The Loss of a Milwaukee Boy: 28 years ago, Harvey Kuenn Passed Away

Feb. 29, 2016
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Harvey Kuenn, shown here in 1983, died 28 years ago today. - Getty Images

Harvey Kuenn was preparing to spend another spring sitting in the sunshine and watching baseball in the dry desert air when he passed away. The Brewers were two weeks into training camp and about to be begin their exhibition schedule, with Kuenn working as advance scout. As the club prepared for its 19th season, perhaps no single person had so embodied the franchise as the man his players called “Arch.” Kuenn has been with the franchise as long as Bob Uecker, was more accessible than Bud Selig, and had put the Harvey in the great “Harvey’s Wallbangers” pennant-winner of 1982. He was only 57 years old.

Back in Milwaukee, Pete Vuckovich heard news of Kuenn’s death early in the day. As many of Kuenn’s former players, Vuckovich had come to see the old man as something of a father figure. Not particularly knowing how to deal with the news, Vuckovich went to Cesar’s Inn tavern at 55th and National, just over a mile from County Stadium. The bar was owned by Kuenn’s widow, Audrey, and had been the center of the Brewers off-the-field universe during their 1982 glory days. That day in 1988, however, the room was still and grim. Long-time staff members, many of whom had come to regard Harvey as a part of the family, solemnly went through the motions of the day. Vuckovich sat on a familiar stool and ordered a beer and shot.

Five and a half years earlier, Kuenn had made his slow and loping walk out to the pitcher’s mound at Busch Stadium in St. Louis to remove Vuckovich from game seven of the 1982 World Series. The Brewers led 3-1 and were just ten outs from the world’s championship. Both runners Vuckovich had allowed on base would come around to score and the Cardinals would claim the title an hour later. The damage from the elbow tendons Vuckovich had shredded that year would take years to heal and would effectively end his pitching career. “The man told the worst jokes in the world,” Vuckovich told a reporter who’d also been drawn to the bar. “But he was probably the best man who ever lived to tell a joke to.” Vuke was only 35 years old and could probably have still been pitching if not for his insistence that he play though the pain in 1982 as he led the Brewers’ pitching staff and claimed the American League’s Cy Young Award. But he’d given his all for the team and his skipper. “Here’s to the best,” Vuckovich toasted with tears in his eyes. “He’s what life was all about to me.”

Kuenn as a Cleveland Indian, talking to Henry Aaron at the 160 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium

Save for Hall of Famer Al Simmons, Harvey Kuenn is probably the greatest ballplayer who ever grew up in Milwaukee. Born into a working-class German-American family in West Allis in 1930, Kuenn honed his game on the sandlots of the south side and later became a multi-sport star at Lutheran High School. A force on the basketball court and an all-conference quarterback (he still holds a state record for a 52-yard drop-kick field goal), he shone brightest on the baseball diamond. At the University of Wisconsin, he was a starting forward on the basketball team and a record-setting shortstop on the baseball squad. 

In 1952, the Detroit Tigers signed him for a $55,000 bonus and, a year later, was voted American League Rookie of the Year. Over a 15-year Major League career, Kuenn was one of the league’s steadiest line-drive hitters. He led the league in hits four times, made eight straight All Star teams and won the 1959 American League batting title.

Kuenn (L) with Tigers teammate Al Kaline.

Kuenn with Tigers teammate Al Kaline. 

Kuenn returned home every off-season. He worked at a West Allis bank and bowled to help keep in shape, maintaining an average near 200. He built a home for his parents (which is currently for sale – check out the custom bar he installed) and opened a sporting goods shop.

After he retired in 1967, Kuenn again returned home to take a job as the ten o’clock sports anchor with WVTV. He was offered a job on manager Gene Mauch’s coaching staff for the brand-new Montreal Expos in 1969, but turned it down when his family objected to the move. When the second-year Milwaukee Brewers offered him a job as a minor league hitting instructor in 1971, however, Kuenn jumped at the chance. Late in the season, Kuenn joined the big league club as an active player. Out of baseball for four years, the 40-year-old Kuenn was said to be ready for pinch-hitting duty, but in reality, the move was designed to bump up Kuenn’s service time to improve his player’s pension. Kuenn never got into a single game, but returned to the team the following year as the batting coach, a position he held until 1982.

Kuenn in the early 1970s, posing the “father” of the modern baseball card, Topps Gum employee Sy Berger, at Spring Training.

As described in Daniel Okrent’s Nine Innings, Kuenn prided himself on being an “organization man,” fiercely devoted to the Brewers as a team and as a family. He was hurt when the club passed him over for the managerial spot following the 1975 season (he did get to skipper the last game of the year after Del Crandall had been fired), but never complained outwardly. He focused on his tasks at hand and helped to develop an incredible new wave of Brewers talent in the late 1970s, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Charlie Moore, Gorman Thomas, Sixto Lexcano, Ben Oglivie, and Jim Gantner. When health problems kept him away from the team – a bypass operation in 1977, major stomach surgery in 1978, and the amputation of his right leg in 1980 – no one gave any thought to replacing him. 

When the Brewers got off to a sluggish start in 1982, manager Bob Rodgers took the fall. Several players, including Thomas, Ted Simmons, and Rollie Fingers, had issues with Rodgers, and as the team struggled to a .500 record for two months, their discontent grew. On June 2nd, Rodgers was fired and general manager Harry Dalton asked for Kuenn’s input on a handful of replacement prospects. After going over the list, Dalton asked Kuenn if he would be up to becoming interim manager during the search for a full-time replacement. Dalton was worried that Kuenn’s poor health might prevent him from taking the job full-time. Kuenn took the role with gusto and, in his first meeting with the team as manager, instructed them to simply “have fun.” And as the team burst out with a 20-7 streak to start Kuenn’s tenure, they certainly did.

Kuenn argues with umpires at County Stadium.

Kuenn argues with umpires at County Stadium.

Under Kuenn, the Brewers won the AL East and came back from a 2-0 deficit to top the Angels in five games and win Milwaukee’s first pennant since the Braves had taken the National League crown in 1958. On the night the Brewers clinched the flag, the loudest party in town was at Cesar’s Inn. In 1969 at Cesar’s, Harvey had met Audrey, the owner’s daughter, and the two became good friends. In 1974, after divorcing his first wife, Harvey and Audrey were married and moved into the apartment in the back of the bar. Throughout the 1982 season, Cesar’s was the place to meet after games, with Harvey holding court and signing autographs behind the bar. As the national spotlight on the Brewers grew, the ease with which Kuenn got along with fans and strangers alike became legendary. His home number was still listed in the book in those years. The only unwanted call the family recalled receiving was from a drunk woman who phoned just to say how much she loved Harvey.

“One guy from the fire department said he’d have to do something because it definitely was over-crowded,” Kuenn mused about the huge crowd that filled the bar the night the Brewers won the pennant. “There’s a sign on the wall saying there shall not be more than 65 persons on the premises. He went over to the sign and put a number in front of the 65.” That night, as a weary Kuenn finally went back to the apartment to get some sleep, he found four strangers sitting in his living room enjoying a nightcap. The skipper was unmoved. “I just said, ‘How ya doing?’ and went to bed.”

Kuenn and Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog before game 1 of the 1982 World Series.

After the Brewers lost to the Cardinals in the series, the team became the immediate favorites to win the AL flag in 1983. Just as in 1982, the team struggled out of the gate, but recovered for a mid-summer run at another AL East championship. As late as August 25th, the Brewers were in first place, but a ten game losing streak in September dropped them out of contention. The day before the end of the season, word leaked out that Kuenn would be fired and replaced with former Seattle Mariners manager Rene Lachmann. Heartbroken as he was, Kuenn never complained. “If you don’t win, you leave.” He said solemnly after packing up his office.

Kuenn remained with the organization, scouting opposing teams during Spring Training. Having relocated from the back room at Cesar’s to Arizona, Kuenn was able to golf year-round and, in his typical way, had no regrets about his career. He was open to return to managing, he confessed in one interview, but was so enjoying his retirement that he might just prefer to remain at home. 

At his funeral, Brewers broadcaster and long-friend Bob Uecker delivered Kuenn’s eulogy and former players served as pallbearers. “Over the last several years, Harvey was kind of working with a 3-2 count.” Uecker said to the bleary-eyed room. “Each time they tried to slip one past Harvey on the outside corner, he fouled it off. To get one [past] Harvey looking, He must have wanted him pretty bad.”

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