“We’re Really Lucky Nobody Got Killed:” The 1986 Brewers Spring Training Explosion
Of all the health concerns a team has heading into Spring Training, second-degree burns are not usually among them. But back in 1986, an explosion at the Brewers’ Spring Training facility in Chandler, Arizona sent nine players and coaches to the hospital and left the team thankful that everyone made it out of the ordeal alive.
It was the morning of February 27, about a week before the Cactus League schedule was set to begin. The Brewers were still getting settled into their brand-new facility and workers were busy getting some of the last kinks out of the building. Manager George Bamberger and GM Harry Dalton were in Bamberger’s office going over the day’s schedule. Pitching coach Larry Haney stood in the doorway between the office and the coaches room as coaches Tony Muser and Herm Starrette prepared for the day’s drills. And in a nearby utility room, a 22-year-old construction worker named Jeff Sutton was bleeding natural gas from a malfunctioning heater.
Suddenly, something ignited the leaking gas and massive fireball erupted into the coaches’ room. Bamberger, Haney and Dalton were all knocked to the floor, and Muser and Starrette were engulfed in the flames. Down the hall, catcher Bill Schroeder was hit by the wall of fire and pitcher Bill Wegman, dressing at his locker just around the corner, saw his nylon stirrups melt right on to his legs. “I was sitting next to ‘Simba’ (Ted Simmons),” infielder Dale Sveum told the Journal-Sentinel’s Tom Hardicourt in 2011. “There was this big boom and I remember looking down that hallway and seeing that ball of flame coming at us. I ran out that door as fast as I could.”
In his office, Bamberger found that Haney was next to him on the ground, his arms on fire. “I rubbed them to put them out and while I’m rubbing, I’m thinking, ‘It’s 90 degrees out today. What’s he wearing a sweatshirt for?’” Bamberger said after the explosion. “Then I realized that wasn’t a sweater. That was his skin that I was rubbing off.” After helping Haney, Bamberger ran into the coaches’ room and smothered the construction worker Sutton, who had staggered into the room with his clothes on fire. Meanwhile, Dalton, afraid there could be another blast or burst of flames, rushed people from the building. As Muser and Starrette, both badly burned, were led out to wait for medical help to arrive, someone realized that Frank Howard, the batting coach, could not be located. Dalton and Bamberger looked at the collapsed brick wall – which had been blown out by the blast – with horror, thinking Howard might be trapped underneath. But, after calling out for him, someone reported that he had gone out to the practice field early and was unharmed.
Tony Muser got the worst of it. He was airlifted to the local burn center, with second and third-degree burns covering more than half his body. He nearly died and would miss the entire 1986 season. Starrette suffered second-degree burns and was kept in intensive care. It would be six weeks before he returned to the team. Larry Haney and coach Andy Etchabarren also suffered second-degree burns, but were treated and released. Wegman, Schroeder, Dalton and Bamberger were also treated for their burns.
The explosion also impacted the future leadership of the Brewers. Tony Muser had been next in line to replace Bamberger, who would retire in the last month of the ’86 season due to health issues. With Muser out of commission, the job fell to third base coach Tom Treblehorn, who ended up managing the team through the 1991 season. Muser eventually did get a shot at managing, when he skippered the Kansas City Royals from 1997 to 2002.
The day after the explosion, when the shaken Brewers got back to work playing baseball, they did so with a little more perspective on things. “We’re really lucky nobody was killed,” Bamberger told the Milwaukee Journal. “It was like somebody dropped a bomb on us. That was the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”