Saturday, March 10, 2018

Meet the Brewers #40: Bruce Brubaker

On August 5, 1970, Wisconsin native Gene Brabender got knocked out of the box early in the game -- getting hammered by the Chicago White Sox for 6 earned runs on 4 hits and 3 walks in just 1-2/3 innings. Bob Humphreys relieved Brabender ably, giving the team 4-1/3 innings and allowing only one unearned run. To finish out the game, Dave Bristol brought in a 28-year-old pitcher who had made only one other appearance in the majors (and it was in 1967) to finish the game -- Bruce Brubaker. That August 5, 1970 game would be Brubaker's only Brewer appearance, and it would be his last in the majors.

1994 Miller Commemorative Set
Bruce Ellsworth Brubaker Jr. was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on December 29, 1941. He graduated high school in 1959 at the age of 17 and was a schoolboy phenom -- having pitched in 5 games and giving up a total of 4 hits in those games. Thanks to his high school success, a bidding war for his services broke out, with the Phillies, Orioles, Dodgers, Pirates, Reds, Tigers, White Sox, and Braves all in the competition. Oddly enough, the winner was neither the Pirates nor the Phillies, but instead the Milwaukee Braves, who gave Brubaker a $35,000 bonus to sign.

The Sporting News cited Braves scout John Ogden as saying that Brubaker had a great wrist snap on his pitches and had pinpoint control. Credit for that wrist snap was given to Bruce's father, Bruce Sr., but not because of his baseball skills. No, Bruce Sr. was cited as being "the world's champion bait-caster for accuracy, having won the title [in 1957] in Brussels, Belgium." So, when Bruce Jr. was able, his dad started taking him fly-fishing and teaching him how to use a casting rod.

I was able to get in touch with Brubaker via email. He had fond memories of his time with the Braves. No one gave him a hard time about that big signing bonus at all and no one hazed him at all either. Instead, he only had great memories about dinner and a night out on the town in Bradenton, Florida, with the great Ed Mathews and pitching star Bob Buhl.

Being as young as he was, Brubaker worked his way up fairly slowly through the Braves system. It took him until his fifth season in the minors to reach Triple-A -- by which time he'd already been traded to Detroit for pitcher Pat Jarvis. On multiple occasions with the Tigers, Brubaker received plaudits for being a top pitching prospect and for having the best curveball in the International League. These honors gave him opportunities to go to spring training with the Tigers to win a roster spot, but the results in spring often did not follow his talent level. 

Looking at his minor league stats, it looks a bit like Brubaker was brought down by the lack of understanding of stats beyond wins and losses. He had very good control for most of his minor league career, giving up just 3.0 BB/9 innings, and his strikeout levels tended to run in the 6 K/9 range -- which at the time was excellent.

Brubaker only has one Milwaukee card. I found this through Google Images.
Eventually, the Tigers left Brubaker off their roster and available for the Rule 5 Draft. The Phillies pounced, but once again his work in the spring led him to be sent to the minors. Syracuse (Detroit, really) passed on reacquiring him, so the Phillies sent him to the Pacific Coast League in 1966 to be a Padre. 

He only lasted a year with the Phillies system. His talents led the Los Angeles Dodgers to pick him up in the Rule 5 draft. He got his first taste of major league ball there as a 25-year-old, pitching 1-1/3 innings in mop-up duty early in the year. He was optioned to the minor leagues again, and he spent all of 1967, 1968, and 1969 in Spokane. After the 1969 season, the Dodgers traded him to the Brewers in exchange for pitcher Jerry Stephenson, who had pitched in five seasons for the Boston Red Sox before being a Pilot for a year.

After making his single Brewers appearance in 1970, he found himself back in the minor leagues in Portland in 1971. But 1971 was the beginning of the end of Brubaker's baseball career. As Bruce told me by email, he had a game against Indianapolis where he threw over 200 pitches and, unbeknownst to him, he strained his shoulder. He started the American Association All-Star game, and then went on the DL. For the rest of 1971, he rested his shoulder and hoped it would heal -- but it did not. So, after just three games and five innings in 1972 at Evansville, he retired. 

Some other tidbits from my correspondence with Bruce Brubaker:
  • Some of his favorite teammates included Wade Blasingame, John Miller, Sal Bando, Pat Dobson, Ray Orlikowski and Arnold Umbach
  • Bruce became a successful businessman after baseball. He started as a car salesman for Ford. He parlayed success as a salesman into purchasing a Ford-Lincoln-Mazda dealership in Owensboro, Kentucky. 
  • That dealership was successful enough that he was able to purchase two more dealerships that his sons Bruce III and Tyler run
  • He and his wife Leda will celebrate their 50th Wedding Anniversary this year. They have homes in Owensboro and in Naples and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and he is happy to sign autographs for people resourceful enough to find an address for him.
Brubaker never appeared as a Brewer on a baseball card during his career, so his 1994 Miller Brewing Company card is the only one for him in my collection. He appeared on two Topps cards, though -- in 1965 as a Tiger Rookie with Bill Roman and in 1967 as a Dodger. Then, in 2016, Topps featured him in Heritage as a "Real One Autograph" on his 1967 card.

It's great to get to correspond with guys like Bruce Brubaker. As he put it in closing his email to me, he had "no regrets and I don't know of anything I would have done differently. Playing for all those different managers sure showed me how to manage people and also some showed me how not to!"

My thanks to Bruce Brubaker for taking the time to answer my emailed questions and to you for reading.


  1. Bruce! I really need to do the legwork to see where he and I are on the massive Brubaker family tree (and Wilbur "Bill" Brubaker who played with the Pirates in the '30s). I wrote Bruce (c/o the dealership actually), and he was very kind in his response. Looks like I need to track down that 1994 MBC card though.

    1. That link you put on Twitter was crazy!

      The Miller cards are usually available as books on eBay. Not often I find single cards.

  2. I recently picked up my first card from that Miller Lite Brewers set (Jimmy Wynn), and I'm quite pleased to see how deeply it dug into Brewers history. I mean, if it covers a guy like Brubaker who pitched in exactly one game with the team, that's a comprehensive checklist right there.

    1. The Miller Books were issued for the team's 25th Anniversary and pictured literally everyone who threw a pitch in anger or stood in the batter's box or stepped foot on the field for an inning. I hope they do something similar for the 50th Anniversary to catch up on the last 25 years (since next year is the 50th year of Brewers baseball and this year is the franchise's 50th season).

    2. Hi Tony...I just read your comments on my career and you quoted me better than just about every sportswriter I encountered in my 13 year career. The only comment you got wrong was that my work in 66 with the Phillies caused them to send me back to their AAA team at the time, San Diego. My “spring training work” consisted of exactly one inning of work at a split squad game that Gene Mach wasn’t even at. I struck out 2 of the 3 hitters. I am very proud of my eight years of being a starting pitcher every FOUR days in all three AAA leagues of which five were in the very tough PCL. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to start in the majors and I had that coming in 65 with the tigers until Charlie Dresson , who loved me, suffered his heart attack. I also had five very good years in the Dominican and Puerto Rican winter leagues. Thanks again for your comments...Bru

    3. Bru -- that was entirely my supposition that your spring work got you sent down! If I'd had your comments on that part of your career instead of my guess work, I'd have gotten it right. My apologies!