Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Meet the Brewers #22: Gene Brabender

I haven't done a "Meet the Brewers" post in a while, and who better to get me off the schneid than Black Earth, Wisconsin's own Gene Brabender (pronounced "brah-bender," as if you're bending a woman's undergarment). Brabender was the third starter in the Brewers opening rotation, and he was the first Wisconsin native to play for the team. 

There have been a few Wisconsin-born players to play for the team -- Jim Gantner, Jerry Augustine, Damian Miller, Bob Wickman, and Paul Wagner, for example (while current manager Craig Counsell went to high school in Whitefish Bay, he was born in South Bend, Indiana). For a while, the Brewers chased Wisconsin-raised players like the Expos chased Canadians. But big Gene Brabender was the first -- starting the third game of the season in front of just 1,036 fans for a Friday afternoon game against the Chicago White Sox. Keep in mind -- no one in Milwaukee really knew that they would have a major league team just a week earlier, so perhaps that attendance is somewhat understandable.

1970 McDonald's Milwaukee Brewers
Brabender was born in Madison and raised near tiny Black Earth -- about twenty miles west of Madison -- on a farm with 6 other brothers and sisters. When Brabender was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, the village had between 531 and 784 residents -- the kind of place where everyone pretty much knows everyone. 

As his incredibly detailed and well-researched SABR biography notes (and that is my source for most of this information), Brabender growing up on a farm meant that he helped milk cows -- humping the huge milk cans by hand from the barn milking area to the cooler for pickup -- and he helped clear trees. Along the way, Gene would find timber rattlers nesting in the groves and, since they were not a protected species, Gene would dispatch the snakes -- which, when grown, average between three and five feet long -- by grabbing them by the tail, swinging them like a lasso, and then breaking them up with a whip-crack to kill them. 

All that hard work on the farm led him to be a big, strong kid, filling out his 6'5" frame. He excelled at baseball and was a very hard thrower. That got him noticed, and he signed initially with the Los Angeles Dodgers midway through his freshman year of college. He had started school at what is now the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with plans to become a teacher, but baseball and a $10,000 signing bonus beckoned. 

Brabender's career was sidetracked for two years in the mid-1960s by him getting drafted. During that time, he was drafted in the Rule V draft by the Orioles in 1965 -- freeing him from being behind Koufax and Drysdale. His first year in the majors was 1966, and he was a member of the World Series-winning Orioles that year -- though he never got the opportunity to face his former club in the Series.

Brabender achieved notoriety by being a member of the 1969 Seattle Pilots. In many respects, outside of Jim Bouton, Brabender was really the star of the book Ball Four. Whether it was his jokes in nailing Bouton's shoes to the floor and ruining a new pair of spikes or throwing a shutout against Kansas City while pounding a beer in the clubhouse after each inning, he came away as being both the gentle giant and the man you did not want to cross.

1994 Miller Commemorative Set
Brabender came with the club to Milwaukee, but results for the big man were not good -- 6-15 record, 6.02 ERA (though with a 4.26 FIP), with 127 hits, 79 walks, and 76 strikeouts in 128-2/3 innings. He hurt his leg early in the year and, perhaps, that helped add to the sore shoulder he fought through 1970. He was traded after the 1970 season to the Angels, but he never was the same player and 1970 ended up being his last season in the major leagues.

But, it did allow him to live out his childhood dream and promise. He grew up a Milwaukee Braves fan, and on one visit he told his father, "I'll play here someday." Unlike most kids who make that promise, Brabender got to live it out.

He went through hard times after his career ended. He had significant financial problems, got divorced, and even had to pledge his 1966 World Series ring for a loan. He worked in small-time construction jobs for years as well. Then, at the age of just 55, he collapsed outside his home from a brain aneurysm. Passers by found him thanks to the dome light in his truck being on, and he was rushed to the hospital. It was too late. On December 27, 1996, he passed away.

Brabender has appeared on a total of 18 cards on Trading Card Database, which includes the 2014 foil stamp of his 1967 card. So, with the McDonald's card above that isn't listed on TCDB, that's 19 total. Of those, four -- the two here, a 1970 Mike Andersen Postcard, and the 1971 Dell Today's Team Stamps -- show him as a Milwaukee Brewers player.

He is buried today in the St. Barnabas Cemetery in Mazomanie, Wisconsin.


6 comments:

  1. Yeah the Expos would go after French Canadians specifically..
    Claude Raymond was first. Other French Canadians include Derek Aucoin, Denis Boucher, and Rheal Cormier. Cormier is from New Brunswick, an officially bilingual province.

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  2. I thought that name sounded familiar and then when you mentioned Ball Four it came all together. I need to read that book again. It has been too long.

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  3. I'll be damned that set isn't in the TCDB??!!?? Well I fix that right now!

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    1. Hey I added the set and the checklist to TCDB.

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