It’s been 40 years since the Brewers won the American League pennant, and we are periodically dedicating space in this newsletter to check in with the Crew in ‘82. This week: The birth of Harvey’s Wallbangers.
Harvey Kuenn was not the first choice to take over as Brewers manager when the team’s sluggish start cost Buck Rodgers the job on June 2, 1982. But he was the right choice.
Kuenn was Wisconsin, through and through. He was born in West Allis and spent most of his boyhood on Milwaukee’s south side. He played baseball at the University of Wisconsin and married a former Miss Wisconsin. He became a hitting star for the Detroit Tigers, winning American League Rookie of the Year honors in 1953, a batting title in ‘59 and making eight straight All-Star teams before eventually returning home to be Brewers hitting coach in 1971. Kuenn had gravitas, just ask Hall of Famer Robin Yount.
In 1974, Yount’s rookie season, the Brewers were out on the road somewhere. Yount says it doesn’t matter where. He was with Charlie Moore and Jim Slaton, making lots of noise in a hotel room that must have been one floor above Kuenn’s. Suddenly, there was a terrible pounding on the door.
“Now, we were not very good in those days, so we didn’t play very well most of the time, but at this particular time we really weren’t playing well, so Harvey’s fuse was short,” Yount said. “He comes knocking on the door, walks in and says, ‘Sit down!’ Harvey goes right down the line and says, ‘If it wasn’t for being a Milwaukee Brewer, on a last place team and the worst team in baseball, the three of you guys wouldn’t even be in the big leagues!’
“He went right down the row. Each one of us. Told us how bad we were and how we’re the luckiest guys in the world to be on that team. It was like a wake-up call. It isn’t all fun and games at this level. This was about results. He tore us up, and deservedly so. We loved him. That was like getting chewed out by your father.”
Kuenn endured medical problems beginning in the mid-1970’s including open-heart surgery in ’76 and a stomach ailment that sidelined him for much of ‘77. In 1980, after suffering from a blood clot, Kuenn’s right leg was amputated just below the knee. Six months later, he was back at work, ambling around on a wooden leg (which you’ll find today hanging above the bar at Fourth Base, not far from American Family Field).
In May 1982, when the Brewers ended the month with a 22-24 record under Rodgers, GM Harry Dalton and owner Bud Selig were ready to make a change. Selig asked the team’s captain, Sal Bando, if he wanted to take over as manager.
Bando declined, so the job went to Kuenn.
“Harvey was the right guy at the right time,” Bando said. “Buck Rodgers was always having his hands on everything. Harvey came in and left guys alone and let them play,”
“He fit in perfectly with us,” said infielder Don Money. “It was one of those special things that you never forget. Even though he was my boss, he was just like a father to me.”
Kuenn adopted a more hands-off approach with the veteran Brewers, and the rest is history. They went 72-43 the rest of the way and clinched the franchise’s first division championship on the final day of the regular season, then played all the way to Game 7 of the World Series against the Cardinals.
Kuenn’s philosophy was simple, as he explained to Sports Illustrated in the summer of ‘82.
“Stay within yourself, and play sound fundamental baseball. The less you have to worry about, the better you do,” Kuenn told the magazine.
“He made the greatest speech for a manager’s first night ever, and I’ve seen a lot of managers,” said Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons. “We’re all sitting in there, and he’s peg-legging his way out of his office to the center of the room.”
Simmons bangs on the table methodically for effect.
“He says, ‘OK, boys. I’m going to tell you one thing, and this is the only thing I want you to know: I hate meetings. And this meeting is over.”
Simmons laughs and bangs on the table again to simulate Kuenn’s retreat.
“That’s the only thing you need to know about Harvey,” Simmons said.
“That may have been the only meeting we ever had,” Jim Gantner said.
“We were like birds in a cage,” Ben Oglivie told SI in ‘82. “He opened it and — freedom!”
Kuenn returned for a full season in ‘83 but was dismissed by Dalton after a disappointing September. It was part of a stretch in which the Brewers employed six managers in six years, including George Bamberger twice.
Kuenn stayed with the organization as a scout and Minor League instructor, and remained close with his players until he passed away in 1988. And when we say close, we mean it. In Spring Training when he was manager, Kuenn and his wife, Audrey, regularly had players over for dinner. During the season, they often gathered a few blocks away from County Stadium at Cesar’s Inn on 56th St. and National Ave., a tavern run by Audrey and Harvey. If he was dad to the players, Audrey was mom.
Harvey was inducted into the Brewers Walk of Fame in 2005.
“We were like a family,” said Audrey Kuenn, who passed away in 2020. “It was just the neatest group of people you ever wanted to meet. I don’t think we’ll ever see it again, not like it was then. Where can you find a one-legged manager that has a tavern across the street from the ballpark?”