sweet-tempered as he is, he was still ejected from seven games last season, which tied him for the league lead with the volatile Weaver. Weaver has a penchant for saying unkind things of a personal nature to umpires, such as, "You are blind and stupid." With Bamberger, it isn't so much what he says as how he says it, because he seemingly cannot utter a sentence that does not contain—as an adjective, adverb, noun or verb—some variation of the fateful four-letter word that umpires everywhere consider cause for automatic banishment. "I guess it's O.K. to use that word," says Bamberger wistfully, "if you don't say 'you' along with it." The frequency of his enforced departures would suggest that the inadvisable pronoun too often follows the inadmissible verb.
Bamberger, in sum, is forever himself. He is in the enviable position of holding down a coveted job he never sought and will willingly relinquish when his contract expires after next season. He feels none of the crushing pressure that burdens his more ambitious colleagues. "He has no great pretensions about himself," says his general manager and longtime associate, Harry Dalton. "He has no massive ego that has to be massaged. He doesn't make moves so the fans will know his brain is working. He does nothing to magnify his own reputation." Indeed, he has a charming gift for self-deprecation. He will explain in numbing detail some involved stratagem and then conclude, "All that shows is that I'm full of crap." It's difficult to imagine a healthier person in a line of work that seems to encourage paranoia.
Bamberger's friends, like Weaver and Brooks Robinson, were flabbergasted when Bamberger left the security of his job as the Baltimore pitching coach to become a manager. "All he ever talked about was retiring to Florida," says Robinson. Besides, Bamberger was handsomely paid by the Orioles, and within his specialty his reputation was unexcelled. Before he became Baltimore's pitching coach in 1968, the Orioles had produced exactly one 20-game winner, Steve Barber in 1963, in their 14-year history. In the 10 years Bamberger held the job, they had 18, including four—Palmer, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally—in 1971 and three—Palmer, McNally and Cuellar—in 1970.
Palmer, who won 20 or more seven times under Bamberger, credits him with "turning around our whole pitching program. We always had outstanding pitchers, but we had a history of arm injuries. Before George we didn't do any throwing, except on the mound in stress situations. He had us throwing every day for 15 or 20 minutes. And he ran us every day." Under Bamberger, the Oriole pitching staff doubled its number of complete games. And, Palmer says, Bamberger taught him control and dissuaded him from quitting baseball in 1968 when his sore arm seemed incurable. As the Hall of Fame will surely confirm, Palmer's arm came alive again. If Bamberger had accomplished nothing more than rescuing a career so brilliant, his reputation would be assured, but according to Weaver, the "Bamberger influence was everywhere. As the manager, I'd like to take some credit but, heck, George did it all. He's one of the game's greatest teachers. Throw strikes, he would say. There is nothing complicated about baseball. Maybe that's what makes George so good—there's nothing complicated about George."
As good as he was, Bamberger was considered by apparently everyone but Dalton to be strictly a specialist. The canard that former pitchers do not make good managers may have been laid to rest by the wonders performed last season by Bob Lemon, Tom Lasorda, Roger Craig and Bamberger, but when Milwaukee went looking for a manager in early 1978, that view still had currency. Dalton, then newly hired by Selig to pull the Brewers out of the bottom of the barrel, paid the anti-pitcher bias no mind and proposed a "long shot" for manager. Dalton is in the habit of shooting long. Of the seven skippers he has hired as general manager at Baltimore, California and Milwaukee, six, including Weaver, had no big league managing experience. One, Bobby Winkles, had been a college coach with but a single year as a major league coach.
Still, Bamberger looked to be perhaps Dalton's longest shot. He had never been anything but a pitcher and a pitching coach, and Dalton was well aware of Bamberger's eagerness to retire. Dalton was also accustomed to being rejected by him. Twice in the early 1960s he had offered Bamberger the Orioles' minor league pitching instructor's job, and twice Bamberger had turned it down. Finally, in 1963, when Bamberger decided to quit as a player at age 39, he called Dalton to ask if the position was still open. This was a signal moment, because it is the only occasion in Bamberger's long career when he actually applied for a job. He got it.
When Dalton called him again in January of last year, Bamberger was predictably evasive. "Let me think it over and call you back," he told his old boss. When he did, he explained to Dalton how comfortable he was in Baltimore and how he was only going to be around one more season anyway. "Why not fly to Milwaukee and see who the best salesman is?" Dalton replied. Bamberger consented, but he told his wife Wilma that he was going to ask for a salary so high the Brewers would surely send him packing. "I couldn't see them gambling that much on me," Bamberger says. "Nobody knows if you can manage until you try it, and I'd never even managed in the minors. Besides, I was going to be giving up a lot. I wanted to be compensated for stepping onto the hot coals."
Dalton proved to be an ace salesman, and Bamberger a hard bargainer. Both got what they wanted, which in Bamberger's case was a contract reportedly worth slightly less than $100,000 a season. There is also an attendance clause in the deal, and considering that the Brewers drew 486,468 more fans in '78 than they did in '77, it is estimated that Bamberger last year was paid about $60,000 more than the face value of his contract.
Selig, still wary even after his new manager was signed, told Bamberger, "You know, George, I've always thought this club was a lot better than it has played." He was startled by the reply. "Let me tell you something," Bamberger said. "You guys are a bunch of losers." He might have been faulted for impudence but certainly not for inaccuracy. The Brewers had lost 95 games in 1977.
The next surprise for Selig came in spring training when Bamberger's unorthodoxy as a manager became apparent. "I wanted to find out what each individual on the team could do," he explains. "It's my theory that if a player is agile enough and has a strong enough arm, he ought to be able to play more than one position." So he worked Money, recognized as one of the game's best third basemen, at first and second. Paul Molitor, a rookie shortstop, was tried at second and third and, this spring, in the outfield. Robin Yount, the fine young shortstop, took a turn at second. Bando, a veteran third baseman, tried first. Eventually Bamberger developed the revolving-door lineup that transformed Milwaukee from a 95-game loser to a 93-game winner that led the league in hitting, homers and runs scored. When at various times injuries struck down Yount, Money, Cooper, Larry Hisle, Gorman Thomas and Sixto Lezcano, Bamberger found ready replacements, because almost everyone on the roster had played several positions. It is his boast now that he has five regular infielders—Cooper, Money, Molitor, Yount and Bando—and four regular outfielders—Hisle, Thomas, Lezcano and Ben Oglivie. None of them will play 162 games this season, but, barring injury, all will play about 140, so deft is Bamberger in shuttling them in and out. In one three-game stretch in April, for example, Money played, in order, second, first and third.
Unsurprisingly, the Brewers' young pitchers blossomed under Bamberger and his pitching coach, Cal McLish. Lary Sorensen, now 23, won 18 games last year, and Jerry Augustine, 25, won 13, but the ace of the staff is a 30-year-old reclamation project, lefthander Mike Caldwell. Caldwell won 22 and lost only nine in 1978 and had an earned run average of 2.37. His 23 complete games led the major leagues. He was the American League's Comeback Player of the Year, and, had it not been for Ron Guidry, he also would have been the Cy Young Award winner. Caldwell had won a total of 13 games in the previous three seasons. He had had arm surgery, but his biggest problem, he contends, was lack of confidence. "I was being hit so hard I got defensive about throwing strikes," he says. "George revived my belief in myself. He got me throwing the ball over the plate. He explained it to me simply: the more strikes you throw, the more outs you get. That's almost too simple to be real." Most of the Brewers' pitchers heeded this maxim, and the staff gave up only 398 walks, the fewest in the league.
The man responsible for such prodigies had a lifetime major league record of 0-0, pitching 14 innings during parts of three seasons with the Giants, in 1951 and '52, and with the Orioles, in 1959. But he was tough in Triple A, where he spent 15 of his 18 playing seasons. On the day in 1951 that he learned of the birth of the first of his three daughters, he pitched a no-hitter for Ottawa of the International League, and in 1958 he set a Pacific Coast League record by pitching 68⅖ innings without issuing a walk. His arm went dead in 1949, his elbow in 1952 and his shoulder again in 1954 while favoring the elbow. For three seasons, '54 through '56, he pitched in such intense pain that he was obliged to pause for at least 20 seconds after every delivery before he could raise his arm again. "The fans got on me for working so slow," he says. He won 32 games at the Triple A level in those years. A man can learn much about the craft of pitching while paying such heavy dues.
Although he was a child of the Depression, Bamberger's youth, as he describes it, was idyllic. He was born and reared on Staten Island, a place, he says, "you had to pay to get onto and pay to get off of. It was like a vacation resort back then. We'd play ball in the streets every day. A car might come by every 30 minutes." One of his grandfathers owned Bamberger's Hall, a German beer garden that was once the most popular meeting place in the borough. The old beer hall had fallen into disuse and disrepair by the time George was old enough to enjoy it, and his father had gone into the taxi business. "At one time my family had quite a bit of money," Bamberger says, "but we were really hurt by the Depression. Still, I had a lot of fun as a kid. I played all sports. Never worked a day."
He was a strong-armed infielder for the Great Kill Buccaneers, a semi-pro team, and he didn't really learn to pitch until he entered the Army after his high school graduation. He was used mostly as a pitcher when he played with the 702nd Engineers during World War II in Africa and Italy. After mustering out, he signed with the Giants as an infielder but was switched to the mound after one day of throwing batting practice at spring training in Lakewood, N.J. Thus began a tortuous and tortured odyssey to the top of his profession.
Though Selig and Dalton hope he will change his mind, Bamberger insists that he and Wilma, to whom he has been married for 29 years, will shuffle off without regret to Reddington Beach, Fla. after the 1980 season. There he will do a little coaching in the Instructional League and work with one of the big-league clubs in spring training. Nothing more. Before that happy time, he would like to manage a pennant winner. "When I took over last year I said we'd be a .500 ball club then and a contender this year," Bamberger says. "Well, we were a contender last year, so we're ahead of my schedule. That means we'll just have to win it this year."
If they do, it will not be without opposition, because the Brewers are in a division with the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles. In a memorable week earlier this month, Milwaukee played a succession of high-scoring games with Boston and Baltimore. On a chill Thursday night in Milwaukee the Red Sox and Brewers slugged six home runs between them and were tied, 10-10, entering the ninth. Despite the earlier bombardment, the game would be decided by tactics, not power.
Jim Rice led off the ninth for Boston by drawing a walk. Bamberger replaced the righthanded Reggie Cleveland with the lefthanded Augustine to pitch to the lefthand-hitting Carl Yastrzemski, hoping, he later acknowledged, that Yaz would sacrifice Rice to second. "If he bunts, I walk George Scott, pitch to Jack Brohamer and bring in Bill Castro," a righthander, to pitch to the righthanded Dwight Evans. But Yaz blew his sacrifice attempt and, with two strikes against him, singled Rice to second. Scott did bunt, but he reached first when the ball rolled past Castro, who had been brought in earlier than planned. Brohamer hit into a double play that erased Rice at the plate, so Bamberger ordered an intentional walk for Dwight Evans, reloading the bases.
Castro stayed in the game as Boston Manager Don Zimmer summoned the lefthand-hitting Jim Dwyer to bat for Catcher Gary Allenson. "Ah ha," Bamberger said to himself, "they're playing into my hands." Dwyer, a .235 lifetime hitter, was exactly the man he wanted up in this situation. Had he lifted Castro for a lefthander, Zimmer would surely have brought in the powerful righthand batter, Butch Hobson, as a pinch hitter.
And so...Dwyer singled cleanly to left, scoring the tying and winning runs. "What it amounted to," Bamberger explained afterward, "is that I was [profanity] wrong."
The loss also forced Bamberger's hand in unwanted ways for the next evening's game with Baltimore. He originally had planned to bench the righthand-hitting Thomas against the Orioles' scheduled starter, Steve Stone, since Thomas had only one hit in six at bats off Stone in 1978. Hisle would play centerfield, with Oglivie in left and Lezcano in right. But while everybody else had jumped on Boston pitching the day before, Thomas had struck out four consecutive times, all the more reason, one might say, why he shouldn't play against the Orioles. This reasoning doesn't take into account Bamberger's compassion. "I can't take a man out after he's had a bad night like that," he lamented. "I just can't do that to a man."
So Thomas again played center, with Oglivie in right, Hisle in left and Lezcano, carefully briefed by Bamberger, on the bench. The Brewers won 9-3 as Thomas made two spectacular catches and kept a rally alive with a key single when the score was still tied. Weaver was ejected in the fifth inning, putting him one up on Bamberger for the season. Another Oriole was sent packing during a furious seventh-inning argument that followed a bases-loaded balk call on Baltimore Pitcher Don Stanhouse.
After the game Bamberger was ecstatic. Thomas had vindicated his faith in him, and so had his starting pitcher, Sorensen, who finished the game despite giving up five straight hits and all the Baltimore runs in the second inning. Had Bamberger considered changing pitchers at that unpromising juncture?
"Oh sure," he said. "I was getting close, but you've got to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. In the long run that helps you." If the balk call had not been made, he said, "I would've called the umpire a [several bad words] and have been thrown out like Earl."
The telephone rang. Bamberger excused himself and answered it. "Earl, hey, Earl." He laughed, advising with a hand over the mouthpiece that it was Weaver on the line. "Yeah, Earl, I was just explaining the balk call. Hey, you cursed that umpire. I was reading your lips. Sure I had my glasses on." He laughed uproariously, winking at the reporters in his office. Then, still chuckling, he returned to the conversation. "Back to the hotel for a drink? Sure, I'd like to, Earl, but I'm a little bushed. I'm just gonna have a couple of beers down at Ray Jackson's and go on home...."
Win or lose, Bamberger (left) often stops in a pub to shoot the breeze—and foam—with the fans.
After bumming a brew in the County Stadium lot, Bamberger admires a "Bambi's Bombers" T shirt.
Fans helped make Bamberger, whose contract has an attendance clause, the best-paid manager.