Pop-quiz time: The last Milwaukee baseball team to win their league’s championship was….
The 1982 Brewers? Well, you are half right. Just missing the World Series title.
1957 Milwaukee Braves? So close, but props for knowing your Milwaukee baseball history.
As of 2020, This honors belongs to the Milwaukee Milkmen, champions of the American Association of professional baseball.
You may be thinking…”An independent team? Why would we care about that title?” If you are a fan of baseball, Milwaukee, and Wisconsin sports in general, I invite you to keep reading and consider the unfolding story of The Milwaukee Milkmen: The other cream city nine.
First, about the league. The American Association of professional baseball (AA) has a storied history dating back to 1902, but it was in October of 2005 when a “revival” of the league came together from two independent leagues joining forces. In the following years, the league would continue to grow throughout the Midwest but it was In 2018 when the league began to grow out into larger suburban areas like Chicago.
In 2019, the league would expand the circuit again. This time…to Franklin, Wisconsin. In a $25 million ball park development project, Franklin Field was born. As apart of the ballpark commons area in Franklin, it hosts the Milkmen as well as the Milwaukee Panthers college baseball team.
12 teams, including a travel team, are on again for this upcoming season for the 21 AA baseball champion. More growth is planned as it was announced on May 17th a new team out of Oconomowoc Wisconsin will join the league in 2022! More teams to love for us Wisconsinites!
The American Association, as well as other independent leagues such as the Frontier League, are full of baseball talent. You will notice players whose journey includes being released from a major league team, so as a way to get back to the show they compete on one of these leagues. Brandon Kintzler & Junior Guerra are a few familiar names of players who pitched in the independent league and have impacted teams in the major league level. Other players could be graduated college players who still desire to play. Sometimes players who have long sense retired but still have baseball talent decide to give it another go. As you attend a game, you see players with different stories and journeys continuing to play because they love the game.
2020 and the Milkmen’s run to the championship
While exciting to open up a new ballpark and welcome a new squad to the baseball loving community, the inaugural season proved to be rather bumpy as the Milkmen finished with a 38-62 record. The following offseason however brought upon a sense of optimism as a new manager Anthony Barone (who had previously served as the third base coach) was given the reigns to the club and new players were being acquired for an upcoming sophomore run.
But of course…The world in 2020 went into shutdown because of the Covid-19 virus. While the United States and the world would battle this pandemic, it seemed as if professional sports would have to be on hold. If there were to be any sports at all, it would surely would not include fans in attendance….
But the American Association took a chance and put together a plan to play baseball for the Summer…With fans in attendance. This was achieved by cutting the season down to 60 games, as well as trimming the league down from 12 teams down 6 as a way to create “hubs” based upon geography and cut down travel. Safety procedures would be taken by organizations which required limiting attendance and strict clean up procedures. The Milkmen were one of the teams selected alongside the Chicago Dogs, St. Paul Saints (now the Minnesota Twins triple A affiliate), Winnipeg Goldeneyes, Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks, and the Sioux Fall Canaries. A dispersal draft was incorporated in which players on the ineligible teams could be selected to join the 6 already in play.
On July 3rd of 2020, while still in the thick of a pandemic, live baseball would be played.
The Milkmen from the beginning proved to be a stronger team then the season before. Led again by Adam Brett Walker (more on him later…), a formidable pitching staff, and great defense, the Milkmen began and ended the season strong.
The strength of the Milkmen was the pitching staff from top to bottom. Ace left hander David Holmberg (6-1) led the league with a 2.34 ERA and was 4th in the league with strikeouts (76). Ryan Kussmaul also posted a record of 4-2 was one strikeout away from tying fellow teammate Holmberg for the team lead. Other pitchers would also join in on the pitching staff including Taylor Ahearn, Henderson Alveraz, and Tim Dillard (Yes, THAT Tim Dillard).
The bullpen however was even more electric. If the Milkmen could enter the 9th with the lead, opponents would have to deal with rookie Peyton Gray. In 32 innings, Gray did not give up a single run. Not one. He tallied a total of 14 saves, 56 strikeouts, and owned a mustache which struck fear into every batter he faced (probably). Another name, AJ Schugel, would rarely be scored upon as he owned a 1.02 ERA with 23 strikeouts. These two in tandem with a strong pitching staff would bring about shortened games for any of opponent. As a whole, the Milkmen would only allow 214 runs for the season which was the best in the 6 team division.
The defense was also solid behind the pitching. The player most worthy of highlight was Brett Vertigan, who could be mistaken as Thor of Asgord with his long hair and beard as he surveys centerfield not with a hammer but a glove, collecting outs in several opportunities. Vertigan would be named co-defensive player of the year alongside Chicago’s Mike Crouse.
On the offensive side, while many players could be mentioned, the one who deserves much credit for the championship run is Milwaukee’s very own Adam Brett Walker. Walker, he played his high school ball for Milwaukee Lutheran, had been in his second season with the club. In 57 games, Walker’s line was .268/.320/.609 totaling a .929 OPS. He led the league in 22 long balls with some clutch homeruns late in the chase for the division. Walker was awarded the honor of the American Association player of the year. The kid from Milwaukee was becoming a local legend of sorts.
At seasons end, Walker, and the Milkmen, would host the Sioux Falls Canaries in a best of seven series for the “Miles Wolf” trophy. The Canaries had the league in many of the major offensive categories, so fans would be able to see the top offensive team against the top pitching team for championship glory. As it played out, the series would only need to go 5 games. In game 1, it was the Milkmen who would flex their hitting muscles by winning 11-6. Game 2, the pitching would rule the day by shutting out the Canaries in a score of 2-0.
The series moved out West to see the Milkmen once again dominate on the offensive end and win 10-5. The Canaries would fight back and take game 4. But in game 5, David Holmberg gave a masterful pitching performance that nearly was a no-hitter. 7.1 innings, 8 strikeouts, and only 1 hit that was given in the 8th inning. The Canaries and their potent offense was stifled and stood no chance. AJ Schugel and Peyton Gray would close the game and lead the Milkmen to the first title in only their second year in existence.
The 2021 Title Defense
And now the Milkmen would look to repeat as champs. Though they began the season without a few key arms in the back end of their bullpen. Peyton Gray was signed to the Kansas City Royals farm system, AJ Schugel was signed by the Mets, & Anthony Bender is currently pitching with the Miami Marlins.
The league itself is back to full strength itself. Now with 12 teams (out is the St. Paul saints & Texas Airhogs, in is Kane County Cougars and Houston Apollos) and a full season of 100 games.
While the level of competitiveness in the league is up, several players who were essential to the championship run are still in uniform. Holmberg, Walker, and Vertigan are back as well as other notable players such as 1st basemen David Washington, 3rd basemen Adam Trowbridge, 2nd basemen Aaron Hill, catcher Christian Correa, and stud defensive shortstop Mason Davis. Manager Anthony Barone will lead the team for a 2nd season.
The season is just underway, and there are plenty of opportunities to go the the “Shrine of Bo-vine” with friends and family! You can also catch the Milkmen nightly through the American Association streaming service. Wisconsin Heroics will look to give you bi-weekly updates.
You may be thinking…
Am I ready to invest into another Milwaukee baseball team? Let me ask you, do you like Beer? Do you like Milk? Do you like Beer and Milk (not mixed together)? Then you can like the Milkmen. See you at Franklin Field this Summer.
Oh and be sure to say Hi to Bo-Vine.
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