The County Stadium Scoreboard: Big, Ugly and Misunderstood

Sep. 26, 2016
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Milwaukee County Stadium’s scoreboard, 1995. (Photo courtesy flickr user clare_and_ben) 

Of every word that might come to mind when thinking of the old scoreboard at Milwaukee County Stadium, “dynamic” might not be among the first, oh, few thousand. But back in 1979, when the Brewers were looking to upgrade their right-center field board, that is exactly what they had in mind with the hulking black and yellow monster. And, believe it or not, they were actually fighting with the county over who would have the privilege of paying for the thing.

By early 1979, it was clear that the Brewers needed to replace the scoreboard at County Stadium. The team had inherited the stadium’s original board, which had been installed for the Braves in 1953. The board had been modified over the years – most notably to add an enormous Marlboro ad atop the structure. But only a small portion – known as a Fan-A-Gram – could display multiple lines of text. It could not display images, replays, or graphics. Overall ad revenue from the board was paltry, only about $25,000 per year. 

The original County Stadium scoreboard, 1976.  Photo © Bob Busser. See Bob’s website for more INCREDIBLE photos of County Stadium and other ballparks.

That summer, two Brewers officials were flown to Saudi Arabia by the Swedish electronics company Omega to visit Al Khobar Stadium, a soccer facility. Omega had recently designed the stadium’s new board – a type of board that no American facility had ever installed. The board used a computer system to control tens of thousands of low-wattage light bulbs. Based on the power supplied to each bulb by the massive computer system, the board could show graphics, text, and moving video images.

 Milwaukee Journal rendering of what the new board might look like.

Brewers officials estimated that the new board – with the ability to promote companies and products between innings – would provide up to $500,000 per year in additional advertising revenues. But the team insisted it would be more than just an income stream. Brewers president Bud Selig confidently announced the Omega board would be “so dynamic that it will be talking point of Milwaukee sports fans for years to come… not just a scoreboard, but an entertainment center.”

The price tag on the board was steep – over $2 million. But, in a scene almost unimaginable today, the team insisted on paying for the board while the county board – who leased the county-owned stadium to the team – objected, saying that they might want to foot the bill. At issue was the revenue from ads on the board. Both sides saw the board as a great investment and both were eager to cash in. Eventually, the sides settled on a deal made the purchase and upkeep on the board the responsibility of the team until 1991. During that period, the county would get half of all board revenues over $5.4 million. After that, the county would pay all maintenance costs and collect 100% of the ad revenue.

The original County Stadium scoreboard being built in 1953. The new board used this same steel structure.

The board was installed in the winter of 1980. Oddly enough, the project was only able to be completed in time for opening day thanks to the solid condition of the steel superstructure from the original 1953 board (despite this, the old board was in danger of being condemned in 1979), into which the new board was built. The display screen was a remarkable 29’ by 63’ and comprised of 48 computerized matrices containing a total of 30,000 40 watt light bulbs. Brewers vice president Gabe Paul was thrilled with the new board, “It’s a much more sophisticated scoreboard than anything built to date,” he told the press. The crowning of the board came with the installation of its massive control computer. When the board was fully on-line, it required as many as 11 people to operate it – five to eight people in the control room and another three camera operators stationed around the park to capture video for replays.

For a decade or so, the board was considered entirely adequate – a bit of a curiosity with its odd dim-yellow hue – but nothing too far behind the time. By the 1990s, however, the board began to age quickly. While other teams introduced all-color boards, the Brewers plugged along with their Swedish oddity, unwilling to invest in a new board while they struggled to build a new stadium. In the mid 1990s, the board suddenly began to draw lightning and suffered through several major strikes – including one in 1996 that put it out of commission for four days.

The team replaced a portion of the panel with a modern matrix board in 1997, but the sluggish original half of the board continued to cause the club grief. By the late 1990s, the board emitted a steady and unsettling groan that could be plainly heard in the bleachers. I vividly remember being at a game during the 1999 season when the very-80s-mod scoreboard clock stopped running. It was about ten minutes behind when the minute hand suddenly began moving at a very unnatural pace. When the hand hit the correct time, it stopped again for about ten minutes until the entire process was repeated again. This continued for the ENTIRE EVENING. By the late innings, the smattering of fans on hand were cheering the renegade minute hand more than anything on the field.

Amazingly, during the board’s final years, it was the longevity and loyalty of a single man who kept it functional. By the 1990s, Gerald Laubscher, a former employee of Omega who had helped to design the board, was the only man on the planet who was willing to service the massive 1980 computer that the team still used to run the board. Every time the board tweaked out, the Brewers flew Laubscher from Switzerland to Milwaukee to make the repairs. By the end, the board was so old and obsolete that replacement part had become impossible to find and Laubscher resorted to cobbling them together himself.

By the time the team was preparing to move into Miller Park, the County Stadium was the only park in baseball without a color board. A survey of Journal-Sentinel readers rated the board as the thing they would miss the least about the old stadium. Although no one would argue that the old board was anything but a mess for the last leg of its life, the buzzing and flickering behemoth surely holds a place in the heart of any true Brewers fan. It was where the Brewers celebrated a pennant and congratulated The Kid on his 3,000th hit. It was where I constantly beat my dad at Briggs and Stratton trivia and was introduced to the “Two-Fisted Slobber.” It kept a generation of fans in the know through good years and bad.

It was a big, ugly monstrosity, but it was ours. 


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