The question has been asked since the beginning of time: “Who is the greatest of all time”. This question can be in many contexts:
LeBron or Jordan?
Brady or Montana?
Lombardi or Belichick?
Well… that last one is Lombardi, Obviously.
As easy as that one was, most of them don’t have easy answers. This question extends into individual franchises as well. Today we will analyze some of the managers who have led the Milwaukee Brewers. Hopefully, we can find out who the greatest among them is.
Honorable Mention: Phil Garner
“Bambi” Leads the Brewers to the Brink
In 1977 the Brewers were an objectively bad baseball team. They had young talent to be excited about, but a 21 year old Robin Yount can’t overcome a record of 67-95. After the second 90 loss season in a row, two year manager Alex Grammas was fired along with General Manager Jim Baumer.
The writing had been on the wall that Grammas would be fired for a while. Many players were discontent with his managing and with the young talent, Selig believed that a change of scenery would be best. That change of scenery turned out to be one of the best moves he ever made.
Jim Baumer was replaced with Harry Dalton, who then replaced Grammas with George Bamberger.
Bamberger was born in 1925 on Staten Island, New York. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1943 and fought in the European theatre of the second World War.
In 1946, after returning home from his Military service, he signed with the then New York (baseball) Giants. He spent the vast majority of his career in the minor leagues. He had three different stints in the majors (two with the Giant’s and one with the Orioles) between 1951 and 1959. Bamberger would be a player coach from 1960 – 1963 before his retirement as a player in 1964.
He was a minor league pitching coach for a few years before being promoted to the position of pitching coach with the Orioles. He would hold that position until 1977 when he was hired as the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.
A Blue Collar Man for a Blue Collar Team
The Milwaukee Brewers of the late 1970s and 80s were a blue collar baseball team. Many of the Brewers from that era came from blue collar backgrounds and had a great work ethic. Many of that was driven by the city they represented.
That blue collar attitude was perfect for their new, no nonsense manager.
A great showcase of Bamberger’s personality was the first time he met outfielder Gorman Thomas:
He walked into the Brewers’ clubhouse in Spring Training of 1978 and introduced himself to his players. One of which was Gorman Thomas.
Bamberger: “Who the hell are you?”
Thomas: “Look, pal, you tell me who the hell you are.”
Bamberger: “I’m George Bamberger, the Manager”
Thomas: “Hi Mr. Bamberger, I’m Gorman Thomas”
Bamberger: “Oh, you’re my center fielder”
Thomas: “Pardon Me?”
Bamberger: “You’re my center fielder. The job’s yours. Don’t lose it, kid.”
Bamberger walked away.
That story is a good micro chasm of George Bamberger. A no nonsense man who expected the best.
He got exactly what he expected.
Bamberger Turns the Brewers Around
“Bambi” turned out to be exactly what the Brewers needed as they would go on to win 93 games in 1978 and finished third in the AL East. In 1979 they won 95 games and finished second in the east. In ’78 and ’79 the Brewers hit 173 and 185 home runs respectively. This led to the team being named: “Bambi’s Bombers”.
Unfortunately, Bamberger would battle health issues in 1980 and would later resign after a mediocre start to the season.
He was brought back in 1985 but couldn’t bring the Brewers back to their previous success, winning only 71 games in both ’85 and ’86. He would retire a final time in September 1986.
Bamberger never took the Brewers to the postseason, but he laid the foundation that would be used by the great Brewers teams of the early 1980s to achieve the success he was never able to.
Managerial Record: 377 – 351 (.518) (Two Stints)
Playoff Appearances: None
Kuenn Pushes “Harvey’s Wallbangers” Over the Top
Harvey Kuenn was born in West Allis, Wisconsin and grew up in the Milwaukee Area. Kuenn played baseball at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before signing with the Detroit Tigers in 1952. He joined the major league club later that season.
A twenty two year old Kuenn would go on to win the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1953, slashing .308/.356/.386 (AVG/OBP/SLG). That solid performance would remain for the majority of his career, winning the American League Batting Title in 1959, hitting .353. He would see a bit of a drop off in the mid ’60s before retiring in 1966.
Kuenn was brought on as a coach in the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 1972. He would serve one game as manager in 1975 and would be the hitting coach until 1982.
Kuenn Takes the Reigns as Manager
In June of 1982, the Brewers fired manager Buck Rodgers after a disappointing start to the season. Kuenn was elevated to the role of manager.
The Brewers flourished under their new skipper, finishing the year at 95-67 and winning the AL East. They would go on to win the American League Pennant, coming back from a two games to none deficit. They would lose the World Series in seven games.
Kuenn would be retained in 1983 but the Brewers would finish in 5th place in a stacked AL East with a record of 87-75. He was not brought back for the next season, but would stay in the organization as a scouting consultant.
Kuenn may have only been the Brewers’ skipper for two years, but his impact on the teams he managed and the franchise as a whole was immense.
Managerial Record: 160 – 118 (.576) (managed one game in 1975)
Playoff Appearances: 1, Lost 1982 WS
Yost Takes the Brewers from the Cellar to the Doorstep
Edgar “Ned” Yost was born in Eureka, CA on August 19, 1954. He played baseball for Chabot Junior College as he had no offers to play on scholarship. After college, he was drafted by the Mets (first by the Expos, but he did not sign). Three years later he would go to the Brewers via the Rule 5 Draft. He was the Brewers backup catcher for four years before going to Texas and later Montreal. He would retire in 1985.
After retirement, Yost was a bullpen and later third base coach for the Atlanta Braves. He would hold the ladder position before being brought on to manage the Brewers in 2003.
By this point, the Brewers future didn’t look very bright. They did not have a winning season between 1993 and 2002. Most of these teams didn’t even come close. 2002 was when the Brewers really bottomed out, going 56-106, good for dead last in the National League.
After Yost was brought in in 2003, things didn’t get much better, but they improved greatly. 2005 was the Brewers’ first non losing season since 1992, they went 81-81. The team took a bit of a step back in 2006, going 75-87. But then, in 2007, a familiar face would join the Brewers:
Rookie Sensation Takes The Brewers to New Heights
With the addition of Braun, the Brewers had an eight and a half game lead in the NL Central in late June, and four and a half by the all star break. Despite this, the Brewers were under .500 by late August, and fell two games behind the Cubs in the Central at the end of the season.
Despite the disappointment that 2007 brought, Braun won NL Rookie of the year and the Brewers were poised for a special 2008.
By the end of August, 2008, the Brewers were all but a lock for the postseason. They sat five and a half games into the wild card as their record stood at 80 – 56 with a dominant CC Sabathia headlining their rotation. It looked as if nobody would stop them.
However, that comfort would not last.
Another Large Lead. Can They Hold It?
Come on, you know better.
You’ve been here long enough to know the answer to that.
These are the Milwaukee Brewers we’re talking about! You know this team is allergic to division/wild card leads of more than three games.
The Brewers would only win four games between August 31 and September 20 and by then, they were two and a half games back in the wild card race. Yost was fired in the middle of that skid on September 15. He was replaced by bench coach Dale Sveum.
The Brewers were able to come back and retake the wild card, due in part to some late season heroics by CC Sabathia, who essentially willed his team to October.
The Brewers finally tasted the postseason for the first time since 1982, but Yost was not there to see it from the dugout.
Ned Yost changed the culture of the clubhouse and brought the Brewers to the brink of the playoffs. Unfortunately, under his watch, the Brewers were very inconsistent. They lost two massive cushions in the standings in two consecutive years and it was eventually the cause of Yost’s downfall.
All in all, Yost never took the Brewers over the top, but he put them in a position to succeed for years to come, even if he wasn’t there to witness it from the dugout.
Managerial Record: 457 – 502 (.477)
Playoff Appearances: None (Fired before 2008 playoff birth)
The Hometown Kid Leads the Crew to Three in a Row
Craig Counsell grew up in Whitefish Bay, WI. Counsell was a big fan of the Brewers growing up, his father worked for the team during his childhood. He would go to college at Notre Dame where he would play baseball. After college, he was drafted in the eleventh round of the 1992 MLB Draft by the Rockies. He would bounce around the league for a while before landing with the Brewers in 2004 and again in 2007, where he would finish his baseball career. He retired following the 2011 season.
Once retired, he stayed on with the Brewers as an assistant to general manager Doug Melvin. He would stay in that position until 2015 where, before he could climb the front office ladder, he would be called to do something bigger.
After a collapse in 2014, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was on the hot seat. Although the front office put their trust in him before the season, relations quickly soured as he was fired on May 3, 2015. Craig Counsell was brought in as his replacement a day later.
The firing of Roenicke in May and Doug Melvin’s resignation in August spelled the beginning of a major rebuild of the Milwaukee Brewers starting in 2016. Assets were traded, the farm was stacked and the organization was ready to wait it out until a winner came.
An Unexpected Winner
In Counsell’s third season, the Brewers were in the thick of a pennant race. The Crew came out of nowhere to steal the top spot of the NL Central at the all star break, only to lose it late in the season and miss the postseason. Counsell received praise for how he managed his team, especially the pitching staff.
Although the Brewers missed out on the postseason, Counsell had his culture set, and it seemed that his team was set for a postseason run.
The next season the Brewers had added Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich to round off an already good lineup as they were ready to go all in on this team.
Unfortunately for Counsell, if he was watching October baseball from his couch that year, he may be asked to stay there permanently. Lucky enough, his job was secure by the end of the season.
The Brewers would finish the season tied for first place in the NL Central and would beat the Cubs in game 163 at Wrigley. Led by their stellar bullpen, they were division champs for the first time in seven years!
The Brewers crushed the Rockies in three games before narrowly losing the NLCS to the Dodgers in seven. By 2018, his job was secured for at least the next two years as, by this point, he was considered one of, if not the best manager in the National League. He would again lead the Brewers to the playoffs in 2019 and 2020, losing the wild card both times. He received a three year contract extension in the 2019 offseason, making him the manager of the Brewers through 2023.
If Counsell manages the rest of his contract, he will be the longest tenured skipper in Brewers history and will most likely be the all time winningest. Right now, both of those spots are held by Phil Garner, who managed the team for the majority of the 1990s. He only had one winning season (1992), but he managed for so long that he is the franchise’s all time winningest manager. He had a record of 563 – 617 (.477) before being fired in 1999 after seven consecutive losing seasons.
Counsell is already at 469 wins in his managerial career. He sits at second on the Brewers managerial win list. If the brewers win at least 66 games in both 2021 and 2022, he will surpass Garner by the end of next season.
Managerial Record: 469 – 439 (As of 6/9/21)
Playoff Appearances: 3; Lost 2018 NLCS, Lost 2019 NLWC, Lost 2020 NLWC
Who is the Greatest Manager in Brewers History?
If I had to pick one, it would be Counsell. Three playoff appearances don’t lie (except for 2020, that one kind of does). He has set a culture that has led to success over the last few years and he shows no sign of stopping. He is signed through 2023, and (barring catastrophic events) he will be the Brewers all time winningest manager soon enough.
However, my word is not law. If it were, the Brewers would have Justin Turner at the hot corner.
It really depends on what your definition of greatness is. Is it championships? Total Wins? Awards? Length of Tenure? Playoff Appearances? Do future seasons count? Culture?
Nobody really knows.
That is why the question of “who is the greatest of all time” is subjective, there really isn’t one set answer.
I joked about the greatest NFL coach of all time obviously being Vince Lombardi, but really it’s whoever you think it is.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, greatness is no different.