The Prison and the Ball Park: Bud Selig’s Fight Against the Centerfield Penitentiary

Jul. 31, 2017
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Had the state of Wisconsin had its way in 1984, this view of Milwaukee County Stadium would have included a maximum-security prison.

Milwaukee’s own Bud Selig was inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame this past weekend, largely for his contributions to the game as commissioner. Over the past week, a million stories have been told about Selig, some complimentary, others not so much. It took some digging to find a Selig story that was not well-tread material, but Brew Crew Confidential found one – Selig’s mid-1980s battle against a proposed maximum-security prison that would have loomed just beyond County Stadium’s centerfield bleachers.

1984 had been a nightmare for the Brewers. Just two years removed from the World Series and a year after the team contended in the AL East until the final month of the season, the Brewers staggered to a 67-94 finish, dead last in the league. The team drew just 1.6 million fans, a drop of 800,000 from 1983. Still paying star salaries to the core of their ’82 juggernaut, many of whom underperformed or were injured, the team finished the year in the red – the first time in their history they had lost money in a season.

Beyond the team’s poor play, Selig was worried about another development that, as he saw it, had the potential to drastically affect the team’s drawing potential. Throughout the early 1980s, the state of Wisconsin had been trying to build a prison in the city of the Milwaukee. The state needed more prison space and, pointing out that most state prisoners came from Milwaukee, Governor Tony Earl argued that a Milwaukee prison would make it easier for city residents to visit incarcerated family members.

The state’s first choice was alongside the Milwaukee River in the Brewers Hill neighborhood. Opponents of the proposal managed to tie it up in the courts, but meanwhile, the state moved forward on another Milwaukee site – a parcel of former industrial land in the Menomonee Valley that sat less than a half-mile from County Stadium.

The Valley project called for a 450-bed, maximum-security prison. The perimeter of the facility would lay less than 100 feet from the eastern end of the stadium parking lots and the entire works – including the cellhouse, radio and light tours, and guard towers – would be visible from the stadium’s press box and upper deck.

Selig voiced concerns about the project as soon as it was announced. While state officials insisted that there was no threat of a jailbreak or riot disrupting any goings-on at the stadium, Selig was not convinced. “I just keep saying, ‘What if, God forbid, they are wrong and they find out too late that they have done something to harm us?’ Here is a stadium that is filled with 35 years of mostly wonderful memories.”

Selig also worried about the psychological effects of having the prison so near and within view. With fears legitimate or not, fans might now avoid the area. Signage along interstates and access roads leading the park would give ominous directions like, “Stadium/ Prison: Next Left Turn.” National broadcasts of games might show the prison and broadcasters could make off-hand reference to the facility during slow points in the game (“Boy, if this guy doesn’t start pitching better, he could be sent to the bullpen. And if he struggles there, he might get sent somewhere even worse.”)

During the 1984-85 offseason, the team filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent the project from breaking ground. “Why would anyone take this chance at the largest tour attraction in Wisconsin?” Selig testified. “They didn’t build a prison across from Disneyland.”

That January, while the case was still pending and Selig fumed about the media not taking his objections to the prison plan seriously, rumors emerged that the Brewers could potentially leave Milwaukee for another city. Selig dismissed this talk but, just a month later, began to openly drop hints that, if the team’s finances continued to slide, the future of Milwaukee baseball could be in doubt. Selig said he was confused as to why Wisconsin was doing something to damage their baseball club while, in a not-so thinly veiled reference to relocation, cities like Phoenix, Tampa, and Vancouver were planning to build new stadiums with the hopes of attracting a team.

In February 1985, a judge issued a temporary injunction preventing the project from moving forward, pending the results of more environmental impact and traffic flow study of the prison. That spring, after the state dropped the plans for the Milwaukee River prison, efforts on the Valley were redoubled. But a string of legal setbacks delayed the project and, after defeating Earl in the 1986 gubernatorial election, Republican Tommy Thompson said his administration would abandon the Valley plan for a more rural prison site. Miller Park’s Yount and Uecker parking lots presently occupy the proposed prison site. 

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