When Robin Yount Almost Quit

In the spring of 1978, the 22-year-old Yount was so sick of losing, he nearly retired from baseball

Dec. 14, 2015
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Robin Yount and Paul Molitor after game 1 of the 1982 World Series. Yount’s near-retirement from baseball in 1978 opened the door for Molitor to break into the Big Leagues. (AP photo)

No 22-year-old before or since played as many Major League games as Robin Yount had as the Brewers opened spring training in 1978. Yount was projected as the youngest player on the roster that season, but – having broken into the big leagues at 18 – was preparing for his fifth season as the Brewers starting shortstop.

Yount on the cover of the 1977 Milwaukee Brewers media guide. By the end of the ’77 season, Yount was openly expressing his lack of enthusiasm about playing on a losing team.

And Yount was tired. The previous September, in the midst of dreadful 95-loss season that would cost both general manager Jim Baumer and field manager Alex Grammas their jobs, Yount had vocalized his displeasure with the game and the Brewers. “I can’t say I’ve enjoyed baseball that much,” he told the Milwaukee Journal. “It’s not as much fun as it should be.” Yount felt that the team’s bad attitude was partially to blame for their poor play and complained that losing had worn him down. “It hasn’t been that rewarding,” he said of baseball with the Brewers, who had not placed higher than fifth during his career. “I haven’t gotten anything out of it.”

As he went to spring training in 1978, Yount was not under contract. He had just completed a two year deal worth about $80,000 per year. He was still a year away from free agency, but the Brewers were eager to lock him into a long-term deal. Yount was considered one of the best young shortstops in the game, a player on the verge of a breakout season and a potential multi-million dollar payday. But Yount moped through the first few weeks of camp. He was bothered by a sore foot and a troublesome elbow. He struggled at the plate and in the field, batting .212 with four errors in just ten games.

In late March, Yount asked for some time away from the team. On March 28, he was officially placed on the disabled list because of his foot trouble, but it was clear by then that this was not a simple case of an injured ballplayer. As the Milwaukee press began to preview the upcoming season and opening day just over a week away, rumors flew that Robin Yount was about to quit the game.

Despite talking with Brewers owner and president Bud Selig, Yount was still unsure about his future in baseball. Selig eventually gave the young shortstop one of the richest contracts in team history.

“I’m thinking. I’m just thinking about it,” Yount told the Journal as he prepared to leave camp for his home in California. “I’d like to sign, I guess. But I’m still thinking. I haven’t made up my mind.” When word of Yount’s potential retirement reached Milwaukee, team owner and president Bud Selig flew to Arizona to speak with his shortstop. First-year general manager Harry Dalton said that Yount was “confused and depressed” and several unnamed Brewers players told the papers that Yount had told them he would not sign for 1978.

As Yount packed his bags, the Brewers were preparing to open a new chapter in club history. The Brewers had never known a winning season and had never placed higher than fourth (in 1970, when they lost 97 games). But for 1978, the team hired Dalton as GM and George Bamberger as field manager, both snagged from the Baltimore Orioles organization – winners of five division titles, three pennants, and a World Series in the previous decade. They’d signed all-star outfielder Larry Hisle, one of that offseason’s top free agents. They picked up young sluggers Gorman Thomas and Ben Oglivie. They even debuted a brand-new logo and pinstripe uniforms.

20-year-old Paul Molitor with the A-level Burlington Brewers in 1977. Despite playing just 64 pro games, Molitor was named the Major League Brewers starting shortstop in Yount’s absence.

But with Yount’s status up in the air, the team now had a sudden hole in the infield. Luckily, the Brewers had a future Hall-of-Famer literally waiting in a car outside the team’s spring training facility. Paul Molitor had been the team’s first round draft choice the previous June. He was only 21 years old and, with just 64 games experience at the A-level, did not expect in any way to make the team. In fact, Molitor had just been given his minor league assignment and was sitting in Jim Gantner’s car, waiting to be driven across town to where the minor league teams were training, when he was called back to the team. As the team prepared to make the trip north, Molitor was announced as the starting shortstop and opening day leadoff hitter. When Dalton was asked about the prospect of Yount returning when his foot healed, he was blunt. “To be frank, I’m not overly encouraged.”

In the lead-up to the opener, the local press was surprisingly sympathetic towards Yount. Journal sportswriter Bob Wolf called him “an unusual young man, one who supposedly is more interested in contentment than money.” Indeed, it was probably the lack of any concern over money that spared the young shortstop a beating in the papers. Although he was unsigned, it was not dollars and cents keeping him from signing. His name began to pop up in trade rumors, although Dalton dismissed them, insisting he would not trade a player who was seriously considering retirement. In the days before the opener, Dalton tried to set up an appointment with a doctor in Milwaukee to have Yount’s foot reevaluated. But Dalton was unable to get in touch with him. No one with the team seemed to know where Robin Yount was.

By Opening Day, 1978, the only way for fans to see Robin Yount in a Brewers uniform was on his Topps trading card.

Meanwhile, it was now being reported that Yount was considering taking a year off from baseball to try professional golf. Yount was rumored to be a near-scratch golfer, but his greatest accomplishment on the course thus far was placing third in a single junior tournament. In the years since 1978, the golf narrative has taken over the Yount-leaving-the-team story. But Yount later denied that he was considering a switch to golf. “I never did say anything about playing golf professionally,” he said later on in 1978. In a 1982 Sports Illustrated profile, Yount admitted he’d talked about golf, but insisted his comments were not meant to be taken seriously. Sports Illustrated claimed that the reasons for his leaving the team were personal. In short, Yount was in love. During the 1977 season, he started dating a woman named Michele, a former high school classmate. Michele lived with him in Milwaukee during the 1977 season, but decided in the off-season that she wanted a serious commitment and preferred to live out that commitment at home in California. “Yount was torn,” the magazine wrote, “Michele was tremendously important to him. Not until they worked out their future—the following winter they were married—did he decide to return to the Brewers.”

But the overriding factor seemed to be that Yount simply was not enjoying baseball. “He doesn’t want to play anymore,” one person close to him said, “He doesn’t like it anymore.” The possible financial security the game offered was tempered by Yount’s age and ambition – he could see himself making a living in any number of professions. He also came from a family of means and had qualified for a Major League pension in 1977. The Brewers had little leverage in the situation. All they could do was wait and hope.

It was an encouraging sign when Yount unexpectedly flew to Milwaukee for opening day (the team was willing to charter a plane for him, but apparently could not get in touch with him). Paul Molitor was somewhat shocked to find Yount having coffee with teammates on the morning of the opener in the lobby of the Astor Hotel, where Molitor was living. Yount wished Molitor a good game, but the exchange between the popular veteran and the rookie trying to take his job was a little jarring for Molitor. “It was really awkward,” he said afterward. “I mean, my career is hanging on Robin’s fingers. If he comes back, I’m gone. I really wanted him right then to tell me what he was going to do, but I was hardly in a position to ask him. It’s none of my business.”

Yount watched from the WTMJ broadcast booth with Merle Harmon and Bob Uecker as the Brewers pounded the Orioles 11-3. He was on hand for most of the first homestand, hanging out in the clubhouse and watching from a private box as the Brewers swept the Orioles and Yankees to run up a 5-0 start. Molitor, who was batting .421 on the young season, expressed sympathy for Yount, who he said had “mental strain.” Yount meanwhile, was no longer even verbalizing his thoughts to the press. Asked plainly if he would rejoin the team when healthy, the Journal wrote that “Yount shrugged and threw out both arms in a noncommittal gesture.”

Paul Molitor’s 1979 Topps card shows him at County Stadium during his 1978 rookie season.

When the Brewers returned home in late April, sitting on an 8-8 record, Yount had left Milwaukee. Once again, the team wasn’t exactly sure where he’d gone. “I sure hope he spends his time figuring out if he wants to play baseball,” Dalton told the press. Meanwhile, Molitor and fellow rookie infielder Lenn Sakata were playing so well it was speculated that Yount might not have a place in the lineup if he returned. Reporters and fans begun to wonder about the return Yount might bring in a trade, particularly with the team’s struggling pitching staff.

But then, nearly as suddenly as he’d left, Yount announced that he would return to the team. “I’m here to play baseball,” he said on May 3, adding that he would game-ready in a week. He declined to speak about the reasons for his absence, but chided the club for the rumors of his interest in pro golf, which he denied. “As far as I’m concerned, what I talked about with the Brewer officials is confidential. If they want to talk about it, that’s their privilege.”

Three days later, Yount pinch hit in the 8th inning of a 4-3 win against the Kansas City Royals. Batting for Sakata, he popped to third base amid a steady booing from the home crowd. The next afternoon, also pinch hitting for Sakata, Yount stroked a base hit. It was the 571st hit of his career, only Washington Senators third baseman Buddy Lewis (1935-1949) had more career hits at the same age.

A week later, Molitor shifted to second base and Yount was reinstalled as the starting shortstop. Led by Yount’s hot bat, the Brewers went on a 22-9 tear, and were surprise contenders in the tough AL East for the rest of the season. Despite the month he missed, Yount finished the year with career highs in homers, RBI, batting average, and stolen bases. The Brewers’ 93 wins were the surprise of the season – the fourth highest total in the majors. Paul Molitor became a fixture at second base, batting .273 and finishing 2nd in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.

Yount and Molitor during the 1982 World Series. The two played as teammates for 15 years following Yount’s return to the Brewers.

During the season, Yount had signed a five year contract extension worth $2.35 million, effectively ending any speculation on his future as a ballplayer. It didn’t take long for the fans to forgive Yount, and he never expressed any doubts over his time away from the team or his decision to return. The story from here on, of course, is a familiar one. The Brewers become one of the AL’s best clubs, culminating in a pennant in 1982 and Yount and Molitor becoming all-stars, superstars, then Hall of Famers. But for a few weeks back in 1978, Yount was a confused kid sick of lousy baseball and Molitor was the star-struck rookie trying to make the best of a weird situation.

Thanks for reading for our first-ever post here at Brew Crew Confidential! Check back next week for my shutter-inducing look at the ten greatest Brewers free agents signings ever. Spoiler alert: “Greatest” doesn’t always mean “great,” and Jose Hernandez was a lot better than anyone remembers. 

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